Book Review: Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, by Simon Gathercole

Review
12.21.2015

Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in PaulGrand Rapids: Baker Zondervan, 2015, pp. 128.

 

Most evangelicals understand the work of Christ along the lines of substitutionary atonement. Yet, much of New Testament scholarship has turned decidedly away from substitution as a feature of Paul’s atonement theology—preferring instead to speak of Christ’s work on the cross as representative. In Defending Substitution, Simon Gathercole, senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Cambridge, lucidly demonstrates that substitution cannot be dismissed from Paul’s atonement theology, even appearing prominently in Paul’s own summary of matters that were of “first importance” in the gospel he preached (1 Cor 15).

DEFINING SUBSTITUTION AND DESCRIBING THE OBJECTIONS

In the introduction, Gathercole asks “Why focus on substitution?” He argues that substitution is “vital to our understanding of what the New Testament says about the death of Christ” and is thus also vital for “the church and for biblical scholarship.” Additionally, substitution has important pastoral implications such as providing the theological grounds necessary for our assurance of salvation (14).

Avoiding false dichotomies, Gathercole affirms representation as a biblical feature of the atonement while also showing that substitution also has a place in Paul’s theology. Both of these elements, along with propitiation, punishment of sin, and expiation, ought to be held together “in a full-orbed understanding of the atonement” (18). As Gathercole explains, representation means that Christ identifies with his people on the cross and we, in some sense, participate in his death for us. In Paul’s words “we have died with Christ” (Rom 6:8). Substitution, however, highlights the fact that Christ does something for us on the cross—he dies “in our place, instead of us” (15). Summarizing Luther, Gathercole describes substitution along these lines: “In a vital sense . . . when Christ was bearing our sins, that meant that we were not bearing our sins and do not have to do so” (17).

Gathercole also indicates in his introduction that his aim is not necessarily to defend penal substitution. In his words, “the matter of what precisely it was that Christ bore in our stead will not be treated here” (18). Indeed, Gathercole demonstrates that substitution does not necessarily entail the notion of a substitutionary punishment for another’s sin. As he states, “Whether substitutionary atonement should be described specifically in terms of penal substitution needs to be argued exegetically rather than being seen merely as a logical corollary of substitution per se” (19).

The introduction concludes with brief responses to recent criticisms of the doctrine of substitution such as the claims that it is a legal fiction, philosophically objectionable, or incoherent since believers still die even though Christ should have already died for them. Gathercole responds to this final objection in an illuminating excursus (80–83) where he argues that Christ’s death for us fundamentally changes the meaning of the death of a Christian. Whereas unbelievers “perish” when they die, those in Christ only “fall asleep” at the time of their passing (1 Cor 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; Eph 5:14; 1 Thess 4:13, 14, 15; 5:10). In light of Christ’s death for us, Paul “very often speaks in . . . language that relativizes the event of physical death” (81).

Also not to be missed is Gathercole’s short but compelling takedown of Steve Chalke’s now infamous description of substitutionary atonement as a form of “cosmic child abuse.” Gathercole notes that this criticism misses the fact that “the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the ‘self-substitution of God.’. . . Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in line with his own will” (24–25).

In Chapter 1, Gathercole examines three schools of thought that have posed significant exegetical challenges to the doctrine of substitution. The Tübingen view, represented by Hartmut Gese and Otfried Hofius, posits that “atonement takes place not through substitution but through a special kind of identification” that reconciles sinners to God (31). The “Interchange in Christ” view, represented by Morna Hooker, suggests that the biblical evidence teaches “not that Jesus swaps places with his people in [his] death on the cross. Rather, he goes to the place where they are and takes them from there to salvation” (39). Finally, the “Apocalyptic Deliverance view,” represented by J. Louis Martyn, focuses on how the atonement delivers us from sin as an enslaving power.

Pastors may not be as interested in Gathercole’s description of these positions, but his careful evaluation of each position is instructive. Most interestingly, Gathercole notes that the fatal flaw shared by each of these positions is the fact that Christ died not just to save us from capital-s Sin (an enslaving or corrupting force), but he also died to save us from sins, that is, our individual transgressions against the law of God. In fact, this feature of the human predicament, our record of transgressions against God, is what substitution takes seriously—we do not merely need rescue from Sin, we need the removal of sins.

THE EXEGETICAL EVIDENCE FOR SUBSTITUTION

In the rest of the book, Gathercole provides an exegetical defense of substitution from 1 Corinthians 15:3 (Chapter 2) and Romans 5:6–8 (Chapter 3). First Corinthians 15 is particularly important given that Paul summarizes the gospel according to matters of “first importance” and “according to the Scriptures.” He argues that the “Scripture” primarily influencing Paul’s gospel summary is Isaiah 53, “the only case of a human being who dies a vicarious death and thereby deals with the sins of others” (64). Gathercole’s exegesis compellingly defends the interpretation of the phrase “Christ died for our sins” as substitutionary. He explains that the expectation from the OT Scriptures is that men die for their own sins. But in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul stuns his readers with the fact that Christ died to deal with our sin; “The default Old Testament position would be ‘he died for his sins’ or ‘we died for our sins.’ The miracle of the gospel, however, is that he died for our sins” (73).

In chapter 3, Gathercole examines how Christ’s death parallels vicarious, noble death stories in classical literature as “good men” die for friends or family. In Romans 5, however, “the theme of vicarious death . . . is radically subverted by Paul” (105). In the cases from classical literature, heroic figures die for friends, family, and those with whom they already have a relationship. The shock of Romans 5 is that Christ dies for the ungodly, for sinners, and for the enemies of God. As Gathercole notes, Christ’s death “does not conform to any existing philosophical norm. In Romans 5, Christ’s death creates a friendship where there had been enmity” (106).

A COMPELLING DEFENSE

Defending Substitution is a compelling, rich, and lucid presentation of substitution in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5. Some readers may express some disappointment that Gathercole did not provide an explicit defense of the penal character of Christ’s substitutionary work. However, this careful distinguishing between substitution and punishment demonstrates the need to defend both elements exegetically without assuming that one necessarily entails the other. I also wish Gathercole might have pointed his readers to what other places in Paul’s writings he thinks are particularly fecund for defending substitution—but these are minor quibbles. My hope is that this short essay will whet the appetite of pastors who may be unfamiliar with Gathercole’s work to pursue his other rich exegetical and theological treatments of Christology or the New Perspective on Paul.

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