The Voice of The Scapegoat, Part 1: The Crisis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I have wanted to post for some time about the work and ideas of Rene Girard. A recent book by S. Mark Heim titled Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross has prompted me to start this series.

Saved from Sacrifice is one of the best theology books I've ever read. Please get yourself a copy. In Saved from Sacrifice Heim gives the church a Girardian reading of the bible. This work has been long overdue and we owe Heim a debt of gratitude. Girard's analysis of the scapegoating mechanism and its relation of the bible is a profound achievement, or, as Heim argues, a rediscovery of a more foundational reading. Currently, Girard's work is mainly known to scholars, the ideas have yet to trickle into the pews of our churches. Heim's book will go far toward making this happen.

I want to use this series to walk through Girard's main theses and Heim's explication of them. My goal is to arouse your interest to take up both Heim and Girard directly to study them for yourself.

The Crisis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement
In Saved from Sacrifice, Heim situates his reading of Girard in the modern crisis surrounding penal substitutionary atonement (henceforth, PSA). Over the last few centuries in the Western church PSA has grown to be the dominant lens on the crucifixion of Jesus. Succinctly, PSA claims that due to our sin God's wrath was kindled against us. Or, alternatively, our sin created a debt so large we were unable to pay it. Jesus, in PSA, steps in and dies in our place. Jesus, being the perfect sacrifice, both satisfies the wrath of God and passes on his merit to us (which we claim by faith) canceling our debt of sin.

This formulation is so common I don't know why I'm even reviewing it. For many Christians this is the ONLY view they have of the cross. Questioning PSA is, for some, tantamount to questioning Christianity itself. Which really is a stunning situation.

The situation is stunning because Eastern Christianity doesn't emphasize PSA. Nor did it seem to be emphasized by the early church. No, the focus on and intensification of PSA seems to be a fairly recent Western phenomena. Heim traces it back to St. Anselm, who's writings on the atonement lead to some fatal missteps in many sectors of Western Christianity.

These missteps have proved costly to the church. Why? Because the foundational ideas of PSA are growingly untenable. Worse, many find PSA downright objectionable and offensive.

Heim begins Saved from Sacrifice by describing the most significant of these objections. The one I would like to highlight is the view of God lurking behind PSA. To quote Heim,
...traditional interpretations of the crucifixion are criticized for moral failings, especially the picture they paint of God...If a debt is owed to God why can't God simply forgive it, as Jesus apparently counsels others to do? If God is ransoming us from other powers, why does God have to submit to their terms? If this is God's wise and compassionate plan for salvation, why does it require such violence? The idea that God sent his Son to be sacrificed for us is indicted here for impugning the moral character of God. (p. 25)
PSA works its great power because it is a vision of RESCUE. We are SAVED. Death was intended for us, but Jesus steps in to "take our place." What is so morally problematic about this? Later in the book Heim is discussing the formulation of the cross worked about by Anselm:
If Christ steps in to intercept the blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasioned by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general tradition). Anselm's departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful, and so God becomes the one to be punished... (p. 299)
The problem with Anselm's formulation is twofold:
To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God's wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. (p. 300-301)
In the end we have an emotional and theological puzzle. First, the bible unequivocally states that we were, in some profound way, "saved" and "rescued" by the cross. But saved from what? God? Saved from God!? That surely is confused. But if we are not saved from God, if God isn't the one delivering the blow intercepted by Jesus, where is that blow coming from? A second puzzle is that the cross is a bloody sacrifice. Consequently, if God is demanding this sacrifice, why is he so blood-thristy?

Heim points out other problems with PSA. I've just focused on these issues because they are the ones most personal to me, they are the issues I've most struggled with. I rejected PSA a long time ago for just these reasons: I could not believe in a confused and blood-thirsty God.

But to make this rejection leaves one in an akward relation to the bible. Clearly, the bible is a bloody document. And the cross is intimately tied up with the notion of "sacrifice," a theme that links both the Old and New Testaments. So, to reject PSA on moral and theological grounds leaves you holding a lot of problematic texts. Bloody, sacrifical texts. Do we have to reject these texts? As someone who loves the bible, I don't want to. So what do we do?

Enter the work of Rene Girard. As Heim notes, the work of Girard allows us to adopt these bloody sacrificial texts in a way that not only surmounts the problems of PSA but replaces them with an amazing new vista. What was before considered to be morally repugnant--bloody sacrifice--is now adopted as critical feature of the bible and, amazingly, feature that places both God and Jesus over against the violence. As Heim states in his final chapter (p. 294):
The way forward is not to go around all these elements, but to go through them, integrating them in the biblical vision of God's work to overcome scapegoating sacrifice. The true alternative to distorted theologies of atonement will not be one that says less about the cross, but one that says more.

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6 thoughts on “The Voice of The Scapegoat, Part 1: The Crisis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. Recently, my buddy Crystal linked her readers to a good post by James Alison on atonement...

    "All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder."

    My biggest problem with PSA right now is: am I willing to raise my child in a church where PSA is the only metaphor used to explain the cross? Where tiny children are taught "Jesus died on the cross for my sins?"

  2. Just made a post at my blog about your series. Really looking forward to it. I'd ready Gustav Aulen's book, Christus Victor a few years ago and found it intriguing as I was having a harder and harder time fitting my concept of God and his character into Anselm's formulation of the atonement

  3. Matthew,
    Boy, I resonate with your concerns about children. I used to think that children could not comprehend abstract notions of the cross for cognitive developmental reasons. I thus assumed that concrete images were all they could understand, even if we wanted to do better. I vividly remember trying to talk to my son when he was 3 or 4 about "where" heaven was "located." Answer (after about an hour of conversation): "Up in the clouds." This was the only image that made sense to him.

    But in Heim's book he talks about Narnia and the sacrifice of Aslan. In the book there is no angry Deity demanding the substitution of Aslan for Edmund. Aslan does this voluntarily. There is a substitutionary sacrifice, but it is, at root, exposed as simply a murder. In short, IT IS THE WITCH THAT DEMANDS THE SACRIFICE. No Witch, no sacrifice. And that is a profound point.

    In short, if C.S. Lewis can communicate the idea to children then maybe we can as well.

  4. Jeff,
    Thanks for the link. Heim walks through some of the other salvation theologies and Christus Victor is one of them. I think you would really enjoy the book.

  5. Richard - I actually teach a high school class (theology) using Girardian theory - or mimetic theory - whatever you want to call it. My students tell me - life is never the same. However, I do worry occasionally about getting fired if anyone finds out exactly what I do. May I suggest the work of James Alison? (the Joy of Being Wrong ) Or some of the work of the late Raymund Schwager S.J. (Must There Be Scapegoats) The book that brought me to a Girardian readng of scripture was "Violence Unveiled" by Gil Bailie. A more recent and entirely accessible to those who are not theologically trained would be "The Jesus Driven Life". Actually using it with a group of Sisters for Lent.

  6. I'm not quite as comfortable with C.S. Lewis' Chronicles as Heim is. It seems to me that the death and resuscitation of Aslan only enables the weaker tribe to gain more power as they proceed to annihilate the witch and her tribe. And the 'deep wisdom' - the first level that gives the witch the right to kill Edmund or his substitute - seems to come from the "Emperor across the sea" (God) in the first place - as well as the 'deeper wisdom' of which Heim speaks. Not 'angry,' per se, but unyielding in demanding blood nonetheless.
    Thanks for your wonderful blogging here. This is but a small disagreement with Heim that does not take away from my appreciation of your work or his.

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