Does Isaiah 53 Support Penal Substitutionary Atonement? (A Response to the Progressive Christian Interpretation of the Suffering Servant)
In light of my recent podcasts on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), I'm thrilled to welcome Clark Bates to guest post on the blog today about Isaiah 53, a scripture that is often used to support the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross. Often referred to as "Cosmic Child abuse," many progressive Christians believe that Isaiah 53 is mis-used and wrongly interpreted to support this doctrine. Clark is well qualified to answer this claim, and does so thoroughly and thoughtfully. Enjoy!
Since the time of the apostles, a foundational doctrine of the Christian church is the atonement of Jesus Christ, made by means of his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. The fact of the atonement is an essential part of the gospel message. However, over the years, the purpose of the atonement has been something of an inside theological debate. A predominant theological perspective of the atonement within Protestant Christianity is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (hereafter PSA). Although the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sin is found directly in Scripture and the church fathers, the official doctrine of PSA was made popular by St. Anselm in the 11th century with his writing Cur de Homo. Anslem wrote, “Everyone who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God.”(1.11)This perspective was carried into the Reformation by Martin Luther and John Calvin, and it has predominated for some time since.
The cardinal tenet of PSA is that God the Father is owed a debt by mankind that has been incurred through the imputation of sin from the first man, Adam (Gen. 2; Rom. 3). This sin debt is of such a kind that it cannot be repaid by man, and thus a substitute must take his place. Foreshadowed through the OT sacrificial system, wherein an unblemished animal was placed on an altar and sacrificed on behalf of the sins of the individual (and at times the nation) (Lev.4), PSA understands the fulfillment of this payment to be found in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Heb. 9). Therefore, PSA states that the atonement of Jesus on behalf of those who would believe served as a payment to God the Father. In effect, the Son received the punishment (penal) for sin, in the place of (substitution) mankind who owed the debt, with the result, and for the purpose of, paying that debt (atonement) to the Father. And this Christ did willingly, not under compulsion (Anslem, Cur de Homo1.10).
The Progressive Opposition to PSA
It is no secret that many of the most popular voices in what is regularly being called “Progressive Christianity” (hereafter PC) find PSA to be an abominable teaching. While I don’t want to be unfair to those in the PC movement by categorizing them all in the same belief, it is true that the most vocal believe this, write about this, and tend to lean toward the same, preferred alternative atonement theory. What follows in this post is a response to an article found here by Santo Calarco. I have chosen this article because it appears in the online journal Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, to which Brian Zahnd is a contributor, and because it attempts to give a biblical defense against PSA in Isaiah 53. This view is also defended, along similar grounds, by Bradley Jersak in his book A More Christlike God.
The alternative theory of the atonement presented both in the article and elsewhere in the PC movement is historically known as the Moral Influence Theory. In the article to be examined, the author concludes with this:
“When we read Isaiah 53 through the lenses it provides, we end up with a totally different reading to what we have been accustomed. We see nothing about God’s wrath being appeased; nothing about God killing the Servant; nothing about substitution; but everything about identification, forgiveness, subversion of violence and restoration to peace.”
Moral Influence Theory was developed in the Middle Ages by the theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142). It was a response to his teacher Anselm’s “Satisfaction Theory” (which would eventually become known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement). Abelard was mortified by the idea that God was wrathful and demanded a payment or ransom for sin. For Abelard, an impassible God could not “change his mind” regarding the fate of a sinner on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death. As such, Abelard’s theory of the atonement was one of influence. Jesus’ death on the cross was a demonstration to the world of God’s love, not his wrath. Consequently, those who see it, and understand it as such, will necessarily turn their hearts and minds back to God. How this alternative to PSA is read into the Scriptures is best seen in the article by Calarco, to which I will now turn.
Punished by God or Man?
“First, we need to see that two conflicting sets of perceptions are being recorded. ‘We thought he was being punished and attacked by God’ – human perspective. But then the truth surfaces: “But he was wounded because of our rebellious deeds. This means that we need to be careful and tease out false human perceptions from the truth! The text says that “we thought” God was punishing and attacking the Servant, but we got it wrong! It was not God that wounded the innocent Servant, but he was crushed ‘because of our rebellious deeds.’ In other words, it was not God that killed and punished the Servant, but us!”
Beginning with the author’s first approach to vv. 3-5, there is some room for agreement. It is true that the passage portrays the perspective of those watching the Suffering Servant being punished. It is also true that they are mistaken in their perception. The difference, however, is in what waythey were mistaken. As we read it in the NET Bible (the translation used by the article), those who observe the punishment of the Servant believed it to be an attack from God and afflicted for something he had done. This last statement is in the text of the verse, but noticeably omitted in the article.
Verse 4b contains an important interpolation that necessarily affects the way in which the text should be read. The last portion of the verse, the one omitted by the article, states that the Servant was “afflicted for something he had done.” Everything after “afflicted” is added to the verse in English for clarity. You will not find this interpolation in other English translations, but given that this is the translation used by the article, it seems appropriate to use it here in response. But why add this feature?
Calarco suggests it is because the Servant is punished, not by God, but by the people. The interpolation is meant to clarify the mistake made in the previous clause that says “we thought that he was being punished, attacked by God…” not because it wasn’t God punishing the Servant, but because they assumed that if God was punishing him, it was because of something the Servant had done. This is perfectly consistent with many Old Testament passages such as Job 4:7; 8:13, and it is the unifying structure of the sacrificial system of Leviticus. Therefore, the people observing the Servant’s suffering, being Jews, would naturally assume that his suffering was for something he had done wrong.
“he was wounded for ourrebellious deeds.” The article rightly recognizes that the perception of the people is wrong, but by omitting the last portion of the verse, it incorrectly concludes it is the people who are punishing the Servant and not God. While this is also partly true, and will be discussed below, it is not what the verse is meaning to convey. The point is that the Servant is not suffering for his own sin, but because of the sins of the people. It is the very language of substitution.
“The passage says repeatedly that a miscarriage of justice has taken place. Are we going to accuse God of sin by charging him with injustice? The passage says that the mob punished him unjustly! There is nothing here about God punishing the Servant and killing him to satisfy wrath and so demonstrate his justice.”
This perspective demands that unjust human actions cannot be used justly by God. Yet, as we read in many places in Scripture, that is exactly what God repeatedly does (Gen. 50:20; Ex. 3:18-21; 2 Sam. 12:24; Is. 45:1/2 Chron. 36:22). While it is a fairly consistent tenet of the leading voices within PC to say that the Old Testament only conveys what people thought about God, not the truth about God, this does not satisfy.
First, to argue that the OT only contains the mistaken understandings of the Jews regarding God unnecessarily pits the OT against the New Testament. More significantly, it leaves the reader open to determining for themselves which parts of the OT depiction of God are accurate and which are not. Inevitably, when given this option, God will always agree with each individual’s preferences. Second, if the OT examples above are nothing more than a mistaken Jewish theology, to be done away with after the revelation of Jesus, why is it that Peter uses this same argumentation in the first Christian sermon recorded in the book of Acts (Acts 2:22-24)?
Lost in Translation?
“Because, not for our sins. Second, did you see how the NET does not say that he was punished ‘for’ our sins but ‘because of our sins’? So, what’s the difference? The Hebrew preposition translated “for” is ‘min’. It does not mean ‘for’ but ‘from’ or ‘out of’ or ’because of’. This is why the NET has more accurately translated the preposition as ‘because of’ our sins to mean that it was ‘out of, from, as a means of, because of’ our sinful actions that the servant was killed! This is more in harmony with the general thrust of the whole chapter as we have already seen.
There is nothing to disagree with at this point, except to clarify what appears to be the author’s unfamiliarity with the original languages. While it is true that the Hebrew preposition מן(min) can mean “from,” this is typically the case when it stands as an independent preposition. When the preposition acts with causative force, as it does in this verse, it is generally translated “on account of” or “because of.” In this way, I agree with the face value of the statement made by the author. However, the impression is given in the article that the preposition can mean any of the options above. It is possible that those translations which render the minas “for” interpret its use to be one of restraint (an acceptable use of the preposition in some instances). In this case, it would be understood that the Servant has taken the sins “from” the people, i.e., he is dying “for” their sins. But I cannot say this is the actual reasoning of those translationcommittees.
“This same point is substantiated in the Greek Version [called the Septuagint] of the Hebrew text. Remember that when New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament [they] actually quoted the Greek version of it! The Greek of this text has the preposition ‘dia’ followed by the accusative case of the noun to follow - which again means exactly the same as what the Hebrew says! If you look up any basic Greek Grammar you will read that ‘dia’ followed by nouns in the accusative case, means ‘because of’ not for! See “The elements of New Testament Greek”, by J.W. Wenham, p.66.”
As with the Hebrew, I would largely agree with the basic statement made here about the Greek, with a few caveats. First, there is still the same imprecision about what is being said. While it is true that διά(dia), when followed by an accusative, can mean “because of,” that is only the case when the preposition has causal force. When the preposition precedes an accusative with reference to time, it should be translated “during,” when referring to a place, it should be translated as “through,” and if the preposition is used to express purpose, it should be translated as “for.” Therefore, it is not as simple to assert that whenever διάis followed by a noun in the accusative case, it always means “because of.”
Additionally, the translation of the preposition as “for our sins” is perfectly acceptable, if an adequate linguistic argument can be made that it is a preposition of purpose.I would note too that any position regarding translation that involves the argument “even Beginning Grammars will tell you…” neglects to recognize that Beginning Grammars are intentionally basic, because the new student is not ready to learn the complexities of the language at that stage of reading.
“What I find interesting is the inconsistency I see in many English translations. For example, the NASB translates the exact same preposition as “for” in verse 5 but “by” in verse 8! To say that the Servant was killed ‘for’ our sins or ‘by’ our sins means two totally different things! The first may denote substitution but the latter cannot.”
While it is true that both the Hebrew and the Greek prepositions at work in these verses are the same, and carry the same meaning, that meaning is not fixed but can alternate between the examples given above, depending on the context. What the author perceives to be inconsistency is really nothing more than the way language operates. In the same way that an English word like “hand” can have different meanings based on its use, so too can Hebrew and Greek words. This is why there is difference between v.5 and v.8.
Concerning the use of languages in this section, I must clarify that while I agree with the basic points he has made, I do not agree with the conclusions. The reason I don’t agree is there is nothing within this argument that foils PSA. PSA maintains that Jesus, acting as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, died, not just on behalfof the sins of the people, but also because of their sins. It is precisely because mankind is sinful that the Servant must die; therefore, his death is both caused by their sins and also for the purpose of removing their sins.
What about “The Lord’s will was to crush him with pain”?!! Isaiah 53:10
“Surely this can only mean that God beat Jesus up?! Right? Wrong!The truth is that the original Hebrew language is untranslatable! Look at what translators of the New Revised Standard Version say on their footnotes to this verse:
a. Isaiah 53:10 meaning of Hebrew uncertain
b. Isaiah 53:10 Meaning of Hebrew uncertain
The Greek version of this verse, written 200 years before Jesus, by Jewish Hebrew scholars who were fluent in their native tongue and Greek have rendered the Hebrew text as follows: when the Greek text is translated into English it says:
‘and the Lord desires to purify him [the Servant] of the plague’!
What?! Yes! They never saw the Hebrew [which was their native tongue] saying that God willed to crush the servant with pain but understood it to say that God willed to purify him from the plague he endured! Totally opposite!
When the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it does so by referring to the Greek Version of the Hebrew. This means that we need to take this Greek version seriously especially since we don’t know what the Hebrew says! So, let’s not build such an important teaching on a verse that is non translatable from the Hebrew.”
There are many aspects in which this argument overextends itself. I must begin by pointing out that both in the Hebrew and the Greek, what is not “uncertain” is that it was the “will of the Lord” to do whatever follows. This is important, given that the entire premise of the article is that what has befallen the Servant was not the action or will of God. Now, it is true that the Hebrew is uncertain regarding what follows, but that is not the same as claiming that it is “untranslatable.” If it were, we would not see the remarkable level of agreement in the English translations of this passage. I would also agree that it is not a healthy practice to build a doctrine on an uncertain passage of Scripture. However, the doctrine of PSA does not rely on Is. 53:10 alone, nor does it need v.10 for the overall message of substitution already seen thus far.
What do we do with the uncertainty of v.10? To begin, when divergences between the LXX and the Hebrew text of the Old Testament occur, it can often be attributed to spelling mistakes. Simply put, depending on the quality of the Hebrew manuscript being used by the scribe translating it into Greek, various errors can occur. This is especially the case with certain Hebrew letters that are remarkably similar in appearance. In the case of the Hebrew text, which is translated in the NET Bible as “to crush him,” the word for “crush” without vowel points looks like this: דכא(daka). On the other hand, the word for “heal” or “purify,” as the article suggests, looks like this:רפא (rapha). In a handwritten manuscript, the Hebrew letters דand רare remarkably similar, as are the letters כand פ. While not conclusive, it is highly likely that the scribe misread the Hebrew text to read “heal” rather than “crush” and translated this into Greek, resulting in the change in the LXX.
Another reason that the Hebrew reading of Isaiah presents a conundrum is that the Hebrew 2nd person plural (you) and 3rd person singular (he/she/it) in this passage are identical. The Greek reflects a choice of the 2nd person plural (you) in its translation which renders the rest of the verse opaque, whereas the English translations of the Hebrew have opted for the 3rd person singular (he). That is what is uncertain in the text. While Calarco would have you believe that the entire verse is in question, it is not.
With all of this being said, both the Hebrew and the Greek text agree that what is happening to the Servant is God’s will, and while it is true that the apostolic community often cites the LXX, v.10 is not cited in any New Testament text, making much of this argument moot.
“Because the Servant willingly submitted to the violent death of the violent crowd, because he is numbered WITH the rebels, identified with them, lifted up their sin, intervened for the murderous rebels; and the murderous rebels are acquitted from their sin as a result of what the Servant went through!
The Servant endures violence and murder to heal the murderers! This whole process is about restoration! God intended to restore the mobs right in the face of their murder! God subverts sinful violence by absorbing it and bringing good from the evil. Now this sounds like God!”
There is very little explanation given here for why the author understands the acquittal specifically for those who have abused the Servant. The text reads, “My servant will acquit many.” While it might be presumed that those who abused him are potentially part of the “many,” there is no indication of this in the text, or that it is limited to them. And while I can agree that there are aspects of this text that speak of restoration, it is still a restoration brought about through the vicarious suffering of the Servant.
A Glaring Omission
Before engaging with the final point in the article and making some final points of my own, I can’t help but point out that the article avoids Is. 53:6. In more widely read translations, this verse reads that “the Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all,” whereas the NET Bible reads, “the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him.” While I might quibble about the differences in these two options, what is striking about this text—and even more so about its omission in this article—is that the text very clearly states in both translations that it is the Lord who causes this to happen! Given that the article’s starting point was to argue that the suffering of the Servant was NOT the Lord’s doing, I would think that v.6 would need to be addressed. Sadly, as it has been avoided, I cannot comment on how this would be explained by the PC that holds to this theory of atonement, nor can I see how it can be explained away.
Out with the Old, in with the New
Read 1 Peter 2:21-24 where Peter quotes this passage. Here we see that Peter understands Isaiah in terms of restoration amidst violence. Peter nowhere understands Isaiah 53 the way it is preached nowadays in the western church. When he quotes Isaiah 53, he says nothing about God putting sins onto Jesus in order to punish him on our behalf in order to satisfy his wrath!
It is interesting that the author cites 1 Peter 2:21-24 and asserts that the author only understands Is. 53 through the lens of restoration. Given that the author has spent considerable time discussing the Hebrew and the Greek of Isaiah, it would be beneficial to do the same here, particularly in the case of a singular Greek verb, ἀνήνεγκεν. I find this to be important because it falls within the opening clause of 1 Peter 2:24, which reads, “He (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree…” The use of this Greek verb is one of bearing or carrying; however, when it appears in sacrificial texts, it means to offer as a sacrifice or to make an expiation or compensation.This word appears in the epistle to the Hebrews 13:15 as well and is the Greek word used in LXX Isaiah 53:12.
I feel this is important, as its context in 1 Peter is certainly one of example, but the actual referent is one of substitutionary atonement. Certainly, I would agree there is an element of restoration, in that Peter is reminding his audience that they have been made new through Christ, but this restoration has only been given to them through the sacrifice of the Savior.
While the focus of this article has been to demonstrate the faulty reasoning behind this particular approach to Isaiah 53, I would like to close with a few observations about the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. As you may have noticed, several times within this article I have agreed with its author. I have done this because the truth of PSA does not eliminate other aspects of the atonement—it only serves as the necessary foundation for all of them. It is true that the sacrifice of Christ provides restoration from sin, both for the believer and ultimately the world. It is also true that through his sacrifice on the cross, Christ has proclaimed victory over sin and the Accuser. It can also be said that Christ’s life and sacrifice are the ultimate moral example for mankind. But without the atonement for the sin debt owed by every individual on earth, none of these other features can mean anything.
We should recognize that PSA does not rely solely on Isaiah 53, so even if there were more cogent arguments against reading it in the Isaianic text, it would not remove the teaching elsewhere.While the ideas presented by progressive Christianity are enticing, they cannot account for the theme of sin, fall, sacrifice and redemption that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. The rise in popularity of these alternative theories of atonement should serve as a clarion call to the church that the full nature of sin and guilt, alongside the immeasurable magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, must be taught more clearly and more passionately.
See Brian Zahnd’s debate with Dr. Michael Brown https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T27av-RF2-Yespecially at minute 10:50 where Zahnd states that PSA is the “ugliest theory of atonement that exists.”
Brian Zahnd wrote the foreword to that text, so it would seem reasonable to conclude that he would also agree with the positions presented.
J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, Eerdmans, 2001.
This should not be confused with the “Moral Example Theory” popularized by Faustus Socinus in the 16th century, which believed that Jesus’ death was a perfect example of self-sacrificial dedication to God.
Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, 119.4.d.2.
Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Ddia%2F
For a more in depth discussion of the language, read B. Jankowski, “He Bore Our Sins: Isaiah 53 and the Drama of Taking Another’s Place,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, Eerdmans, 2004; E.R. Eckbald Jr., Isaiah’s Servant Poems According to According to the Septuagint: An Exegetical and Theological Study, Peeters, 1999.
In the comments section of the article there is a very brief response related to v.6, but it does not address the challenges, and it even states that the early church understood the passage to be one of substitution!
Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=anhnegken&la=greek#lexicon
Heb. 9:11-14; Mk. 10:45; Col 2:13-15
For more reading on the matter I recommend Cilliers Breytenbach, “The Septuagint Version of Isaiah 53 and the Early Christian Formula ‘He was Delivered for Our Trespasses,’” Novum Testamentum, vol. 51, 2009.