Thomas Schreiner on the Penal Substitution Model of the Atonement

Continuing on from an earlier post engaging with Greg Boyd’s take on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, here are some comments on Thomas Schreiner’s view of the penal substitution model from the same book (Four Views on the Nature of the Atonement)

At the heart of the Penal Substitution model of the atonement is the understanding that God the Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserve was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. The sinfulness of humanity, the holiness of God and the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice are all key elements in this model. Thomas Schreiner sees this as the primary model of the atonement that demands our acceptance, claiming that ‘… penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole.’

Schreiner states that penal substitution, although not exhausting all that there is to say about the atonement, is at the heart of the atonement and is the anchor of all other theories of the atonement because it puts God at the centre of the universe. In penal substitution the most important question for humans is, “How can I enjoy a right relationship with God?” Penal substitution answers that question by presenting Christ as the sinless substitute, offering himself willingly to God as an atoning sacrifice, thereby absorbing the wrath of God that humanity’s sin deserves and securing for us God’s favour in place of wrath. Schreiner asserts that ‘Human beings need atonement…because they are sinners, because they have failed to measure up to God’s law. God demands perfect obedience, and no one has met the standard.’


Schreiner argues meticulously for the Penal Substitution model of the atonement, carefully unpacking the key themes and staking a claim for the primacy of this view over other models of the atonement. He also claims that penal substitution provokes the most negative response out of any of the theories of atonement, and that it needs to be defended because of the incredulity with which it is met in scholarly circles.


Not only does Schreiner insist that ‘… penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole’ but that ‘We must demonstrate from the scriptures themselves that penal substitution is the heart and soul of God’s work in Christ.’ I greatly appreciate Schreiner’s insistence on the scriptures as the arbiter of whether Penal Substitution holds primacy, but at the same time I must question his presuppositions; what does Schreiner mean when he speaks about scripture as a ‘canonical whole’? Which particular way of reading the scriptures as a canonical whole is he referring to? Is he reading Penal Substitution back into the Old Testament in order to find a canonical reading that fits his pre- existing theological framework? Of course, Schreiner does not offer the answers to these questions, but they seem to be important questions to ask nonetheless, particularly when wide-ranging claims are being made about any one theological system.

I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in regarding Greg Boyd’s treatment of the Christus Victor model, namely that the Penal Substitution theory can clearly be gleaned from scripture, but to claim primacy for it seems to be going beyond scripture itself. Let me offer a few critical observations to support that claim:


  1. Penal Substitution is not the central theme in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and, in fact, it could be argued that it is a marginal theme there at best, and even that is debated (cf. Mark 10:45).
  2. The apostolic preaching recorded in Acts only gives sparse mention of the cross, let alone a full-blown doctrine of Penal Substitution. This must surely be viewed as highly unusual if Penal Substitution is at the heart of the New Testament’s witness to Christ and his accomplishments.
  3. In attempting to defend Penal Substitution scripturally, Schreiner appears to either ignore or flatten out the distinctions made between Jew and Gentile in the New Testament, especially with regard to the law. This is particularly noticeable in, for example, Galatians 3:13 where the ‘us’ must be referring to ethnic Israel, and not to a generic humanity so that Christ’s unique role as Israel’s Messiah is reduced somehow.
  4. Finally, despite what Schreiner says about the Godward focus of Penal Substitution, it seems to frame the ultimate questions in a way that places humans and their salvation at the centre of the entire bible.


So, while there is much to applaud (and maybe even to treasure) in the Penal Substitution model as defended by Thomas Schreiner, I find myself unconvinced that it should occupy pride of place as the centre-piece in atonement theory. As with the Christus Victor model, it seems to beg too many questions about the theological priorities that get read into the texts themselves.


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