Yesterday I reviewed Oliver Crisp’s short and distinctive book “Retrieving Doctrine“. Amongst the most interesting and I suspect directly relevant chapters in the book is a proposal for a non-penal understanding of substitionary atonement theory.

In recent years in Irish evangelicalism, as with much of the Western world, there has been a fraught, perhaps one-sided conversation about the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. While some fantastic work has been done as a result of this conversation (for me, most notably in Scot McKnight’s “A Community Called Atonement“), this single chapter from Crisp seems to offer more than many of the tomes that have been published. His proposal is hugely thought provoking.

Summed up all to briefly, Crisp asks us to imagine Christ as fully God and fully man making a perfect penitence for the sins of all humanity. Perhaps as a category of speech act, Jesus as the mournful representative of humanity could perhaps satisfy all that atonement requires- repentance, apology, reparation and penance? In the troublesome case of penance, which Crisp defines as “some act that demonstrates that the sinner is truly penitent”, perhaps we could understand the incarnation itself as part of the penitential act? This would constitute a different model from the speech-acts approach. Crisp writes:

In order to offer up vicarious penitence, the Son of God had to humble himself and become a human being, and live a morally blameless life, of which his vicarious penitence is the culminating act.

In this formulation, all the important core parts of Reformed understandings of Jesus and God and what happens on the cross are maintained and the violent aspect of the penal substitution is removed. So this is a proposition that avoids the retributive violence that some see inherent within traditional penal models while balancing classical ideas about God and atonement. For those of us who have had to sit through interminable conversations with evangelicals about this topic (I am even bored by this freaking blog post), this essay is crazy good- and anyone interested in this debate should read it.

In proposing a non-penal model Crisp should not be read as being ideologically opposed to penal models. In one brief footnote he says a lot when he writes:

But, why think that divine justice is essentially retributive? Well, classical theologians who have thought this (and all classical theologians I know of thought this) did so because they believed it reflected Scripture – a matter that is now disputed. Nevertheless, this view can rightly be called the traditional view of divine justice, even if it is not the most fashionable view…

So without suggesting that traditional models of the atonement ought to be questioned, by proposing alternative models (with the knowledge that we shall question them), Crisp undoubtedly allows us to look with fresh eyes at what it means for Christ to be our substitute. This makes the essay essential reading for people who want to talk about this bigger atonement debate.

But one final comment on this deadly little chapter. Crisp speculates on the nature of such a repentance as a speech act. Would that act be illocutionary such that the words themselves constitute the repentance or would it be perlocutionary so that the words bring out the repentance? I wondered about this in the light of Jesus being the Logos of God who speaks Creation into being. Is the Word that says “Let there be light…” illocutionary or perlocutionary? I have no doubt that reams of paper have been filled with thoughts on this very question but it left me delightfully musing on New Year’s Eve while waiting for someone to hand me another beer. The book is filled with such jumping off points.

Your Correspondent, Personally resolved to never use a chainsaw while the neighbour’s dog is around