Beyond Penal Substitution

I just got home from a very good, very traditionally Lutheran Good Friday service. The liturgy was excellent, as was the music. However, the strongest impression with which I left the service is how problematic it is when we rely exclusively and heavily on the “penal substitution” theory of atonement. (As the name suggests, this the theory that argues that the way in which Jesus saves us is by taking upon himself the punishment we rightly owe, and suffering the penalty we rightly deserve.) Even though there are many other scriptural and ecclesial models for describing the “how” of salvation, penal substitution has long dominated–for some churches year round, and for most mainline churches, during Lent in particular.

However, tonight, I was listening to the Scripture readings and the hymns with new ears, trying to imagine how they would sound to a variety of different visitors–or even to new Lutherans. Look at these two verses from Isaiah 53, for example: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (verse 5); and “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (verse 10).

Do I even need to spell out the problems in this theology? At best, it suggests that pain and suffering bring redemption (bruises heal), and it paints the picture of a wrathful, sadistic God. At worst, it justifies human sadism and insists that we must first be punished–regardless of the source–in order to be redeemed. All you need is one experience with abuse to know how deeply damaging these ideas can be.

I also am sensitive to these issues today because I am reading Margaret Miles’ autobiography, “Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter.” Using Augustine’s “Confessions” as a touchstone, she describes her fundamentalist upbringing, in which, as a child, she was repeatedly told of her utter sinfulness and made to fear a terrible, punishing God who saw her every transgression. I admit to feeling uncomfortable as she quoted Luther’s approving interpretation of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, which was used against her repeatedly by her parents. How DO we teach children about the doctrine of original sin? Probably not carefully enough, is my guess.

It has been a helpful reminder to me of theology’s power–for both great good and great ill; and all Christians, especially public ministers, have the responsibility always to consider “the other” with compassion, and try to present the gospel message in a way that is truly heard as good news. Even, and especially today, which, after all, we call “Good” Friday for a reason.

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