Penal substitutionary atonement, also called penal satisfaction atonement, has its theological roots in Anselm’s theory of satisfaction. That is, the atonement involved restoring God’s honor through a sacrifice of satisfaction. Over the years the concept morphed (primarily in the reductionism of the post-Reformation and emerging-modern era) so that it was God’s wrath which was apparently satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross.
Baker and Green contend that the biblical case for the modern idea of penal satisfaction is an unnatural twisting of the biblical narrative. And indeed, it will be less than satisfying (pun intended) in a postmodern context.
The authors analyze the relationship between the sacrificial language in both the Old and New Testaments and the idea of divine wrath. In a nutshell they argue that the problem with penal substitutionary atonement lies in the modern way that the dots are connected between the biblical motifs of wrath, justification, and substitution.
The exegetical survey is thorough enough and highlights the complex and sophisticated nature of the atonement song being sung in scripture. When necessary there are footnotes but the book is not overly technical.
The impression with which we are left is that the death of Jesus is a historical event of such profundity that we can only do it violence by narrowing its meaning to one interpretation or by privileging one interpretation over all others.” (p. 111)Furthermore,
“Within the pages of the New Testament, the saving significance of the death of Jesus is represented chiefly (though not exclusively) via five constellations of images. These are each borrowed from significant spheres of public life in ancient Palestine and the larger Greco-Roman world: the court of law (e.g. justification), commercial dealings (e.g. redemption), personal relationships (whether among individuals or groups -- e.g. reconciliation), worship (e.g. sacrifice) and the battleground (e.g. triumph over evil.)” (p. 125)In this second edition more attention is given to the current postmodern approaches, in particular Kevin Vanhoozer’s attempt to craft an atonement explanation that is more sensitive to the concepts of covenant and commitment.
This new edition, in keeping with the emphasis on narrative communication, even includes a few pages on the substitutionary sacrifice in the Chronicles of Narinia.
I do appreciate Baker and Green’s attempts to include some non-Western thinkers in their overview. I have required my undergrad theology students, who primarily come from shame-based cultures, to read the chapter on atonement as the removal of shame in the Japanese context. And that chapter remains in the new edition.
I’m sure that some people are going to take issue with this book -- although Baker and Green are even clearer than in the last edition about their affirmation of substitutionary atonement. The problem is that for many who were raised on the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, that view IS substitutionary atonement. Perhaps, though, this will open up some new neural pathways.
My own thinking doesn’t really include a rigidly penal understanding of the atonement. After all, my background is in the Lutheran Pietism of the Evangelical Covenant Church, which was strongly influenced by the thinking of Swedish theologian P.P. Waldenström, in the late 19th century. He didn’t have much room for the wrath of God in his understanding of the atonement, either. Perhaps ole P.P. will get a tip of the hat in the third edition.
And while I'm writing out my wishlist, perhaps IVP will consider releasing a Kindle edition.