Tag Archives: -Galatians 2:20

Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul — Gathercole (Review)

Gathercole, Simon. Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015). 128pp. Publisher’s description. (Amazon new price: $14.86 paperback, $9.99 Kindle.) Buy on Amazon.

There is a strong tendency in current scholarship on Paul to resist seeing Christ’s death as in our place, instead of us. Rather, scholars prefer a view of Christ’s death with us—where he identifies with us rather than dying a unique death alone for us. Indeed, the point that Christ’s death is representative and therefore not substitutionary can often be made briefly in passing, as if it were understood to be an uncontroversial thought. (Gathercole, 29. Emphasis added.)

It is this “uncontroversial thought” that Gathercole aims to challenge in this brief (128 pp.) book. I think he does so well.

It is important to recognize what this book is not: It is not a systematic discussion of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It is not a survey of all the texts that may support this doctrine. Nor is it a defense of any particular version of substitutionary atonement, such as penal substitutionary atonement. It is certainly not an attempt to assert substitutionary atonement as the only or even the chief theory of the atonement.

What Gathercole does aim to do is to provide evidence, based primarily on two Pauline passages, that substitution is one biblical and valid way of understanding Christ’s cross-work.


Defending Substitution is based on several lectures given by Gathercole, but it reads very well as a book. Here is the table of contents:


  • The Importance of Substitution
  • Defining Substitution: Christ in Our Place
  • Criticisms of Substitution

1. Exegetical Challenges to Substitution

  • The Tübingen Understanding of Representative “Place-Taking”
  • Interchange in Christ
  • Apocalyptic Deliverance
  • The Omission or Downplaying of “Sins”
  • Conclusion

2. “Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3)

  • The Importance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
  • “According to the Scriptures”
  • Substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3
  • Conclusion

Excursus: An Objection—Why, Then, Do Christians Still Die?

3. The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8)

  • The Translation of Romans 5:6-8
  • A Sketch of the Exegesis
  • Vicarious Deaths in Classical Tradition
  • The Comparison in Romans 5:6-8
  • Conclusion

Index of Subjects
Index of Authors
Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Sources

In the Introduction, Gathercole defines substitution as “Christ’s death in our place, instead of us… He did something, underwent something, so we did not—and never will—have to” (pp. 15-16). He carefully emphasizes scope and aims of his study:

The matter of what precisely it was that Christ bore in our stead will not be treated here… Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, expiation, and propitiation… The investigation here is to be focused not on these other themes but quite narrowly and specifically on substitution… To repeat…, the aim here is not to say that Scripture teaches substitution rather than representation but to say that both are important parts of biblical teaching. (pp. 18-23)

Despite not focusing on penal substitution, Gathercole does provide three helpful responses to those who say that this doctrine makes Jesus the victim of “cosmic child abuse”: “First, such theological criticisms neglect the obvious fact that the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the ‘self-substitution of God’… Second, …Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in line with his own will… Third, …a response can also be offered that is more subjective but… certainly no more subjective” than the caricatures of “certain atonement theories as cruel, violent, unjust, and the like”: “this is not how millions of Christians over the centuries have experienced such teaching.” Indeed, criticism of penal substitution seem to come more from academia than from “the world’s lay Christians” (pp. 24-25).

In Chapter One, Gathercole responds to three atonement theories which aim to leave no room for substitution. The “Tübingen understanding of representative ‘place-taking’” (popular in parts of Germany) draws on a particular interpretation of Levitical sacrifices to assert that “when Christ dies, all die with him” (p. 36). A second theory, promoted by Morna Hooker, “considers substitution to be not only un-Pauline but actually something criticized by Paul” (p. 38). “Paul’s understanding of the process is therefore one of participation, not substitution; it is a sharing of experience, not an exchange. Christ is identified with us in order that—in him—we might share in what he is” (Hooker as quoted by Gathercole, pp. 40-41). A third theory, popular particularly in North America, is “apocalyptic deliverance.” This view, associated with scholars such as J. Louis Martyn, asserts that it was Paul’s opponents who emphasized that Christ died to provide forgiveness. For Paul, in contrast, “the human plight consists fundamentally of enslavement to supra-human powers; and God’s redemptive act is his deed of liberation” (Martyn as quoted by Gathercole, p. 44).

Graciously, Gathercole finds much of value in all three theories. (So did I.) But he faults each on several points, and all for downplaying the problem of sins (individual acts of evil), as opposed to Sin (singular, evil personified). He presents abundant evidence to show that sins were a frequent and important focus of Paul’s writings.

Chapter Two takes a refreshingly positive turn, with its constructive exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:3. “Dying for sins,” Gathercole notes, is not the same thing as “dying for us” (p. 55). “The aim of this chapter, then, is to examine Paul’s theology of the atonement through the lens of the words ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’” (pp. 56-57). After demonstrating the importance of his chosen text, Gathercole assembles impressive linguistic evidence that Paul is alluding to Isaiah 53 in 1 Corinthians 15:3. This is important because “vicariousness—in the sense of exclusive substitution—is clearly present in the Hebrew text” and Greek versions of Isaiah 53 (p. 68). Multiple OT texts present a norm that forbids substitution (Num. 27:3; Deut. 24:16; Josh. 22:20; 1Kings 16:18-19; Jer. 31:30). “In this sense,” Gathercole observes, “Christ’s death is not according to the Scriptures” (p. 71). But Isaiah 53 turns the OT norm on its head, describing salvation being achieved through an innocent individual bearing the sins of others. “The default Old Testament position would be ‘he died for his sins’ or ‘we died for our sins.’ The miracle of the gospel, however, is that he died for our sins” (p. 73). Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 53 suggests that he understands Christ’s work as being, like the Servant’s, substitutionary.

In a brief excursus Gathercole explains why, if Christ died for us, believers still die. He suggests that Paul writes about death in four ways: (1) the physical death of believers, which he often “undermines” by language like “falling asleep”; (2) “the death to sin and burial in baptism that occurs in Christian initiation”; (3) the death of unbelievers, the penalty for sin and living according to the flesh, which Paul describes without softening, using language like “perish”; (4) the death of Jesus, which Paul never softens with terms like “falling asleep,” nor finalizes with terms like “perishing.” “The main point to conclude is that believers do still go on to die death #1 above but will not ‘perish’ (#3 above)… Christ has undergone a death like death #3 above to save us from death #3; therefore death #1 is not nearly so serious—it is a mere falling asleep” (pp. 80-83).

In Chapter Three, Gathercole asks what examples Paul might have had in mind when he writes that “for a good person someone might perhaps even dare to die” (Rom. 5:6-8). He concludes that “the most natural link in Romans 5 is with examples of vicarious death in classical texts (broadly understood). There are a number of such classical works… where this same substitutionary language is used” (p. 90). The most prominent of such classical examples is Alcestis, who was referenced by writers spanning a time from Euripides (c. 438 B.C.) to the second century A.D. and beyond. The story of Alcestis was part of common culture in Paul’s day: “An exact contemporary of Paul, the philosopher Musonius Rufus, uses Alcestis” as a positive example (p. 96). There are interesting parallels between accounts of Alcestis and Paul’s language in Romans 5 and elsewhere: classical writers said that Alcestis “dared” to die “on behalf of,” “in place of,” or “instead of” her husband, who is described as a “good” man. Other substitutionary deaths are described by classical philosopher and writers, but they are understood to be rare (cf. Paul’s “one will scarcely die… perhaps… one would even dare to die”), occurring only in the contexts of conjugal love, the institution of friendship, and family ties. “Paul sees that there is common ground between these pagan instances and the death of Christ”but “for Paul the differences are more striking than the similarities,” for Jesus dies for “the ungodly… sinners… enemies” (p. 104). Yet the core similarity remains: in these classical examples, “the death ‘for’ another is not merely a death ‘for the benefit of’ another—‘for their sake’ in a general sense. Nor is it death with them. Rather, it is… a death that averts death” (pp. 106-107). Thus Paul’s apparent allusion to these classical examples supports the conclusion that he sees Christ’s death as being substitutionary.

I find little to fault in Gathercole’s book. A few times I wondered if there was a bit of slippage in his logic, with him (a) proving that Paul was interested in our need for forgiveness for individual sins and then (b) using that evidence as proof that Paul believed in a specifically substitutionary atonement. But might not representation also be—at least theoretically—a solution for the problem of sins, with us dying with Christ for our sins (rather than he dying for our sins)? But this tentative critique is peripheral to Gathercole’s main arguments.

This book left me hungry for more. Other texts should be tested for substitutionary theology (Rom. 4:25; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Heb. 2:9; etc.), and I would like to read an equally careful defense of a specifically penal substitutionary atonement. But what I liked best about this book—besides the excellent exegesis of its two main texts—was Gathercole’s repeated insistence that we allow for the NT’s multiple images of the atonement.

Let me end as Gathercole himself ends:

The choice between salvation as dealing with both ‘trespasses’ or ‘debts’ (plural) and with liberation from the power of (the) evil (one) was a choice apparently not faced by Jesus in his formulations of the Lord’s Prayer. Similarly, we need not be forced to opt either for Jesus’s substitutionary death, in which he deals with sins, or for a representative or liberative death, in which he deals with the power of evil. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder! (pp. 112-13)

Gathercole achieves his goals well in this book.
I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What did you learn from this review? Do you have other favorite resources for understanding Christ’s work of atonement? Share your questions and insights below!

Disclosures: I received this book free from Baker Academic through the Baker Academic Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

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Unfinished Thoughts for Your Improvement

Franz Schubert wrote a beautiful piece of music that we call the Unfinished Symphony. It is called unfinished because it only contains two movements, rather than the four that were typical in his day. Whatever the true story (was it really unfinished in Schubert’s mind?), I’m glad this symphony didn’t get trashed or forgotten simply because it is shorter than some. It’s a work of beauty and power! (Listen and watch here.)

In the same spirit, but with far less grand hopes, I decided I’d release some of my own unfinished thoughts from the past week. I’ve been too busy to write a blog post lately—partly because I’ve been working on that promised essay on ordinances—but I have commented various places online. So I’ll repost some of those unfinished comments here for your reflection and improvement. (I meant that you can improve the thoughts by your insights, but if you can be improved by my unfinished thoughts, well, go right ahead!)

Implications Versus Applications

I suggest that when thinking about how Scripture should form our lives today, it is usually more helpful to think in terms of implications than applications. That is, ask “What implications does this Bible passage carry for us today?” rather than “How can we make an application of this biblical principle?” I think this choice of questions can help remind us that authority ultimately lies in God’s Word, not in our word.

There’s a chance I’m exaggerating the difference between the two, but I know I’m not the only person to think the difference might be significant. I’ll try to give an example. For instance, take the instruction “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). We could ask ourselves, “How could we apply that verse? What’s an application we could make for today?” Then we could make some applications like this: Any able-bodied adult over 18 must work at least 40 hours a week, or else they have no right to eat at church fellowship meals. Or youth 15 to 18 must put in at least 15 hours of labor or they have no right to eat the food their parents prepare. Those examples might be a bit corny, but perhaps you get the idea.

If we ask instead, “What implications does this passage have for us today?” we will probably end up with a different approach. We would still be working with the same underlying principle, but we would be more likely to focus on the spirit of the teaching and ask how it speaks into each individual case we face.

In sum, I think the “make an application” approach is much more likely to produce a list of human rules that generally support the principle but all too often end up overshadowing the principle they are supposed to support. I think it tends to produce a situation like in Matthew 15 where rules about washing hands distracted people from truly honoring God’s word, where we confuse the authority of our words (our applications) with God’s word (the teachings of Scripture).

I’ll leave it to you to work it out in other examples that might be more relevant for us Mennonites.

 Should We Imitate Jesus or Paul?

Asher Witmer was asking how we should think about our “Mennonite distinctives.” I responded, in part, with the following:

One question I ask myself when pondering the questions you’re asking is, “What would Paul do?” I think prolonged Scriptural meditation on that question can help produce churches that emphasize both holiness and a love that welcomes all the members of Christ’s body.

Which led to someone asking this: “Should we be more Pauline than Christine [Christ-ine]?”

So I responded as follows:

That’s an interesting question! On the one hand I certainly say no. Paul made mistakes at times, (although I hasten to add that Scripture is surprisingly slow to clearly demonstrate this). Christ is our only perfect model and we want to be conformed to his image.

On the other hand…

  • Paul claimed that Christ lived in him (Gal. 2:20) and that he was filled with the Spirit to equip him for his specially-designated role as apostle to the Gentiles. That means it’s pretty important, especially for us Gentiles, to listen to what Paul has to say, for Christ was speaking and living through his chosen apostle.
  • Paul often told people to imitate him in his whole way of living, as in, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2Thess. 3:7; 2Tim. 1:13). That means we should not imagine an either-or situation where following one means you aren’t following the other.
  • Perhaps most significantly, and this is related to my first point, Jesus lived as a faithful Torah-observant Jew. He lived before believers were freed from the Law of Moses, before resurrection power had been unleashed, before the pouring out of the Spirit, and before the doors were fully opened to the Gentiles. Paul lived after each of these, and so do we.

Thus, if we are asking what kind of an approach we should take to the relationship between culture and religion, I think, yes, we should live and act more like Paul than like Jesus! That is how Jesus lived in Paul, and how he wants to live in us.

Faith’s Relationship to Evidence: A Biblical Perspective

Faith, as understood biblically, is not a perspective that contradicts empirical evidence. Rather, it looks at the evidence that God has revealed and draws reasonable deductions from those facts for other things which cannot yet be established on their own by empirical evidence.

I saw this again just now while stumbling through a bit of Paul’s Acts 17 sermon in Greek. Verse 31 reads like this in the ESV:

“…He [God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)

The word “assurance” is a translation of the Greek word “pistin/pistis.” This is the most common word for “faith” in the NT. Now, I realize that words have ranges of meaning, and the word “pistis” can mean somewhat different things in different contexts. But what I see here fits the pattern elsewhere of how the NT speaks of “faith,” so I’ll continue with my observation.

Notice that Paul says God has given “pistis” to us about an unprovable future event (the final judgment) by means of an empirically-proven past event, the resurrection. Some other translations use an even stronger word than “assurance.” The NASB and NIV both translate “pistis” as “proof.”

I am reminded of a courtroom, with a lawyer laying out evidence for his case. He wants to prove that there will be a final resurrection at which Jesus will be the judge. To convince the jury, he displays artifact one: the empirical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Based on this fact, it is a very logical deduction to conclude that we, too, will rise someday and that Jesus truly possesses the authority to judge that he claimed he had.

We might ask a person today, “Do you have faith in Jesus?” It is reasonable, biblically speaking, to rephrase this question like this: “Based on the historical proof, do you trust in Jesus?” The Christian walk involves plenty of mystery. Its is not walking by sight. But neither is it walking contrary to the visual evidence God has provided in his revelation of Christ.

Thinking more: I see in some commentaries that the word “pistis” was sometimes used by biblical and nonbiblical writers alike at the time in a somewhat specialized way to refer to specific points of evidence in a rhetorical argument. In other words, here is one pistis/proof, here is another pistis/proof, etc. In this sense, the word means “reason to believe” rather than “belief.” But I still think that this suggests that in the NT world “belief” wasn’t opposed to reason or evidence. Rather, if “pistis” sometimes meant “reason to believe,” at other times it meant “belief based on reasons.”

At other times the reasons for faith may be few to none, as when Abraham believed God enough to leave Ur, prior to any actions of God on his behalf. But even there it was not “belief contrary to reason,” as the word “faith” is so often accused of being in our public discourse today.

There, I better stop at three or you might get the mistaken impression I’m trying to compose an integrated four-movement symphony. Do you have any insights to help finish these thoughts? Share them in the comments below!

PS: Kevin Brendler added some important historical nuance and correction to one of my statements in my recent post about the Schleitheim Confession. (My main theological point still stands.)

PPS: If any of you have been using my Beginner’s Bible Reading Plan and have a story to tell or improvements to suggest, I’d like to hear from you!

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