Participatory atonement 3: Modern scholarship

The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the ‘penal substitution’ theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save. However, the interpretation of penal substitution came under sustained attack during the nineteenth century.[1] This continued throughout the twentieth century,[2] [3] with the result that the theory has lost considerable support among theologians over the last thirty years.

*  Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary[4]

*  New Bible Dictionary[5]

*  Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary[6] [7] [8]

*  Encyclopedia of Christianity[9]

Many liberal theologians have abandoned substitution,[10] but recently there is increasing recognition among even conservative theologians that the most the original Biblical teaching is best understood as participatory.[11] [12] [13]

Interest in historic alternatives to penal substitution has increased, and the interpretations of Abelard and the Socinians have received renewed attention. Support for participatory atonement is growing, especially in reaction to the violent nature of traditional penal substitution. [14]

It is increasingly understood that a change was required not in God, but in those who sinned against Him.[15] Likewise, the irrelevance of penal substitution to the life of the believer has been identified as a serious weakness in this theory.[16] [17] Scholarly support for participatory atonement is both widespread and increasing. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]


[1] ‘The character of the needed reform became more and more clear: Christian thought must be brought over from the point of view of law to that of the conscience, it must be raised from legality to morality. Those even who wished to adhere as far as possible to the tradition of the past, tried to find a new foundation for the doctrine of substitution in the moral fact of solidarity. They gave up justifying the expiatory condemnation of Christ on the plea that divine justice must be satisfied; they were content to insist upon the organic bond which united the Son of man with the whole race. This method of argumentation, the first sketch of which was given by Ch. Secretan, and which was powerfully developed by so many orators, among whom should be mentioned E. Bersier, Ed. de Pressense, and Ch. Bois, has the advantage of being modem; but it remains to be seen whether, from a logical point of view, the argument does not ruin the ancient edifice it was destined to support.’, Sabatier, ‘The Doctrine of the Atonement: And Its Historical Evolution and Religion; and, Religion and Modern Culture ‘, pp. 92-93 (1904).

[2]But new challenges to the position arose in the modern period and were accepted by more and more churches. Able apologists for the penal substitutionary view also defended and developed that position against these new theories.’, Allison, ‘History of the Doctrine of the Atonement’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology ( 11.2.15), 2007).

[3] ‘On much the same basis articulated by Abelard, nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Protestant liberals advocated a version of moral influence theory over against the satisfaction theory of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. A primary example is Horace Bushnell’s use of satisfaction terminology to argue for a moral influence theory of atonement.’, Weaver, ‘The Nonviolent Atonement’, p. 19 (2001).

[4] ‘While Paul stresses the centrality of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice, the Synoptic Gospels note that Christ claimed to give his life as a “ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28 par. Mark 10:45; see Exod. 21:30). All three Evangelists record Christ’s sincere mention of his eternal sacrifice when at the breaking of the bread he referred to his own body during the Last Supper (“this is my body”; Matt. 26:26–27 par. Mark 14:22–23; Luke 22:19–20). On the other hand, the New Testament leaves no doubt that atonement is accomplished through the believer’s participation with the Lord in his death rather than merely by Christ’s death on the cross (Rom. 6:2, 6, 8; cf. Gal. 2:19–20).’, ‘Atone, Atonement’, in Myers (ed.), ‘Eerdmans Bible Dictionary’, p. 106 (1987).

[5] ‘It is agreed by most students that Christ’s death was vicarious. If in one sense he died ‘for sin’, in another he died ‘for us’. But ‘vicarious’ is a term which may mean much or little. It is better to be more precise. Most scholars today accept the view that the death of Christ is representative. That is to say, it is not that Christ died and somehow the benefits of that death become available to men (did not even Anselm ask to whom more fittingly than to us could they be assigned?). It is rather that he died specifically for us. He was our representative as he hung on the cross. This is expressed succinctly in 2 Cor. 5:14, ‘one died for all; therefore all have died’. The death of the Representative counts as the death of those he represents. When Christ is spoken of as our ‘advocate with the Father’ (1 Jn. 2:1) there is the plain thought of representation, and as the passage immediately goes on to deal with his death for sin it is relevant to our purpose. The Epistle to the Hebrews has as one of its major themes that of Christ as our great High Priest. The thought is repeated over and over. Now whatever else may be said about a High Priest, he represents men. The thought of representation may thus be said to be very strong in this Epistle. d. Substitution taught in the New Testament But can we say more? There is a marked disinclination among many modern scholars (though not by any means all) to use the older language of substitution. Nevertheless, this seems to be the teaching of the NT, and that not in one or two places only, but throughout.’, Morris, ‘Atonement’, in Wood & Marshall (eds.), ‘New Bible Dictionary’, p. 103 (3rd ed. 1996).

[6]The idea of appeasing an angry god by sacrifice is certainly present in some non-Jewish ideas of sacrifice. Much hinges on the translation of the word hilaskesthai (and cognates) in the NT, and the equivalent OT words (usually kpr). In non-Jewish Gk, the word clearly carries ideas of propitiation. However, in a classic essay Dodd (1935: 82–95) argued that Jewish and Christian usage differs from that decisively.’, Tuckett, ‘Atonement in the NT’, in Freedman (ed.), ‘Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary’, volume 1, p. 519 (1996).

[7]Thus it is unlikely that the sacrificial system was ever conceived of in such a substitutionary sense. Substitutionary ideas have been thought to lie behind much of Paul’s language, though many would argue that “representation” rather than “substitution” does far more justice to Paul’s thought.’ , ibid., p. 519.

[8] ‘Similarly Paul’s language of Jesus “redeeming” those under the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13; 4:5) can only with difficulty support the view that Jesus’ death is being interpreted as a ransom price paid in a substitutionary sense. Far more important for Paul here seems to be the representative nature of Jesus’ death (see Hooker 1971).’, ibid., p. 521.

[9] ‘Atonement is a central concept in biblical theology. Along with the traditional misunderstanding of appeasing an angry deity, the penal definition of making good an offense and the viewing of the cultus as a human work have impeded a more relevant approach., Janowski, ‘Atonement: OT and Judaism’, in Fahlbusch & Bromiley (eds.), ‘Encyclopedia of Christianity’, volume 1, p. 152 (1999-2003).

[10] ‘In the wake of Socinian attacks, Protestant liberalism and Catholic modernism rejected objective theories, especially penal substitution. The “heretical” anthropology of R. Girard has reinforced the trend. Radical feminists have expressed the strongest possible aversion.’, Blocher, ‘Atonement’, in Vanhoozer et al. (eds.), ‘Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible’, p. 73 (2005).

[11] ‘In the Roman Church, after the critique by Sabourin and Lyonnet and under the climate created by Teilhard de Chardin and Rahner, few scholars of note, if any, have maintained it.’, ibid., p. 73.

[12] ‘Sanders goes so far as to argue that “the purpose of Christ’s death [for Paul is] that Christians may participate in it, not that their sins may be atoned for.”.’, Finlan, ‘The background and content of Paul’s cultic atonement metaphors’, p. 117 (2004).

[13]Sanders combines the participationist passages with those that mention “dying to the law” and argues that it is not so much atonement, as it is “sharing in christ’s death” that brings salvation.’, ibid., p, 117.

[14] ‘According to Anthony Bartlett, the New Testament has no place for wrath and its propitiation. Thus the atonement can only be “saved” if it is stripped of its “violent” implications.’, Horton, ‘Lord and servant: a covenant Christology’, p. 184 (2005).

[15] ‘Thus in this view, the work of the cross affects a change in us, rather than in God. Horace Bushnell revived this view of the atonement in the nineteenth century. He regarded sin as a type of sickness from which we must be healed.’, Kuhns, ‘Atonement and Violence’, Quodlibet Journal (5.4), October 2003.

[16] ‘First, this theory emphasizes Christ’s death as a sacrifice of propitiation that turns away God’s wrath, almost to neglect of any immediate consequence of Christ’s death for the daily life of the believer.’, ibid.

[17] ‘If some of the other theories are weak in not showing why Jesus had to die, this theory, as it is sometimes expounded, fails to adequately show why Jesus spent so much time teaching and calling people to follow him.’, ibid.

[18] ‘The central thesis of this lecture now comes into view. I contend that the work of the cross is not completed until we participate in it.’, Marshall, ‘On A Hill Too Far Away?: Reclaiming The Cross as the Critical Interpretive Principle of the Christian Life’, Review and Expositor (91.2.251), 1994.

[19] ‘Reno says that, in this account, Milbank accords the activity of “interpretive creativity” an indispensable role in the act of atonement itself, which thereby gives rise to the idea of “participatory atonement.”‘, Hyman, ‘The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy or Nihilist Textualism?’, p. 87 (2001).

[20]Participation is a constant theme with Paul. The believer must offer up his whole self as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1; 6:13)…’, Finlan, ‘The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors’, p. 118 (2004).

[21]But Paul’s teaching is not that Christ dies “in the place of” others so that they escape death (as the logic of “substitution” implies).86 It is rather that Christ’s sharing their death makes it possible for them to share his death.“Representation” is not an adequate single-word description, nor particularly “participation” or “participatory event”. But at least they help convey the sense of a continuing identification with Christ in, through, and beyond his death, which, as we shall see, is fundamental to Paul’s soteriology.’ , Dunn, ‘The Theology of Paul the Apostle’, p. 223 (2006).

[22] ‘…emphasis upon the practice of accepting forgiveness and extending it to one another, a participatory atonement if you will.’, Steere, ‘Rediscovering Confession: A Constructive Practice of Forgiveness’ p. 227 (2009).

[23] ‘Participatory atonement: we become reconciled to God by participating in Jesus’ path of death and resurrection‘ , Borg, ‘Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark’, p. 81 (2009).

[24]In a participatory model, but contrast, God does it all and we are fully included in the doing of God. And not as puppets are we fully included, but as creatures created by the Creator God to be creative. It is we who contribute something, we who are artists participating in the artistry of God.’, Rigby, ‘”Beautiful Playing”: Motlmann, Barth, and the Work of the Christian’, in McCormack & Bender (eds.),  ‘Theology as Conversation: The Significance of Dialogue in Historical and Contemporary Theology: A Festschrift for Daniel L. Migliore’, p. 114 (2009).

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