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Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) to Covenantal-Relational Atonement (CRA)

This series is an attempt to elucidate the dialectical (both/and) tension at the heart of Brethren theology and to relay its importance for today. These posts are using the definition of “evangelicalism” found in David Bebbington’s magnificent work, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980sMore specifically, we will be exploring the distortions of Bebbington’s criteria and offer a corrective from J. Allen Miller for Brethren life. You can find my comments on Bebbington’s criteria here and my biographical sketch of J. Allen Miller here. You can also check out my last post on moving from a “decision for Christ” to conversionary discipleship here.

Bebbington Criteria


Miller’s Corrective

Crucicentrism Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)

Covenantal-Relational Model of the Atonement (CRA)[1]

In his discussion on the atonement, Miller lays out six elements that must be found for an atonement theory to be true to Scripture.

(1) Jesus Christ is himself the propitiation; (2) He is such by the act of God, for it is said that God sent him, or that God set him forth; (3) Jesus Christ as High Priest is said to make propitiation; (4) The propitiation is for sin; (5) by or through or in his blood; and (6) through faith.[2]

Miller’s six elements for a biblical, and therefore Brethren, theory of the atonement can be translated as follows: 1) it must be Christocentric; 2) God must initiate; 3) Christ must serve as mediator; 4) a propitiation is necessary; 5) Christ’s death is necessary and substitutionary; and 6) salvation is through voluntary association with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Within the parameters established by these six elements, Miller utilized various theologians to shape his understanding of the atonement.

Miller did not live in an ecclesial vacuum. The Brethren of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced the same theological struggles and debates as other Protestant groups. Miller’s challenge was living in the land between the extremes. As has been mentioned in prior posts, Fundamentalism made the Bible’s authority synonymous with inerrancy and a suspicion of reason. Liberalism took the Brethren’s traditionally more optimistic anthropology and emphasis on the life of Christ and made it A) synonymous with immanence absent any sort of transcendence and B) an ethic focused on justice over and against discipleship. Miller quickly rejects any theology that pits incarnation against atonement as the two go hand-in-hand. He writes in his doctrinal writings:

It has been said that the central fact of Christianity is the Incarnation of our Lord and that the main object of the Incarnation is the Atonement. The facts stated in the simplest manner are: man is a sinner and as such is estranged from God; sin involves penalty because of guilt incurred; sin also enslaves, weakens, and at last destroys moral endeavor; sin ends in spiritual death. Now man cannot redeem himself. He can in no way secure release from the power of sin by his own effort. He can never deliver himself from the guilt and the penalty of his sin. Redemption must come from God. It must be a gift of grace. It must fully meet the demands of God’s righteousness and justice as well as set the sinner free and secure his salvation. All this God does by the redemption he wrought in and through Jesus Christ.[3]

For Miller, Jesus’ death cannot be separated from his life. His emphasis on the life of Jesus is central to a Brethren Christology and subsequent understanding of the atonement. One cannot overlook the life of Christ and skip to the crucifixion. Though Miller never comments on penal substitutionary theologians, at least in writing, we are left with inferences from writings we do have. Miller cannot agree with transference of guilt so that Christ is punished in our place. He notes:

In a simple and concise statement we must say that guilt attaches to sin committed and to him who commits it…There can be no transfer of guilt. Guilt is blameworthiness experienced by the individual who is conscious of wrong, wrong done by himself of any sort whatsoever. Penalty is the just retribution from such wrong done.[4]

Christ is not to blame. Nor does God ever make Christ to blame. God’s justice is not retributive in Miller’s theology. Instead, Miller asks for a clarification of terms. Miller offers the following distinctions:

We speak of course of distinctions regarding sin, guilt, and penalty. In the judgment of the writer, to transfer, were that possible, the guilt and penalty of one to another who knew no sin and was utterly innocent and thus attempting to make him the object of God’s wrath, not only violates these moral distinctions but it contradicts God’s justice.[5]

Miller insists that the New Testament never reads, “Christ died instead for us.”[6] But, contrary to liberal theologians who avoided the substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice, “[Christ] did die on our behalf, for our interests, for our sake, for our sin. He died in our behalf and because of our sin. We were under the death penalty.”[7] The last line is a direct challenge to the overly optimistic understandings of sin and humanity presented by liberal theologians of the period. While Miller stressed the importance of Christ’s life, a win with liberal theologians, he tethers his atonement theology to more conservative paradigms regarding the totality of sin’s effect and humanity’s inability to save themselves. Sin is not a bad feeling or simply a condition. Sin is a distortion of God’s will for humanity that has both individual and social expressions.

In an article written in the July 27, 1910 Brethren Evangelist, Miller elaborates on his doctrine of sin and asserts that Scripture teaches us:

  1. Sin is primarily involved in a personal relation.
  2. Sin is disobedience to a Divine law or self-assertion against God.
  3. Since the race is a unit sin is a unit and hence the universal consciousness of sin.
  4. Sin involves guilt and consequent punishment. The solidarity of the race does not free the one sinning from personal responsibility.
  5. God graciously and fully pardons sin upon His [sic] own necessary conditions.[8]

As if reinforcing his orthodox beliefs against accusations of liberalism, Miller closes the article with these strong words: “The one phase of human inability which we can assert with positive certainty is that man cannot save himself. Jesus is the only Savior. He is the Divine Savior.”[9]

Miller names a point missing within theological liberalism—salvation from spiritual death. Liberalism’s understanding of eschatology was a world perpetually renewed by the efforts of those faithful to the kingdom. Miller borrows his corrective from a more conservative eschatology:

His dying a bodily death, a kind of dying, saves us or delivers us from spiritual death, an altogether different sort of dying. Thus, in this particular, his death was symbolic of the death from which he saves us. It was not strictly and literally the same. There is not in this, however, the slightest hint that he was punished instead of us in his dying for us.[10]

Miller contends, quoting George Barker Stevens (1854-1906), that Christ’s “experience of the consequences of sin was entirely vicarious and representative.”[11] The full context of the quote found in Steven’s Theology of the New Testament, reveals how Christ serves as substitute for our punishment through his sufferings. Christ is not punished. He willingly suffers the penalty of sin so that we may experience freedom.[12] Such a view

excludes the notion that in dying God’s wrath was visited upon Jesus making him the guilty object of retributive justice…No transfer of guilt; no punishment inflicted as penalty upon an innocent and sinless substitute could meet the ends of divine justice and at the same time also meet the ends of penalty due a guilty sinner.[13]

Jesus voluntarily associated with us in his suffering. According to Miller, writing on the Apostle Paul’s exposition on Christ being made sin on our behalf (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21),

This is far from saying that Jesus was made a sinner or that he was regarded as such. He did experience the consequences of sin. He was treated as a sinner. He shared the lot of a sinner but in no personal sense but entirely and absolutely in a representative manner. Thus in a representative manner he came into the shame and suffering of sin for us.[14]

This voluntary offering of Christ on our behalf is central to Miller’s understanding of expiation. Expiation claims that a debt is owed and we cannot pay it. The debt is that we have sinned and broken God’s law.

Miller begins to articulate a Christological difference between his writings and those of evangelical liberalism. While evangelical liberals claimed that Christ and God were one, they did not believe in oneness the same as Miller. Gary Dorrien explains in his description of the evangelical liberalism of Horace Bushnell (1802-1876):[15]

Bushnell described Christ as a mediator only in the figurative sense of being a medium of God to us as a being in humanity. Put differently, he explained, Christ is not separate from God, even as a mediator: ‘Whatever we may say, or hold, or believe, concerning the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, we are to affirm in the same manner of God. The whole deity is in it, in it from eternity, and will to eternity be’…It is God who enters the world in Christ, shares our condition, and suffers and dies for us.”[16]

Bushnell’s oft quoted phrase declared, “There is a cross in God before the wood is seen upon Calvary; hid in God’s own virtue itself, struggling on heavily in burdened feeling through all the previous ages, and struggling as heavily now even in the throne of the world.”[17] There are subtle but profound differences in the Christology espoused by Bushnell and that of Miller. While Bushnell saw a “medium” on the cross of Calvary, Miller saw the incarnate God. Expiation was not God inflicting punishment on his mediator. Instead, expiation, for Miller, was God choosing to suffer on our behalf to meld the justice and love of God.

We find that Jesus Christ is Himself an expiatory sacrifice voluntarily offered by him for sin, the merit of which must be appropriated by faith. At the same time it is such a sacrifice in his blood as exhibits the righteousness of God, that is, God’s attitude toward and his dealing with sin. The student must guard against any idea of propitiating God. God does not need to be appeased. He is not angry in any such sense. God reconciles man to himself but not because God has a personal feeling of anger.[19]

The fact that God voluntarily suffers on behalf of humanity makes all the difference for Miller’s theology. He finds an unfair caricature being used by theological liberals regarding more conservative understandings of the atonement. While he appreciates their critique of the traditional understandings of PSA, he is cautious to not couple their critique (and his own) with a dismissal of expiation.

The question then arises as to why Christ’s death is needed. It is here that Miller bridges both the ethical concerns of evangelical liberalism and the substitutionary concerns of more fundamentalist groups. He writes:

In the exercise of the priest’s office the most important function is that of the offering by the priest of the sacrifice. Now Jesus had also himself an offering to make. This offering was none else than Himself, his own blood. Thus he is at once the offerer and the offering . . . .The truth of this teaching is that Jesus Christ is evermore making his work effective in bringing men to God. He is the way to God. Through him we have access to the Father.[20]

But Miller is quick to caution that Christ’s priestly role does not afford us a subjective and individualistic conclusion to the atonement (or salvation more generally). He comments later:

Certainly enough has been said to describe as fully as language can this marvelous, mystical and spiritual, yet real and vital change that takes place in the life of every person born again. It is a real thought mystical change . . . .It is a great moral and spiritual adjustment to the verities of the Christ-life. It is ofttimes [sic] a change so radical as to be a revolution in life and thought. It is the entrance of the life of a man into personal union and fellowship with his Savior and Lord, the Master of the souls of men, Jesus Christ.[21]

This “real” and “personal union,” as Miller understood such terms, is lived out within a kingdom-minded community that is the church (which is distinct from the kingdom itself).

Miller’s views are consistent with those of Brethren theologian Brenda B. Colijn in an article entitled, “Incalculable Grace: A Covenantal-Relational Understanding of Atonement.” Rejecting the misplaced violence of both the satisfaction model and PSA, she articulates what the cross means within a covenantal-relational paradigm:

The cross is paradigmatic of what happens whenever forgiveness takes place. To forgive is to give up one’s demand for retributive justice. Rather than balancing the scales, forgiveness puts the scales aside to invite the offender into restored relationship, creating an opportunity for transformation. God in Christ enacts forgiveness on the cross, inviting all people through the Spirit to participate in a relationship of love and fidelity as they act as agents of reconciliation in the world.[22]

This is all made possible because

instead of punishing us, God pardons us. Instead of collecting our debt, God writes it off. This view of atonement is consistent with the generosity of God depicted in both Old and New Testaments…. Although there is no punishment, there is very real substitution that takes place at the cross, just as it takes place in every act of forgiveness. The one who has been offended must take the place of the offender, bearing the pain of the offense rather than requiring that the offender do so. The creditor takes the place of the borrower. Jesus dies bereft of God so that human beings will not have to, and he rises again so that death will eventually be destroyed.[23]

With their rejection of imputed guilt inherent in PSA and stress upon a life that now lives covered by the voluntarily shed blood of Jesus, new believers live out a new covenant in relationship with God through the Son and empowered by the Spirit. Miller (and Colijn) take the PSA model, better define agency and purpose of atonement, and forge a new path that Colijn rightly calls the covenantal-relational model. Their views are offered as an attempt to articulate a Brethren theory of the atonement.

[1] See Brenda B. Colijn. “Incalculable Grace: A Covenantal-Relational Understanding of Atonement.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Wesleyan Theological Society, Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, Idaho, March 7-8, 2014. Colijn, a Brethren elder and theologian, offers a Wesleyan-Pietist critique of the moral satisfaction and penal substitutionary models of the atonement.

[2] J. Allen Miller, Christian Doctrine: Lectures and Sermons (Ashland, OH: Brethren Publishing Company, 1946), 43.

[3] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 35.

[4] Ibid, 38.

[5] Ibid, 39.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. Allen Miller, “Doctrinal and Practical: Sin and Human Need (IV),” The Brethren Evangelist 32 (July 27, 1910): 7.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 39.

[11] Ibid, 40.

[12] See George Barker Stevens, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 411. Stevens writes: “The apostle is careful not to say that Christ was a sinner, or that personally he was regarded as such; he says that he “was made sin for us ” (2 Cor. v. 21); that is, he was, for the sake of others, and not for his own sake, treated as a sinner. His experience of the consequences of sin was entirely vicarious and representative. These considerations look towards the conclusion that with Paul substitution means, not the substitution of Christ’s punishment for our punishment, but the substitution of his sufferings, which were not of the nature of punishment, for our punishment; in other words, the substitution of another method of revealing and vindicating the divine righteousness in place of the method of punishment. God in his grace adopts another course of procedure with sinful man than that of retributive justice and a course which more fully displays his glorious perfections.”

[13] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 40.

[14] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 41.

[15] See Horace Bushnell. Major Works of Horace Bushnell, ed. Midas Classics. London: Midas Classics Publishing, 2016.

[16] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 168-169.

[17] Ibid, 169. Dorrien writes regarding this last line: “This sentence scandalized reviewers across the theological spectrum, as Bushnell expected it would. Unitarianism lost the heart of the gospel message when it renounced the Trinity, he observed; orthodoxy lost it when the church drove a wedge between God and the work of Christ. Theological liberals rejected anything that smacked of anthropomorphism or Trinitarian metaphysics; conservatives rejected anything that ‘humanized’ God’s transcendent personhood. In both cases, a cultivated abhorrence of divine passibility negated the church’s communication of the stupendously gracious love behind Christ’s atonement and led to spiritual bankruptcy. Bushnell proposed to take the cross more seriously as the expression of God’s outreaching fellow suffering love: ‘Let us come then not to the wood alone, not to the nails, not to the vinegar and the gall, not to the writhing body of Jesus, but to the very feeling of our God and there take shelter.’” See Ibid, 169.

[19] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 43-44.

[20] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 49.

[21] Ibid, 99.

[22] Colijn, “Incalculable Grace,” 7.

[23] Colijn, “Incalculable Grace,” 8, 11.

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