Defending Substitution

D. A. Carson
Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul. Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015. pp. 128. $14.99/£10.99

Gathercole's introduction begins by asking the question raised by the old spiritual: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" If we answer "yes," we presuppose that we somehow participated in his death, or that in his death Jesus somehow represents us: "We have died with Christ" (Rom 6:8). If we answer "no," then we were not there: Christ died alone. "He was there, taking our place in our stead" (p.13). In much biblical scholarship, the former answer is widely assumed: on the cross, Christ represents us, but it is a mistake to think that substitution occurs when Jesus dies. While not denying that the Bible can present Christ's death on the cross as an act of representation, in this slender volume Gathercole sets out to rehabilitate substitution.

His introduction is devoted to some careful definitions. "I am defining substitutionary atonement . . . as Christ's death in our place, instead of us. The 'instead of us' clarifies the point that 'in our place' does not, in substitution at least, mean 'in our place with us.' (Jesus was, for example, baptized in our place with us - that is, the baptism was not a substitution.) In a substitutionary theory of the death of Jesus, he did something, underwent something, so that we did not and would never have to do so" (p.15). Again: "Substitution entails the concept of replacement, X taking the place of Y and thereby ousting Y: the place that Y previously occupied is now filled by X. In representation, X in one sense occupies the position of Y, as in substitution. There are differences, however. In representation, X does not thereby oust Y but embodies Y" (p.20). Gathercole provides extensive quotations from Martin Luther, Robert Letham, and Karl Barth "to illustrate this definition" (p.15). Along the way he sketches the relationship between substitution and satisfaction, substitution and penalty, substitution and propitiation, and substitution and representation, partly in order to stipulate that in this "essay" his restricted aim is to defend substitution, not representation, satisfaction, propitiation or anything else - not, as becomes evident, because Gathercole has not thought about these things or is unwilling to defend them, but to keep this work sharply focused.[1]  

Gathercole concludes his introduction by briefly listing and responding to common criticism raised against substitution: it is a legal fiction and an immoral doctrine, surrounded by philosophical, logical, and exegetical difficulties. For example, against the charge that substitution is a form of "cosmic child abuse" (in recent work, think Peter Carnley and Steve Chalke), in which God vents his wrath on his Son, Gathercole responds in several ways. The two most important are these: (1) the charge neglects "the obvious fact that the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the 'self-substitution of God' [to quote John Stott's expression]. Outside of a context of high Christology or of the doctrine of the Trinity, substitution might of course be open to such charges as those leveled above. But as far as I can see, most theologians seriously advocating substitution also hold to a high Christology" (pp.24-25). (2) In any case, Jesus "offers himself as a sacrifice in line with his own will. . . . (Gal. 1:4; 2:20)."

The last of these several categories of objections, exegetical challenges to substitution, occupies the first of three numbered chapters after the introduction (pp.29-54). The four exegetical errors on which he focuses are these:

(1) Representation in the sense of "place-taking," as in the Tübingen school nicely represented by Hartmut Gese and Otfried Hofius, and, in English, by Richard H. Bell. The focus is on the day of atonement ritual described in Leviticus 16. "The problem [as Gese sees it] is not so much individual transgressions but that the Israelite needs to be rescued from death" (p.31). When the hand is placed on the animal, this does not represent a transfer of sins but an identification with the animal. When the animal dies, "the people symbolically enter into the judgment of death" (p.32). When the blood of the animal is taken into the Most Holy Place, the animal is symbolically bringing the people of Israel into the presence of God with him. In other words, there is no substitution but a form of representation. Gathercole objects, in the first place, to Gese's interpretation of Leviticus 16. Everything depends on the significance of the hand being placed on the sacrificial animal, but Leviticus 16 says nothing about that: the hand is placed instead on the other animal, the scapegoat - and here it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the scapegoat (the live goat) is a substitute.
(2) Representation in the sense of "interchange" with Christ, the view of Morna Hooker. She holds that substitution is not only un-Pauline, but that Paul speaks against it. In her view, Jesus does not swap places with his people but "goes to the place where they are and takes them from there to salvation" (p.39). She relies heavily on her distinctive reading of 2 Cor 5:21 and 8:9, and rests on her understanding of union with Christ. Christ enters into the human condition of sin and death, but human beings must also unite with him, and we pass out of death and into resurrection with him. Gathercole acknowledges the importance of the union with Christ theme, but denies that Paul ever criticizes substitution, and insists that a right understanding of what the death of Christ achieves readily embraces substitution. Moreover, the union theme tends to focus on Adamic sin as a whole, but does not really address individual sins.

(3) Apocalyptic deliverance, not least as articulated by J. Louis Martyn and M. C. de Boer. They hold that human beings do not so much need forgiveness of sins as deliverance from slavery to sin; they appeal to (inter alia) Gal 1:4. Gathercole insists that even if this view is defended from Galatians, it really does not work in Romans, where a major component of sin is personal guilt (e.g., Rom 1-3). Sin may sometimes be presented as a major external cosmic force that Christ overcomes, but even more commonly sin is presented in terms of individual sins and transgressions.

(4) All three of these views tend to downplay the place of individual sins in Paul's thought. Gathercole provides an admirable summary of the biblical evidence that refutes the common assumption that "sins" play only a little part in Paul's thought. He then shows how this evidence shapes our reading of several atonement passages.

The final two chapters provide detailed exegeses of just two verses: chap 2, "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3), and chap 3, treating Romans 5:6-8. As for the former, Gathercole notes that Paul is writing about the matters he views as "of first importance": Christ died for our sins. He focuses on the phrase "according to the Scriptures": which Scriptures? Drawing attention to several passages, Gathercole treats Isaiah 53 at length - how it is used in Paul generally, and in particular in 1 Corinthians 15:3. He provides a shrewd and convincing exegesis (pp.61-70). Gathercole also draws attention to several passages where the OT asserts that so-and-so dies for his sins (e.g., Num 27:3; Deut 24:16; Josh 20:22; 1Kg 16:18-19): this use of the preposition hyper (in the Greek translation of these OT passages) does not itself signal substitution, for in these texts the person dies in consequence of his sins. "It is when this is set in the framework of one person doing this for the sins of others (and not for one's own) that the substitutionary sense is achieved" (p.74). "It is not that huper [sic] in itself has a substitutionary sense; this would in any sense be meaningless, as Christ is not dying in the place of the actual sins but in place of the people who are saved. The substitutionary meaning arises out of the unusual language of one person dying for the sins of others" (p.79). And this is what Paul declares to be of first importance.

After a short excursus ("An Objection - Why Then, Do Christians Still Die?", pp.80-83), Gathercole delivers his final chapter, which provides a close exegesis of Romans 5:6-8, no less convincing than his treatment of 1 Corinthians 15:3.

This excellent book, originally delivered as a series of lectures, will make readers hope that Gathercole will some day attempt a full exegesis and exposition of all the Pauline atonement passages. 

D. A. Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is the editor of the forthcoming work, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016)


[1] For Gathercole's broader and in some ways more technical treatment of the atonement, see his "Justified by Faith, Justified by His Blood: The Evidence of Romans 3:21-4:25," in Justification and Variegated Nomism. Vol. 2, The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, P. T. O'Brien, and M. A. Seifrid (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck / Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 147-84.