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Spring 2012 · Vol. 41 No. 1 · pp. 111–124 

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: A ‘Redaction-Critical’ Reflection

Ryan Schellenberg

One unfortunate aspect of the recent discussion among Mennonite Brethren regarding the atonement—and, in particular, Mark Baker’s views on it—is that the book in question, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, has often been eclipsed by the controversy: 1 Does or does not Mark Baker believe in penal substitutionary atonement? If that is all we care to know, then attending to the book itself is beside the point: If we read it at all, we read it not in the interests of engaging it, but only of evaluating its orthodoxy.

While I share the concern with abusive use of God’s anger in popular evangelicalism, I don’t think it wise to try to explain that anger away.

This is a shame, since Baker and Green have, in fact, produced a thoughtful and carefully argued work that seeks, as the title suggests, to recover the New Testament’s scandalous message of the cross and to consider how it might be proclaimed in our own contexts. Whether or not one accepts their conclusions, the book certainly deserves an attentive reading. What follows, then, is an attempt to take it on its own terms. I will attend in particular to ways in which Baker and Green’s thinking has developed or has been clarified in the second edition. In other words, I will take what readers of the Synoptic Gospels would call a redaction-critical approach.

Seven Positive Theses

In contrast to what one might imagine from tracking the controversy in Mennonite Brethren and broader evangelical circles, the argument of Recovering the Scandal is not only, or even primarily, a negative one. Certainly it does call into question the adequacy of penal substitution or penal satisfaction theories as explanations for the atonement, but this hardly exhausts the aim of the book. On the contrary, this challenge functions to make room for a number of constructive proposals for the articulation of atonement theology. So what are its positive arguments? What sort of atonement theology do Baker and Green advocate?

1. The atonement is fundamental to Christian theology; it is not disposable.

Baker and Green recognize that some theologians, troubled by the apparent implications for the character of God of penal substitution models of the atonement, have argued that we should dispense with atonement theology altogether (113–16). They strongly reject this option: “The cross can never be neglected or marginalized in Christian proclamation, given the centrality of the cross to the writings of the New Testament” (134). Indeed, their book constitutes a sustained attempt to assert the continued relevance of atonement theology. As Baker has written elsewhere, “We need more of the cross, not less.” 2

This is true already of the first edition, but they have done additional work in the second to avoid any misunderstanding on this point, primarily by clarifying the function in their argument of feminist critiques of atonement theology as “divine child abuse” or the glorification of redemptive violence. Their position here has not changed: As in the first edition, they affirm in the second that feminist theologians have raised legitimate concerns with regard to penal substitution theories (117), and they insist in both that atonement theology nevertheless should not be abandoned. What is new is the clarity with which they explain that, in their view, such critiques are valid only insofar as they target a misunderstanding—albeit a pervasive misunderstanding—of the New Testament witness: “When New Testament approaches to understanding the soteriological significance of Jesus’ death are properly understood, we find these more radical feminist criticisms to be wide of the mark” (114).

2. God provides salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Baker and Green presuppose that it is through the work of Christ that God brings salvation. What they want to emphasize, though, is that this saving work is not limited to his death. Atonement theology is impoverished, they suggest, if it has no need either for Jesus’ life or for his resurrection. Indeed, this is one of the major difficulties they highlight with regard to traditional articulations of penal substitution theories (49, 174, 179–80). Baker and Green repeatedly insist that the writers of the New Testament treat Jesus’ life of faithfulness, his crucifixion, and his resurrection as three moments in a single drama of salvation (e.g., 59, 84, 93). They seek to do likewise.

3. Through the cross, we are saved for a way of life shaped by the cross.

A fundamental conviction of Recovering the Scandal is that atonement results in a distinct way of life empowered by the cross and for which the cross provides the paradigm. (Note that since Baker and Green mean to hold together the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, “cross” here should be understood as a metonym for what is sometimes, but more cumbersomely, called the “Christ event.”) To put this in terms of a traditional Anabaptist theme, atonement theology cannot be divorced from discipleship (48 and passim).

This argument has a sharper edge in the second edition, due largely to an excellent new introduction that highlights precisely the scandal of the cross. 3 Here Baker and Green emphasize how the narrative context within which one views the crucifixion plays a key role in determining its meaning. For most in the ancient world, crucifixion was part of a story about the invincible power of Rome, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the subjugation and humiliation of those who would dissent (20–23). It is because they interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion within this narrative context that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were left with nothing but crushed hopes (Luke 24:19–21). But when the mysterious teacher on the road relocated the cross, putting it in the narrative that, for Luke, was determinative of its true meaning—namely, a rather idiosyncratic reading of the Jewish scriptures—then everything changed. In the context of this narrative, the cross was the fulfillment of God’s plan for the salvation of God’s people.

Importantly, though, the early disciples could not simply do away with the other, more self-evident meaning of the cross—the offence, the scandal. Despite their own beliefs, they continued to live in a world in which, as Baker and Green note, “this combination of terms, ‘Christ’ and ‘crucified,’ ” would have appeared contradictory (26). Thus, the proclamation of what Paul calls “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) would necessarily have evoked also the dominant narrative according to which the cross was a symbol of humiliation. To speak of discipleship, then, of following the way of the cross, is to speak of a way of life that runs directly counter to ordinary conceptions of power and honor, and exposes their poverty (54–63). It is to “despise the shame” (Heb. 12:2) of the cross.

Highlighting the contrasting meanings of the cross within these two very different narratives proves an effective way to set the stage for Baker and Green’s fundamental claim that in the New Testament the crucifixion is “embedded within multiple narrative contexts” (28). Indeed, I found myself wishing that they had returned more often to this insight, perhaps using it to provide structure to their discussion of the diverse atonement images in the New Testament and the history of its interpretation. What is the underlying narrative implied when Jesus speaks of giving his life as a ransom for many? Within what narrative or set of narratives does the language of sacrifice place Jesus’ death? What is the implicit narrative that funds Anselm’s satisfaction theory? Baker and Green certainly address all these questions, but specifically naming them in a way that recalls their introduction would provide a thread of continuity amidst what can sometimes seem an overwhelming maze of exegetical detail.

4. The cross is an expression of the love of God.

It is of great concern to Baker and Green that many popular expressions of atonement theology locate the need for atonement in the character of God rather than the human condition (46, 174, 176–77). This is not to say that such atonement narratives neglect to mention human sin. Certainly they do not. The problem, though, Baker and Green suggest, is that the driving force in these narratives, the plot point that begs for resolution, is not sin per se, but rather the problem God has with sin. In such accounts, they argue, God too often comes off as vengeful and retributive, burning with anger until satisfied by the propitiatory death of Jesus. 4 In contrast, Baker and Green seek models of the atonement in which God’s love is not merely a more or less credible addendum, but rather is essential to the logic of the narrative itself. They cite Romans 5:8 repeatedly: “But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (82, 138).

Of course, many proponents of penal substitution theories would affirm that Jesus expresses God’s love on the cross and would argue that what Baker and Green present is a caricature of the model, which, when articulated responsibly, insists, with John Stott, “God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us.” 5 This issue of caricature is one that warrants further discussion, both because it is among the only issues on which Baker and Green address their critics directly, and because it illuminates particularly clearly the pastoral concern that drives their project.

Already in the first edition, Green and Baker were careful to explain that their critique of penal substitution theories focused not on theologians’ nuanced articulations, but rather on its popular incarnations (31–32). This point was apparently lost on a number of defenders of the model, who, not seeing their beliefs reflected in Green and Baker’s characterization, retorted: I don’t believe in a spiteful God, nor does the orthodox tradition; therefore, the objections you raise are invalid. 6

In the second edition, Baker and Green respond in two ways. First, they reiterate that their primary concern is not the doctrine espoused by theologians, but rather what ordinary people hear when they hear about Jesus’ death (46–48, 177). Regardless of what theologians say in their esoteric tomes, it is clear from observing the evangelical landscape, they suggest, that the model lends itself, in everyday use, to mischaracterization of God (178). As Green asks in another publication, “How many readers must respond wrongly to an utterance before the utterance itself demands scrutiny? Should not an articulation of a doctrine, such as this particular model of the atonement, be reassessed at least in part with respect to how it has been received and is now represented more generally within the church?” 7 In other words, what use are the nuanced presentations of the professionals if the rest of us inevitably revert to the story in its crudest form?

This is, in essence, a practical or pastoral criterion for evaluating theological faithfulness: The doctrinal tree will be known by its fruit. I happen to find this compelling, but it is worth noting that such a criterion makes little sense according to the logic of most of Baker and Green’s interlocutors, for whom, one suspects, the task of the theologian is to articulate the truth, not to take responsibility for its effects. What this boils down to, finally, is a question of epistemology: If there is a one-to-one relationship between our doctrine and the reality to which it refers, pastoral considerations are beside the point. That is, if an articulation of penal substitution relates to the atonement as a map does to a landscape, accuracy is relatively easy to evaluate, and we don’t do travelers any favors by, say, depicting the distance between A and B as shorter than it really is. 8 If, though, as I believe Baker and Green would argue, theological truth describes living relationships and is thus irreducible to propositional representation, then it is difficult to conceive of a better way to evaluate the accuracy—or, better, the faithfulness—of our theology than to observe what it becomes in practice. 9

On this point—that of the relevance of popular expressions of atonement theory—Baker and Green are simply making more explicit the mode of argument present already in their first edition. The second way they address the question of caricature is new to the second edition, and challenges their critics more directly: Even theologians who are careful explicitly to repudiate popular “misunderstandings” of penal substitution have difficulty, they argue, avoiding articulations of the model that implicitly sponsor these same misunderstandings (178–83). So, for example, although J. I. Packer insists that atonement theology must not sunder the unity of the Trinity but instead have God the Father and God the Son acting in concert, nevertheless his description of the crucifixion renders Jesus the object and God the subject of God’s wrath: God acts, and Jesus is acted upon (181–82). Regardless of his explicit theological claims, then, in his presentation of the model “the fundamental logic of penal substitution” wins out (180).

This, then, is the heart of Baker and Green’s critique: In its popular incarnations, as well as in the presentations of those who, in fact, know better, penal substitution unfolds in accordance with its own problematic logic. This is an extremely important observation, and suggests that Baker and Green have intuited, first, that the penal substitution model is in fact conceptualized and received as a narrative—a story with characters and a plot—and, second, that it therefore conveys theological knowledge according to the logic of narrative. Any folklorist—or parable scholar, for that matter—knows that stories have their own momentum and inner logic, and that these constrain their telling. 10 An inventive teller of the story may resist that logic in her or his particular recitation, but will hardly redirect the stream of tradition.

New also to the second edition, though, is a discussion of penal substitution advocates—Kevin Vanhoozer receives the most detailed treatment—who have avoided the problems generally inherent in the model (183–91). In Baker and Green’s judgment, they have achieved this by fundamentally rethinking “the essential logic of the model” (183) rather than simply multiplying nuances and disclaimers. This is a useful addition, allowing Baker and Green to reaffirm the extent of their dissatisfaction with penal substitution business-as-usual, and yet also to make room for further dialogue with those committed to this tradition.

One possible critique here concerns the consistency of Baker and Green’s argument regarding “fundamental logic.” By any account, the logic of a “ransom” model of the atonement would demand that the ransom be paid to someone. Baker and Green correctly observe that this aspect of the implicit ransom narrative is not developed in the New Testament (59), and thus they criticize Gregory of Nyssa for following too closely the “logic of his metaphors” when he reasons that the ransom must have been paid to the devil (149–50). On the face of it, this appears to be a double standard: When advocates of penal substitution follow the logic of their model to unsavory conclusions, Baker and Green deem the model itself to be at fault, but when a theologian works out the troubling implications of the ransom motif, then the theologian is faulted for misusing what is in itself deemed a useful metaphor. What are we to make of this?

Here I think the problem is not, in fact, one of consistency; instead, the potential for confusion results from the underdevelopment of an implicit distinction between metaphors and models (cf. 166–67). The use of metaphor presupposes difference: Only because A is not B is the comparison between A and B interesting and illuminating. Therefore, as Baker and Green note, citing Umberto Eco, “not all properties are necessarily embraced or legitimated in a given use of a metaphor” (118). The same cannot be said of a model, which seeks to correspond in detail with the reality it represents. A model from which one must restrain oneself from working out certain of its implications is a poor model indeed.

From this perspective, then, Baker and Green are right to evaluate the penal substitution model on the basis of its fundamental logic, and are equally right to evaluate the ransom metaphor apart from whatever it would logically imply if it were a model. Indeed, it appears that what Gregory has done is precisely to turn the ransom metaphor into a model, and thereby to falsify it.

If this is correct—that is, if this is in accord with Baker and Green’s intent—I would be interested to hear more from them regarding the relative legitimacy of metaphors and models in describing the atonement. In their presentation of the New Testament data, we find few developed models, and many suggestive metaphors—“constellations of images” (123). How, then, might one move faithfully from biblical metaphors to theological models? Or is the very attempt to articulate such models misguided?

5. The New Testament uses a wide variety of metaphors to reflect on the significance of the atonement, including both legal and substitutionary images.

Baker and Green are convinced that by boiling down the diversity of biblical reflection on the atonement to a single theory or model we rob ourselves of a rich resource for theological reflection. Perhaps an analogy could be offered from the church’s decision to include in the canon not the Diatessaron, an early attempt at harmonizing the Gospels, but instead four distinct narratives of Jesus’ life, each with its own particular emphasis. Systematization was deemed less important than preserving this rich diversity of voices.

Advocates of penal substitution frequently offer, as rebuttal to Baker and Green, evidence that the New Testament describes Jesus’ death as substitutionary and that it uses legal language to speak of sin, its consequences, and its remission. 11 But this does not in fact address Baker and Green’s argument, for they too affirm that the New Testament uses the imagery of the law court and refers to Jesus’ death in terms of substitution. The question, they argue, is not whether these metaphors are found in the New Testament, but how they should be interpreted. As is emphasized more clearly in the second edition, there are numerous ways of conceptualizing substitution and substitutionary atonement, of which the theory of penal substitution is but one (166). Likewise, the existence in the New Testament of legal language leaves open the question of what sort of legal system is envisioned. Therefore, Baker and Green argue, “one could affirm that the cross has both a substitutionary and penal character yet disagree with the mechanics of how a penal substitution model of the atonement attempts to explain the character of the cross” (167). Put another way, perhaps it is only when penal substitution theory is already presupposed, that is, when it provides the interpretive lens through which these two discrete metaphors are read, that the texts in question appear to support the model.

Consider an example: Probably the text most frequently read as straightforward evidence for penal substitution is Romans 3:21–26. New to the second edition of Recovering the Scandal is an extended section on Paul’s view of the atonement that includes a thorough exegesis of these key verses (72–83). Baker and Green attempt to demonstrate that reading this text according to the logic of penal substitution theory in fact results in misinterpretation. What lies in the background here, they assert, is sacrifice as the means of restored covenant relationship between God and God’s people, not sacrifice as a way of appeasing God’s wrath. 12 The logic is covenantal, not juridical.

6. The actuality of the atonement exceeds our theologizing.

Baker and Green are convinced that the significance of the cross cannot exhaustively be represented in our attempts to understand and communicate it. “So infinite is the mystery of God’s saving work,” they explain, “that we need many interpretive images, many tones, many voices” (139). In the end, the atonement is the event itself, not our attempts to explicate it, which are always partial and provisional.

The most thoughtful attempt to respond to Baker and Green on this point is that of Henri Blocher. 13 Blocher recognizes that the New Testament contains diverse atonement metaphors, four of which he identifies as primary. Indeed, he emphasizes that the various metaphors are often found in close proximity, almost overlapping one another, with no apparent discomfort or fear of contradiction. 14 For Blocher, this phenomenon “is best explained by the hypothesis of an underlying doctrinal scheme which all four metaphorical sets are designed to serve and to suggest.” 15 Yes, there are diverse metaphors here, but they were not conceived independently, nor intended to be taken that way. For Blocher, they cannot be detached from the fundamental doctrine they presuppose.

If this were the case, one might well ask why the biblical writers used a variety of suggestive metaphors rather than simply explicating the underlying doctrinal scheme Blocher posits. A more substantive problem, though, is that Blocher fails to consider what is surely a more likely explanation for this concatenation of images: They all result from rereading the Scriptures in light of the cross. In other words, their coherence is not conceptual; rather, they cohere insofar as all are expressions of the same mode of hermeneutical activity. What explains their use in concert is not an underlying doctrine of the atonement, but the fundamental conviction that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3 NRSV; cf. Matt. 26; Luke 24; Acts 13:29). 16

What is more, Blocher neglects to consider that, regardless of their conceptual relationship to one another, for the early Christians all these images were connected because they had the same referent, namely, the experience of redemption in Christ. In other words, the unity of these metaphors was devotional, not doctrinal. We may safely assume that Paul’s Galatian converts, for example, did not declare loyalty to Christ because Paul’s proclamation was reasonable, a coherent model of atonement theology. On the contrary, Paul reports that their “believing what they heard” was consonant with their receiving of the Spirit (Gal. 3:2)—which is to say, Paul’s gospel provoked in them a new experience of freedom (5:1) and redemption (4:4–6). Of what, then, did this early popular atonement piety consist? Why did Paul’s “word of the cross” find fertile ground among his hearers? How did it connect with their experience? These are significant questions, I think, and it is unfortunate that they are so often neglected, victims of the assumption that what we are after when we read the New Testament is the cognitive content in the minds of its writers.

To put this another way, people are more than the sum of their conscious ideas, and therefore any account of atonement in the New Testament should be curious about how the message of the cross connected with the rest of what makes up a human being. Surely it is instructive here that the earliest evidence we have for atonement piety is not theological discourse at all but rather ritual practice, specifically, baptism and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, both of which predate any extant Christian text by nearly twenty years. 17 We don’t know what the earliest followers of Jesus were saying about the atonement, but we do know that they participated ritually in his death and resurrection—they shared in his body and blood; they joined in his death and resurrection—and thus experienced themselves as redeemed people. It is worth asking, then, however much it goes against our Protestant instincts, whether early atonement faith, like sacrifice among the Israelites, was governed not by theological/ideational logic at all, but rather by ritual logic. What if this is why both so obstinately resist theorization?

7. The mission of the church demands creative articulation of the significance of the atonement.

Recovering the Scandal is born of the conviction that theology must remain in dialogue with mission. Indeed, it is Baker and Green’s insistence that the church be able meaningfully to communicate in cultures other than those of North Atlantic modernity that fuels their reflections on forging creative ways of articulating the atonement. What does it mean to proclaim the cross in Japan, where the legal system and the conceptions of guilt and innocence on which penal substitution is predicated are absent? And, equally, what does it mean to proclaim the cross in “postmodern” North America, where the epistemological presuppositions that have made penal substitution theories intelligible are quickly disappearing? As Baker and Green ask, “What are we to make of a theory of atonement that many of us have come to regard as central to the Christian message and that popular Christianity practically equates to the work of Christ, yet which is unrelated to much of global Christian mission?” (45).

What Baker and Green advocate, then, is creative articulation that is both faithful to the biblical message and comprehensible within our particular and diverse contexts (253). This will always take place in dialogue with the witness of the Bible; indeed, we “apprentice ourselves” (259) to the writers of the New Testament, learning from not only a set of atonement metaphors but also the “craft” (256) of proclaiming the cross in a particular time and place. One thing we will learn from such apprenticeship is, Baker and Green emphasize, the art of being relevant without simply conforming to dominant patterns of thought. “How,” we must ask, “can I communicate the message in terms that make sense in this world in which we live while at the same time calling this world into question?” (252).

From this perspective, the problem with penal substitution theory is twofold: first, for much of the world it is irrelevant, if not incomprehensible; second, as Baker and Green emphasize with additional clarity in the second edition, it is too much at home in our particular world, too cozy with the individualism of the West (42). Baker and Green do not say as much, but I suspect they would conclude that precisely this twin problem confronts all theology that is not forged in conversation with mission: Being domesticated, it fails to challenge us, and it fails to resonate with anyone else.

One Outstanding Question

This is no place for a thorough discussion of the wrath of God, but I do want to raise a few questions about the rhetorical and exegetical moves that allow Baker and Green to assert that when Paul speaks of God’s wrath “there is no sense here of divine anger” (78). 18 I have no interest in rehabilitating the theological construct that underlies penal substitution theory, which misleads, I think, by divorcing New Testament wrath language from its eschatological frame of reference. Still, I am not at all persuaded by the claim that biblical references to God’s wrath do not connote anger or emotion.

First, and most basically, the attempt to void the term “wrath” of emotional content is, from a lexical perspective, quite simply a case of special pleading. Wrath (orgē) is precisely an outburst of passion, as could be demonstrated from an almost endless supply of citations from all manner of ancient literature. Wrath is what a man feels when he hears that his servant has tried to sleep with his wife (Gen 39:19). It is great wrath (hyperbolēn orgēs) that incites an enraged and seditious mob to defile a corpse (Josephus, B.J. 4.416). Wrath is likened to fire (Jer. 21:12; Lam. 2:3; Ezek. 22:31; 38:19), and apposed, in Paul (Rom. 2:8), as constantly in the Septuagint, with thumos—passion or fury. Certainly one must reckon with the theological tradition that lies behind Paul’s almost technical use of the phrase “wrath of God,” but that hardly means one can ignore what the word means in common usage.

Baker and Green add appeal to their argument by playing the reasonable Judeo-Christian God off against the capricious pagan gods of antiquity: “In ancient and classical Greek literature, the gods were often characterized by a certain arbitrariness of personality and action and were prone to anger, grudge and punishment” (70). It would be tantamount to paganism, then, mere superstition, to imagine that our God would be motivated by something so changeable as emotion. This is a traditional bit of apologetic, useful and victimless too, since there are no living practitioners of Greek paganism to take offence or give the caricature the lie. It is also dishonest.

Take, for example, Plutarch’s clever, rational, annoying, and bigoted little treatise, On Superstition. Plutarch, though a very pious man, even a priest at Delphi, does not believe in capricious gods. No, it is only the superstitious, he asserts, that “conceive [the] kindliness [of the gods] to be frightful, their fatherly solicitude to be despotic, their loving care to be injurious, their slowness to anger to be savage and brutal” (Mor. 167D [Perrin, LCL]). 19 Fine, you say, one enlightened Greek. But look: In a rhetorical move precisely parallel to that of Baker and Green, he chastises those who, departing from ancestral tradition, seek to placate irrational gods: Yes, you may be Greeks, but you’re behaving like barbarians (166A), like Jews (169C), when you believe such things.

Clearly, then, such rhetoric can cut both ways. My hunch is that the dividing line here is not between pagans and Jews/Christians, both of which groups are quite capable of believing either in unpredictable gods that must be mollified (cf. Num. 16:46; 25:4) or in reasonable and benevolent gods, but is instead a matter of social location—which is why professional theologians will, like Plutarch, always be attempting to enlighten the hoi polloi. 20 In most of our imaginations, God is the personification of absolute power, and so we cannot but conceive of God in terms of our own experiences of power. Those of us fortunate enough to know the exercise of power as something reasonable and consistent will find it easy to imagine God in such terms. Those routinely subject to autocratic, or (in North America) bureaucratic caprice, will find it natural to conceive of God accordingly. 21 (And some may, in fact, be heartened by the image of a passionate God who hates evil, and find a God who judges dispassionately rather too much like their exasperatingly “benevolent” social worker.)

In short, then, while I share Baker and Green’s concern with misleading and abusive use of God’s anger in popular evangelicalism, I don’t think it is honest or wise to try to explain that anger away. Such a move gives additional fuel to those who would seek, wrongly, to dismiss Recovering the Scandal as an attempt to make God palatable. What is more, living as we do in a society that maintains its wealth through ongoing complicity with the oppression and disenfranchisement of the poor, I don’t think we are well served by downplaying or muting the anger of God.


  1. Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, eds. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000); Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, eds. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011). Page numbers in parentheses refer to the second edition.
  2. Mark D. Baker, “Ten Ways God Works through the Cross and Resurrection to Provide Salvation,”
  3. See also the excellent new section on 1 Peter (107–10)—the fruit, I imagine, of Green’s work in producing 1 Peter, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
  4. There is some tension here in the claim that penal substitution sponsors a conception of God as “enraged or infuriated” because it derives from a “Western penal view of justice” (242). An angry God may be implied in much popular atonement theology, but this cannot be because of its dependence on Western judicial ideals, since these ideals demand an impassive judge—a judge for whom the legal code and not personal wrath is decisive. The atonement theory according to which God is personally enraged by sin until propitiated is thus conceptually distinct from the theory that has Jesus’ death satisfy a legal requirement—though these may well be conflated in popular piety.
  5. John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 174. Cf. already Augustine, Tract. Ev. Jo. 110.6 (NPNF1 7:411).
  6. E.g., Garry J. Williams, “Penal Substitution: A Response to Recent Criticisms,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (2007): 77–78. See further Baker and Green, Recovering the Scandal, 46n42.
  7. Joel B. Green, “Must We Imagine the Atonement in Penal Substitutionary Terms? Questions, Caveats, and a Plea,” in The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement, ed. Derek Tidball, David Hilborn, and Justin Thacker (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 160.
  8. That is, so long as all are agreed on the conventions of topography. The analogy breaks down if you think about it too long, but I imagine you see the point.
  9. I won’t elaborate here, but of course these divergent epistemological starting points cast their shadow over the debate in other ways too. For proponents of penal substitution, the model’s emphasis on the “objective” change in the status of sinners is of particular importance: People go from being guilty, to not being guilty, and thereby something real happens. Meanwhile, others can see nothing here but a legal fiction. And, apparently, each perspective is inscrutable to those who hold the other.
  10. See esp. Axel Olrik, “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative,” in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 129–41. On parables, see Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 18, 40–41.
  11. For just two examples, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, ed. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 67–116; Rob Thiessen, “At the Core” (letter to the editor), Mennonite Brethren Herald, August 2009,
  12. See, similarly, John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004), 105–8.
  13. Henri Blocher, “Biblical Metaphors and the Doctrine of the Atonement,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004): 629–45.
  14. Ibid., 640.
  15. Ibid.
  16. See esp. Donald Juel, Messianic Exodus: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).
  17. See esp. Gerd Lüdemann, “The First Three Years of Christianity,” Toronto Journal of Theology 25 (2009): 19–40.
  18. See, similarly, Jon Isaak, God is One and God is Fair: Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luminaire Studies (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2006), 40.
  19. Of course, Plutarch does know the Greek myths. They don’t bother him. He has an exegetical method that puts the apparent caprices of the gods in their proper perspective. See Adol. poet. aud. (Mor. 14D–37B).
  20. Instructive here is Ramsay MacMullen’s The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200–400, Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplement Series 1 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009).
  21. On the tendency to conceive of God in terms of social roles, see esp. Justin L. Barrett, “Smart Gods, Dumb Gods, and the Role of Social Cognition in Structuring Ritual Intuitions,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 2 (2002): 183–93; Justin L. Barrett and Frank C. Keil, “Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts,” Cognitive Psychology 31 (1996): 219–47.
Ryan Schellenberg is newly appointed Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Fresno Pacific University, and is a PhD candidate (New Testament) at the University of St. Michael’s College (University of Toronto). He first read Recovering the Scandal in Mark Baker’s classroom while a student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Fresno, California), from which he graduated in 2005.

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