15 April 2006

Reductionism? Hardly.

Posted by Phil Johnson

Another item in the atonement debate, plus...
Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive.

The following excerpt is from "The True Tabernacle, and Its Glory of Grace and Peace," a sermon delivered on Sunday morning, September 27th, 1885.

Notice that Spurgeon emphatically affirms several aspects of the believer's relationship with Christ. He stresses that Christ is both our substitute and our representative—and also that we are spiritually in union with Christ. Several dimensions of all those truths are expressly affirmed and celebrated.

Spurgeon thereby illustrates why (contrary to some ideas that are popular today) there is no need to think in terms of "stress[ing] union with Christ rather than" substitution, representation, imputation, or any of the other aspects of what it means to have Christ as our Savior. Spurgeon accentuates them all and makes it clear that they complement each other perfectly.

Substitution, Representation, Union
How we benefit from Christ's death and Resurrection

When it came to His death, which was the pouring out of His soul, then His fullness of grace was seen. He was full of grace indeed, forasmuch as He emptied Himself to save men. He was Himself not only man's Saviour, but his salvation. He gave Himself for us (Titus 2:14; Galatians 1:4; 2:20).

He was indeed full of grace when He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. His was love at its height, since He died on the cross, "the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).

Pronounce the word substitution, and you cannot help feeling that the Substitute for guilty man was full of grace; or use that other word, representative, and remember that whatever Jesus did, He did as the covenant Head of His people. If He died, they died in Him; if He rose again, they rose in Him; if He ascended up on high, they ascended in Him; and if He sits at the right hand of God, they also sit in the heavenly places in Him. When He shall come a second time it shall be to claim the kingdom for His chosen as well as for Himself; and all the glory of the future ages is for them, and not for Himself alone.

He saith, "Because I live, ye shall live also." Oh, the richness of the grace and truth that dwell in our Lord as the representative of His people! He will enjoy nothing unless His people enjoy it with Him. "Where I am, there also shall my servant be." "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in Thy throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne."

There is yet another word higher than substitution, higher than representation, and that is union.

We are one with Christ, joined to Him by a union that never can be broken. Not only does He do what He does representing us, but we are joined unto Him in one spirit, members of His body, and partakers of His glory. Is it not a miracle of love that worms of earth should ever be one with incarnate Deity, and so one that they never can be separated throughout the ages?
C. H. Spurgeon

What does this have to do with the atonement debate?

A similar principle holds true with regard to all the various truths that are germane to the atonement. We affirm the truth of Christus victor (Christ's triumph over the forces of hell); we recognize that a ransom was paid; we acknowledge that there is a moral example to be followed in Christ's death; we agree that Christ's death satisfied public justice and the moral government of God; we say amen to the truth that the cross was a satisfaction of God's offended honor and glory.

There are important elements of truth in all those "theories" of the atonement.

But we also insist that Christ "was wounded for our transgressions"; that "it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief"; that His death represented the suffering of "the just for the unjust"; that He was made "sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him"—and at least a dozen or more other biblical statements that expressly declare that His dying was punishment for our sins in our place: penal substitution.

All those pieces (and undoubtedly more) are necessary to give us a full picture of what Christ's atonement accomplished.

But the penal and substitutionary aspects of what happened at the cross are so essential to the message of Christ that if you deny this aspect of the atonement, you have gutted the gospel. You remove so many pieces that the picture will be practically unrecognizable.

Once more: that's not a denial that there are other legitimate (and vitally important) aspects of the atonement that may be unrelated to the idea of penal substitution. It may well be that some of them are even essential. (For example, if someone denied that the cross represents Christ's victory over all the powers of evil, depending on why and what that person meant, such a denial might very well constitute a de facto denial Christianity itself.)

The thing is, no one is aggressively denying the other aspects of the atonement while demanding recognition as an evangelical. On the contrary, it seems that just about everyone who wants to tamper with the historic Protestant understanding of the cross is making penal substitution the target.

Those who defend that doctrine are not "reductionists." Such a label actually fits better on critics who suggest that the cross would be more appealing if we could only eliminate the unpleasantries of punishment, justice, and divine wrath.

Phil's signature


Broken Messenger said...

Amen. Good stuff, Phil, and very appropriate for the season.


Martin Downes said...

Very helpful post.

IMHO it is grossly unfair to label those who hold to penal substitution as reductionists. The criticism seems to depend highly on rhetoric. Besides which the God-ward nature of penal substitution is surely more central than its reference to the kingdom of darkness or our moral transformation (unless of course you redefine/deny/downplay God's personal wrath)

I wonder whether affirming the truth of penal substitution is the reason for being slandered in this way.

I have yet to hear a clear, intelligible and biblical, explanation of Christus Victor that does not depend on penal substitution.

Mike Y said...

Thanks for this Phil, along with Spurgeon's message. I think this is, again, a helpful reminder of how severe our condemnation and subsequent regeneration are.

I'm a little perplexed at the reductionist name calling, however. It doesn't seem to fit by the very nature of its definition. Instead, I liken the stand and defense to the charge given in 2Tim 4:2-5.

I think the important thing to remember is that there have always been and will continue to be those who will seek to change God's truths. Some are more bold than others. At the end of the day, though I would desire all who name Christ as savior to hold the same view on such doctrines, I must be concerned for my stand and for my understanding first and foremost (1Tim 4:16).

I appreciate the helpfulness and thoughtfulness of this posting. I am also very thankful for our union in Christ, which nothing can separate us from. How glorious is that?

Take care,


donsands said...

This hymn came to mind as a read the last sentence of Spurgeon's message:

"Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sov'reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head,
For such a worm as I?

Great attending words Phil. Something I can grab and hold.
Thanks. Have a blessed Easter.

BTW, at church today I spoke with a brother who had just lost his mom, and she was a believer. I said I was sorry, and he was kind to accept my condolence.
I then said, "George, I envy your mom, I really do." He smiled and said I know what you mean.
He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Scot McKnight said...

Thanks for this, and I would say apart from the manner of expression in a line here or there, I'd agree with everything you say. Please hear that.

Monday and Tuesday I'll post two more on this topic.

My point is not that penal subst is wrong; I don't think I've ever said that. I don't think it is accurate to reduce our evangelical theory of atonement to the exrpession "penal substitution" theory. I'll post on this on Tuesday.

On reductionism ... you've got a good point, and I wish more would hear it. I don't think anyone is intentionally reducing. Most of our theology is not wrong intentionally but passively neglectful. Here's what I would say: by calling the evangelilcal theory "penal subst" (do you disagree that it is often called that?), there is an imbalance in categories.

But would you also not agree that some of the other theories (apart from Anselm's satisfactio) are often missed and not allowed a fair day at the table, with the result that their presence would inform how we define gospel and how we evangelize?

Joe said...

I trust you've all had a blessed Resurrection Sunday!

Phil Johnson said...


Thanks for your comments. You wrote:

"I don't think it is accurate to reduce our evangelical theory of atonement to the exrpession 'penal substitution' theory."

You are still portraying the evangelical insistence on penal substitution as "reductionism." Dever clearly acknowledged that penal substitution does not exhaust the meaning of the atonement. So did I. I don't know of anyone who would say otherwise.

What we are saying is 1) that the idea that Christ bore the punishment for our sin is vital to a correct understanding of the atonement; and 2) that "penal substitution" is historically one of the core distinctives of evangelicalism—so that those who eliminate this concept from their doctrine of the atonement have embraced a soteriology that is not technically or historically "evangelical."

But to answer your actual question: As far as the precise terminology "penal substitution theory" is concerned, I wouldn't even employ that expression, except in a discussion such as this. Even then, I have used it sparingly and with lots of qualifiers and careful definitions. Given the fact that I have repeatedly stressed that the name is being used as shorthand for a comprehensive view and not as a denial of other aspects of the atonement, I really don't think your complaint holds any water.

I've never heard anyone use that expression in gospel preaching (or even in normal conversation) as if it were a sufficient description of the gospel message.

"would you also not agree that some of the other theories (apart from Anselm's satisfactio) are often missed and not allowed a fair day at the table, with the result that their presence would inform how we define gospel and how we evangelize?"

Well, no. That was my main point in the closing section of this article.

Your claim seems to be that since evangelicals have historically placed a lot of stress on penal substitution, that stands as de facto proof that they have "reduced" the atonement to this.

That's not even historically accurate. Penal substitution was never proposed as a replacement for the Anselmic view; it was an elucidation and enlargement of Anselm (including aspects Anselm himself borrowed from earlier views of the atonement). The progress of doctrinal development that led from the earliest "ransom" language to penal substitution was the exact opposite of "reduction."

If I remember correctly, Warfield offers convincing documentation for this in his famous book on the atonement.

Your stance on this issue makes me wonder what you would say to the apostle Paul in light his summary of his ambassadorial message in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21. He seems to commit the very "fallacy" you are so concerned about.

Likewise, his repeated statements about preaching only Christ and him crucified; glorying only in the cross; etc. would all be "reductionistic" by your standard. So I reject your argument on biblical grounds.

I also think your concern is more one-sided than you acknowledge and horribly misdirected in any case. To reiterate one major aspect of my argument that you ignored (but I hope your book will give attention to): History would seem to be clearly on mine and Mark Dever's side here. There is a direct line of relationship between the arguments employed by Abelard, the Socinians, the modernists, and now some of the post-evangelicals. And the spiritual legacy of those who have employed these arguments against penal substitution has never been growth and revival, but always the opposite.

ScottyB said...

great post & I've been waiting for the dialog with Scot McKnight-
I was gonna post but I held my post until I saw the two of you actually engage-
it is helpful-your points are precise. I do appreciate the evident humility in the two above posts from the both of you.

--I have learned that Scot is good brother on the left(I think of this comment from JT as a reminder-
--I think he has some good things to say to us- simply because I believe that he is a brother and as a brother has the the Holy Spirit indwelling him.
(we Do need to enlarge our applications of the Cross in our evangelism BUT the good of the Gospel for sinners is that part of the Gospel that actually gives the sinner the right to be called Sons of God-that part which gives us actual access to Holy of Holies-in a sense I feel weird talking about which application of the cross is most important because all applications of the cross are important but it seems that the justice of God and mercy of God actually met in the penal substitution)

I think that your response above is regretfully accurate-it seems that there is a deephasis on the severity of God(Rom 11:22) with all this reductionism talk.

I just noticed this message on Tony Capocia's site when I did a google search for the above Romans 11:22 reference-
Dr.M's point on Fosdick is telling

& Additionally I still remember a good message given in the evening service at Grace from Will Varner "Is The God of OT the same as the God of the NT" reminding us all of Jesus covered in the blood of his enemies in the Revelation)

Libbie said...

Yes! Thankyou! I've been banging my head against the keyboard trying to explain this to Steve Chalke's supporters before now.

If you defend the doctrine of penal substitution, it's not because you believe it's the only element of the cross, but because it's the only element that's being attacked. I've just blogged on a related topic before I came over here, and I feel so much better now.

Gordon Cloud said...

If Jesus did not die as a substitute for sinful man, then why did He have to die at all? Doesn't this assault the sovereignty of God?

AndyB said...

I have just recently started reading the blogs of this great site that is linked through my brother and shepherd Sean K. Higgins blog, and I have found great joy in wrestling with great truths of theology and our Perfect Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you all for fighting for the truth as Jude commands us to do.
As for the the discussion of the atonement, I was greatly reminded by my faithful pastor John Zimmer of Grace Bible Church in Marysville, that Christ's death would be vain and empty without the resurrection of the dead. He sought, as Peter did, to remind of truths of the resurrection of the dead and especially Christ from 1Cor. 15:12-18. Praise God for Zimmer's faithfulness to preach the Word in season and out of season. And most importantly thank our Almighty Father for His Word that reminds us that Christ died for our sins, but he rose as conquering victor over death and sin, the death we all deserved and the sins of those the Father has soveriegnly elected. Praise God for the hope of eternal life and glory with Christ.
Thank you for devotion to the glory of God alone and the passionate pursuit of truth and righteousness.
And Phil thank you for agree to from the great and expansive chasm of your knowledge of Spurgeon at our ONE28 2007 Snow Retreat.

Andy Bowers, Marysville, WA