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Penal substitution and the possibility of unconditional hospitality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2004

Hans Boersma
Religious Studies Department, Trinity Western University, 7600 Glover Road, Langley, BC, Canada V2Y 1Y1


Traditional atonement theories (and especially penal readings of the atonement) are being challenged because they seem to be based on divine violence and thus seem to condone or contribute to human violence rather than enable human practices of hospitality. In the face of such criticism, this paper argues that attempts to eliminate all violence from atonement theology do not contribute to the flourishing of hospitality but imply an erasing of boundaries necessary to counter unjustified violence and to safeguard the possibility of God's eschatological hospitality. Specifically, the paper critiques three stepping stones used in the defence of non-violent theories of the atonement. They are (1) the definition of violence as inherently negative, to which the paper opposes the possibility of the Augustinian notion of justified violence as an act of love; (2) the ‘fall model’ of Constantinianism which erroneously regards penal atonement theories as the outcome of the fourth-century Christianizing of the Roman Empire; and (3) the abandoning not just of penal atonement theories, but necessarily of each of the three main models, since each defends God's involvement in violence. The paper then argues that a penal aspect is indispensable to safeguard both God's absolute eschatological hospitality and its incarnation in human relationships.

Research Article
© Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2004

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A shortened version of this paper was delivered to the Evangelical Theology Group meeting at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (23 November 2002). I particularly value the feedback that I received on this paper from Dr Craig Allert, Dr Kent Clarke, and Dr Doug Harink.