Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement

In many sectors of Christianity penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has come under hard times. It's definitely taken a beating on this blog.

You know the basic idea: Because of your sin you stand under God's judgment and wrath. You stand under a death sentence. However, Jesus stands in your place, taking that judgment and wrath--that death sentence--onto himself. Jesus substitutes himself and dies for you and I.

The main criticism of PSA is the view of God that sits behind it. God's baseline stance is wrath, a default position that has to be changed. Consequently, the leading edge of the gospel proclamation is The Big Angry Guy in the Sky. Salvation is being rescued from That Guy.

That criticism is well known. But here's the deal, there is a substitutionary logic in the New Testament regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And many of us, because of the ghost of PSA, feel queasy about those passages.

So there is this ambivalence. There is a substitutionary logic in the NT but the dominant hermeneutic of those passages is PSA. Thus we have with those texts an approach/avoidance conflict.

But those passages don't have to be read through PSA. I think the work of scholars like N.T. Wright have helped us see that. That is, we can accept the subitutionary logic of the NT without adopting PSA.

Because at root love often involves suffering for each other and for the sake of each other. Love often accepts suffering and pain intended for others. Love often involves protecting and shielding others, even when those others might be "getting what they deserve." If something bad were going to happen to my children I'd rush to substitute myself. That's what love does. So it's not surprising that God does the same thing.

The sticking point has to do with where the suffering is coming from. That's where PSA gets weird. The "bad thing" coming down on us is God's wrath. So in PSA God ends up saving us from God. That's the paradox introduced by the penal, crime-and-punishment metaphor.

But as scholars like Wright have taught us, the better frame isn't penal but covenantal. YHWH and Israel form a covenant with God's plan being to bless the world through Israel. But Israel cannot keep her end of the deal, bringing upon herself all the punishments that befall those who break covenants in the ancient Semitic mind. Israel broke her promise with the result, per the covenantal agreement, being exile. And at that point God's plan to bless the world through Israel gets stuck.

So God enters history in Jesus to be Israel's representative, Israel's Messiah. And as a faithful or the faithful Israelite Jesus takes up the covenantal burden--both in fulfilling the Torah and in bearing Israel's punishment in breaking the covenant. In Jesus God does what Israel could not do, stepping in to help Israel fulfill her side of the covenant, which, per ancient Semitic covenantal logic, does include punishments for breaking promises. In all this Jesus substitutes himself for Israel. Jesus protects Israel from herself, carries a burden she cannot carry, takes on her exile so that she can be set free.

The point in all this is that we can read the substitutionary logic of the NT through a covenantal rather than penal frame. In short, we should speak of covenantal substitutionary atonement rather than a penal substitutionary atonement.

(BTW, a quick Google search suggests that I just coined the phrase "covenantal substitutionary atonement." Feel free to use the term liberally.)

Of course this raises a host of other questions. Why did God form a covenant with Israel knowing Israel couldn't keep up her end of the deal? Why is an omnipotent God bound by the moral logic of ancient Semitic covenants? And so on. These are interesting and important questions. But they are very different sorts of questions than those thrown up by PSA. And, perhaps most importantly, they are questions that step around the most problematic aspects of PSA in the eyes of many modern Christians.

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33 thoughts on “Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. The "thing" that Jesus did on the cross was not so God could love us but so that we could love Him.  Are you familiar with The Sanctuary Downtown and Peter Hiett? I love the way he covers the atonement.

  2. For those of us new to this idea, can you tell us where we can read more?  Thanks.

  3. I'd start with N.T. Wright's book "Justification" for how the covenantal frame differs from the penal frame. Then I'd read his "Simply Jesus" for his take on how Jesus came to see his messianic vocation as that of taking upon himself the covenantal burden of Israel.

  4. Brilliant. And perhaps most brilliant of all, you've shown that "bearing punishments" is indeed part of what covenant substitutionary atonement accomplishments. In my view, some form of PSA is simply part of the Christian witness, and can't be fully avoided. But it can be re-framed--radically reframed--and this is a simple, effective way to reframe it. Thanks a lot; I'll probably use this, as I've used some of your other posts, in my teaching.

  5. So in light of our modern world, the understanding I had (or that I was taught...) was that Israel becomes an allegory for God's people, now being, essentially, everyone. No Jew or Gentile, etc. But with a covenental view of Substitution, would this make that NT language more period specific (being to the people of Israel, of that generation and that specific history) ? Or is there an allegory, a crossover, if you will, from God's covenant with us?

    Or peraps it is more of a representation of the fact that, as Jesus wrote the final chapter on Israel's story of rebellion and reconciliation, by intervening and doing the work of reconciliation on their behalf, he does this for us as well...

  6. Doesn't this just shift the focus from "God saving us from God" to "God saving Israel from God"? I (think) I understand the difference between penal substitution and covenental substitution, but this doesn't really seem to solve the problem of where the "bad thing" is coming from.

  7. The biggest source of "backing logic" for PSA is the overwhelming evidence of a "broken world." Big Angry God syndrome is manifested through the symptoms of violence, racism, war, poverty, genocide, etc... For many Christians, PSA become a "scare tactic" that actually has some realism in any societal environment. The covenant side of "CSA" is what people miss...Jesus kingdom is working in the here and now to concur sin, and restore God's creation, despite the fact that sin still occurs. The NT calls us to follow Jesus in this work, not just to watch, wait, believe, and receive. Wonderful post, Dr. Beck.

  8. Professor Beck --

    Would you say this fits hand/glove with the more Orthodox understanding of atonement that you offer in 'Slavery of Death'?

  9. Thank you sir. These sorts of posts are always risky for me, talking about things I don't know much about. So it's always nice to get some affirmation from scholars who, well, actually know what they are talking about. :-)

  10. The idea, as I understand it, is that God's plan was to bless the world through Israel (this was the promise to Abraham). But Israel, being rebellious, can't fulfill her part of the covenant. So things are stopped up and blocked, at an impasse. So Jesus steps in to lift the burden and end Israel's exile so as to bring the blessings of the covenant to reality. And having done that the blessings God always intended for the world are now universally available "in Christ."

    Does that help?

  11. Yes, but not quite. Israel freely enters into the covenant with YHWH and pledges to hold up her end of the agreement. And in taking the pledge she agree to submit to the consequences, "the bad things" if she fails to hold up the agreement. True, YHWH enforces those consequences, but the blame is a bit more shared if not fully on Israel's shoulders. More, the focus is corporate, a judgment of Israel as a people. That's very different from the individualistic focus of PSA, where YOU have a death-sentence hanging over YOUR head. And finally, the punishment of covenant unfaithfulness isn't eternal torment in hell but national exile. So as I say at the end of the post, you're right that there are still issues and questions and problems, but the focus has shifted and, I think, has become less theologically toxic (i.e, God wants to kill you or torment you forver because your personal moral failings).

  12. Thanks. Yes, the covenantal aspect allows us to bring in the big narrative themes of creation, kingdom, and the restoration of all things.

  13. Israel was not the problem to be solved by the cross;  Adam was.  God's plan was established well before He could take advantage of the 'Semitic mind.'  And, I most humbly suggest that you not give much weight to anybody who says that "the leading edge of the gospel proclamation is the Big Angry Guy in the Skyl  Salvation is being rescued from that Guy."

  14. They can fit together really well. In fact one of the things you'll notice in N.T. Wright's expositions on this subject is how he brings in Christus Victor themes. That is, Jesus comes to see himself as ending Israel's exile but Jesus's vision of what this exile looked like was a bit different from what his contemporaries imagined. Their focus was on their national/political exile. Dealing with the Romans and the puppet king Herod. Jesus's vision was dealing with a deeper exile, bondage to sin, death, and the devil. My Slavery to Death series makes contact right there.

  15. It does....the physical manifestation of the reconciliation of man to God, with Israel's history being a "microcosm" of sorts of the larger metanarrative...I personally find it hard to capture such elusive, but real, truths with our limited human vocabulary.

  16. I think that idea also fits the language used about the Maccabbaean martyrs in 4 Maccabbees 17:22.

  17. Most definitely. The martyrological logic in Maccabbees is that the blood of the martyrs is able to purify Israel and function as a heroic ransom/payment to end her exile. The key here is noting that this "ransom" isn't paid to a wrathful God, what you see in PSA. The ransom is for the covenantal "debt" that Israel is struggling to pay off. The righteousness of the martyrs, due to their heroic sacrifices, help pay off the debt. Their faithfulness makes up for Israel's general unfaithfulness. And I think that logic is very much what is going on in the NT with Jesus.

  18. "the focus has shifted and, I think, has become less theologically toxic
    (i.e, God wants to kill you or torment you forever because your personal
    moral failings)."

    Well that I can get on board with!

  19. I view substitutionary atonement through the lens of empathy-identification. Christ suffered as his followers surely would ... but was not the end for him. He suffered, died, and yet triumphed ... hope is not lost! Sacrificing animals to absolve sin is a relic of Jesus' age, but identification with the sufferer (especially the wholly innocent one) is timeless. And, unlike hard-core Protestants who begin and end with substitutionary atonement (as if all the rest is just detail), I am more concerned with the person of Christ in his fullness, which includes his life story and his immense wisdom.

    Not that the covenental view is invalid, but this is the personal view of it that's stuck with me for a long time.

  20. In my family im the big angry guy who wants to inflict judgement on my children when they mess up...My wife is their savior from utter destruction...I have no problem with PSA!

  21. I think what strikes me most in the prophets is the way the divine "wrath" (and, of course, there is a lot of divine wrath language in both Testaments) is connected to the divine pathos within relationship. This gets us around the "moral logic of ancient Semitic covenants" argument. Arguably, the OT conception of covenant does not really use the standard "moral logic" of their day, focused purely on the outraged honor of the overlord (see Anselm). Rather, it views covenant in terms of community life in relationship.

    Anybody who has ever valued community life in relationship understands the anger that is aroused toward the attitudes and behaviors that are so toxic to that community life in relationship. It's the husband cheating on the wife; it's the kid who slaps his grandma in the face; it's the crushing abuse of the stumbling daughter; it's the indifferent shrug as you pass by your brother bleeding on the road. Within the context of community life, such attitudes and behaviors require wrath, and expiation--for the sake of love and life.

  22. The way I understand what you're suggesting is that the story of Israel is the story for each and every one of us though in the scale of a society rather than an individual.  That is, Israel, being wholly comprised of fallible humans, is completely incapable of actually sealing the deal of pleasing God, and thus, God needs to use Himself to bring us all to Him.  Is this correct?  It's a fairly intriguing interpretation, and I have to say, it fits very well with what I've come to learn these last few years as a new Christian.  God bless! :)

  23. How about “Credit default swap substitutionary atonement?”  I reckon we’re not ever going to make this language unproblematic (though Dr. Beck and NT offer some needed insights by bringing in a covenantal trope).  Perhaps a problem is not with our allegories and metaphors but that we resist engaging them as such?  Like the coins Nietzsche (metaphorically) references in *On truth and lie in an extra-moral sense*  “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphism -- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”  Perhaps the currency value of PSA is declining, but the psychological/spiritual consequences remain though the image on the coin has changed.  Obliged.     

  24. It's my observation that every culture, and sometimes different generations within a given culture, view the atonement and try to describe what happened on the cross from within their cultural context.

    Christus Victor--Pax Romana
    Satisfaction--Anselm and the Medieval system
    PSA--Late Medievalist within a Western European culture of Law and Penal Retribution.

  25. Ah, I'm glad you said this. 
    I was having trouble wrapping my head around that end of things. But what you've said here actually makes some sense as to why this was not only fulfilling Israel's end of the old covenant, but in so doing God was actually creating a new covenant, in which the "terms" changed significantly. This is where PSA fails so badly; it's trying to cast what God was doing for national Israel as what he's done for us. They've entirely missed the New Covenant (which is entirely unilateral now) in so doing.

  26. This makes sense to me. Israel was a microcosm of what God would do for the world - a "sign to the nations" (Isaiah 66:19) which culminated in Christ. Adam served as an example of sin and separation, culminating in a great baptism from which humanity was resurrected by faith - exemplified by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and it was from this tradition and against this backdrop that Jesus life, death and resurrection would make sense, first to Israel, and then to the gentile world. Jesus was the beginning of a new creation and a new covenant, but it would not have made sense without the context of the old.

  27. Thinking about why God made a covenant with Israel which Israel would not keep can be helped by realising that God is not controlled by time. We see time lines, I doubt God's acts are time line dependant. Rose

  28. I'm not so sure that Israel freely entered into the covenant with YHWH.

    'Israel did not accept the Torah of their own free will. When Israel approached Sinai, God lifted up the mountain and held it over their heads, saying: ‘Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain.' ( Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

  29. "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in god's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13

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