A reader contacted me by email, and asked my opinion of Richard Rohr. Specifically, she copied a blog post he had written about Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory and his criticism of it. As a change of pace, I thought to post the exchange.
This is from Richard Rohr - thought you may find it interesting.
(the following, a blogpost by Richard Rohr. After that, my reply).
For most of church history, no single consensus prevailed on what Christians mean when we say, “Jesus died for our sins.” But in recent centuries, one theory did become mainstream. It is often referred to as the “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” especially once it was further developed during the Reformation.  Substitutionary atonement is the theory that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of humans, thus satisfying the “demands of justice” so that God could forgive our sins.
This theory of atonement ultimately relies on another commonly accepted notion—the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, which, we were told, taints all human beings. But much like original sin (a concept not found in the Bible but developed by Augustine in the fifth century), most Christians have never been told how recent and regional this explanation is or that it relies upon a retributive notion of justice. Nor are they told that it was honest enough to call itself a “theory,” even though some groups take it as long-standing dogma.
Unfortunately, this theory has held captive our vision of Jesus, making our view very limited and punitive. The commonly accepted atonement theory led to some serious misunderstandings of Jesus’ role and Christ’s eternal purpose, reaffirmed our narrow notion of retributive justice, and legitimated a notion of “good and necessary violence.” It implied that God the Father was petty, offended in the way that humans are, and unfree to love and forgive of God’s own volition. This is a very untrustworthy image of God which undercuts everything else.
I take up this subject with both excitement and trepidation because I know that substitutionary atonement is central to many Christians’ faith. But the questions of why Jesus died and what is the meaning and message of his death have dominated the Christian narrative, often much more than his life and teaching. As some have said, if this theory is true, all we needed were the last three days or even three hours of Jesus’ life. In my opinion, this interpretation has kept us from a deep and truly transformative understanding of both Jesus and Christ.
Salvation became a one-time transactional affair between Jesus and his Father, instead of an ongoing transformational lesson for the human soul and for all of history. I believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of the infinite and participatory love of God, not some bloody payment required by God’s offended justice to rectify the problem of sin. Such a story line is way too small and problem-oriented.
My reply to Cindy....
Hi Cindy. Regarding Richard Rohr, I know he is very charismatic, but did you know that he is not accepted by the Christian mainstream because of his teachings?
I find it hard to warm to Rohr since I see him as betraying the Apostolic witness of Scripture, and the timeline of human history and redemption, all the way from the Law and the Prophets, on down to Revelation.
I am not a theologian. I try however, to be a good student of the Bible. Regarding the Crucifixion, my guiding stars are John Stott (The Cross of Christ) and Fleming Rutledge (The Crucifixion).
In a nutshell, this is where I part ways with Rohr on Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I’ll try to keep it brief as possible.
I guess my upset is that with the intent of rational enquiry, these theories are always reductionist, and as such box in things with language. I don’t like the language used to describe that theory because I find it inadequate. The Bible NEVER talks about theories. It has epic stories, geneologies, sagas, songs, letters poems. It might be hard to find anything LESS theoretical.
Nonetheless, Paul has extrapolated for us what might have remained merely a Jewish sect. Some accuse him even of ‘inventing’ Christianity and being fixated on Christ’s death. This is a bit of a facile approach to what Paul is really saying, because in that Corinthians 15 segment, you cannot separate the Crucifixion from the Apostolic affirmation grounded in history that Christ physically ROSE again on the third day (according to the Scriptures). The point of the Crucifixion is the Resurrection and what was won. It is not not just as a metaphor about suffering love or fluffy remembering by sentimental apostles. If you do not see Christ rising to life again as an abject defeat of evil, then the meaning of the Crucifixion is lost.
This takes me back to Rohr, I find he chops off the idea of Jesus’ death as being some kind of theological non-sequitor. Doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t go anywhere so as disciples, it’s up to us to elevate it in some kind of consciousness to turn it into something lasting and significant.
He has a lot of company in those who would brand God cruel, by ‘killing’ his Son, but really this is a simplistic and unfortunate way of phrasing it. As Jesus said to Philip, “I and the father are one. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”. A better way of framing up the Crucifixion (and resurrection) might be to view Jesus as the visible, incarnate face of the same God who is going into battle for us. Yes, battle.
People like Rohr also discount that there are more than two players with agency in that scenario. It is not just God up there, and Mankind as having the choice to have or not have a relationship with him. The third party is the Adversary, who accuses the brethren day and night before the Throne of God. To get to the kind of Christology that is required to have the ideas adequately expressed, maybe a verse. One of my favourite. From Revelation, chapter 12. It kind of encapsulates the historic timeline of Lucifer’s fight with God as it involves mankind.
“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
That kind of verse brings home for me, what is unified throughout all Scripture, that Jesus did not die to show an example of love, he WENT TO BATTLE ON OUR BEHALF to defeat the power of SIN and DEATH. Really, if Jesus had not taken it to this point, he would simply have been some kind of Greek demi-god who dabbles at being human when it suits him. But sharing in humanity to the point of death, lets us know that God is serious in his search for us. It is a rescue mission.
The book of Hebrews, points out that we have a great High Priest who not only has experienced everything we have, but was also blameless. This is important and starts something new altogether, which the author of Hebrews wants to bring home. There is no High Priest without sin. Before they perform sacrifices for YOUR sins, they have to perform sacrifices for theirs. Jesus however, was the blameless LAMB of God who takes away the Sins of the world (John the Baptist). From this he gets the power and authority to defeat SIN and DEATH.
The Crucifixion, the point of it, is SALVATION from the power of the Devil, our adversary. Because he can no longer accuse us. We have been won with the perfect sacrifice. St. Paul himself points this out in the same 15th chapter of Corinthians… that if Christ was not RISEN, then we are STILL SEPARATED FROM GOD BY OUR SINS, and sorry people we are indeed because there is really, no point to a religion which cannot save us.
Rohr seems to openly discount this concept of redemption in favour of some gnostic kind of evolving universal consciousness. It is for people like him, that Paul pronounced things like, “I decided to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified”. The scandal of the Cross. It is also why, getting this wrong, is a pretty grave error, especially for someone who teaches or claims to be enlightened. Remember in Galatians, Paul instructs us that if “any man comes to you preaching a different Gospel, let him be ACCURSED.” Pretty strong words, no?
There are those who teach in error, and in my opinion, Rohr is one of them. He uses Christianity as a talking point, but is not Christian in his conclusions, if we are to stick to the apostolic witness and what the Bible tells us.
Rohr scoffs at penal substitutional atonement theory, saying that if it is true, we only need the last three hours of Jesus’ life. It seems he is not reading his Bible. Jesus himself, musing over his coming death, says this:
“Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27). In Jesus’ own words, his life was preamble to the purpose that he came, his death on the Cross as a substitution for our sins. Further to this, Jesus tells his own disciples, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”. Sounds pretty much like penal substitutionary atonement, to me.
Take care. I hope you don’t mind me speaking my mind on that theology, but I think it is important to understand our faith.