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

So many of us were saddened last week to hear of the passing of René Girard. It is difficult to describe just how influential and important Girard has been for many of us. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that René Girard saved my faith and the faith of many of my questioning students. When disillusioned evangelical students come to me with questions about the violence in the Old Testament or the blood-thirsty God of penal substitutionary atonement my very first question is "Have you ever read René Girard?"

In the very first year of this blog, 2006, I did a series entitled "The Voice of the Scapegoat" working through Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice, my favorite introduction to a Girardian reading of the bible. To honor the life and legacy of René Girard I've dusted off and edited those posts, seven in all, to introduce (or reintroduce) you to one of the most potent and life changing readings of the cross.

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 was it emphasized by the early church. Look at all the sermons in the books of Acts. PSA can't be found in any of the very first gospel sermons. The focus on and intensification of PSA in the West is a fairly recent phenomenon which can be traced back to St. Anselm and the Reformation.

These missteps have proved costly to the church because the foundational ideas of PSA are increasingly untenable for many Christians, if not outright 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 discusses 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? PSA says we are being saved from God.

Saved from God? That surely is confused.

The second puzzle is that the cross is a bloody sacrifice. Why is a God of love so blood-thirsty?

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

But to make this rejection leaves one in an awkward relationship with 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, sacrificial 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, a 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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