At our Bible study meeting at Potters Bar this week we discussed the question “Why do we read the Bible (if we do)?” It was fascinating. There were such a range of responses and they were shared with both confidence and respect.
Today I’ve participated in a Facebook thread that touched on the strong aversion some Christians and some ministers have to the doctrine know as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) to which others have an equally strong attachment. My own view is that while I don’t find this view to be well supported in Scripture I do acknowledge that it has been central to the churches of the Reformation and that the passages held to support it can be interpreted in this way.
This view is that humanity is due punishment for our sins. This punishment has been endured on our behalf by Jesus. This is what enables God to overlook and forgive our sins and regard us as “justified” and hence not liable to further punishment (in hell).
It should be stressed that this view, while not hugely popular in contemporary mainstream liberal churches is deeply rooted in our common Protestant tradition, as any acquaintance with our hymnaries will demonstrate. It is also predominant in “evangelical” Christianity today, as acquaintance with both the writings and especially the music of this (broad) strand of Church life quickly shows.
Personally I think PSA fails, on the whole, to grasp adequately the Jewish background of the New Testament. Christ’s action on the cross (as I read the Biblical texts) is mostly understood against the background of the sacrificial system, which dealt with sin primarily under the rubric of holiness and purity rather than that of morality and punishment. The sacrificial system was about purification rather than about retribution (which is why the sacrifice of animals which could not sin makes any sense at all).
What is at stake is the relationships between life and death (with blood the bearer of life) and between holiness and impurity (with blood the cleansing agent as the bearer of God-given life). The point here is that there is no sense in which the animal being sacrificed is being punished. Similarly I find nothing in the New Testament that conclusively says that Jesus is being punished or is bearing a punishment. To read this into the texts seems to me unwarranted, given what we know about the OT and Judaic understanding of sacrifice.
So I am unconvinced by PSA but I also know that it has a long and illustrious history in the tradition. It is not, I think, fully supported by Scripture (the highest authority) but is very well supported by our tradition, with that tradition resting itself on interpretations of the Biblical writings that, while I’m not convinced by them, I can’t show definitively to be wrong.
These ideas thus have to be accepted, I think, as “orthodox” even while I regard them as unproven and open to question. What do I do about that?
This answer to this question will depend on one’s attitude to Biblical authority (does the interpretation of the passages ultimately decide anything?), to tradition (does what Luther, Calvin and the subsequent consensus of the churches they founded taught have any weight in deciding what I should think?) and one’s own thoughts and feelings (if they disagree with the Bible or with orthodox teaching which should I accept?)
My own view is
1) it is wrong to counterpose too starkly Bible and tradition – our interpretations will always be shaped by our Christian formation and the Bible itself is an authoritative of a tradition that is guided and shaped by the revelation of God
2) only the Church catholic can declare a view heretical (i.e. there can be no new heresies after, at the latest, the council of Chalcedon – in this I depart from the mainstream of the Reformed tradition which is wary of acknowledging the authority of even the first five councils). Thus even a view I can’t see the value or truth of should be accepted as having something to say if it isn’t, on this definition, heretical
3) one’s own views should and must be taken seriously, if we have any attachment to the idea that the Spirit is both at work and essential. However where this conflicts with the Bible and with tradition either by leading to outright rejection of an orthodox position or to the espousal of heretical positions one should be suspicious of oneself and strive to find a way to align to orthodoxy.