Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A false analogy for the atonement

I don't have to read much in any debate over the atonement before I find someone criticizing the Moral Exemplar view with a criticism which looks something like this:
“It’s a bit like a boy saying to a girl — 'Look how much I love you!' — and then jumping straight off a cliff. That’s an absurd way to view the cross.”

Sometimes it's "jumping in front of a truck", or "throwing himself off a wharf and drowning", but whatever the variant of the analogy, the point is always that the Moral Exemplar view of the atonement is essentially analogous to a pointless suicide.

Now I have read a lot of writings about the atonement, and it's safe to say that I have never ever read anyone who advocates the position that Jesus death was a random suicide done to demonstrate his love.

I was however intrigued to read Rashdall's, "The Idea of Atonement", 1917, written almost a century ago now, in which he advocates a Moral Exemplar view. In an appendix he comments that he has seen writers giving the analogy I mentioned above, and comments that a more appropriate analogy would be where the girl is dying (drowning in his example) and the boy, heedless of his own well-being but out of love for the girl, hurls himself into the water to rescue her and succeeds in doing so but ends up drowning himself. Someone who dies while rescuing another person is an appropriate analogy for the Moral Exemplar view. Someone who commits suicide is not an appropriate analogy. Now hopefully readers can discern a very big difference between a suicide attempt and a rescue attempt! I am left to wonder whether Penal Substitution advocates think a rescue attempt and a suicide attempt are the same thing.

Yet this false analogy has been in circulation for at least 100 years... along with a false description of the Moral Exemplar view that goes "Jesus died to prove his love for us". Yet Penal Substitution advocates often quote that false description side by side with their false suicide analogy which depicts Jesus dying a pointless death that doesn't demonstrate love at all. It's hardly fair to expect from them a perfect definition, but it does seem unreasonable for them to give a description and analogy which so clearly contradict each other.

I suppose at the end of the day, it simply shows that they don't have a clue what they are talking about. And that's the conclusion I keep coming to. The more I talk to people about the atonement, the more it is brought home to me that those who hold Penal Substitution tend to do so simply because they are ignorant of any alternatives. They assume all sorts of Bible verses teach Penal Substitution because "well, what else could they be meaning?" I take the view that when you only know of one possible way of interpreting a verse you are in no position to judge which of the many possible interpretations is the best one!


Blogger Norman said...

Hi Andrew,

At another blog you mentioned the following that intrigued me:

'However, a recent scholarly survey of ancient Greek literature revealed over one hundred occurrences of the phrase “X died for Y”. One hundred percent of the time it was found to have a meaning indicating some sort of martyrdom in a broad sense.'

What is your source? I would like to check it out.



Blogger Andrew said...

Jeffrey Gibson, 'Paul’s "Dying Formula"' in Celebrating Romans: Template For Pauline Theology, 2004.

Gibson's paper, presented at SBL 2002 Canada, is available online here:


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