HOW I CAN’T SEEM TO FIND PENAL SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT IN GALATIANS 3:13
1. Disclaimer: Yes, I have read Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor, and I do agree with his view of atonement, even though he has such a bad re-telling of Christian history and very little exegesis, but his work will not be quoted here. So that point is mute.
This post is dedicated to two friends, James Pate and T.C. Moore, who requested me to do a post on my view of atonement after reading/hearing how I understand Galatians 3.
There are already several arguments that scholars have made against Penal Substitutionary Atonement that I will not delve into here. Why? Because they are appeals to emotion, and they are the same points that opponents use to argue against any view of “blood atonement,” that is a theological interpretation of Jesus’ death on the cross of reconciling humanity with God and with others.
Instead, my rejection of PSA is on exegetical grounds. Before I begin my approach, I feel I must summarize the approach to the text by proponents of PSA. Normally, advocates of PSA are evangelical, and they tell me, at least, that in order to understand Scripture, the church must prioritize the New Testament Epistles first and then subsequently read the letters, so to speak into the Gospels and then the whole of the New Testament into the “Old’ Testament. Along with this hermeneutic, there comes along with a theological interpretation of concepts such as “The Curse” (see Galatians 3:13 NRSV) as something as being like sin in general or human iniquity understood in a universal sense. This approach seemed quite okay, especially since theologically, the Church was the New Israel. When I was a 4 point calvinist years ago, this was the way I read Scripture.
Today, however, I no longer hold that hermeneutic, and my reason is theological: if the Protestant doctrine that Scripture is the best interpreter of itself rings true (part of Sola Scriptura), then I do not think that even we as the Gentile members of the Church are the best capable persons for understanding what “the Curse of the Law” is without first seeing what curses are in the Law (in this case, the Torah, along with other passages in the Hebrew Bible). As I have grown in my spiritual journey, this has been the hermeneutic that I have come to accept as the most reasonable, to accept the text’s definition, for example, of what “the Curse” is rather than our theological post-suppositions.
Revelation both frees us to converse with God as well as talk about God; at the same time, it limits what we can say. The question put forth by atonement theologies is, “What is the nature of God becoming at-one (literally) with humanity?” Revelation, then, points us more in the direction of particularity rather than the generalities passed down to us by constructive and systematic theologians. In Christianity, Christ as the Logos from YHWH is revelation first and foremost, and then secondly, the canon, which contains God’s promises and law [blessings and curses]. The story of Paul and the Galatians starts with God and Abram in Genesis 15. Paul reminds the Judaizers, the ones who wish to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers, that God, that from the beginning, God had in mind to include the Gentiles into God’s economy of salvation (Galatians 3:8).
Now, in this context, whether it is cultural, historical or theological, all signs points to Paul, when he is discussing the “Curse of the Law,” he is not referring to some abstract notion of being cursed. Rather, there are curses in the Torah, that pit the Judeans & Israelites against the Nations. This is similar to Paul’s (or pseudo-Paul, whichever one you believe) statement in Ephesians 2:11-20, where there was once a dividing wall of hostility, now destroyed by YHWH’s work in Yeshua’s flesh. But this dividing wall was not something that was imagined; think of the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah, in their strict interpretations of Deuteronomy, they forced divorces upon Israel’s leadership and declared, “No More Ruths”–(chk Nehemiah 10). The Curses of the Law not only include the ones in which Israel was judged as a nation for being disobedient to the Ten Commandments, but also the warnings for the “gentiles to be over and above them” if they did not obey God’s word (Deuteronomy 28:43). So, again, the Curse of the Law should be understood in the context of the Law.
The Law is not the problem; the Curse is the problem, for the Law contains blessings and curses, so Jesus the Messiah has to remove these curses through his obedience and death, conquering that principality, and therefore creating one humanity out of two groups. So when Paul admonishes the Galatian Gentiles to no longer depend upon the works of the (Gal 3:10), I join New Testament Scholar Brad Braxton in asserting that Paul has Deuteronomy 28 in view, and the works of the law that Paul condemns are the works that the Gentiles in the past had to do (be circumcised, for example)to be included in the covenantal community since Jesus’ effort had opened up the way for the Nations to join Israel.
When one upholds this interpretation in view, it is really not that possible to see Galatians 3:13 as a proof-text for Penal Substitution, but more likely an argument for an early type of Christus Victor, of Jesus the Messiah overcoming the Curse for the Gentiles. It is upon this victory that all Christian attempts at racial reconciliation must rest.
For more, please see Brad Braxton’s No Longer Slaves: Galatians and the African American Experience.