A very long time ago, Adrian challenged those of us who disagree with penal substitution to respond to Nahum 1. I intended to after I finished posting on Isaiah 53. I’ve still got one more section to do on Isaiah 53 but I’ll get Nahum 1 out of the way first.
At first I’m rather puzzled as to what this passage has to do with the atonement and the penal substitutionary model of the atonement in particular. It is an oracle against Nineveh whilst at the same time promising deliverance to Israel from their Assyrian oppressors. The only reason I can see for citing this passage is that it deals with the supposedly thorny issue of God’s wrath, justice and vengeance. I’d just like to state clearly and publicly that I affirm the reality of divine judgement, the reality of God’s wrath against sin and the reality of his vengeance. Where I differ from Adrian and Co. is in how I define these attributes of God in relation to the cross and our salvation, both on biblical and theological grounds. Ultimately I believe that retribution against Jesus in our place does not atone for disobedience, but that the only atonement for the disobedience of those ‘in Adam’ is the perfect obedience of Christ. Christ is not killed to satisfy the wrath of God or to put him in a good mood towards us (a la Stott), but rather Christ takes all our disobedience, sin, corruption and death on himself and dies to the power of sin once and for all, and in his resurrection he becomes the first fruit of a new humanity that is no longer transient and bound to decay, but is liberated from death and sin for ever. The resurrected Christ is the first fruit of what all those ‘in Christ’ will become, as God plans to consimate salvation-history by making all things new and liberated from decay and suffering.
That’s my Gospel, but on with Nahum 1. Nahum 1 (NRSV text. NIV is online here.)
1 An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.
2 A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither, and the bloom of Lebanon fades.
5 The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it.
6 Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.
7 The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him,
8 even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.
9 Why do you plot against the Lord? He will make an end; no adversary will rise up twice.
10 Like thorns they are entangled, like drunkards they are drunk; they are consumed like dry straw.
11 From you one has gone out who plots evil against the Lord, one who counsels wickedness. Good News for Judah
12 Thus says the Lord, “Though they are at full strength and many, they will be cut off and pass away. Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more.
13 And now I will break off his yoke from you and snap the bonds that bind you.”
14 The Lord has commanded concerning you: “Your name shall be perpetuated no longer; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the cast image. I will make your grave, for you are worthless.”
15 Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, fulfill your vows, for never again shall the wicked invade you; they are utterly cut off.
The other two chapters in Nahum continue in much the same vein, but before leaping headlong into a Christian doctrine of salvation (which this passage can certainly contribute to) I want to set out the context of the verses in their historical setting. The date of Nahum’s prophecy is estimated to be before 612 BC (when the destruction of Nineveh prophesied in this book took place) and after the destruction of Thebes in 663 BC, to which Nahum 3:8-10 refers. Essentially the book is addressed to two people groups; the Assyrians and the people of Judah. The Assyrians were the superpower of their day and had caused nothing but misery and suffering for the Jews. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and it was against the city that Nahum’s prophecy is directed. The second group to which the prophecy is addressed are the Jews who have suffered at the hands of Assyria, in God’s judgement on Assyria, freedom will come to the Jews, while Nineveh is destroyed.
One judgement, two outcomes
My fundamental argument throughout this whole discussion on penal substitution has been over the nature of God’s judgement. I am arguing that judgement is not an eye for eye retribution inflicted by God on a guilty party (on Jesus’ case, an innocent party) to satisfy his honour, but rather judgement is exercised to bring an old order of things to an end and to inaugurate something new. Judgement establishes justice and brings about what is right and good, and so it is forward-looking, restorative and liberating.
God’s judgement on Nineveh means destruction for Nineveh and the end of Assyrian power, but at the same time it means salvation and liberation for God’s people. God’s judgement means peace and good news (1:15) and the restoration of Israel (2:1). There is one judgement with two outcomes, but the final intention of God in judgement is not to satisfy his anger, but to save his people from their oppressors and to restore them to himself.
Nahum’s judgement and the Torah
Of course, none of the Old Testament prophets would have exercised their ministry without the Torah and the covenant. That God had a people to whom the prophets ministered presupposes the existence of the covenant to which they are supposed to be faithful. In my previous post on Isaiah I went through the curses of Leviticus 26, and how God would judge Israel for breaking the covenant – but always with the aim of making them listen to him and to end the hostility between God and his people, not with the aim of destroying them, for this would deny his faithfulness.
One of the sanctions for disobedience was to be oppressed and dominated by a violent foreign power (Lev 26:23-35, also Deuteronomy 28:36,49-52), and this is precisely what had happened in Nahum’s time. Assyria had brought the sword and oppression to God’s disobedient people, but the aim was the same on expressed centuries before in the Torah – to turn God’s people back to himself. Viewed in its canonical and historical context, and not as an abstract treatise on justice and retribution, Nahum is an excellent example of God’s judgement and wrath being exercised with a view to restoration and redemption.
Nahum and Jesus
It’s difficult (if not impossible) to try and build a systematic theology on the atonement from Nahum 1, because that just isn’t the subject of the book, though there are perhaps some principles we can apply to the atonement and judgement in general.
1. Penal substitution teaches that Christ’s death was him taking a retributive penalty in our place, so that God’s wrath against sin is satisfied and those who accept Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice are forgiven their sins etc. This presupposes that God’s judgement executed on Christ is retributive.
2. I’m arguing that Christ does indeed bear our sin, our judgement and our death in the atonement – but not to satisfy God’s anger or to pay a debt of honour. Christ’s death is a death to sin. Everything that was wrong, sinful, and corrupt about humanity was borne by Christ. By dying he himself submits to the judgement of God and his death is a vicarious death – it is the end of man as a sinner.
3. But the judgement is transformative and designed to bring life and justice. Here is Paul in Romans 6:10:
“The death he [Jesus] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.”
Jesus takes upon himself all the sin, guilt, godlessness and corruption that estranges humanity from God and places us under wrath. He takes it to the grave with him, but he is raised to life. He has died to sin, and in his resurrection he becomes the first-fruit of what God plans for all who are ‘in Christ’, and indeed the resurrection prefigures the liberation of all creation from its bondage to decay.
4. This is the planned end of God’s judgement. There can be nothing new until the old has passed away. There can be no liberation whilst the oppression remains, there can be no forgiveness and reconciliation where guilt and wrath are, there is no hope for Judah until Nineveh is overthrown. There is no new humanity and no new creation without the end of the old and a dying to sin. This is what Jesus does in his death and resurrection. As far as I can see, the penal substitutionary model does not even require a resurrection, hence the lack of emphasis on ‘Jesus Risen’ and the hope for eschatological renewal of all things, against the New Testament hope.
John Piper repeats Phillip’s mistake
Technically speaking, this has nothing much to do with Nahum but this is as good a place to put it as any. Adrian quotes John Piper’s defence of penal substitution thusly:
“God’s righteousness is at stake. His name or reputation or honor must be vindicated. Before the cross can be for our sake, it must be for God’s sake.”
The reasoning being that God’s honour is so damaged by sin that Christ has to be punished to clear God’s loss of face and to vindicate his hatred of sin. I think that by saying this, Piper actually creates more problems than he solves.
There is no dualism with God. There is not some Otherly, mysterious Father hiding behind the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ disciples made the same mistake. They saw Jesus and begged with them to let them see God:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
There is not another kind of God or hidden attribute of God behind Jesus. He makes clear that to see Jesus is to see the Father. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in Jesus. The Father is working in and through Jesus. So how does this fit into the cross? Has the Father suddenly switched tactics and now inflicts pain and suffering upon Jesus to satisfy his anger and righteous demands? No. God is on the cross. To say otherwise is to evacuate the cross of divinity and to deny the Sonship of Christ. The cross does not reveal God’s retribution on sin, but reveals the awesome cost of forgiveness – God chooses to bear the cost of our sin and iniquity himself, but in doing so will finally destroy its power.
So how does Piper’s notion that the suffering Christ is acting ‘for God’s sake’ to vindicate God’s person and reputation? Jesus is God, and the cross is supremely humiliating for him. The cross reveals the cost of sin to God – but also makes a statement about humanity in that it embodies our wilful and total rejection of God. Jesus is not vindicated on the cross, he is vindicated in the resurrection and his triumph over sin, death and hell. In Christ, God is not trying to recover lost face and re-establish his honour, he in fact makes himself nothing, empties himself, and becomes obedient to death on a cross (see Phillippians 2:5-11). He is exalted and vindicated afterwards in the resurrection.
God of course does take sin seriously, and I’ve never argued otherwise – but one does not have to accept penal substitution to believe this. God hatred of sin means that he deals with it and puts it to death and breaks its hold over his creation, he does not deal with it by violent retribution against his own Son by way of compensation.
More to come in the next few days, but I’ll pause there for now.