On Theological Novelty and Atonement Theory (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. II)


In this second installment of this review of Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World, we turn from mere synopsis to critique, or at least to pointed queries about some of Leithart’s more provocative claims. In this post I will be considering one of my general methodological concerns—the addiction to novelty—and then turning to consider Leithart’s revisions (or not?) to classic penal substitution theories of the atonement.

First, then, the question of novelty. Newness seems to be a big selling point of this book. Consider the breathless melodrama of James K.A. Smith’s back cover endorsement: “Leithart is like a lightning strike from a more ancient, more courageous Christian past, his flaming pen fueled by biblical acuity and scholarly rigor.” Back cover blurbs in this day and age have become something of a joke, but still Smith’s is a bit over-the-top. I single it out not primarily to pick on Smith (not primarily) but because the virtue of the book that Smith singles out—its claim to newness-through-oldness—is one that we would do well to interrogate. Smith contrasts theologians who “tepidly offer us a few ‘insights’ to edify our comfort with the status quo” with Leithart’s lightning-strike from the past. In other words, bad theology is theology that builds on what we already know, good theology is totally new and yet old, somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries. But of course, nothing is so tired and familiar by now as this revolutionary turn to the “more ancient, more courageous Christian past.”

Todd Billings brilliantly dissects this primitivism in his essay “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition,” noting that

“a new interpretation of the Bible that flies in the face of the history of interpretation is often seen as evidence for the novel position rather than evidence against it. . . . We dig through—or simply bypass—our exegetical and theological traditions in response to Scripture in order to interpret it in a way that answers our questions: How can Jesus help us solve global political problems?”

We live in an age addicted to novelty, from the editorial requirements of peer-reviewed journals to the algorithms of social media to the slogans of the marketing industry. And this poses quite a challenge for theologians given the profound constraints their field operates under—bound to the limited data of Scripture and the strict canons of logic that govern the relations of doctrines to one another. It is only too tempting for theologians to try to repackage fairly traditional ideas as fresh new insights, and there are two particularly convenient ways to do so. One is to misrepresent and indeed caricature traditional doctrines, making them sound transparently ridiculous, so that one can then present a “solution” which is in actual fact fairly traditional, but which has “New and Improved” plastered all over the label. The second is to avoid answering answering some fairly fundamental questions about the new doctrine, leaving it vague enough that it can appear genuinely new, although if really pressed on these questions, the doctrine would seem to reduce into one of a couple of age-old types, one pretty orthodox and thus unexciting (to modern readers), and one probably heretical. Unfortunately, one can find examples of both of these methods at certain points in Leithart’s book.

Ironically, although Delivered from the Elements begins in exactly in the same place as Billings’s essay—namely, in identifying the pernicious ascendancy in American Christianity of what Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” I am not sure that it altogether avoids Billings’s subsequent critique. To be sure, the revolutionary primitivism here is more implicit than explicit, more in what is not said than what is said. Certainly Leithart avoids the tired trope in recent more popular discussions of the atonement that “if we could only get back to the good old Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe-style Christus Victor theory of the atonement that the early Church had, and get rid of all that post-Anselmian muddle, all would be well.” Perhaps the closest thing he gets to that style of reasoning is in perhaps the weakest part of the book, Appendix Two, where he appears to dismiss nearly all post-1250 accounts of the relationship of nature and grace with a few waves of his hand. Certainly Leithart never explicitly claims that we should take his account of the atonement and justification as something totally new. What he does do, however, is frequently set his account in opposition to “traditional Protestant formulations,” which sometimes, one cannot resist the impression, are to be replaced simply because they are “traditional.” To be sure, on many points of particular exegesis and terminology, Leithart mounts good arguments for revisionary readings, rooted both in the best recent biblical scholarship and his own extraordinarily thorough reading of the biblical text. However, on more fundamental points of systematic theology, which are after all more consequential than what Paul meant by a given phrase in a given context, Leithart often contents himself with a passing sideswipe, providing little if any explanation of exactly what the “traditional Protestant formulation” was, and why it is in error.


Replacing the Foundations

No doubt many will retort, “Of course a historical theologian would complain that a biblical theologian doesn’t dot every historical ‘i’ and cross every systematic ‘t’, just as a biblical theologian might complain about the exegetical illiteracy of many dogmaticians and historians of dogma.” But this misses the point, because it misses, at least as I take it, Leithart’s intentions in the book. For Leithart does not seem to see the biblical and dogmatic tasks as complementary in this way, such that he can afford to be a little fuzzy on the details of traditional formulations of the atonement, because other scholars can fill in the gaps. Nor is his even the sometimes annoying hubris of an N.T. Wright, who can pontificate about the newness of his version of the New Perspective without feeling any need to familiarize himself with the old perspectives. Rather, Leithart writes out of the conviction that the basic metaphysical foundations of traditional Protestant doctrine (indeed, much traditional Catholic doctrine as well) are sufficiently rotten that they need to be replaced—replaced with a new biblical metaphysics that he aims to supply, upon which he can construct a new dogmatics. This is a claim and a project so ambitious that, if the diagnosis is true and the treatment sound, it merits every bit of Jamie Smith’s effusions. But it is also a claim and a project so bold that it is hard to imagine—probably impossible to imagine—it being adequately achieved in a single 400-page book. But instead of giving it a serious sporting effort, Leithart relegates most of the crucial arguments on the metaphysical failures of traditional doctrine and the dogmatic implications of his own view to appendices and footnotes. Perhaps this was due to some ill-considered pressure from the publisher, but it leaves the impression that Leithart cares so little for traditional doctrine that it doesn’t even merit the respect of being dismantled with care before being replaced.

What makes this the more lamentable is that I am not at all convinced that Leithart’s rich contributions in this book require such a wholesale reconstruction. On the contrary, when reading its central chapters I was struck by nothing so often as the thought, “Dang, this sounds like Luther!” In a time when many Protestants, untaught in what Protestantism is really all about, lurch unsteadily toward the painted delights of Rome and Constantinople, this book could be a bracing breath of fresh air—and as unequivocal a proof as you could ask for that Leithart is not, as some critics claim, on the road to Rome himself. Leithart’s critique of the “elements of the world,” the sacralized material structures of graded holiness that govern access to God’s grace and presence that are abolished in Christ, fits neatly with Reformation critiques of medieval religion, and much of Leithart’s account of the implications of the atonement resonate deeply with core Protestant themes. Leithart does acknowledge the overlap in places, but still seems too committed to the Radical Orthodox indictment of Protestantism to be willing to frame his project as a continuation of Luther’s. This, I think, is profoundly regrettable, for much of the book could have been framed as an attempt to clothe strengthen core Protestant insights with better, fuller readings of the biblical text that make use of some of the important advances of recent Pauline scholarship in particular. Leithart frequently makes a point of saying that some key New Perspective readings do not, in fact, jeopardize older Protestant doctrines just because they re-cast certain favorite prooftexts. But at other points he does claim conflict where there is no necessity of it.

Of course, I also readily admit that I am perhaps one of the worst people to judge the value of the genuinely new insights contained in this book. Having been blessed to study under Dr. Leithart for many years, I found much of this book to be familiar territory from lectures, seminars, and conversations many years ago—indeed, I did not realize how fully I had imbibed many of Leithart’s distinctive, richly intertextual readings of the biblical narrative. So I may be prone to underestimate just how enlightening his reconstruction of the biblical story might be for many evangelical readers. Certainly I do think that much of the narrative that I sketched in the first part of this review is does an amazing job of illuminating and synthesizing the Biblical story. Nonetheless, whatever its contributions as a piece of biblical theology, it must be evaluated on the basis of its full aspirations, which are, as I have said, to fundamentally reframe Protestant dogmatics.


Penal Substitution

One point on which this might seem to be the case is of course on the doctrine of the atonement, which Leithart presents as the central theme of this book. The atonement, although of course a matter of perennial interest for Christian theology, has become something of a hot topic in recent years. Evangelical theology, true to its tendency to follow liberal Protestantism like a shadow, always a few decades behind, has recently begun having something of an identity crisis over the doctrine of penal substitution, long treated as one of the central doctrines of evangelical Protestantism. Without a doctrine of penal substitution, in which (a) sin is presented as so grievous that it requires mortal punishment, and (b) sinners are presented as so enslaved that only a perfect substitute, Jesus, could save us, it has been feared that we would tend to collapse into some form of Pelagianism, in some way trying to be our own saviors. The other key concern of the doctrine of penal substitution has been to avoid some form of Manicheanism, which lurks in unguarded and unqualified Christus Victor doctrines: there can be no enslaving power in this universe that is outside the control of God, and therefore in the last analysis, the bondage that Christ must free us from must be the product of God’s wrath. With these basic contentions of penal substitution theory I am in firm agreement.

However, a tradition of very sloppy and oversimplistic articulations of penal substitution theory (e.g., ones that violate Trinitarian unity by presenting the loving Son as placating the wrathful father, or that turn the whole atonement into an arbitrary legal fiction or market exchange by neglecting the crucial doctrine of union with Christ, in which Christ’s substitution does not exclude our participation, or that essentially omit the resurrection as a superfluous afterthought) has laid the doctrine open to serious objections. Underlying many of these objections, though, has been a more deep-seated suspicion of the very notion of God’s wrath, and indeed of retributive justice generally, the basic logic assumed by any form of the doctrine of penal substitution. Accordingly, the new evangelical atonement theories, like their liberal and Socinian predecessors, prefer to emphasis the death of Christ more as something historically contingent rather than necessitated from all eternity, with Jesus bearing the unjust wrath of the Jews and Romans rather than the just wrath of God. Jesus triumphs over their sin by the power of his love and his refusal to fear death, thus breaking the power of death and of all oppressors. And since there is nothing too terribly unique about this—plenty of innocent saints have suffered at the hands of sinners since, and by their fearless witness broken the power of evil—Jesus becomes more of an example to follow than a once-for-all substitute.[1]


So where does Leithart stand in relation to all this? Well, it is not too easy to tell. First, it must be said that the great strength of his account of the atonement in this book is how convincingly and thoroughly he integrates the various “metaphors” or “models” of the atonement that have often remained quite disjointed in traditional presentations. We have Athanasian, Anselmian, Abelardian, Thomist, and penal substitution elements all presented here, not merely as so many complementary perspectives on an event that transcends each, but as elements of a holistic synthetic account that is rooted above all in the broad sweep and fine details of the story of Yahweh’s dealings with Israel. Rather than attempting to offer my own detailed summary of how all this fits together, I simply point you to the crucial chapter 7 for a dense and inspiring exposition that provides ample material for dozens of Holy Week sermons.

But what about the question of penal substitution in particular? Sure, Leithart wants to contextualize that aspect of atonement doctrine within a bigger picture, one firmly rooted in the biblical narrative rather than in metaphysical speculation about divine holiness and human sin. That is well and good and salutary (although I think it has certainly been done well also at other times and places in the tradition). But does he want to fundamentally revise anything here? Well, it really is not quite clear. On balance, I actually think not, and thus am relatively unworried by this section of Leithart’s book, though others may be a little more jumpy. But the ambiguity deserves some attention, for I think it is symptomatic of the concern for novelty—if newness is prized above all, well then you have to have to fudge and and quibble enough that it looks like you’re doing something quite new, even if you really aren’t. So it is here.

The real action takes place in a long footnote on p. 166. After noting that some crude versions of penal substitution tend to transgress Trinitarian orthodoxy by pitting Father and Son against one another (certainly a just complaint when one looks at popular modern expositions), he goes on:

“Even noncrude versions of penal substitution can fall afoul of trinitarian orthodoxy, especially when penal substitution is abstracted from the concrete events of the trial and death of Jesus. The Father never condemns the Son; he never counts him as a transgressor. He cannot, because Jesus is not guilty, because Jesus is his eternal, eternally beloved Son and because the work of the cross is the combined work of Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father never makes common cause with Jesus’ accusers. What the Father does instead is to hand Jesus over to be charged, falsely, by Jews and Romans, and then vindicate Jesus and condemn his accusers by raising Jesus in the Spirit. By his predetermined plan, God parries the accusations, condemnation, and execution to overcome the sin of those who hate Jesus, including the very sin they commit in executing him. The Father counts Jesus’ death as paying the penalty Israel deserved, but not because he counts Jesus guilty. Jesus takes responsibility for Israel’s guilt, Israel’s liability for punishment. This is the sense in which Jesus ‘becomes sin’ and ‘bears the curse’ for us. Jesus is not for a moment counted guilty in the divine court.”

Leithart clearly feels strongly and emphatically on this subject, as we may judge from the numerous italics in this paragraph, but it is not entirely clear what he feels. There seems to be a profound equivocation, stated most starkly in this sentence: “The Father counts Jesus’ death as paying the penalty Israel deserved, but not because he counts Jesus guilty.” Jesus bears the consequence, the legal penalty of Israel’s guilt, but without bearing the legal guilt. Such a notion is not entirely incoherent, since one can imagine such a scenario in a human-law situation, but it would render Jesus’ sacrifice meaningless. Consider: I have an identical twin brother who commits a felony and is sentenced to five years in prison. I hoodwink the authorities into imprisoning me instead, and the ruse is not found out until I have served two years of the term. Everyone, including the judge, may have the highest respect for what I have done, may consider it an inspiring moral example, etc., but unless something else has changed in the meantime, it ought not have any impact on the fact that my brother still has to serve a five-year term—the court will not deem that I have served two years for him and so he only owes three. Indeed, we have a wonderful literary example of this kind of substitution, in the famous ending of a Tale of Two Cities. Now in that case, it is true, Carton’s sacrifice really does enable the condemned man, Darnay, to go free. But this is only because of the finitude of the human court involved. Carton’s deception buys enough time for Darnay to escape, and thus Darnay is freed from the death penalty he would otherwise have received. But he is still a condemned man. If he stayed in France, he would still be executed before long, and Carton’s sacrifice, however noble and inspiring, would’ve done no good. God, of course, does not labor under any such limitations. He will not be hoodwinked, and no sinner can escape from his jurisdiction. Thus if Jesus paid the legal penalty that Israel deserved, and yet without bearing the legal guilt, then it may have been noble, it may have been inspiring, but it would not change the fact that Israel, and all mankind, stood condemned.

The only way in which the penalty-bearing can be of any permanent use to anyone is if it is also a guilt-bearing. Not, of course, that Jesus is treated as actually personally morally guilty, and perhaps this is what Leithart is trying to say, but he is federally and forensically guilty. The distinction here is one that is clear and consistent in the tradition, between “sinfulness” and “actual guilt” or reatus. The distinction between the two is a regular feature of human lawcourts, as Dabney shows in his lucid treatment of the issue, and hence should cause no confusion. Consider OJ Simpson, generally acknowledged to have murdered his wife and yet free from any legal guilt for the act. Or, in the other direction, to use Dabney’s example, consider an honest man who agrees to act as a surety for a friend who turns out to be a swindler. The court justly holds the honest man liable while recognizing that he is personally honorable and innocent and deserves to be lauded as such. Dabney concludes, “Here is the clearest distinction between actual guilt and sinfulness; nobody is so stupid as to pretend not to see it. Let the vital proposition be repeated, that, in the penal substitution of Christ, it is the actual guilt of sinners as above defined, and nothing else, which is transferred from them to him.”


The issue that Leithart raises really is the cardinal issue between critics of penal substitution and its defenders. Anyone is willing to recognize that penal substitution is accurate as “plot summary,” as Leithart puts it (163), of the Gospel narrative. The Jewish and Roman leaders act in such a way as to blaspheme and rebel against God, and yet it is Jesus who dies as a blasphemer and rebel. And yet if penal substitution is nothing more than “plot summary,” then we are of all men most miserable, and we are still in our sins. In fact, we are in a worse condition than before, for the human race has simply added to its guilt by crucifying the Lord of glory. On this account, the vindication of Christ in the resurrection should be terrifying news for sinners, not good news. Leithart rightly wants to emphasise the narrative structure of the atonement, and so occasionally does talk as if the atonement had nothing more than this historical dimension, as if Christ’s accusers were only human, and the crucifixion nothing more than a damning miscarriage of justice. Indeed, on this account, the crucifixion need not have happened in order for Jesus to carry out his transformative mission. In principle, Israel could’ve listened, repented, transformed, and the New Covenant could have been inaugurated without sacrifice. Leithart occasionally seems to talk this way as well (see pp. 145, 151-52)

However, he clearly also recognizes that this is inadequate. Indeed, he goes on to ask, right after the line about penal substitution as plot summary, “How is this story of penal substitution gospel? How is it anything but a travesty of justice, happily overturned at the last moment by the deus ex machina of resurrection? . . . How did Jesus’ willing suffering of the penalty Israel deserved make any difference to anyone?” (163) And his answer is a good one:

“Jesus’ death at the hands of wicked men ransomed and redeemed because Jesus was the Davidic king, Israel embodied in one person. The Davidic king was Yahweh’s son, the representative of Israel. . . . The king lived for the people and died for the people. Jesus the King took on the penalty that Israel deserved, and so released Israel from the capital penalty for her blasphemy. If Jesus did not step in to take Israel’s punishment, wrath would come to the uttermost, Israel would be scattered and die, the Abrahamic promise would not be fulfilled. Unless Jesus saved Israel, the world would not be saved, and he saved Israel by suffering the death she had earned.” (163-64)

Leithart then expands this point to show how Jesus also “suffered the penalty due to the nations for their blasphemy.” (165) Then comes the clincher:

“None of this is accidental. . . . Jesus’ becoming a penal substitute for Israel and the Romans ws not a random accident, nor a deviation from the path he was sent to god. It was the path the the Father sent him to walk in the far country. It was the Father’s pleasure to send his Son into this danger, into the valley of death, and it was the Son’s pleasure to do his Father’s pleasure. It was the Father’s pleasure to deliver the Son to be crushed by godless hands; in delivering the Son to the godless the Father laid on the Son all of Israel’s liability for punishment. The Son whose very being is to do his Father’s will carried out this mission to the uttermost; he was crushed, and he suffered Israel’s punishment for the joy set before him. The Father sent the Son, and the Son willingly was sent, to take the burden of the sins of Israel, of Rome, of the human race. As true Israel, as the King, as Son of Man, Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, suffered for our liabilities, was chastened to make us well, so that by his stripes we may be healed.” (165-66)

Wow. With a closing peroration like that, what more could one ask for? This is the traditional doctrine of penal substitution in all its paradox and wonder and glory. And yet it is precisely at the end of this paragraph where we find the footnote that I quoted above, the one that emphatically denies that Jesus is “for a moment counted guilty.”

So why the odd equivocation? With other critics of penal substitution, we would quickly assume that the source was nervousness about the notion of retributive justice, or even downright repudiation of it. Nothing is so fashionable these days as rejection of all talk of retribution and wrath as incompatible with a loving God. And certainly there are foolish and unguarded ways of talking about God’s wrath that have justly invited opposition. But Leithart, refreshingly, offers a forthright defense of the Biblical language of wrath and retribution. In chapter 6, raising the question of whether Paul believes in “a justice that renders to everyone according to their deeds,” he remarks, “It is difficult to fathom how this could become a serious questions, either for Scripture as a whole or for Paul.” (130) Leithart has no hang-ups on the issue of retributive justice. Accordingly, I can only conclude that the confusion in wording here is the consequence of a conceptual confusion, the common consequence of trying to improve upon a traditional doctrine without first taking the time to carefully understand that traditional doctrine. If good theology is always new theology, then it may be safely assumed that there significant tensions in the old theology that are in need of resolution, a “resolution” that is achieved by adopting murky and equivocal language which turns out to be much more bedevilled by tension, and much more open to abuse, than the traditional formulations. In short, it’s a classic case of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


In the current case, as I said above, I am not overly worried, though I do think some readers will take Leithart in a direction that tends to deny the reality of penal substitution. However, I have taken the time to highlight this sort of problem because I believe it is essentially the same problem that appears, on a much larger scale and perhaps more serious consequences, in his treatment of the doctrine of justification. It is to that which we will turn in Pt. III.


[1] Probably the best and most sophisticated revisionary evangelical atonement doctrine is that presented by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek in Atonement, Justice, and Peace, an account considerably more nuanced than what I have just described here. A less careful account which leaves itself open to the charge of Pelagianism is presented in Douglas M. Jones, Dismissing Jesus.

6 thoughts on “On Theological Novelty and Atonement Theory (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. II)

  1. Excellent post. Loving your review. Along the lines of saying something as though it is new though it’s actually old: I think Leithart is trying to get at something that Calvin got at pretty well. Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote on the atonement that explains what I mean: The third and final misunderstanding of the dereliction is that the Father completely and wholly rejects, forsakes, and despises the Son. This view is attempting to get at something very true and essential to our understanding of the atonement: namely that Christ took our place as our representative and suffered the full punishment that we deserved. But this view would so emphasize Christ’s sin-bearing, wrath-averting work that it makes it seem as though the Father for a few hours ceased loving his Son, and utterly despised him. Against this we must say that Christ was indeed forsaken, but he was not utterly forsaken. God did not switch to hating his infinitely beloved Son, for however brief a time. According to his divine nature, this follows from what was said before with regard to the internal Triune fellowship. The Father’s love for the Son is an eternal love, which has its roots in a time before time; as such, it is absurd to suppose that it could ever cease, however briefly—this would posit a broken Trinity similar to Moltmann’s view. Additionally, even with regard to his human nature the rejection cannot be absolute. For Christ, in his very act of offering himself up as a sacrifice for sin, was performing the greatest act of obedience that was ever performed, and as such it was an act eminently pleasing to God. “For this reason the Father loves me,” Jesus says, “because I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). It is precisely on account of his obedience unto death, even death on a cross, that God has highly exalted Christ and given him the name that is above every name (Phil 2:6–11). So although he was then “made sin” (2 Cor 5:21) for us and “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24), God did not forget that Christ himself “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21) and was himself “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:19). As paradoxical as it may seem, we must affirm with Calvin on the one hand that there is a sense in which Christ underwent “the severity of God’s vengeance,” suffered “all the punishments that [we] ought to have sustained,” and experienced “the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.” But on the other hand we must also confess with Calvin that “we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, ‘in whom his heart reposed’?” (Calvin, Institutes, II.16.10, 11). Or as he put it elsewhere: “He could not cease to be the object of his Father’s love, and yet he endured his wrath” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, accessed April 24, 2015, http://bit.ly/1GrT7Mo).


  2. Andrew_Z

    Very helpful review. I haven’t read the book yet so I can’t say anything useful about whether it’s guilty of the kind of unhelpful search for novelty you describe. I’d only want to add that there are more charitable explanations for the desire to find something new (but old) in a given topic. If we assume that some parts of the church (and also theological inquiry) are unhealthy / broken / failing, then it’s entirely understandable that we would look for new approaches (even if they are old approaches re-packaged). I see folks like Leithart and even Wright as sometimes attempting to play the role of church mechanic. They think that something’s broken and they are eager to find some fixes that have never been tried, or haven’t recently been tried. Of course, we can disagree about whether the fixes are new, or even likely to do more good than harm, but the desire to find some new ways forward is not a wholly suspect desire.


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