Interpreting Jesus and the Atonement: Why It Matters


August – October 2015:  

Atonement and Practical Ministry

Theological discussion and debate sometimes feel like a lot of hair-splitting – and for what, exactly?  So I’ve written a series of posts by addressing the person who is not attracted to theology.  I will address nine major reasons why the Christian theology of the atonement (how Jesus saves us, and from what) matters a great deal.

I focus on a theory called penal substitution commonly held by evangelical Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians alike.  I will contrast penal substitution with another atonement theory which I’m calling medical substitution, or ontological substitution.  Theologian T.F. Torrance called it total substitution.  Some in the Eastern Orthodox tradition call it therapeutic substitution.  The earliest Christian theologians, even prior to the great Nicene Council (325 AD), called it recapitulation (Irenaeus) or the reconciling exchange (Athanasius).  Hence it has the distinction of being the earliest understanding of how Jesus saves us, and from what.  Future blog posts will focus on Scripture and early church interpretation.


#1. Does God love your non-Christian friend?  What can you legitimately say?


#2. Does God want to undo all human evil? Or does He require human evil to exist?


#3. Is God partly evil?


#4. What about hell?


#5. Does God value every person? Does He anchor universal human dignity?


#6. Is retributive or restorative justice the highest form of God’s justice? Does atonement theology impact criminal justice?


#7. Does atonement theology impact how we define economic justice?  Part 1: A Critique of Wayne Grudem


#8. Does atonement theology impact how we define economic justice?  Part 2: A Critique of Tim Keller


#9. Is God an Asian parent?  What language of motivation does He use?


#10.  The Big Questions packet



February – April 2016:  

Atonement, Justice, and Politics

This series of blog posts focus on atonement from the angle of evangelical political behavior.  This series is a long engagement with Rene Girard and his scapegoat theory.  Girard had valuable insights into the anthropology of the cross of Christ.  I believe penal substitution enshrines and exploits the principle of retributive justice – at times, even infinite retribution – into human relations.  Therefore, I examine penal substitutionary atonement from both theological and anthropological perspectives.  It is important to see how penal substitution attracts other theological ideas to itself in the human mind, and what behaviors it facilitates, even when Christians maintain that other aspects of Christian teaching require Christians to not behave that way.


#1. Donald Trump’s Scapegoating and the Myth of Retributive Justice

looks at Trump’s scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims through the lens of U.S. political history.  I begin an engagement with Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory.

#2. The Scapegoating of the Black Community

looks at white supremacy as the opposite face of the same coin of black scapegoating.  I touch on the accusation of criminality as central to racism and racial slavery.  Psychologists point out that the more ‘other’ you can make a wrongdoer, the more retributive the punishment you inflict.

#3. What Lynching, Torture, and Scapegoating Have in Common:  Penal Substitution

explores white evangelicals’ thirst for retribution.  Lynching and torture have in common the punishment of a wrongdoer who injures a whole social order, not just an individual.

#4. Why Penal Substitution is a Gateway Drug to Right-Wing Extremism

is a densely theological piece.  In it, I explore how creation and redemption were linked in fullness in the patristic era.  But Luther’s and Calvin’s reception of Augustine required creation to be sorted into “righteous” and “sinner”, i.e. “upright” and “criminal.”

#5. Why Evangelicals Scapegoat Gays, Muslims, Etc.

steps back again into the present.  Popular evangelicals combine nationalism and retributive justice.  They fit into the model of Girard’s scapegoat, and make God out to be a guardian of the social order who demands sacrificial victims.  Those victims are violators of a falsely “theocratic” regime.  I argue that this a gross misunderstanding of the sacrificial system in the Pentateuch.

#6. Why Trump and Cruz Are the Direct, Logical Result of American Evangelical Theology

explores how white evangelicalism truncated the atonement and became complicit with white supremacy, especially in the South after the Civil War.  So it should not surprise us that the Southern plantation version of American exceptionalism survives and continues to affect our politics.  I argue that Paul in his letter to the Romans interprets the Sinai covenant as a health regime given by a doctor to his patient.  I also engage with Adonis Vidu’s recent book on how Western European regime building reinforced the development of atonement theology which portrayed God (the regime) as the legitimate punisher of crime.

#7. A Neuroscientific Reason for Why Retributive Justice is from the Fall, and Penal Substitution is Immature

considers two findings in neuroscience.  First, restorative justice with criminals works better than strictly retributive punishments alone.  Second, our brains are more hard-wired for retributive justice.  This conundrum means that we have to outgrow retributive justice (and penal substitution) and grow into restorative justice (and medical substitution).  I explore the perception of God’s withdrawal of the garden after the fall, and why it is restorative and not retributive.




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