The Doctrine of Accommodation & Penal Substitutionary Atonement

6 Minute Read

If you know me and are familiar with my writings, you know that atonement theory (the theological ideas about what happened through Christ’s work and how the cross fits in) is one of the main things that I have wrestled through (I have two eBooks about the atonement).

So what happened with Jesus on the cross? Some of us might have different answers to this question. A common answer to this question is, “God demanded death as a penalty for sin and so God killed His son in our place to satisfy His wrath.” 

The problem I see with this idea is that it seems to suggest that God the Father and God the Son are not only very different but somehow separate and not in perfect unity as Trinitarian theology suggests. Jesus is the representation of God that the Old Testament didn’t have and was waiting for. If we want to know what God is like, we just have to look at Jesus.

Before Jesus’ arrival, God revealed Himself in ways that were contextual bridges to the people He was trying to reach. This is at the heart of what is known as “The Doctrine of Accommodation (an ancient Hebrew Hermeneutical practice that Origen and Augustine practiced and spoke of).”

This doctrine states that:

“God, while being in His nature unknowable and unreachable, has nevertheless communicated with humanity in a way that humans can understand and to which they can respond.” (McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p.208-9 – quote from De Genesi ad litteram (the literal meaning of Genesis) by St. Augustine)

God spoke about His heart and His accommodation through the prophet Jeremiah in this way:

Jeremiah 7 (NIV)
21 “‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. 25 From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.’

With “The Doctrine of Accommodation” in mind, let’s look at two methods God used to build a bridge to humanity:

Sacrifice

All we must do is open to Leviticus to see the precise expectations of the sacrificial system. Let’s look at a few verses that talk about sacrifice and God’s heart.

David’s famous repentance prayer:

Psalm 51 (NIV)
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

Jesus taught and quoted Hosea 6:

Matthew 9:13 (NIV)
But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).”

If David and Jesus (who is God in human form) highlight that God does not actually desire sacrifice, why was the sacrificial system implemented?

Let’s go back to “The Doctrine of Accommodation” and say that it was because sacrifice was a system that they understood, and it already existed in their time. If we rewind to Genesis 22, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. We need to realize that human sacrifice was normal at this time. In Abraham’s mind, he was asked by a deity to sacrifice his son, and this was not out of the question for their understanding of gods and sacrifice. The difference here is that I believe God used a means of expected human sacrifice that they would have known to end this barbaric practice and show His people that He doesn’t require human sacrifice, and then He used the cross to end sacrifice once and for all.

This is similar to Luke 22 when Jesus asked his disciples to bring a sword to the garden and then He disarmed Peter and rebuked him for using it. Tertullian said, “when Jesus disarmed Peter, He disarmed all Christians.” Jesus used the expectation of violence to end it and reveal His heart. In the same way, God asked Abraham to offer a human sacrifice so He could then end that practice and not make it part of worship between Him and His people. He supplied an animal instead of Abraham’s son, and there was never a request for human sacrifice again.

Notice that in Leviticus there are no requests for human sacrifice. This would have been unheard of within the pagan cultures around them. God was saying, “this is a system that you know and other cultures use. Instead of you sacrificing to other gods, sacrifice to me!”

Leviticus 17:6-7 (NIV)
6 The priest is to splash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting and burn the fat as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. 7 They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves. This is to be a lasting ordinance for them and for the generations to come.’

He ultimately ended the sacrificial system with Jesus because sacrifice was not what He desired.

Covenant

Covenant was an ancient relational practice between two parties. Covenants were in existence before we see God use them for relational means with His people.

I want to focus on the covenant with Abraham, point out where many see the idea of “penal substitution” in this covenant, and see what it reveals.

“Penal substitution” is the theory that Jesus took the place (substitution) of punishment (penal) for humanity. There are different ways that different theologians talk about “penal substitution.” Honestly, I have my concerns with most of them.

Let’s explore what I think is a better understanding of what is going on with the Abrahamic covenant. In Genesis 15, God made promises to Abraham about decedents and land. When Abraham asked God, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” God responded, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon (Genesis 15:8-9).” Abraham would have known exactly what was going to happen. In those days, a “sovereignly dictated covenant” would have been between a greater party and a lesser party. The greater party would have dictated the terms and conditions (we see this in the Bible as “the law”) to the lesser party. The lesser party would agree to follow the terms and conditions 100% or be put to death. This is why James (the leader of the church in Jerusalem) said, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10)” to an audience that understood covenant. 

After the terms and conditions were established, they would cut animals into two halves and spread them out so that the blood pooled in the center. Both parties would pass between the animal pieces and through the blood. The greater party would go first, and the lesser party would go second.

What is unique about this covenant is that before they started passing through the pieces, Abraham fell asleep (Genesis 15:12). He never actually passed between the animals as the lesser party. Here is what happened…

Genesis 15:17 (NIV)
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

Notice that two different objects passed through! What this is saying is that God was the substitute for Abraham in this covenant ceremony. God stood in for both parties. According to covenantal understanding, if Abraham’s decedents weren’t faithful to the covenant, God would be on the hook and not Abraham. Penal substitution does not fully explain God’s work through Jesus. It is just one aspect of a covenantal method that God used to build a relationship with humanity, not because He needed it, but because that was the way His relationship could be understood by the people He called at that time.

If we are trying to explore “penal substitution”, I believe it is unwise to start with theologians that shaped unique doctrines in the last 500-800 years like Anselm of Canterbury or John Calvin. Start with Genesis 15. When we do this, we don’t see an image of God The Father punishing the Son to appease His own wrath. We see a God who uses a method of relationship in that cultural context to reveal that He is so good that redemption will never be dependent on us and it never was meant to be. This idea of God revealing Himself in ways that we understand was made complete in God Himself talking on Human form and walking among us (John 1).

“God, while being in His nature unknowable and unreachable, has nevertheless communicated with humanity in a way that humans can understand and to which they can respond.” (McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p.208-9)

He didn’t need sacrifice or covenant for Himself. He didn’t need a child sacrifice (of His own son), like in ancient pagan worship to appease His wrath. He didn’t need covenantal means and the penal implications that come with the ceremony. He is God! There are a million different ways He could have done His work of reconciliation and redemption. He chose a culturally situated approach and then eventually fulfilled the the fullest revelation of Himself in Jesus.

“Jesus is the gift that deals with sacrifice that cannot deal with sin.” – Dr. Chris Green.

All that our sacrificial systems did was lead us to kill God Himself, but it was at the cross that God fully revealed His love and forgiveness. Sacrifice could not do this! Jesus ultimately ended the sacrificial system, because sacrifice was not what He desired.

Free eBook by David Ruybalid

The focus of this post might leave questions in your mind about other aspects of atonement theory or scripture that were not mentioned and what I think about them. Help yourself to a free eBook where I go deeper into this theological discussion.

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