The Gospel in Straw-Men on Chairs image

The Gospel in Straw-Men on Chairs

A friend of mine recently sent me this summary of "the gospel in chairs", from Brian Zahnd, and asked me what I thought about it. If you've not seen it, it effectively contrasts the modern, Western, legal, juridicial picture of the gospel (boo, hiss) with the ancient, Eastern, restorative picture (hooray), and does so using two chairs as visual aids. I wrote a fairly detailed email back to my friend about it, but the thing that struck me most clearly was the straw-man way in which the former view—which is obviously a caricature of penal substitutionary atonement—is represented. Have a look, and you'll see what I mean.

Something I’ve mentioned a number of times, here and elsewhere, is the danger of unfair comparisons based on theological preferences. The classic example is that Roman Catholics risk comparing Thomas Aquinas with Joel Osteen, while Protestants risk comparing John Calvin with Father Paddy O’Flannery O’Reardon, and both then sit back convinced that their team is better. There needs to be a “pick on someone your own size” commitment when theological concepts are being appraised like this, especially when they concern central doctrines like the atonement. And my read of what Brian Zahnd says here, notwithstanding the fact that he’s adapting the illustration from someone else, is that he simply isn’t very charitable in his portrayal of the view he doesn’t like—so while he ends up convincing me that the straw-man he’s knocking down is wrong, he doesn’t convince me that the more mature, reflective, theologically cogent doctrine behind it is wrong. I say that for at least five reasons.

(1) He sets up the debate as old vs new, ancient vs modern, patristic vs Western, legal/judicial vs restorative, without giving any indication either that many of the key fathers were fairly Western and judicial in their atonement theology (Augustine, anyone?), or that the most influential Eastern fathers focused far more on divinisation in salvation (Athanasius, Gregory, Basil) and several were effectively universalist on the atonement (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa). I don’t know which fathers he would cite as proponents of his non-universalist, non-Western, non-legal/juridicial and non-theosis picture of the gospel, but he doesn’t mention any, and it certainly couldn’t be described as an ancient consensus. So either he, or the Orthodox guy he got it from, seems to have formed his “gospel in chairs” contrast by cherry-picking somewhat.

(2) He gives far more time to the presentation he prefers, illustrating it with human stories from the Gospels, in contrast to his very formalist, abstract, impersonal presentation of the version he rejects. A fairer comparison might have been to mention the cup in Gethsemane, a substitutionary atonement example like Barabbas, a human example of imputation like Paul and Onesimus, or something like that. Simply at the level of length and generosity of description, it’s hardly a fair contrast. (I love Keller’s idea that you should always try and describe your opponents’ view in a way that would make them say, “Yes, that’s a great description of what I believe.” Suffice it to say that Brian Zahnd gets nowhere near this here.)

(3) The chairs themselves skew the picture, by making the primary issue whether or not God is “facing” man at a particular point, which is language the Bible never uses (even if Stuart Townend’s song does!) A much more nuanced image would be needed to describe (say) the posture God has towards humanity after Eden, or David after Bathsheba, or Israel in exile (e.g. Jeremiah/Ezekiel), or Peter when he opposes or denies Christ, or Saul while persecuting the church. That is, we need to find ways of evoking a “yes, and no” to a person/nation, without flattening it into which way a chair is facing. Ironically, the reductive and controlling nature of a particular metaphor is one of the things most critics of penal substitution object to, yet here it is in the form of two chairs.

(4) The view of propitiation he is opposing is explicitly non-Trinitarian, as he shows in his closing remarks. There are, of course, pop-evangelical versions of penal substitution that make it sound like the Son is saving us from the Father, but none of the most responsible exegetes in history have done that, and I don’t think John Calvin, or for that matter John Stott, would associate themselves with Brian’s caricature here. I’ve posted on this distortion myself here, as it happens.

(5) No advocate of propitiation or penal substitution, at least that I’ve ever heard of, presents the doctrine using chairs. The very method has been designed to make it look weak, rather than tackling it in its strongest form, which I think is methodologically poor. So I think his contrast is a straw-man in several important ways.

Having said all that, of course, if we are talking about the straw-man version (which I hate), and if we were then to contrast it with the best patristic expositions of the atonement (which I love), then of course we should prefer the latter over the former. But there is of course a third option, which is the one I think we should take: preach the whole biblical gospel, using all the richness of imagery and human example and symbol and doctrine there is available, and avoid playing one off against the other. (My own book on the gospel, GodStories, has 56 chapters, of which only two focus on propitiation or penal substitution.) So yes, by all means oppose the straw-man version of penal substitution—but make sure you replace it with a better and richer one, one that does justice to Isaiah 53 and the like.

And maybe don’t use chairs.

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