[書摘] Karl Barth on the Atonement as penal substitution

Although Barth insists (against Albrecht Ritschl and his followers) that God shows anger against sin and that God’s wrath is something very real and must be reckoned with, Barth denies that this wrath of God is turned away by the reconciliation of Christ . You must wonder why. The reason is that this binds God into an abstract law of necessity and reduces the act of God into a drama between the divine Persons.

Even though Jesus Christ is our Substitute who stands in our place and bears the full penalty of our sin, Barth is hesitant to call this a real punishment (with reference to Isa 53). He states:

But we must not make this [the concept of punishment] a main concept as in some of the older presentations of the doctrine of the atonement (especially those which follow Anselm of Canterbury), either in the sense that by His [Christ’s] suffering our punishment we are spared from suffering it ourselves, or that in so doing He “satisfied” or offered satisfaction to the wrath of God. The latter thought is quite foreign to the New Testament.(CD IV/1:253)

For Barth the concept of satisfaction is « quite foreign” to the New Testament. Though the concept needs not be completely rejected, for him « satisfaction » can only mean that

which suffices for the reconciliation of the world with God has been made (satis fecit) and can be grasped only as something which has in fact happened, and not as something which had to happen by reason of some upper half of the event; not, then, in any theory of satisfaction, but only as we see and grasp the satis-facere which has, in fact, been achieved. (CD IV/1:276)

Barth is adamant that we cannot force what has divinely taken place into a preconceived abstract concept (whether it means ‘legal justice’, ’emotional satisfaction’, or whatever); rather, we can only begin to understand the meaning of God’s act by grappling with the Christ event itself.

For Barth « substitution » has already taken place in the man Jesus Christ before the creation of humanity (supralapsarianism). In his view God’s wrath never precedes man’s confrontation with the gospel, and Christ’s death has not been made necessary by historical sin.

Then if this concept of punishment was to be retained (as it should), it must be bestowed an ‘idealistic sense’ according to which the God-man Jesus took humanity’s place from eternity as an “eternal reprobate from God”.

However, to avoid the feminist’s charge against substitutionary atonement as a ‘monstrous child abuse’, our theological construction must be deep down Trinitarian lest we ‘individualize’ the Father and the Son as if the superior one was abusing the inferior person’s will.

In response to this, Bruce McCormack has Barth’s Trinitarian view on the atonement excellently put:

The problem is that death, however it is conceived, is a human experience. How then could the death of Jesus Christ be an event between God and God, between, that is, an eternal father and an eternal Son who is understood along the lines of a Logos simpliciter [that is, the Divine Logos apart from his identity as the human-incarnated Jesus]? So the logic of penal substitution is not that the Father does something to his « eternal Son » (as the charge of « cosmic » child abuse would suggest). An action of the eternal Father upon the eternal Son (seen in abstraction from the assumed humanity) would require a degree of individuation between the two such that the « separation » needed for an action of the one upon the other becomes unthinkable.


This is a human experience of the Logos. Therefore, it is an event between the eternal Father and the Logos as human. The « object » of the action is, therefore, the Logos as human. What happens in the outpouring of the wrath of God by the Father upon Jesus Christ is that the human experience of the « penalty of death » that humans have merited through their sinfulness is taken into the very life of God himself.

But then we still have to consider the logic of the « subject. » The subject who delivers Jesus Christ up to death is not the Father alone. For the Trinitarian axiom opera trinitas ad extra sunt indivisa means that if one does it [economically], they all do it. So it is the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) who gives himself over to this experience. And that also means, then, that the Father is not doing something to someone other than himself. The triune God pours his wrath out upon himself in and through the human nature that he has made his own in his second mode of his being — that is the ontological significance of penal substitution. The triune God takes this human experience into his own life; he « drinks it to the dregs. » And in doing so, he vanquishes its power over us. That, I would submit, is the meaning of penal substitution when seen against the background of a well-ordered Christology and a well-ordered doctrine of the Trinity. [all emphasis mine]

—Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement’ in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III eds. (Intervarsity: MI, 2004), 366

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