[This is part of a series on Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory and its link to retributive justice. It is primarily about atonement theology, with politics as an illustration.]
Thirst for Retribution
‘How could this happen?’ bemoan some conservative evangelicals. Titles abound, such as: The Inexplicable Evangelical Support for Donald Trump. But the reality is far from inexplicable. Noam Chomsky weighed in with an argument about economic inequality and working class whites, which I think has lots of validity. But the argument from economic inequality doesn’t explain everything – after all, why did Southern states refuse Obamacare? Why don’t more Southerners vote for Bernie Sanders? We are becoming more and more aware that evangelicals are turning to Trump and why. Evangelicals come out of a long tradition of being either racist, or, even if not personally prejudiced, unable to pastorally and structurally deal with racism; of seeing God as retributive; and of seeing the role of government as only retributive. Hence, as Daniel Larison, at The American Conservative, says:
‘The point of nominating Trump isn’t really to promote a set of policies (one would be hard-pressed to describe Trump’s agenda in much detail in any case) but to repudiate the [Republican] party leaders that have repeatedly disregarded and dismissed Trump voters’ interests and concerns.’
I’m grateful for Russell Moore and other evangelicals who disavow Trump. Max Lucado even broke his silence on politics to urge voters to reject him. I’m grateful for those in the evangelical left who still want to claim the label. But the reality is that the majority of American evangelicals still support both Trump and Cruz. And no one I’ve read yet has pointed out how white American evangelical theology itself has gotten us here. As they say, ‘It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.’ To evangelical America: Support for Trump and Cruz is not an illogical appendage that has nothing to do with your theology. This is, in fact, its perfect, logical outcome.
Northern White Evangelicals Informed by Penal Substitution: Infinite Retribution or Unconditional Forgiveness
Penal substitution presents two options in God, and two principles for human relations: infinite retributive justice and unconditional forgiveness. After the Civil War, white evangelicals in the North vacillated between these two extremes. Edward J. Blum, a historian focusing on the Civil War and American race relations, notes that there was a burst of very intense calls for retributive justice from pulpits for the first few years after Lincoln was shot. Blum’s historical focus on preachers, congregations, and newspapers is important because Congress was out of session and Vice President Andrew Johnson was unable to act. So for months, pulpits and newspapers were very important in shaping the public mood.
‘Preaching in Brooklyn’s South Presbyterian Church, Samuel Spear recommended a stern punishment for Confederates. ‘I would hang them by the neck till they are dead,’ he exclaimed, ‘and keep hanging the leading rebels till justice in this form had fully met the demands and wants of the public safety.’ […] Claiming to be in a ‘calmer mood’ than he had been on Easter, Illinois Presbyterian preacher Isaac Carey commented, ‘I find myself unwilling to take back or modify the strong language then used or the sentiments then expressed.’ Carey clearly invoked sectional hatred. ‘[T]he blood of a thousand rebels,’ he thundered,’ would not atone’ for the president’s death. For these ministers, the wrathful God of the Old Testament reigned supreme and demanded retributive justice.’ (emphasis mine)
I italicize the last sentence to highlight that white evangelicals believed the Old Testament to be about retributive justice and not restorative justice. Incidentally, these are not Blum’s own words, but the ministers themselves: Blum’s research led him to read countless printed sermons and newspaper articles from this time period. Evangelicals believe that, as the Old Testament is indeed the backdrop to the New, so retributive justice in Moses is the backdrop to legal forgiveness in Jesus. This is essential to penal substitutionary atonement. I will show below that this interpretation of the Sinai covenant, and the Old Testament as a whole, is quite wrong, even though it is still quite common. This retributive impulse set the tone for the Radical Republicans in Congress, who believed that Lincoln’s more moderate approach, and Andrew Johnson’s weak approach, to Reconstruction were too weak.
But by the 1870’s, white evangelicals in the North were fatigued by Reconstruction. They no longer wanted to send troops to the South to protect blacks’ voting rights and labor contracts. Political popularity for Reconstruction was waning. The Panic of 1873 scared off capital investment. So white evangelicals, led by Dwight L. Moody, simply turned the theological coin over. If retributive justice was no longer the appropriate response, the alternative was unconditional forgiveness. So America’s evangelical Third Great Awakening unfolded as Moody preached across the country. Moody’s name graces Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a leading white American evangelical undergraduate institution.
Dwight Moody was a passionate but demonstrably shallow evangelist who won mass appeal. In his tireless efforts, Moody called for acceptance and unity between Northern and Southern whites, ignored the plight of blacks being denied political rights and economic well-being, praised the courage and commitment of both Union and Confederate soldiers as if the causes they fought for were morally equivalent or negligible or abstract, at times indulged in bad exegesis, and relieved white Northerners from further responsibility, soul searching, and repentance:
‘Moody constructed a mythic memory of the North’s response to the call to arms. ‘All Abraham Lincoln had to do, was to call for men, and how speedily they came,’ Moody proclaimed. ‘When he called for 600,000 men how quick they sprang up all over the nations. Are not souls worth more than this republic?’ When Moody told this particular story, the New York Tribune reported, ‘the attention of the audience was very close.’ This may have been the history New Yorkers wanted to believe. It might have been one that stroked their egos. But it was hardly accurate. After Lincoln’s call for troops, many northerners ‘sprang up’ not to defend the Union, but to resist enlistment and often to assault African Americans. Moody conveniently ignored the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which saw large mobs of New York’s white working class murder more than a hundred blacks and destroy an orphanage for African Americans children, and a host of other such embarrassing episodes. Handily, racial antagonism and northern divisions became invisible in Moody’s sermons. He refused to condemn northern whites for failing to treat people of color with dignity and respect. Instead, he constructed a fraudulent history of unified allegiance to the Union that allowed northerners to think well of themselves as they continued to neglect rights for African Americans.’
The mantra, ‘Why polish the rails on a sinking ship?’ came out of this era. In fact, it came right out of Dwight L. Moody’s mouth. This saying and posture persists until now. Evangelicals in the Third Great Awakening divorced evangelism from love of neighbor and any serious reflections on the use of economic or political power. They developed the strategy of cheap conversionism, which white evangelicals use to this day:
‘Moody’s audience need not bother with defending civil rights for blacks. Heaven, not the United States, was the appropriate place for equality. By downplaying both racial equality and sectional issues, Moody’s stories justified forgiveness and exalted the white nation. Responding bitterly to Moody’s tales, Walt Whitman raged, ‘I do not believe in him. Nor his God… nor his stories which sound like lies.’’
Northern white evangelicals like Moody encouraged their fellow Northerners to forget a great many inconvenient truths: their own historic racism, their own initial antipathy for Lincoln, the plight of blacks in Northern cities, and the North’s ongoing economic dependence on the South and the profits they still derived from Southern agriculture, sharecropping, convict leasing, and other practices rooted in the principle of segregation which suppressed the true value of black labor and black humanity. This set the tone for the majority of white American evangelicals to the present.
Why was it so easy for Moody and others to pull evangelism and discipleship apart? Perhaps the competitive nature of an inherently fractured Protestantism contributed to ministers catering to a consumeristic mentality. But the sociology does not suffice as an explanation. The same things do not seem to occur when Catholic and Orthodox churches neighbor one another. So let’s look deeper. Part of the answer is reflected in well-known criticisms of penal substitutionary atonement, which is a theological staple and hallmark of evangelicalism, at least until recent times when it has been challenged from various quarters. To explain that, we need to briefly consider how theological ideas are generated from Scripture and deployed in actual ministry.
Of course, the concepts of ‘receiving Jesus’ and ‘following Jesus’ are linked. Both ideas are found in the Bible. Both focus on the person of Jesus. One might think that that is all that needs to be said. However, not every Christian minister or layperson is an integrative thinker. Most simply have a ‘canon within the canon.’ In other words, they have favorite Bible passages and books which condition how they hear, read, and teach the rest of Scripture.
Penal substitution reinforces individualism emotionally. Defining ‘salvation’ as ‘escape from the retributive justice and wrath of God’ (as in Protestant penal substitution) instead of ‘healing from the corruption of sin within ourselves’ (as in classical, Nicene medical substitution) has definite psychological and social consequences. Since the emphasis is on where the soul goes after death, the phrase ‘saving souls’ to go to heaven at the point of death comes from this period. With this paradigm, it became very easy (though arguably not absolutely necessary, logically) for evangelicals to reduce people down to souls and not also bodies. American evangelicalism had a strong gnostic flavor. It fit with the lack of care for the bodies of others in personal compassion and social justice. For example, I am guessing that evangelical preachers might have preached often from Isaiah 53 (atonement) – and from the legal-penal perspective at that, which is incorrect – but from Isaiah 58 – 59 (social justice) not very much at all.
Also as a consequence of the theology, evangelicals found it more natural to further reinforce the individualism of American society because other pastoral concerns like ‘assurance of salvation,’ or ‘personal piety and spiritual growth,’ are primarily individualistic concerns. Penal substitutionary atonement does not actually provide consistent answers to those questions, and the instability therein leads to further preoccupation with the self. Evangelicals also found it quite easy to relieve people of concrete responsibilities for their own discipleship and love of neighbor in the present, as Moody in fact did.
Simultaneously, evangelicals found it logical to develop their theory of government around retributive justice. Whether they opted for the Lutheran ‘two kingdoms’ separation between ‘church’ and ‘state,’ or more popularly in America, the Calvinist framework of integrating Christians into politics by reading the ‘civil law’ portion of the Sinai covenant as something that Christians should reproduce in some way, the end goal is the same: The church is the realm of ‘mercy,’ and the state is the realm of ‘retributive justice.’ And on some level, the more the distinction is clear, the better for the church. So white American evangelicals tended to promote the tough father at home, the meritocratic school, a workplace without labor unions, a social system without welfare support, and so on. The more retributive justice one experiences in other institutions, the more one might appreciate ‘mercy’ defined as ‘forgiveness’ from God.
In the former Confederate South, the ethic of retribution deepened in a different way.
Southern Evangelicals: Waiting for Retribution
By 1877, Reconstruction’s failure left the South economically impoverished, racially segregated at all levels, and simmering with violence and resentment against blacks and the North. By many accounts, the ethic of retribution deepened in the South. For example, in Alabama, white Baptists believed that:
‘God had chastised them and given them a special mission – to maintain orthodoxy, strict biblicism, personal piety, and traditional race relations. Slavery, they insisted, had not been sinful. Rather, emancipation was a historical tragedy and the end of Reconstruction was a clear sign of God’s favor.’
The Christian ‘Redemption’ movement – which aimed at ‘redeeming the South’ from northern Yankee influence – was led by pro-business, wealthy white Southerners. The KKK was a white supremacist Christian terrorist movement seeking to intimidate black voters and economic advancement. Southern evangelicals’ image of the United States as a ‘chosen nation,’ which they had drank from the New England Puritan well, continued to live on. But they saw themselves as ‘the remnant’ of that ‘chosen nation.’ The North, in their view, had become filled with liberal Christians and even atheists.
Edward J. Blum’s historical assessment is apt. Continued loyalty to the old Confederacy was cultivated within the white evangelical churches of the South:
‘Southern whites showed little inclination to ask for forgiveness. Neither Confederate defeat nor Lincoln’s assassination nor the accusations by northern ministers persuaded them to shed their allegiance to southern society as they knew it… A minister in Pendleton, South Carolina, for instance, assured his congregation that they ‘must not despair’ over the Confederacy’s surrender, for ‘they would not be conquered – the next generation would see the South free and independent.’ Other southerners may have been less optimistic, but were equally bold. ‘Though conquered, they are as bitter, proud and arrogant as ever,’ one northerner in the South wrote. ‘As to the sentiments of White inhabitants,’ claimed another Yankee in Virginia, ‘while they acknowledge themselves whipped and profess future loyalty – all of their feelings are Confederate – Confederate Generals are their heroes – Confederate bravery, and endurance under difficulties, their pride and boast – Confederate dead their martyrs.’ (emphasis his)
Fast forward a hundred years to the Civil Rights Era, and we find the same language and emotional posture. The following is an example from the far-right, but it is telling. In 1964, Sam Holloway Bowers, Jr., Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, looked out at his beloved Mississippi, and lamented the interference of liberal politicians on the ‘sovereign’ southern states. He despised the encroachment of ‘civil rights’ and workers from the north, and media elites who came to disgrace the Southern way of life. He wrote the following in a recruiting poster. Consider the continual idealization of ‘liberty’ as an uppermost value, the scapegoating of outsiders, and the God-talk supporting the Southern way of life:
‘The administration of our National Government is now under the actual control of atheists who are Bolsheviks by nature. As dedicated agents of Satan, they are absolutely determined to destroy Christian Civilization and all Christians… [Our] members are Christians who are anxious to preserve not only their souls for all Eternity, but who are MILITANTLY DETERMINED, God willing, to save their lives, and the Life of this Nation, in order that their descendants shall enjoy the same, full, God-given blessings of True Liberty that we have been permitted to enjoy up to now.
We do not accept Jews, because they reject Christ, and through the machinations of their International Banking Cartel, are at the root-center of what we call ‘communism’ today.
We do not accept Papists, because they bow to a Roman dictator, in direct violation of the First Commandment and the True American Spirit of Responsible, Individual Liberty.
We do not accept Turks, Mongols, Tarters, Orientals, Negroes, nor any other person whose native background of culture is foreign to the Anglo-Saxon system of Government by responsible, FREE, Individual Citizens.
If you are a Christian, American Anglo-Saxon who can understand the simple Truth of this Philosophy, you belong in the White Nights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. We need your help right away. Get your Bible and Pray! You will hear from us.’
Bowers did not lack formal education, and was firmly anchored in two church traditions:
‘His grandfather, Eaton J. Bowers, was a prominent Mississippi attorney who had been admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen and served three terms in the United States Congress from 1903 until 1911; he was the most revered male figure in Bowers’s life… For three generations, the Bowers family were practicing Methodists… In fact, Sam Bowers himself might have gone on to Millsaps College and become ‘a great Methodist man’ had he not early suspected that even the most benign authorities posed grave personal dangers to him. Baptist theology and polity, with its happy distrust of creeds and hierarchy, better fit his anti-clerical bent. In 1966, Bowers joined the Hillcrest Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi, where he taught (and continues to teach [my note: as of this book’s publication in 1997]) an adult men’s Sunday school class.’
Lest the use of Bowers as a theological example seems unfair, consider southern Senators Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, wildly popular politicians who claimed to be Christians and drew much of their support from southern evangelicals. Thurmond served for 48 years as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Helms served for 30 years from North Carolina. In 1948, Thurmond said:
‘All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.’
This is the same Strom Thurmond who won the support of fundamentalist evangelicals:
‘Thurmond’s longest-standing connection with right-wing fundamentalist groups, however, was his decade-old affiliation with Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Thurmond became a trustee of Bob Jones in 1951, the year after his loss to Olin Johnston. It was a mutually beneficial relationship for Thurmond and the school’s founder, Bob Jones Sr., who had moved the campus to South Carolina from Cleveland, Tennessee, just four years earlier. Thurmond used political contacts to help Jones gain accreditation through the South Carolina Department of Education, and Jones provided Thurmond entrée to a base of archconservative religious voters in the South Carolina up-country, where Thurmond had fared poorly in his race against Johnston.’
Similarly, in 2001, when Jesse Helms from North Carolina retired from the U.S. Senate after five terms, he was called:
‘the last unabashed white racist politician in this country…’
Helms’ own posture of anti-civil rights is substantial: He led a Senate filibuster against making a national holiday of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was for Apartheid in South Africa. He opposed busing, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. He once referred to the University of North Carolina as the University of Negroes and Communists. He was well-schooled in maneuvering the politics of race in the South.
I point that out because the sad impression we get is that this racism was passively unchallenged, if not actively nurtured, in a southern evangelical setting. Helms was raised in a Southern Baptist church, was well-known for his strong Christian views, contributed to the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, and served as a deacon and Sunday School teacher at Hayes-Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC before he was elected to the Senate. Helms was heartily endorsed by other evangelical leaders. Opinion leader Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical flagship Liberty University, named Liberty’s School of Government after Jesse Helms.
It’s worth noting that in 2013, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), speaking at the Heritage Foundation, heaped praise on Jesse Helms:
‘The willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic in this town, and you know what? It’s every bit as true now as it was then. We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.’
From Blum’s assessment that Southern evangelicals at the end of the Civil War perceived themselves as a persecuted minority, and an ethic of retribution which complemented a still-vibrant racism, the same language and stances were preserved and reproduced in southern evangelical settings. That evangelical culture nurtured an Imperial Wizard of the KKK, and two pro-segregationist U.S. Senators from the Carolinas, and all the people who supported them. Their ties to flagship universities like Liberty University and Bob Jones University shows the firm institutional ties in the white southern evangelical subculture, and suggest how certain views are passed from one generation to the next.
Since the Civil Rights Movement, how, then, might we summarize the white American evangelical tradition, broadly?
The Emergent White American Evangelical Church
From the late 1960’s, the Republican Party’s campaign strategists like Kevin Phillips and Lee Atwater made race a political tool, and many evangelicals found common cause with them.
‘The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.’
Seeing the white working class turn against the Democratic Party when Lyndon B. Johnson signed Civil Rights legislation, these Republican strategists developed ‘dog-whistle politics.’ Lee Atwater was a Republican campaign strategist who helped Reagan win in 1981. He discussed the Southern Strategy in an interview in 1981:
‘You start out in 1954 by saying [N-word, N-word, N-word]. By 1968 you can’t say [N-word] — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than [N-word].’
White American evangelicals, whether they had racial prejudice or not, rallied around a vision of meritocratic-retributive government, which was supposedly race-neutral. To some, it only sounded like pruning back the New Deal legislation of big government. To others, it sounded like insider language where ‘states’ rights’ really meant freedom from federal interference in white supremacy. Intentionally racist or not, this political shift exacerbated racial problems, and the far-right racists were emboldened. Evangelicals first began to flex their political muscle in a coordinated way on the national stage, not, as popularly remembered, to rally around Ronald Reagan in 1980. That would come later. Dartmouth professor of religion Randall Balmer gives one of the more astute observations about evangelicals and politics:
‘When evangelicals organized in the 1970s to defend the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools, they cast their lot with the far-right fringes of the Republican Party, and thus began a series of theological and cultural compromises that led them first to a film star and lately to a reality TV star.’
Ballmer’s whole article, ‘Evangelicals’ Support of Trump Shouldn’t Come as a Surprise,’ is worth reading. The compromises to which Ballmer refers is Reagan’s well-known status as a ‘divorced, episodic churchgoer,’ to which Mark Tooley adds more spice:
‘As president he commended tithing without himself doing so to his own church. Between marriages he reportedly was less than chaste, later telling columnist Robert Novak that he sought and nearly succeeded in bedding every available starlet in Hollywood. He commonly described second wife Nancy Reagan as having “saved his soul.” Nancy herself ignited controversy by consulting an astrologer while First Lady.’ 
Evangelicals prior to Reagan did not countenance a divorced political candidate. But Reagan convinced evangelical leaders that he was against abortion and would make it illegal, despite the fact that as governor of California, Reagan had signed the most liberal abortion bill in the nation. Evangelicals seemed to see abortion through the lens of retributive punishment, for the abortion provider and the mother – not, strangely enough, as an issue of being consistently pro-life before and after the baby was born. Whereas Catholics advocated a ‘seamless garment of life’ which involved strong social welfare measures in addition to being anti-abortion, evangelicals did not. A different desire was at work.
In an earlier article, entitled ‘Shocked at evangelicals’ flocking to Trump? Blame it on Reagan,’ Ballmer also points out the evangelical accommodation with racial segregation:
‘Whereas Carter [a genuine evangelical] advocated racial and sexual equality, cornerstones of a ‘just society’ and articles of faith for 19th century evangelicals, Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Reagan opened his 1980 general election campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the brutal slayings of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan 16 summers earlier. In his speech at the Neshoba County Fair on Aug. 3, Reagan proclaimed his support for ‘states rights,’ coded language employed by a generation of Southern segregationists.’
Frank Schaeffer, son of evangelical philosopher and leader of the Religious Right, Francis Schaeffer, tells of the alliances made between the Reagan administration and evangelical leaders looking to abandon Jimmy Carter, in his book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.
Brad Christerson, associate professor of sociology at evangelical Biola University who has written extensively on religion, race, ethnicity, and globalization, says this:
‘American evangelicalism has its roots in American fundamentalism, which emerged as a rejection of the “social gospel” movement in the late 19th century. The social gospel, popular among mainline Protestants, interpreted the Bible through a more critical lens and promoted the idea of social reform through government and public institutions. Fundamentalism emerged to defend the authority of the Bible as God’s word, and as a reaction against the social gospel, it also rejected the idea of the idea of social improvement through government policy.
This produced a uniquely American, highly individualistic, privatized religion that still has a strong influence in evangelicalism. Most American evangelicals believe that their life is completely determined by their personal relationship with God and their own personal moral choices, not by the social institutions of which they are a part. Attempts to reform society through government policy are seen as hindering “personal responsibility” for one’s actions and therefore undermining, rather than promoting social improvement. Evangelicalism is American individualism on steroids. […]
Without a vision for any public good that can come from government, the only role left for government is to punish or restrict practices and people seen as “dangerous” or “evil.” This explains strong evangelical support for an interventionist military, tough on crime policies, the death penalty and restrictions on “suspicious” immigrants, while at the same time opposing government programs reducing poverty and promoting access to health care and education.
Evangelicalism’s inability to apply the ethics of Jesus to public policy leaves rank and file churchgoers vulnerable to politicians such as Trump, who are able to exploit their growing sense of marginalization and fear of other religions and racial groups. In an era where images of chaos and violence erupt constantly on the 24/7 news cycle and social media, the evil in the world appears overwhelming. Instead of loving their enemies, Trump, Cruz and other “politically incorrect” strong men promise to “carpet bomb” evil through the blunt force of the state.
Unless evangelical leaders can draw on the rich history of other Christian movements to develop a public theology based on the ethics of Jesus, their followers will continue to be drawn to the more authoritarian, nationalist and racist (i.e. fascist) elements in the Republican Party. This would surely accelerate the decline of evangelicalism among Millennials, who say they are tired of the angry politics of the religious right and hunger for a faith more interested in the public good.
My evangelical college students sometimes ask, “Why did most Christians in Germany support Hitler?” Future generations of students may well ask similar questions about us.’
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first African American President, the simmering racial resentment finally found sufficient reason to mobilize openly. The ‘Tea Party’ movement was born, much of it in the old Confederacy, along with Trump’s ‘birther’ movement constantly portraying Obama as an ‘outsider’ to America. Tea Party defenders protest that the platform is about principled fiscal conservatism, and I’m sure that was a factor, but consider the fact that the movement did not start when President Bush signed TARP into law on October 3, 2008. It only began after Obama was inaugurated. The 2010 mid-term elections saw victories by Ted Cruz in Texas and other Tea Party Republicans, who were perceived as patriotic ‘challengers’ to the establishment, uncorrupted by Washington.
Indeed, I would add to Christerson’s assessment one thing. Given American evangelicals’ strong support for a meritocratic-retributive ethic in public, government life, a narcissistic billionaire like Donald Trump was inevitable. As evangelicals embraced capitalism, and even the ‘trickle-down economics’ of Reagan, wealth inequality would only increase.
So why Trump’s popularity among evangelicals? And why Cruz’s popularity? Why are we seeing a kind of evangelicalism which has given up on ‘changing people’s hearts,’ and only wants to change public policy? Resenting their clear defeat in the ‘culture wars’ on the issues of abortion and gay marriage (Obergefell 2015), white evangelicals, who have long cultivated a persecution complex and nursed a retributive vision of government anyway, see a vote for Trump or Cruz as retribution – retribution to the Republican governing elite who overpromised (deceived?) them on social issues like abortion; certainly retribution to immigrants and other threats (economic or terrorist) to America; perhaps an attempt at retribution towards ‘the wealthy;’ and retribution upon a nation that has become, in many evangelicals’ eyes, so liberal and politically correct, that a takedown of political correctness seems, to them, a reasonable and achievable priority.
Unfortunately, evangelicals have a developed taste for retribution, first and foremost through their affection for penal substitutionary atonement. A century ago, evangelicals supported the lynching of African Americans, as I have explored in an earlier blog post. Evangelicals defended the Vietnam War when the rest of the country did not, explored by Anne C. Loveland, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military 1942 – 1993. Today, evangelicals favor capital punishment more than the overall population. Evangelicals are more likely than the general population to justify torture of terrorists or even suspected terrorists. And just in case you think that the word ‘evangelical’ is based only on a self-reported label, the Pew Research Trust says that they measured behavior: ‘Attend religious service at least weekly’ or ‘monthly a few times a year’ or ‘seldom or never.’ The percentage of people agreeing with the use of torture increases with the frequency of attending a religious service. And whereas in 2012, a group of religious leaders released ‘A Call from the Faith-Based Community to Stop Drone Killings,’ Southern Baptist flagship Liberty University offers a focus in Unmanned Aerial Systems, to train drone pilots. Despite the clear lack of justification under the just war criteria, evangelicals rushed to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Southern Baptist Convention officially supported the Iraq War.
But what if this whole evangelical embrace of retribution is based on a very faulty premise? What if the difference between the Old Testament and the New is not ‘threat of retribution’ and ‘legal pardon?’ What if the difference between the Sinai covenant and Christ is not ‘law and the punishments for breaking it’ and ‘the legal satisfaction of the retributive lawgiver?’ Then the entire edifice that white American evangelicals have built would fall. If the Sinai covenant actually expressed a preliminary form of God’s restorative justice, and Jesus expressed its climax, then we have an entirely different paradigm to proclaim. Might a more biblically faithful, evangelistically attractive, ecumenically honoring, and socially constructive expression of Christianity emerge?
Penal Substitution and the Re-Paganization of the West
In my last post, studying scapegoating and Israel’s sacrificial system, I asked how did the re-paganization of American evangelicals happen, specifically in the sense of believing God needs to be appeased through sacrifice? Through many means. Adonis Vidu, currently a professor of systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, explores one important facet: how Western theology and jurisprudence became mutually reinforcing:
‘…a momentous shift that took place in understandings of justice and law. Scholars call this the legal revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In both law and theology, justice comes to be approximated as law. Law is now regarded as defining the framework for human and divine relationships. Not surprisingly, atonement theologians like Anselm and Thomas Aquinas in particular reflect this renewed interest in law.’
Vidu argues that a certain Western and Latin culture of law made ‘satisfaction’ theories possible in theology. He notes, very instructively, that a retributive model of pagan (secular) justice had already been offered by the classical Greek pagan tradition. But the basic principles of early Christian theology ruled penal substitution out. The notion that God had to satisfy His own retributive justice was impossible, as the Greek Christian East decided:
‘First, the unity of divine actions prevents us from saying that God has to punish Jesus as a causal condition or to be enabled to forgive us. Second, the idea of a direct punishment of the Son by the Father is implicitly foreclosed by the ancient principle of the inseparable works of the Trinity. Third, God is not “moved” from wrath to mercy. And finally, the crucifixion should not be separated from the resurrection, since these are not separable “parts” of God’s action.’
Nevertheless, when political regimes were trying to provide rational reasons for their legitimacy (the English Magna Carta was signed in 1215 AD), this interest in Latin law and jurisprudence increased. Consider how the magisterial Reformers were interested in forming new state-churches escaping the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church; what type of atonement model do you think they’d be drawn to? One which would reinforce a political ruler’s ability to punish. It served their interest in stabilizing new political regimes, like when Martin Luther turned against a German peasant uprising and sided with German nobles to crush it. Fast forward to the modernist Enlightenment project of nation-states and nation-building. A new form of community formed there: ‘rational’ nation-states. And a new type of scapegoat developed: the victims of the nation-state’s ‘retributive justice,’ whether internal to the nation-state, or even more forcefully, externally to it.
Key to this theology was the perception of the Sinai covenant as exemplary of God’s retributive justice.
The Myth of Retributive Justice in the Sinai Covenant
What was the Sinai covenant? For those of you who aren’t as keen on biblical interpretation, I’ll just give a quick summary here, and then you can jump down to the conclusion.
The Sinai covenant was more like a medical partnership between God as a doctor and Israel as a patient. Some important points follow from this:
- God trained Israel to struggle for health, diagnose the human disease, document the diagnosis, and hope for the cure: the Messiah.
- The commandments that God gave Israel were like a doctor’s serious commands for a patient’s health, with the doctor on the emotional side of the patient, and both of them standing against the disease of sin (Rom.7:7 – 25). The Sinai covenant was not modeling an adversarial system of law where God stood against Israel per se, barely able to tolerate them.
- Of course in health examinations, there is language like ‘you passed’ or ‘you did well!’ That is what the word ‘justification’ is about. But the underlying substance to which that language points is medical and ontological. In Jewish idiom, and in Romans, that medical and ontological change is circumcision of heart (Rom.2:28 – 29; 6:6; 8:3; 10:4).
- Israel was not hoping that God would change His emotional posture towards them, or otherwise deflect His anger. They hoped for God to change them (Dt.30:6; Ps.51:9 – 10; Jer.31:31 – 34; Ezk.36:26 – 36). In other words, Israel never hoped for penal substitutionary atonement.
- Instead, Israel hoped instead that God would help them finally overcome the disease against which they struggled in partnership together. They longed for the Messiah to defeat sinfulness in their place and on their behalf. Israel hoped for a medical substitutionary atonement.
Teaching the Sinai covenant this way not only fits better with Scripture, it gives us a healthier and more accurate picture of God.
- It gives us a deep appreciation for Israel struggling to present their humanity to God whole and purified.
- It gives us a deeper appreciation for Jesus, who was able to withstand every temptation, for us and our salvation.
- It completely limits anyone trying to extract the principle of retributive justice out of Jewish law.
- It also undercuts the ‘Puritan myth’ of white America being a new chosen people, because we who are living after Jesus’ first advent are not supposed to read ourselves back into that part of the biblical story.
- It pulls the rug out from the Reformed theocracy fans (read: very conservative evangelicals) and their hermeneutic on the Old Testament.
- It will even put some checks on evangelical tendencies to uncritically support the State of Israel as if it is the fulfillment of biblical Israel.
I will demonstrate that from one of the core texts used by penal substitution supporters: Paul’s letter to the Romans. But if you’d like to skip down to the conclusion, please do. For those of you who enjoy biblical exegesis, read on. I hope it rewards your effort.
Was God Retributive Towards Israel?
Imagine being a Christian trying to explain to a Jewish non-Christian friend why God chose Israel in the first place. Why didn’t God just skip right to Jesus? In a penal substitution framework, one of the leading explanations you would have to give is this: God had to establish His retributive and punitive justice, so that people could appreciate His mercy shown in Jesus. He used Israel for that purpose.
That’s quite a troubling explanation. Did God use Israel for a whipping post as the foil for Jesus? Is that what I must say to my Jewish friends?
True, there are incidents where God punished and disciplined Israel as a whole. Activity of that nature, though, took the form of other nations enslaving the Israelites and taking Israel captive because they either stopped relying on God, and/or they made alliances with these foreign powers. King Hezekiah sought an alliance with Babylon (Isaiah 39); prior to that, King Ahaz seemed to want an alliance with either Assyria or the combination of Aram and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Isaiah 7). So Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and later, Babylon invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In other words, this was the natural course of human choices. The Jewish people perceived themselves as an ordinary nation. They either relied on ordinary human ‘strength’ or made diplomatic ties inviting foreign influence. Those foreign influences took over. Even though the language of God’s ‘retribution’ is sometimes used in the context of Old Testament Israel, the substance was not a tit-for-tat response to Israel’s sin, which is what Western jurisprudence makes of the term ‘retribution.’
These were regime-changes meant to reenact Israel’s captivity to Egypt. Captivity expressed to Israel that they were in spiritual and historical regression. What they were experiencing in a geo-political sense was the concrete manifestation (revelation) of a spiritual posture of abandoning God as the true king of Israel. The experience was intended as pedagogy. Paul saw this same dynamic in Romans 1:21 – 32 when he said, ‘God gave them over,’ as did Jeremiah before him:
19 ‘Your own wickedness will correct you,
And your apostasies will reprove you;
Know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter
For you to forsake the LORD your God,
And the dread of Me is not in you,’ declares the Lord GOD of hosts.
20 ‘For long ago I broke your yoke
And tore off your bonds;
But you said, ‘I will not serve!’…
28 ‘But where are your gods
Which you made for yourself?
Let them arise, if they can save you
In the time of your trouble… (Jeremiah 2:19 – 20, 28)
Most people would call this ‘poetic justice,’ but not ‘retributive justice’ in the strict and formal sense we in the West have come to expect. Moreover, even those events were excessively violent due to human factors beyond God’s intention:
14 So the angel who was speaking with me said to me,‘Proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts,‘I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion.15 But I am very angry with the nations who are at ease;for while I was only a little angry, they furthered the disaster.’ (Zechariah 1:14 – 15)
1 ‘Comfort, O comfort My people,’ says your God.2 ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her,That her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removedThat she has received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.’ (Isaiah 40:1 – 2)
So Babylon did more than God intended. Zechariah’s and Isaiah’s evaluation of the Babylonian invasion raises important questions of theodicy and the mode of God’s sovereignty, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. But for my purpose here, this too casts sufficient doubt on the notion that Western jurisprudence, which is meant to maintain the philosophical and social legitimacy of the regime doing the punishing, can be calibrated to the regime-changing events Israel experienced. God’s relationship with Israel cannot be reduced to expressions of Western jurisprudence.
The Calvinist Puritans thought they saw a retributive justice ethic in the Mosaic Law (which I contest), and thought they should apply it to the colonies. Deeply conservative evangelicals believe they can do so today. They claim that the ‘eye for an eye’ principle exemplifies retributive justice. But that principle was established as an outer limit on a restorative justice process that, as stated in Exodus 21:22 and 30, allowed the victim to name a compensation price instead of calling for a strictly proportional punishment. ‘An eye for an eye’ was not an automatic legal principle in Jewish law, so those who interpret it thus are misinformed. And the fact that this principle occurs twice in Exodus 21, immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments, in the first two occasions where a restorative justice process can be applied to parties in conflict, demonstrates that restorative justice is meant to be read into all the rest of the Mosaic commandments, wherever possible. The literary style of the commandments absolutely assumes that we as the readers take the commandments as a unit.
Furthermore, scholars like E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James D.G. Dunn – who are in the camp of the so-called ‘New Perspective(s) on Paul’ – have challenged the notion that the Sinai covenant itself is fundamentally retributive. I suspect that the bluster of resistance directed against the ‘New Perspective(s)’ actually has less to do with Paul himself, and more with perceiving the true nature of the Sinai covenant, which does not actually match Western jurisprudence or validate it.
When God gives us ‘laws,’ does He implicitly become our adversary? Does relying entirely or mostly on the English word and concept of ‘law’ run us afoul of the danger of importing our connotations of a Western adversarial legal system based on retributive justice? Is there a reason to think that the English word for ‘covenant’ is a better starting point from which to understand biblical Israel’s experience?
Problems with the Penal Substitution Reading of Romans
In Romans, the locus classicus for Protestants in defining ‘sin’ and ‘salvation,’ Protestants tend to read Romans 1 – 3 as Paul’s treatise on ‘sin’ in a legal sense, describing why the idolatrous Gentile (1:21 – 32), the moralistic but judgmental Gentile (2:1 – 16), and the Jew (2:17 – 3:8) are all guilty of sin (3:9 – 20). In this understanding, Romans 3:21 – 26 explains why ‘the righteousness of God,’ defined as the full range of God’s attributes (justice and mercy, holiness and love, wrath and forgiveness) is seen and experienced by faith in Christ alone. Romans 3:21 – 26 is thought to be one of the great anchor points of penal substitution because of Paul’s mention of Jesus’ blood, righteousness, and justification. It is as if Romans 1:18 – 3:20 envisions humanity in God’s great courtroom, declared guilty, menaced by His retributive justice, but able to escape from God’s wrath by Christ’s intervention.
But this Western legal framework does not fit easily with the rest of Romans. For example, Paul notes with surprising ease that God did not ‘impute’ sin in a personal, legal sense to those people between Adam and Moses (Rom.5:13), despite them being aptly described by Paul’s ‘idolatrous Gentiles’ of Romans 1:21 – 32. That alone should give us pause. Nor did God relate to Gentiles through the specific framework of the Sinai covenant (Rom.2:17 – 3:8; 7:1 – 4), despite the Gentiles ostensibly intuiting something about the general moral vision of God for human life. So God’s posture towards people in general was not in a ‘law vs. grace’ paradigm understood as ‘punishment for breaking a commandment vs. mercy,’ or a ‘legal blame vs. legal forgiveness’ antithesis which Protestants tend to assume. If God treated Israel differently than everyone else, and even if it is true that Israel’s experience of God had a primarily legal character, which I contest, then we cannot universalize to everyone the same perception of God and experience of God. Law, guilt, blame, the looming threat of God’s retributive justice, atonement as the satisfaction of His retributive justice, and forgiveness as legal pardon are not actually what Romans ‘is about.’
Studying Paul’s understanding of Israel and the Sinai covenant is essential. Is the Sinai covenant, to Paul, of a primarily legal character, meant to inveigh God’s legalistic case against Israel? It is true that the commandments of the Sinai covenant further triggered Israel’s sinfulness (Rom.5:20). This seems to be Paul’s own personal experience, specifically with covetousness in Romans 7:7 – 25. But did God do this simply to make the Jews feel guiltier than everyone else? Or have more guilt before Him objectively? And if God set about to prove Israel’s moral guilt, then how much moral responsibility would He have to bear for intentionally triggering Israel’s sinfulness, only to turn around and count it against them?
The Medical Substitution Reading of Romans
Thankfully, there is another way to interpret Paul – one which makes biblical Israel more than just the longsuffering recipient of God’s retributive punishments. In Romans 8:3, when Paul says, ‘For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh’ [of Israel], he shows up a subtle but decisive difference between his view of the Sinai covenant and the typical evangelical view. This verse deserves very careful attention. If God wanted to use ‘the Law’ to simply accuse Israel of breaking laws and bringing legalistic guilt down on her own head, then Paul should have said that it did achieve that purpose. In other words, if God’s true purpose for ‘the Law’ was to cinch His legal accusation of Israel’s guilt, then Paul should have said, ‘For what the Law did do, strong as it was against the weakness of Israel’s flesh and the guilt of her many transgressions…’ But Paul does not say that. Why not? Why does Paul say that ‘the Law’ itself was weak?
Because of God’s divine-human partnership with Israel. God gave Israel the Sinai covenant not so that He could simply condemn Israel’s sin by His own voice, spoken over and against Israel and her humanity, but so that the Israelites would partner with Him, and condemn sin in themselves by their own life and voice, that is, the sinfulness lodged in their own humanity. The Sinai covenant and its commandments served a positive, medical-ontological purpose for Israel, much like a doctor’s regimen for true health. To help Israel diagnose the corruption in their own human nature by identifying the deepest reason for their exile from the garden, and to help Israel document that diagnosis in what we now call ‘the Hebrew Bible’ or ‘the Old Testament,’ for the sake of Christian mission. This is the cast and governing framework of the Sinai covenant, demonstrable by exegesis of Romans and of the Pentateuch itself.
The Sinai covenant served as God’s way of calling for Israel’s partnership for a medical purpose. Just as a doctor might say, ‘You’re still not living up to the standards which would bring you into good health,’ God deployed the standards of the Sinai covenant for Israel’s spiritual health. To be sure, on many occasions, God did vocally criticize Israel for failing, and under the terms of the Sinai covenant, discipline them. But this does not mean that God’s commandments and criticisms can be transplanted into the ‘law vs. grace’ paradigm of the Western adversarial legal system, as if the doctor stands against the patient. To the contrary, the doctor stands with the patient, on the side of the patient, and against the disease. In the heart of a caring doctor, it is useless to simply condemn the disease from outside the patient’s body, as if simply saying so repeatedly was helpful to the patient. The doctor wants the patient to actively participate in his condemnation of the disease in her own flesh, by following his instructions for how to return her humanity to full health.
The Medical Purpose of the Sinai Covenant as Understood by the Apostle Paul
The Sinai covenant helped Israel appreciate and aim for ‘circumcision of the heart.’ The surgical and medical character of this idiom, with purification symbolized from its origins in Abraham and Sarah’s story, should not be lost upon us. The image of circumcision actually governs the meaning of Passover and the sacrificial system, for in both cases God cuts away something impure from people so that He can return pure life to them. In his final words, Moses uses the idea of ‘circumcision of heart’ as both a command within the covenant (Dt.10:16) and a promise that God will circumcise the hearts of Israel in connection with the end of Israel’s exile (Dt.30:6), at the climax of the covenant. This doubling confirms to us the character of the Sinai covenant: It called for divine-human partnership against the corruption of sin in Israel’s humanity, the same humanity which God diagnosed as being corrupt long ago (Gen.6:5 – 6; 8:21).
Paul understood the Sinai covenant this way, too. In Romans 2:28 – 29, Paul affirms that ‘circumcision of the heart’ is the goal of the covenant, unachieved by any Jew save one: the Messiah.
‘For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh’ (Romans 8:3).
Jesus alone received and internalized God’s condemnation of sin into his own flesh. He alone lived out Israel’s side of the covenant. He did what no Israelite, and no human being, could do: He lived in constant faithfulness to the Father, defeating the corruption of sin by his death. His atoning work was a substitution, indeed, but a medical one, and not a penal one. In Jesus, God the great physician became a patient, was guided by the Sinai covenant (‘born under the Law’ in Gal.4:4) and performed a surgical and medical operation on His own humanity, so He could share Himself with every human being.
Paul says in Romans 10:4 that Jesus is the ‘climax’ (telos) of the covenant. Not simply as its chronological expiration date, as if Israel simply wanted the condemnation and curses to expire, or even to be exhausted, but its climax, so that the Sinai covenant’s focal point of condemnation would finally achieve its proper goal: the destruction of the corruption of sin in the true Israelite, who lived in full partnership with God. So Jesus’ vindication of his constant faithfulness was his resurrection and ascension. What Jesus was always doing throughout his life of faithful obedience to the Father in the Spirit – purifying and elevating his humanity unto God – was permanently enacted in his very humanity.
N.T. Wright takes John Piper to task for neglecting both of these passages:
‘You can tell a lot about a book on Paul by seeing which passages don’t appear in the index. John Piper, astonishingly, has no discussion of Romans 2:25 – 29 or Romans 10:6 – 9, absolutely crucial passages in Paul and certainly in my exposition of him.’
I appreciate how Wright puts his finger on the unhealthy (fatal?) omissions in Piper’s exegesis. Indeed, clarifying the phrases ‘circumcision of the heart’ in Romans 2 and ‘the climax of the covenant’ in Romans 10 gives us a very different understanding of God’s purpose for the Sinai covenant than the one penal substitution advocates defend.
Reading Romans 1 – 3 with this fuller understanding pulls other details into focus. The idolatrous Gentile (1:21 – 32), morally judgmental Gentile (2:1 – 16), and Jew under the covenant (2:17 – 3:8) are all ontologically sick, and medical failures. The exegetical emphasis now falls on what’s going on within the person being described. Hence the tragedy of the idolatrous Gentile is his choice-by-choice descent into increasingly contorted desires; of the morally judgmental Gentile, his desire to judge others while ignoring the inner witness of his conscience and his own outward actions which testify of his need for the true ‘good’ of fundamental healing; of the Jew under the Sinai covenant, his resistance to the very purpose of that covenant: circumcision of the heart.
Notice that Paul’s survey of humanity must not be interpreted as if the apostle never saw any signs of goodness or law-keeping at all. True, he does say, ‘No one has done what is good’ (2:12 – 16; 3:11 – 12). But he is willing to grant that the morally judgmental Gentile does demonstrate moral awareness sometimes (2:1 – 4), and he recollects fulfilling nine out of the ten commandments as a pre-Christian Jew (7:7 – 13). He would certainly affirm that his Jewish forebears honored God at least some of the time. How else can we explain Psalm 119, for instance, in which Israel celebrates the very commandments of God?
What then, does Paul mean when he says, ‘No one has done what is good, no not one’ (3:10 – 12)? He does not mean that no one ever does any moral good whatsoever. Instead, he means that ‘doing good’ is about teleological good: circumcising one’s own heart with God’s power, and returning one’s humanity to God healed and purified after a lifetime of obedient partnership. Paul is thinking eschatologically and ontologically when he says, ‘persevering in doing good’ (2:5 – 11). When he says, ‘the doer of the law will be justified’ (2:13) he is referring to ‘circumcision of the heart’ (2:28 – 29). Hence, Paul concludes his summary of human sinfulness (3:9 – 20) by emphasizing the physical location of sin as a disease in human bodies: throats, tongues (3:13), mouths (3:14), feet (3:15), and eyes (3:18). The problem still exists in us
Having established Paul’s purpose in diagnosing human sin this way as a disease that needs to be healed, we can now coordinate Romans 3:21 – 26, one of the staple texts penal substitution advocates use, with Romans 7:7 – 8:4. If the Sinai covenant was calling for Israel’s partnership with God, for their own sake, a partnership which only Jesus lived out perfectly and to the full, also for Israel’s sake, then we are on fairly solid ground for translating pisteos Iesou Christou ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ in Romans 3:22 as the KJV does, rather than ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’ That is, God’s righteousness to the Sinai covenant and to Israel was fulfilled by the faithfulness of Jesus.
Moreover, the contested meaning of ‘propitiation’ (or, possibly, ‘mercy seat,’ translating hilasterion) in 3:25 depends entirely on how one interprets the sacrificial system, because the word is drawn from the Temple context. As I have already argued in my last post and elsewhere, the sacrificial system did not represent God in a courtroom dealing with Israel’s guilt, but as a dialysis machine dealing with Israel’s impure human condition. Not the supposed consequence, but the underlying source. So ‘propitiation’ cannot be interpreted as the satisfaction of God’s retributive justice as a category meted out upon the passively obedient Jesus on the cross.
Rather, ‘propitiation’ refers to God defeating the corruption of sin in Jesus’ humanity through Jesus’ active obedience to purify himself even unto death. There, Jesus eliminated it. The double goat image serves us well. In one sense, Jesus swallowed it up. In another sense, he eliminated it and sent it far away from us, as far as the east is from the west. With those two exegetical stakes in the ground, we can conclude that Romans 3:21 – 26 does not teach penal substitution. It teaches medical substitution. For behind ‘propitiation’ is ‘circumcision.’ Which is to say, behind both are: the new life which Abraham and Sarah experienced in part when God initiated ‘circumcision’ (Rom.4:1 – 25), the life of Christ Jesus the new Adam (5:12 – 21) who has circumcised away the ‘old self’ (6:6), the renewal of creation when God cuts away its bondage to decay (8:18 – 25), life from the dead for Israel (11:15), and the defeat of the ancient serpent (16:20). Notice how Paul’s doctrine of ontological-medical substitutionary atonement refers immediately to his robust, maximalist doctrine of creation.
For these reasons and more, I concur with the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters about the definition of this word:
‘In the light of the threatening wrath of God, the need of sinners can be said to be not the transformation of God’s attitude toward them but the transformation of their sinful existence before God through its destruction and new creation. This transformation of sinners is precisely the significance Paul sees in the death and resurrection of Christ… In summary, not “propitiatory” but “expiatory” is the more appropriate description of Christ’s atoning death as a hilastērion.’
Medical Substitutionary Atonement in Colossians
Mention of ‘circumcision of the heart’ also draws our attention to Colossians 2:11 – 14. In Colossians, Paul speaks of ‘forgiveness of sin’ as God transferring us from one domain to another (Col.1:13 – 14). The question may be asked: Are we meant to interpret that as if we moved from one domain of God’s disposition to another (i.e. legal forgiveness)? Paul clarifies that believers have moved from opposing Christ’s new humanity to embracing it (Col.1:21 – 22; 2:10). The change of domains was a change in our volition, not a dispositional change in God. And, Paul describes that movement more substantively as consisting of a deeper, internal healing and transformation imaged by the Jewish idiom ‘circumcision of heart’ (Col.2:11 – 13; Dt.10:16; 30:6; Jer.4:4; Rom.2:28 – 29) and the taking away of ‘the handwriting which was against us’ (Col.2:14).
This last phrase is often equated by Protestants with the curses of the Mosaic Law, probably because of our longstanding cultural experience with law as an adversarial system, and with legal standards menacing us from the outside. But Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202 AD), the first major Christian theologian outside the New Testament to write anything close to a ‘systematic theology,’ who according to tradition was taught by Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was in turn taught by the apostle John, believed the ‘handwriting’ referred to the ‘sinful writing’ which Jeremiah said was on our own hearts (Jer.17:1 – 10), which God would overwrite with His law (Jer.31:31 – 34). Irenaeus’ historical authority ought to be taken seriously. And in any case, his view arguably fits better as an exegesis of Colossians. Since the Son of God created us, upholds us in being, and destined us for himself (Col.1:15 – 17), as Paul introduced him, so also the Son of God redeems us to be the people he always intended (Col.1:18 – 20). Colossians is rich in creation theology because of the Christ-hymn of 1:15 – 20.
Once again we find that in Scripture and in the early church, atonement and creation are immediately linked. The same agent is at work: the Son of God. The same goal is being achieved: humanity sharing in the divine life. Atonement is God’s act of restorative justice, meant to ‘cut off’ (as in circumcise) something within us, or ‘write over’ something written within us. Atonement restores the original vitality and purpose of God’s creation.
If the goal of the Sinai covenant was ‘circumcision of heart,’ and ‘Messiah’ in conjunction with it, then God’s purpose for Israel was a medical partnership where Israel did experience some qualitative difference in their human experience because of God’s presence with them. They also collected insight, conviction, and hope for Messiah.
As we return to the topic of how atonement theology does or does not reinforce other social and legal ideas, we can rest assured that the word ‘forgiveness’ in the New Testament does not repose against an adversarial system of law, where accusation is high in the mind of God who can turn in hostility against us. Forgiveness is forgiveness for self-harm, where the self is carefully created, constantly upheld, always pursued, and eternally purposed by God in love.
Conclusion: The Brutal Paganism of American Evangelicalism
‘Satisfaction’ theories of atonement have served as a handmaiden to Western regime-building, as Adonis Vidu’s study suggests. They provided models of theological authority to their Christian populations which gave legitimacy to the political enterprises.
In particular, Protestant Western regimes like the United States and South Africa took an unusually virulent form. The model of authority which penal substitution provided was retributive justice, now projected onto the divine will. Combined with the colonialist ideology of white supremacy, these made for a deadly combination. In an earlier blog post, I explained why penal substitution can exist apart from a well-defined doctrine of creation, it was (and continues to be) resituated atop an entirely erroneous social and legal order in Protestant America, an order which was given enormous theological meaning to legitimize it.
This brings me back to a critical appreciation of French anthropologist-turned-biblical interpreter Rene Girard. I believe Girard was correct in observing that everyone else outside of the biblical tradition ‘scapegoated’ (i.e. blamed) a sacrificial victim, ‘the ugly person.’ He seems to have thought that God reversed the imagery at the point of Jesus on the cross. I believe Girard should have seen God’s subversion much earlier. God was subverting human scapegoating through Israel’s scapegoat ritual itself (staying with me, there?). He used a scapegoat (noun) in a medical paradigm, so that everyone could recognize their inheritance in human fallenness and scapegoating tendencies. Why else would the Joseph story be included in Israel’s sacred Scriptures? What else did it teach Israel except that the jealous brothers were absolutely wrong to scapegoat the perhaps bratty but otherwise innocent Joseph?
I believe Girard was incorrect about another part of his theory as well. He believed that Christian faith, by exposing the scapegoating device, stripped human beings of their ability to scapegoat any further. He believed that humanity would then devolve into more and more violence, because the release valve for collective violence (the scapegoat) is now gone.
What Girard seems not to have appreciated is how Christian faith itself was mutated and subverted. The scapegoating simply took new forms in connection with new forms of regime-building and nation-building. The violence and crises inherent in communities of fallen human beings still needed an outlet, so the scapegoat was renewed using biblical language and categories in distorted form.
Should not Girard have expected scapegoating to be all the stronger in the U.S., with its ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘the-frontier-as-escape-from-others’ mentality? In order to build the sense of community that America lacks? Indeed, based on the scapegoating we observe today, it seems plain enough that evangelicals envision the Christian God to be a two-faced pagan god like Janus, whose blessings and threats hold the nation together. This makes a scapegoat mechanism essential. Taking the modern nation-state as an unquestioned basis, American evangelicals tend to scapegoat anyone who violates their notion of Christian ‘covenant’ community: from Native Americans then to gays now, from Catholics and Quakers in colonial times to atheists and Muslims now, from foreigners and criminals then to foreigners and criminals now. The boundary lines may change. But the scapegoating of ‘the ugly person’ (see the last blog post) remains categorically the same.
But the quest to find the basis for ‘retribution,’ which undergirds both penal substitution and a punitive posture towards ‘scapegoats,’ fails to find support in Scripture. Western-style retribution is a myth. It does not exist in Scripture. So my invitation to evangelicals is to abandon the penal substitution atonement theory, and return to the early church’s original atonement theory: medical substitution.
Either that, or get used to candidates like Trump and Cruz.
Hopefully, evangelicals will do the former before incivility, fist-fights, and violence overtake us.
A supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump scuffles with a protestor during a rally in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
 Bryan Fisher, ‘The Inexplicable Evangelical Support for Donald Trump,’ American Family Association, January 19, 2016; http://www.afa.net/the-stand/election/2016/01/the-inexplicable-evangelical-support-for-donald-trump/
 Noam Chomsky, ‘Why is Donald Trump Having So Much Success This Election Cycle?’, Quora, March 1, 2016; https://www.quora.com/Why-is-Donald-Trump-having-so-much-success-during-this-election-cycle/answer/Noam-Chomsky-6
 Daniel Larison, ‘Republicans Can’t Stand Frauds, Except When They Can,’ The American Conservative, March 1, 2016; http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/republicans-cant-stand-frauds-except-when-they-can/
 Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism 1865 – 1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), p.27. Fredrick A. Norwood, editor, Sourcebook of American Methodism (1982) p.323, notes that the Methodist Ministers Association of Boston met two weeks after Lincoln’s assassination and commended this course of action against Confederate leadership: ‘Resolved, That no terms should be made with traitors, no compromise with rebels…. That we hold the National authority bound by the most solemn obligation to God and man to bring all the civil and military leaders of the rebellion to trial by due course of law, and when they are clearly convicted, to execute them.’
 Andrew Johnson did not include blacks in government in the South, refused to take action when southern state legislatures implemented Black Codes which began Jim Crow segregation, and encouraged the southern states to defy the Fourteenth Amendment. While Reconstruction was by no means simple, and while there was much that I could fundamentally agree with, I share Booker T. Washington’s assessment that Reconstruction focused too narrowly on political enfranchisement of African Americans, and not economic enfranchisement. Blum tells the remarkable story of many northern evangelical ministers calling for the political enfranchisement of black men on p.38 – 50.
 Blum p.131 – 132 notes, ‘Moody constructed biblical typologies that reflected and sanctified the northern impulse to retreat from radical Reconstruction and to forget the intense bitterness of the previous decade. Often while preaching in the North, he compared contemporary events in the United States with the biblical account of Noah and the flood. Moody argued that during the antediluvian period, God offered mankind an opportunity for mercy through Noah’s Ark. Most, however, rejected God’s benevolence and perished under the judgment of water. After God’s wrath subsided and Noah and his family left the Ark, peace and harmony swept over the world. Placing the current state of the nation within this framework, Moody expounded, ‘In 1857 there was the great revival, in which there was a tide of salvation that swept over this land and brought many people into the Church of God. Right after that came our terrible war, and we were baptized in blood. Now we are again living in a glorious day… Is not to-day a day of mercy and grace?’
A time of mercy and grace followed neither the flood nor the war. Moody’s theological and historical observations overlooked both the scathing curse Noah placed on his grandson Canaan – a story which had been used by countless white Americans to explain and justify slavery since African Americans were said to be descendants of Canaan, who had been cursed by Noah to be ‘a servant of servants… to his brethren’ – and the atrocities committed against black freedpeople and northern whites in the South. By interpreting both the decade of Reconstruction and the period after the biblical flood as eras of ‘good feeling,’ Moody displayed an historical amnesia that mirrored and theologically justified the northern impulse to step away from radical Reconstruction. Such forgetfulness glossed over the decade of horrible sectional and racial violence. He preached as if the countless letters from northern missionaries in the South, which detailed episodes of vigilante violence, had never been written. He lectured as if hundreds of African Americans and their white friends had not faced continual terror whenever they tried to vote, to attend schools, and to worship at church. In Moody’s ministry, desires for religious and national unity clearly trumped all other considerations, even biblical and historical accuracy.’
 Blum p.135 – 136
 Blum p.135 – 136; by the time Moody took a public stand against Jim Crow segregation in the mid-1890’s, it was too late. His popularity had declined. And another evangelist, Reverend Sam Jones, an avowed racist, had taken the national stage. See Blum, p.143 – 145.
 https://newhumanityinstitute.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/interpreting-jesus-and-atonement-practical-issue-9-is-god-an-asian-parent-what-language-of-motivation-does-god-use/; notice that Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, also connected the uncertainty in Calvinism about whether one was one of ‘the elect’ led to a desire to prove it through industry and success in one’s profession.
 Wilson Fallin Jr., Uplifting the People: Three Centuries of Black Baptists in Alabama (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007) p.52 – 53
 Blum, p.33 – 34
 Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p.50
 Ibid p.50
 Adam Clymer, ‘Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100,’ The New York Times, June 27, 2003
 Joseph Crespino, Strom Thurmond’s America (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2012), p.169
 David S. Broder, ‘Jesse Helms, White Racist,’ Washington Post, August 21, 2001; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/06/AR2008070602321.html
 Cash Michaels, ‘The racial legacy of Jesse Helms,’ The Louisiana Weekly, July 17, 2008
 Tom Wicker, ‘The Baptist Switch,’ The New York Times, June 22, 1982, p.27
 Judd Legum, ‘Will Jesse Helms Sink Ted Cruz’s Presidential Campaign,’ ThinkProgress, March 23, 2015; http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2015/03/23/3637387/ted-cruzs-jesse-helms-problem/
 Alexander, p.44; James Boyd, ‘Nixon’s Southern Strategy: ‘It’s All in the Charts’,’ New York Times, May 17, 1970; http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/phillips-southern.pdf says, ‘The Grand Old Party still lay buried under the debris of the latest Democratic landslide – 1964 – when a young, self-taught ethnologist named Kevin Phillips emerged from his charts and maps to avow to skeptical hearers that just around the corner was an inevitable cycle of Republican dominance that would begin in the late nineteen-sixties and prosper until the advent of the 21st century. To the pure of heart it all sounded spooky and a bit repugnant because it was premised on the alleged hostility of Irishmen, Italians and Poles, whose ethnic traits were conservative, toward Jews, Negroes and affluent Yankees, who history had made liberal. There were more of the former and they were ineluctably trending Republicans…Phillips had grown up in the Bronx. His observations of life had convinced him that all the talk about melting-pot America was buncombe. Most voters, he had found, still voted on the basis of ethnic or cultural enmities that could be graphed, predicted and exploited… Irish, Italian and Eastern European [communities now felt] resentment of the new immigrants – Negroes and Latinos – and against the national Democratic party, whose Great Society programs increasingly seemed to reflect favoritism for the new minorities over the old.’
 Alexander P. Lamis, Southern Politics in the 1990’s (Louisiana State University Press, 1999), p.7 – 8; Rick Perlstein, ‘Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,’ The Nation, November 13, 2012; http://www.thenation.com/article/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/. At least one person has tried to exonerate Atwater from tapping into race as the silent but guiding factor in Southern politics, such as John Hinderaker, ‘What Did Lee Atwater Really Say?’ Power Line Blog, June 9, 2013; http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2013/06/what-did-lee-atwater-really-say.php. But Atwater made a confession on his deathbed about campaigning for Bush against Dukakis.
 Randall Balmer, ‘Evangelicals’ Support of Trump Shouldn’t Come as a Surprise,’ Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2016; http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0303-balmer-trump-evangelicals-20160303-story.html; see also Stephen P. Miller, ‘The Evangelical Presidency: Reagan’s Dangerous Love Affair with the Christian Right,’ Salon, May 18, 2014; http://www.salon.com/2014/05/18/the_evangelical_presidency_reagans_dangerous_love_affair_with_the_christian_right/
 Mark Tooley, Ronald Reagan’s Legacy and the Religious Right, Patheos, February 10, 2014; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2014/02/10/ronald-reagans-legacy-the-religious-right/
 Randall Balmer, above
 Randall Balmer, ‘Shocked at Evangelicals’ Flocking to Trump? Blame It on Reagan,’ Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2015; http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-oe-balmer-evangelicals-politics-do-not-match-their-faith-20151005-story.html
 Brad Christerson, ‘Why Do Christians Like Trump? Evangelicals Flirt With Facism,’ University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture, February 29, 2016; https://crcc.usc.edu/why-do-christians-like-trump-evangelicals-flirt-with-fascism/
 H. Prejean, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 124.
 Sarah Posner, ‘Christians More Supportive of Torture Than Non-Religious Americans,’ Religion Dispatches, December 16, 2014; http://religiondispatches.org/christians-more-supportive-of-torture-than-non-religious-americans/; When asked about the controversial CIA waterboarding treatment of men suspected of being terrorists and detained at Guantanamo Bay, 69% of white evangelicals believe it was justified; only 20% said it was not; that compares to 59% of the general population believing it was justified.
 Pew Research Forum, The Religious Dimension of the Torture Debate, Pew Research Center, April 29, 2009; http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/29/the-religious-dimensions-of-the-torture-debate/
 Liberty University, School of Aeronautics; libertyuniversity.edu.
 Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), p.xvii – xviii. Vidu states up front that he is sympathetic to penal substitutionary atonement (p.xiii). Unfortunately, Vidu does not engage with Irenaeus and Athanasius (see footnote 6 on p.xvii), and reduces the patristic theory of atonement to the ‘ransom’ theory: Jesus ransomed us from the devil, or perhaps from death. He does not engage with what Jesus was doing to his very own humanity, in the ontological-medical theory. Sadly, Vidu does not seem to engage the full sweep of T.F. Torrance’s work on patristic theology, noting only one comment from Torrance on ‘propitiation’ on p.263. In his final chapter, he absolutizes ‘law’ as the essence of God from the standpoint of a carefully constructed doctrine of the simplicity (indissolubility) of God’s nature. ‘Condemnation of sin,’ too, Vidu reads as part of God’s simple essence, which he interprets as happening in the death of Christ. But if Vidu grounds both law, legal condemnation of sin, forensic satisfaction of retribution, and judicial mercy all in the simplicity of God, and none of these actions can be divided from the others, then none of these actions can be partial. The mercy must be the whole, undivided Godhead, as the retribution involves the whole, undivided God. This would lead Vidu logically into universalism. From a biblical perspective, the key question remains: Did the original Hebraic context teach any version of penal substitution? To which I would answer: No.
 Ibid ch.1
 Adonis Vidu, ‘Why I Wrote Atonement, Law, and Justice,’ Baker Academic Blog, http://blog.bakeracademic.com/adonis-vidu-why-i-wrote-atonement-law-and-justice/; see below
 See my paper Suffering and the Sovereignty of God’s Word, http://nagasawafamily.org/article-suffering-&-the-sovereignty-of-god’s-word.pdf
 E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Fortress Press, 1977) challenged the view that Judaism was a legalistic, doom and gloom religion by resurfacing key Jewish beliefs that they were already God’s chosen and elect people. This challenged the popular Protestant caricature of Judaism, which merely replayed the debate of Martin Luther and the medieval Catholic Church about ‘faith vs. works,’ projecting the debate onto Jesus and the Pharisees, and Paul and the Judaizers. See N.T. Wright, ‘New Perspectives on Paul,’ 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, August 25 – 28, 2003; http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm
 The New Testament used the phrase ‘the Law’ in varying ways: for ‘the entire Hebrew Scriptures’ (e.g. Jn.10:34; 12:34; 15:25), or ‘the Pentateuch’ as a body of literature equivalent to ‘the Law of Moses’ or simply ‘Moses’ (e.g. Lk.24:27, 44), ‘the Sinai covenant’ as a special relationship established between God and Israel as narrated within that body of literature (e.g. Lk.2:22, 27; 10:26; 16:16 – 17; Acts 15:5, described as ‘a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear’ in 15:10), particular ‘commandments’ associated with the Sinai covenant (e.g. 1 Cor.9:20), and ‘commandments’ associated with Jesus’ teaching (e.g. 1 Cor.9:21).
 N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan, Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.32
 There is a lively discussion between Reformed thinkers on whether Paul in Romans 7:7 – 25 is describing his pre-Christian or Christian experience. Evangelical theologians and pastors have gone both ways on this. Among the more well-known names for the pre-Christian view: David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famous British Bible expositor and preacher. Recently, Adrian Warnock, Preston Sprinkle, and Thomas Schreiner argued for that view as well. Sprinkle’s article is very readable and substantive, addresses objections, and points out inconsistencies in holding the other view. John Piper believes that this view is exegetically possible, but holds to the view that Paul was speaking of his Christian experience. See Preston Sprinkle, ‘A Response to John Piper on Romans 7,’ Patheos, October 7, 2014; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theologyintheraw/2014/10/a-response-to-john-piper-on-romans-7/; last accessed January 8, 2016. See also Thomas Schreiner, ‘Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience,’ The Gospel Coalition, Jan 13, 2016; http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/romans-7-does-not-describe-your-christian-experience; last accessed January 21, 2016
 Since this phrase is the subjective genitive (‘faith of Jesus Christ’) and not the objective genitive (‘faith in Jesus Christ’ – pisteos en Iesou Christou), KJV translates Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16, ‘by the faith of Jesus Christ.’ This stresses Jesus’ human life lived with absolute faithfulness to God under the scrutiny and pressure of the Mosaic Law, culminating, of course, in his voluntary death. See also T.F. Torrance, Incarnation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p.28 and Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1 – 4:11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).
 ‘Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat (Hilasterion),’ edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.281
 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.17.3