20 March 2011


Recently, on a blog that I read fairly regularly, which is aimed at Catholic-Reformed dialogue (Called to Communion), someone posted:

How much do you think the “health and wealth gospel” can be attributed to penal substitutionary atonement soteriology fermenting in an affluent culture? While I think a lot of the wealth gospel crew are in it for the dough, I think a lot of them feel that prosperity is essential since poverty is a curse in the deuteronomic covenant and Christ became the curse for us. (“He who was rich became poor so that we who were poor might through his poverty become rich”- 2 Cor 8:9). Within a penal substitutionary atonement model, I think they aren’t being completely irrational.
I’d be interested in your professional thoughts.
The "penal substitutionary atonement soteriology" the writer is referring to means, roughly, the idea that:
  • we sinned
  • we owe the penalty for our sin, namely damnation
  • Jesus paid the penalty on the Cross
  • now our debt is paid
I do not at all wish to engage here in a Catholic-Protestant debate, but I confess this struck me quite powerfully about what I think is the fundamental difference between a certain outlook on the Atonement that I think of as Protestant, and what I think the Catholic view is.  Allowing that there is rather a continuum here - with the view I am calling Protestant being at one end, and the view I call Catholic at the other, though with individuals all over the map - I would express it in more or less epigrammatic form as:
To the Protestant, Jesus suffered and died so that we wouldn't have to.
To the Catholic, Jesus suffered and died so that we would be able to.
This is not, perhaps, the place to go into deep theology, but I think this explains quite a few criticisms by Protestants of the Catholic viewpoint.  For example:
  • Jesus paid it all - why should there be Purgatory?
  • Jesus paid it all - how can my good works contribute to my salvation?
  • Jesus paid it all - how can I lose my salvation?
And many others.

Indeed, I would go further than the writer above.  If, indeed, Jesus paid it all - and if payment was the whole story - should not the curse of death be lifted?  And what we find in many strains of Protestantism is a strong attraction to Rapture-eschatology, and to an imminent return of Christ - so that, indeed, those of us who are left will not die.

I think the key to atonement is divine sonship - that we, by adoption, are sons of God.  In Christ - and with Christ in us - we do, indeed, participate in His Resurrection.  But our participation in Christ is in the whole Christ, not just the victory:
  • We participate in His creative work in our own labour
  • We participate in His Cross in our own suffering
  • We participate in His obedience to His Father by our own deeds of righteousness
  • Even in our sins, we are participating in His bearing of our sins on the Cross
  • And in our daily rising to repentance, and ultimately to glory, we participate in His Resurrection
I do not think I am able to make this very clear - the idea is very deep.  It is nothing less than the doctrine that by faith we are enabled to live Christ's life on earth that we may reign with Him in glory.
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)


Anonymous said...


Thank you very much for the reflection. As a Cradle Catholic I didn't understand the point Brent was making over at C2C, and your post helped me make sense of it and contributed to my understand of our Catholic faith.

Thanks a lot,

Deacon Bryan

Brent said...

I would add that there is a sense in which Christ is our substitute. He is our pasche. As Catholics, we believe that. He is our lamb, we need no other.

However, for those who subscribe to the entire protestant paradigm, there is a kind of total swap in play. So, for the protestant we are righteous not in lieu of our participation with Christ but in lieu of "the swap". Suffering is meaningless. We are not made righteous but declared righteous. The "health and wealth" gospel that is so popular now comes out of the charismatic world wrestling with their protestant soteriological roots. I would argue (and I will write a book to this effect), though, that the charismatic renewal is a Catholic movement.

Nonetheless, many of those in the charismatic movement came from the Reformed tradition and when you put realized eschatology + penal substitution you get "the spoiled son who wanted his father's inheritance now". Unfortunately, for most of the masses it means eating in the pigsty. All that aside, the relinquishment of suffering is the Cartesian modern problem, and so we might not blame evil religious motives on the "wealth crew" but realize that they are trying to understand their inherited soteriology within the frameworks of a Cartesian modern worldview that sees suffering as a conquerable foe not a redemptive friend.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Thanks, Brent. Yes, it's not that Protestants are wrong in the substitutionary view of Christ - only that they don't go far enough. It isn't that Jesus did it all - it is that He is doing it all - and He is doing it all in His Body, the Church.