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About the Author
Simon Gathercole (PhD, University of Durham) is senior lecturer in New Testament studies in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge and Fellow and director of studies in theology at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. A leading British New Testament scholar, he has written hundreds of articles and several groundbreaking volumes, including The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and The Gospel of Judas: Rewriting Early Christianity.
In this short book, Simon Gathercole argues for the validity of substitution as an aspect of the atonement in Paul’s theology of Christ’s death. He looks at major passages of Paul as well as the classical background.
Table of Contents
1. Exegetical Challenges to Substitution
2. “Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3)
Excursus: An Objection – Why, Then, Do Christians Still Die?
3. The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8)
In thinking through the theology of atonement in the Bible, one is struck by the diversity of opinion on something seemingly so basic to understanding the gospel message. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” goes the old spiritual. Were you? The answer is contested by New Testament scholars.
On the one hand, there is the Pauline line of thought which sees Christ’s death as representation: he died in our place with us. This is not unlike a representative in parliament representing her constituency. She is a part of the group which she represents. Believers participate on the cross in this way according to Romans 6:8: “We have died with Christ.” The representation view, where we are joined with Christ in some sense, has become an axiom of biblical scholars, and we have no quibble that this plays a role in the biblical account.
The difficulty comes when many deny any notion of replacement. This is the view considered here, substitution, whereby Christ dies in our place, instead of us. In the words of John 18:8-9, where Jesus insists that the disciples do not accompany him, we are not there with Christ at the cross. Martin Luther, Robert Letham, and Karl Barth can all be cited as advocating a view of substitution as proper for understanding the atonement.
There are many complications in the debate over substitution and we highlight a few here in preface to the main arguments. First, substitution need not be penal substitution, that is, involving punishment. Penal substitution may be a right view, but here we simply consider substitution itself. For instance, the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 was an instance of expiatory substitution: the people’s sins were taken away – not punished, per se – after being placed on the head of the goat. Similarly propitiation, often bound up with substitution, does not necessarily go along with the idea. While the scapegoat eliminates the contamination of sin in expiation, it is not directly a form of propitiation.
What appears from these brief thoughts, then, is that substitution is quite a broad category (it is even a part of soccer matches): we cannot limit its application simply by giving regard to arguments surrounding punishment or propitiation or the famous “legal fiction” criticism or even the “cosmic child abuse” objection. We must judge impartially, based on the exegetical evidence, what role if any substitution has in the New Testament, particularly in Paul. When God reconciled the world to himself, did Christ die, in any sense, instead of us? We argue that substitution plays an important role, not to the exclusion of any other view, in understanding the atonement.
Exegetical Challenges to Substitution
First we look at the more extensive cases made against substitution.
The Tübingen Understanding of Representative “Place-Taking”
This first view is little known outside of Germany, but it orients an understanding of atonement around the sacrifices of Leviticus 4, 5, and 16 in connection with Paul’s statements about Christ’s death. Hartmut Gese, the theory’s architect, along with his school, see a special kind of identification, and not substitution, as the means through which atonement takes place. The plight which atonement addresses is that of Israel’s forfeited life–Israel, as well as the Israelite, must be willing to die, at least symbolically. In the Old Testament system, the priest offers a sin offering, the bull, for himself and his household, and then a goat is sacrificed for the rest of the nation.
The necessary components are the laying on of hands – where the priest does not transfer sins, but rather identifies with the animal – and a blood ritual. In between these two is the death of the animal whereby the people symbolically pass through death thus forfeiting their own lives. Again, this is a process of identifying with the goat and going through death, not switching places with the goat. Thus in the blood ritual, where the blood of the animal they have identified with enters the Holy of Holies, the people are connected to and reconciled with God.
Otfried Hofius has applied this “inclusive place-taking” to the New Testament as well. In Christ the sinner comes to God by passing through the judgment of death with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). He is freed from sin and death and so enters resurrection and new creation.
While there is much to admire here, not least the sober reflection on dealing with God’s judgment rather than retreating to the merely therapeutic, there are problems. First, laying hands on the goat seems to play a bigger role for the Tübingen approach than it does in Leviticus. Second, the scapegoat seems unavoidably substitutionary, yet Gese sees no ambiguity in judging against the view. Finally, with its emphasis on sin as such, the Tübingen school downplays the personal sins of individuals.
Interchange in Christ
Next we come to the view of Morna Hooker and others where the atonement is viewed as an interchange: Christ comes to where his people are and takes them from there to salvation. She sees Paul arguing for interchange as he actually argues against substitution. 2 Corinthians 8:9 and 5:21 are key examples. Christ becomes poor in order to bring us up to his richness. In other words, he takes on our human condition to raise us up to his condition in a sharing and interchange of experience.
As much as Hooker gets right here, it is doubtful that we can actually pinpoint Paul’s specific concern with regard to the Corinthians’ misunderstanding, much less link it to a view of substitution. They misunderstood the cross, but getting more specific proves difficult. Another difficulty is what Hooker’s view does with death. Surely Paul accords the cross and death of Christ higher importance than Hooker’s theory does.
The Omission or Downplaying of “Sins”
In all these views, as well as the view of the atonement as an “apocalyptic deliverance” from the evil forces of the world, we see a certain downplaying of individual transgressions. In Gese’s account, personal sin is overshadowed by the Old Testament cult for instance. There are a few reasons why scholars marginalize this element in atonement.
For one, it is claimed that sins in the plural is infrequent in Paul. But this fails on several counts according to J. D. G. Dunn. While “sin” is personified in Romans, outside of the book there are numerous references to individual sins, both in the plural and in the singular. Over forty instances could be cited. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul sums up a pre-Pauline formula which he “received” and which he regarded as “of first importance.” This gospel message is “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them.”
“It is a feature of representative understandings of the atonement that they are more corporate in nature.” This has its benefits when doing justice to the corporate language in the New Testament. It fails, however, when it comes to dealing with individual human sins. And this, in turn, is a byproduct of methodology. Each of the theories tries to take a dominant or all-encompassing view of the atonement. More flexibility is needed to do justice to Paul. Dunn has remarked that to account for the cross, we need to include “representation, sacrifice, curse, redemption, reconciliation, conquest of the powers.” We would add substitution to that list.
“Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3)
Here we begin the main task of showing, not that the views in chapter one or other representational views are wrong, but rather that they are mistaken in denying substitution. Continuing on from the material above, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 draws attention to the way God deals with discrete infractions of the divine will. Indeed, Paul treats dealing with sins as a central component of his most basic message, the gospel. Here we will examine Paul’s theology of the atonement through the lens of the words “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
The Importance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
However we may conceive of scholarly construals of the”center” of Paul’s theology, it is crucial to notice Paul’s own statement in these verses concerning what was primary in his preaching. “The death of Christ for our sins” is a topical way to express the heart of the gospel message according to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
“According to the Scriptures”
Moving forward in the investigation, what are we to make of the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection on the third day took place in connection to the Old Testament? Is this a reference to the sin, exile, return pattern of Israel’s life? Maybe it refers to Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2 or to Hosea 6. A more likely candidate for the direct context here is Isaiah 53.
As a chart using the Greek text makes clear, Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 15 as well as related passages in Romans 4 and Galatians 1 has a great deal of correspondence with Isaiah 53. Verbal parallels related to bearing sin, being wounded for iniquities, dying for sins, being handed over for others, etc. provide the background of Isaiah’s suffering servant for Paul’s substitute savior.
Substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3
This leads us to the next point. We should see a clear “exclusive substitution” in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53: the pronouns show the people looking back on an individual suffering alone on their behalf. “We” are somehow responsible for his suffering and death as he is “cut off from the land of the living” (53:8).
This text provides a curious but clear qualification to the Old Testament assumption that all people die because all people sin. Jeremiah 31:30 puts individual responsibility for each one’s own sins front and center. And yet, as something of an aberration, Isaiah sees the suffering servant standing in the place of others. 1 Corinthians 15 uses this very idea, then, as Christ deals with sins not his own. This is the reversal and miracle of the gospel.
A key piece of linguistic evidence as well appears in 1 Corinthians 15:3 where Christ dies huper (for) our sins. 1 Kings 16:18-19 (LXX) has an exact verbal parallel of the phrase: “Zimri died for his sins, which he had committed.” To state the conclusions formally, then, “Christ dies both in consequence of the transgressions of others in in order to deal with those infractions of the divine will.”
An Objection – Why, Then, Do Christians Still Die?
But if Christ has died in the place of his people, an obvious objection arises: why do believers then go on to die?
“The short answer is this: Paul does not simply think that believers go on subsequently to die!” To elaborate, there is a disparity between Christ’s death on the cross and the death that Christians experience at the end of their lives. Notice how Paul refers to Christian death as “falling asleep” or “departing to be with Christ” (five times in 1 Corinthians and Philippians 1:23 respectively). There is a basic continuation implied here.
Christians die a certain kind of death, but they do not go on to “perish” (Romans 8:13) in Paul’s theology. They also die “metaphorically” to sin, a death which Christ does not experience in the same way. In sum then, Christians do not die the death that Christ died (perishing) since they have already experienced that death with him.
The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8)
Finally we look to Paul’s own context to see what light can be shed on the atonement theology in Romans 5.
We notice first in Romans 5:6-8 that the emphasis shifts: in 1 Corinthians 15 Christ was dying for sins; here Christ is dying for people. What is more, Paul links this person-for-person death with the rare human examples of deaths for good or righteous individuals. In other words, notable heroic deaths on behalf of others are contrasted with Christ’s death for the unrighteous.
A Sketch of the Exegesis
First, the idea is not about dying for one’s country or some comparably noble ideal; the death in view in 5:7 is for another person. Nor is this X-for-Y death idea likely Jewish in origin since, as we have seen, the main thrust of the Old Testament does not favor death in another’s place. With that in mind, and with some familiarity with the classical world, it is easy to see that Greco-Roman heroic deaths, real or literary, are likely in view.
Vicarious Deaths in Classical Tradition
We turn then to a thumbnail sketch of some relevant background. H. S. Versnel has helpfully collected the evidence and categorized heroic deaths. One category, “vicarious death,” is particularly useful here.
Alcestis’ death in Euripides’ play of the same name is the most important example. Alcestis begins with Apollo calling for someone to die for King Admetus whose immanent death will thus be forestalled. Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, is the only one willing to die for him, though she and everyone else make it clear that it is not necessary for any one individual to die for him. Admetus displays his heroic temperament in his devotion to his dead wife (to the point of lifelong chastity) and his hospitality.
A lot changed in the 500 years between Euripides and Paul, but the literary afterlife of the 438 BCE work was quite strong. Plato’s Symposium refers to Alcestis’ love as even better than Orpheus’ love. Orpheus was unwilling to reunite with his wife by dying: he did not “dare” to die out of love. Plutarch echoes this language saying that Alcestis “dared” even to die for her husband. Various ancient heroines, including some in Paul’s life, are compared to Alcestis for their love and devotion in dying for noble husbands. Commenting on the rarity of substitutionary death was part of the common culture even appearing in Musonius Rufus, a philosopher contemporary with Paul.
The common ground in the comparison, of course, is the death of one person for another. Paul shares much of the same language with his classical counterparts. In the Roman context, this vicarious death would have been a clear sign of the recipient’s piety. And yet Paul’s conception departs as he connects Jesus’ death with the impious. For the comparison to make sense, however, we must see a substitutionary component to the death of Jesus.
In summary, then, we have seen numerous lines of thought which support the conception that Jesus’ atonement must be understood to some degree in substitutionary terms. We must get away from the either/or that forces a hard choice on the issue.
Just as Colossians 2:13-15 juxtaposes forgiveness of sins with Christ’s stipping of the principalities and powers, so the Heidelberg Catechism roots the Christian’s comfort in “dealing with sins and effecting liberation from Sin.” “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder!”
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