The Wondrous Cross: book review

The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History
Stephen R. Holmes, 144 pages, Paternoster Press (1 May 2007), £9.99

Review by Stephen Dintaman

First of all, this book is delightfully readable. The Wondrous Cross fills a niche that is too often ignored by academic theologians. Having digested a large corpus of biblical, historical and cultural material pertaining to the atonement, and specifically the penal substitution theory of the atonement, he presents what he has learned in a manner that is accessible to the non-professional reader, and that even is, at times, inspiring.

Holmes embraces the idea that scripture has no normative theory of atonement, but employs a wide variety of metaphors and analogies, none completely adequate, to illuminate the meaning and power of the cross. The Bible is very clear that the cross saves us, but less clear on exactly how it saves us. Chapter 3, ‘Come and See the King of Love’ explores eight different metaphors for atonement used in the New Testament. Each of these cries out to be developed more fully, but given the limits of this book, he does an adequate job.

The remainder of the book is given to exploring the biblical and historical backgrounds for the development of the penal substitution theory of atonement, and the various modern criticisms of this theory. He identifies John Calvin as the first theologian who systematically developed the idea that on the cross Jesus bore the penalty, death, that a righteous God and the law requires. He argues that the penal theory, correctly presented, is at least useful in illuminating the seriousness of sin, and the costliness of forgiveness. It becomes problematic only when it is presented as the normative explanation under which all other aspects of the biblical witness are subsumed, and when it is presented in a way that divides the trinity and pits a punitive, vengeful God against a loving, merciful Jesus. His own reconstruction of the theory (pp.96-99) uses the concept of ‘corporate responsibility’ to explain how one man, though innocent himself, can take on the guilt of others. This is motivated totally by love, not by a punitive God’s need to punish someone.

This book is a response and a guidebook to a controversy raging throughout the evangelical world on the appropriateness of the penal substitution model. Various critics see it as out of date, as suggesting that God is cruel and vengeful, based on unacceptable ideas about transference of guilt, that it encourages punitive views of justice, and that it even promotes the idea of “divine child abuse”. Holmes maintains a very irenic tone throughout his discussion of these criticisms. To the critics he says penal substitution presented well is not as destructive as they make it out to be. To its defenders he makes the case that the penal approach is not the normative biblical model, indeed that scripture does not even unambiguously teach this view. Where it is made the standard model other aspects of the cross are eclipsed and its power diminished.

Yet his defense of the doctrine is a remarkably weak one. On pages 42-43, he says things like, “Much of the language about the atonement in the New Testament could be understood in penal substitutionary terms if we had good reason to do so, but equally could be understood in other terms”. Or later, “It might be right, but the New Testament does not, as far as I can see, demand to be read that way…”. If the idea is not clearly affirmed by scripture, we might wonder if it is really worth the bother to come to its defense. I suspect Holmes’ defense of it is more out of respect for how deeply it is imbedded in evangelical piety than any real passionate zeal for the idea.

Holmes is very Pauline in his passionate affirmation of the saving power of the cross, but fairly un-Pauline in that he addresses all parties in the controversy in a respectful patient way. Early on (p.4) he summarizes the controversy by saying some interpreters believe that penal substitution is necessary to faith, while others “equally faithful” believe the idea dishonors God. His desire to keep the peace is admirable, yet there also comes a point where we might have to judge that some interpreters in their zeal to discredit penal atonement reject any idea of Christ’s death as the God willed provision for our salvation and thus rob the cross of its saving meaning and power.