Rachel Held Evans’s blog pointed me to this video by Steve Robinson, who hosts a podcast on Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Steve attempts to compare Protestant and Orthodox views of atonement—how it is that we sinners are reconciled to God. Atonement, at least in Western Christianity, is always centered on the cross. The central question that atonement answers is, “What does the cross mean?”
Robinson wants to say that the cross is far less important than the resurrection (and probably Christ’s descent into hell, as symbolized by his folding up the chairs, but I’m just guessing) in Eastern Christian thought. I have no idea if that’s a fair representation, but he knows much more about it than I do!
Be that as it may, if you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that any attempt to speak about a “Protestant” view of atonement should set off an alarm. There is no one Protestant view of atonement. In fact, there’s no one Roman Catholic view, either. The Catholics have dogmatized so many peripheral ideas related to faith, I’m surprised that they haven’t dogmatized one view of atonement. But they haven’t. (To dogmatize something is to say that all Christians in good standing must believe this doctrine.)
Robinson isn’t nearly as obnoxious an Orthodox apologist as some of our Catholic apologist friends are. (Scott Hahn, I’m looking at you!) If he were, he would know that there are—how many, Scott?—something like 100,000 Protestant denominations, each of which has its own unique way of understanding every aspect of Christianity with no common ground between them whatsoever. Therefore, it’s preposterous to talk about a Protestant view of anything. For some reason, Robinson fails to appreciate this fact.
No, I like Robinson. He presents a reasonably accurate and non-judgmental view of penal substitution. The problem is that while most Protestants accept some version of substitutionary atonement (and, I hasten to add, how could they not, since it’s clearly a biblical motif?), why would they divorce it, as Robinson seems to do, from God’s amazing love?
By all means, our sin has offended a holy God. Our sin has separated us from God. Our sin deserves punishment. And on the cross, God in Christ bore the punishment our sin deserves. But what motivates God to accomplish this atoning work on the cross? Love, of course. It’s all because of love! I’m not aware of any major Protestant church or tradition that denies this.
Robinson implies that we Protestants believe that God’s wrath is somehow at odds with God’s love. That’s simply not true. Everything God does, God does out of love. (I know that many liberal Protestants believe that God’s wrath is at odds with God’s love—and they reject substitutionary atonement for that reason—but liberal Protestantism is a recent development. Give me that old-time religion, not the new stuff.)
As I watched Robinson’s illustration of the Orthodox view of atonement, I saw nothing in it that was incompatible with penal substitution. Not that his view of atonement was sufficient: Where is judgment for sin? Where is wrath? And what about all the substitutionary language in the New Testament?
But mostly I wanted to say to him, “It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.”