Monday, June 8, 2009

The Old Testament Passover cannot be Vicarious Atonement: A Logician's Proof

I'm back, and I'm devoting a big chunk of today to catching up on blog stuff.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions enthusiastically attempt to make a case for the Old Testament passover to be an instance of vicarious atonement. Their entire efforts lean on a snippet cut from a single verse, Exodus 12:12.

For those who have not read Pierced for Our Transgressions, the authors' handling of this is sadly representative of how they handle the entire topic (Penal Substitution) throughout their book. I hope to publish some sort of summary review of that soon.

Exodus 12:12 reads "For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments--I am the LORD."

Put the authors do not provide this entire verse (which is understandable given how long it is). What is much less acceptable is what they do say. They tell their reader: "...the plague on the firstborn is described specifically as 'judgment on all the gods of Egypt.'"


That's not what Exodus 12:12 says at all. It might be a reasonable conclusion to draw if we already believe in Penal Substitution AND we ignore that the Exodus story described an event from 3500 years ago within the context of world-wide idolatry.

When God says "I will strike down the firstborn... AND on the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment," it means exactly what it says. God will do two things. The firstborn will be struck down and the idols of the Egyptians will be toppled/destroyed, etc. Had the authors quoted the entire verse, it would be more obvious (I hope) that this is what was meant... it's hard to understand how the destruction of donkeys, goats, etc. could be construed as "judgment upon Egypt's gods."

Moses did not crater to idolatry, yet his household would have been vulnerable to the plague on the the death of the firstborn could not be merely the way God was executing judgment on the "gods of Egypt." No. When God says judgment on the "gods of Egypt" would ensue, it means precisely that: the gods of Egypt (the idols) would be destroyed. To someone in 1500 BC, that would make perfect sense. Indeed, the Old Testament has a long history of discussing this judgment on other gods in terms of destruction of the idols to which people bowed
(e.g., Jeremiah 50:2, 51:47, Ezekiel 6:6, 30:13, and of course the story of Dagon in 1st Samuel 5:4)

However, it would still be possible for the Old Testament passover to be a vicarious atonement, even if there is absolutely no evidence of it in the actual account. It would be, as Dan Martin put it, extrascriptural conjecture. I made that exactly conjecture in The Gospel You've Never Heard.

But recently I realized there is a simple proof that the Old Testament passover could not be a case of vicarious atonement. It is based primarily on the idea that you cannot pay for something with money you don't have. Or, to put the matter in the language of Calvinist, wrath can only be redirected to an object that would not have otherwise felt it.

This is one of the reasons given for Jesus having to be super-human and sinless. Jesus was taking upon Himself a punishment that He would otherwise not have had to bear. You cannot sacrifice something that is already marked for death. If the idea is that Person(s) A are being delivered from wrath because Person(s) B receive that wrath in their place, then none of the members of B can be members of A or else the situation is not vicarious and would not make much sense as an atonement either.

To use a courtroom analogy, we often think of all of humanity as guilty and subject to punishmen for it (of course, this courtroom drama is never portrayed in the Bible anywhere, but that's another story). Then an innocent person takes the blame instead. In the case of Jesus the idea is that Jesus was so awesome that He could adequately receive the punishment of millions or billions, etc.

Now, imagine a different courtroom drama where instead some of the guilty stand up and offer to take the punishment for the rest. Well, that makes no sense because they are already slated for punishment. If 20 people are slated for death, one of them cannot stand up and say "Hey, just take me and leave the others alone" because we only see the innocent as being able to take the debt from another. [And, of course, it is not really vicarious to receive the punishment that was due to you.]

So, what does any of this have to do with the Passover? Well, the simple truth is that some of the lambs that were sacrificed were the ones that were slated for death. As I've mentioned already (though the authors of PFoT do not give it much ink), not just humans but animals as well were slated for death. It was not merely the firstborn of each Israel household, but also the firstborn donkey, lamb, goat, etc. That means that many of the lambs slaughtered in the passover were themselves going to die anyway. If the firstborn plague were actual wrath that had to be averted, then many of the lambs slaughtered in that massive first passover were themselves already the bearers of judgment.

But we've already established that someone who is already bearing judgment cannot atone for others. So, if the passover lambs were meant as vicarious atonement for judgment on Israel, we would reach a contradiction because we would find that someone already bearing judgment (statutorily guilty) was somehow able to atone for others.

Of course, if we allow Exodus 12:12 to mean what is says (in the context of 1500 BC culture), we would not see the passover as a case of vicarious atonement at all, and all the above problems are vanquished.


Dan Martin said...

Very interesting argument, Dave. Honestly one I'm going to have to chew on it for a while, but on a first read-through it does make sense.

I still think an important addition to the evaluation of Passover is that it wasn't the existence of a dead lamb that mattered in the salvation of any firstborn. . .it was the evidence of blood on the doorposts. True, the blood had to come from something, but if it were not properly applied, it would be of no consequence. That is why I am pretty sure the issue was the sign of identification and obedience (evidenced by the blood painted on the doorway) which is the key element of the Passover narrative.

Nevertheless I believe your logic does add another nail to the coffin of the typical PSA interpretation.

David Rudel said...

Dan, the thing I like about the proof I gave is that it does more than attack the support of a vicarious atonement.

Simply saying "The blood was a sign" may convince some or not convince others. In the end it attempts to neutralise the reasoning of the other side.

My proof shows directly that it would be impossible for the lambs to be an atoning sacrifice because you cannot sacrifice something already marked for judgment to avert that can only sacrifice something that would not otherwise have suffered.

That is the whole point of Christ's perfection/divinity being needed, right? We/they say that Jesus had to be perfect because only someone not already condemned could take condemnation upon His shoulders.

Well, clearly some of the lambs in question were already condemned [being themselves first born.]

Dan Martin said...

I agree with your logic, Dave. I think my reaction, and the reason for my point about the use of the blood as a sign, is that in atonement, like so many other subjects, the theologians start by framing the wrong question and then answering it. I attempt to show that the question is mis-framed; you in your proof demonstrate that, given their question (right or wrong), the answer they have provided does not fill the bill. Both are needed in that, once the stock answer has been disproven, the vacuum must be filled, either with a different answer or a completely different question.

That said, I agree that your proof holds water. That already marked for destruction doesn't become "legal tender" just because the time and means of its destruction got shifted a bit.

Nick said...

Pierced for Our Transgressions was an embarrassment, the "exegesis" of Scriptural passages was laughable. If THAT is the best they have to offer, then Psub is in a world of hurt.

One bit of proof which Pierced gets wrong is they explicitly say the Passover was a 'one to one' exchange, despite the fact Ex12 says:
"4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor"

This obliterates the 'one to one' exchange for life right there, directly undermining Psub. While the Passover was one of the 'biggest' proofs Pierced had to offer, they never could get around the plain reading of Ex 11-12 that this was God striking down Egypt specifically, not wrath against the Israelites. The fact they had to kill a Passover lamb EVERY year also makes no sense with Psub.

Regarding the first born animals, your argument makes sense, but I would add the fact that it is absurd to project Penal Substitution onto animals in the first place. The animal has no guilt in the first place, so there is nothing to 'impute' to the Passover Lamb.

Dan Martin said...

Regarding the first born animals, your argument makes sense, but I would add the fact that it is absurd to project Penal Substitution onto animals in the first place. The animal has no guilt in the first place, so there is nothing to 'impute' to the Passover Lamb.

Nick, you know I'm no fan of PSub, but this statement is fallacious to anyone who's a PSub'er. The whole point of PSub is transferring guilt from the guilty to the guiltless. It's not biblical; we agree on that. But your statement here is off-track.

Nick said...

Could you clarify? What is fallacious? If a cow is subject to death as a display of God's wrath, then what sense does it make to kill a Lamb in it's place? The cow doesn't have guilt in the first place, so killing the Lamb instead doesn't make sense.

Dan Martin said...

Could you clarify? What is fallacious? If a cow is subject to death as a display of God's wrath, then what sense does it make to kill a Lamb in it's place? The cow doesn't have guilt in the first place, so killing the Lamb instead doesn't make sense.

No it doesn't, and PSA doesn't either, to my view. But the PSub argument is that God accepted the transfer of guilt from the guilty humans to (in the first case) innocent lambs/goats and (in the latter case) to innocent Jesus.

So all I'm saying is that when you argue that the animal had no guilt in the first place, a PSub'er will respond that you've just proved his point.

We both know (as does Dave) that WASN'T the point of Passover. I'm just saying that your point about the guiltlessness of the lamb distracts from the point we're all trying to make, that they're mis-interpreting Passover.

David Rudel said...

One thing about the whole "1 for 1" thing. I agree, of course, that the passover was not a "1 for 1" atonement, but I don't think that in and of itself destroys Psub.

PFoT actually uses the "1 for 1" notion to link the passover to the first-born redemption (of course, doing so is folly for the reason you have given), but there is no real need to do this.

Psub could exist with no "1 to 1"ness of the passover. after all, Jesus was not a "1 for 1" situation. The scapegoat is clearly not "1 for 1," etc.

So the problem is simply that the PFoT folks attempted to forge a link that didn't exist to strengthen a case that was moribund for another reason entirely.

One can certainly understand why they wanted to link the first-born redemption act to the passover. The first-born is an actual case of vicarious redemption. Israel did have to sacrifice a lamb for each first born human, donkey, etc. Of course, that had nothing to do with God's wrath, but it is an honest example of true vicarious redemption, so if it were linkable to the passover, that would be worthwhile, but not necessary, to the Psub folks.

David Rudel said...

I think Nick's point is that the passover blood could not atone for animals. We know the passover included danger to the first-born animals as well as the first-born humans. His point is that the first-born animals could not be saved by having their sins commuted to another animal, for there were no sins to commute.

As reasonable as this is to our eyes, I'm not sure it is totally clear from the perspective of Old Testament peoples. Our understanding of "sin" is a modern, Gentilized version where intention is a far more significant aspect than in the Old Testament.

The understanding of sin that Moses et al. had was more based on what had actually occurred rather than the reason for it. [The punishment could be mitigated by the intention.] I would not be completely surprised to say that animals could sin when we get into the perspective of 1500 BC.

Note that when Jonah went to Nineveh and spoke God's judgment to them, we are told the animals repented. The Mosaic also allowed for the punishment of animals caught in sinful acts.

I don't want to press the above too much but thought it was worth pointing out that our understanding of sin is quite different from what the term meant for Moses, etc.

Nick said...

Great points!

Andy said...

Read Hebrews. The Passover did not attone for sin, was not a subsitutionary payment, was not Vicarious. It was a matter of obediance and faith looking forward to a Lamb to be slain that COULD take away sin. If it was Vicarious...why did it continue to need to be excercised for the same families and individuals yearly?

The Vicarious work of Jesus Christ is salvation...not bulls and goats.

I think you guys are spot-on with this argument.

I am new to this blog, so I don't exactly know where you all are geographically located...I'd like to point you to something to consider (supposing it may not have been already drummed to death prior to my knowledge here...).

The late W. A. Chriswell, former long time pastor of 1st Baptist, Dallas, once preached an 8-12 hour New Year's Eve sermon (many years ago) on the "Scarlet Thread" of Scripture. His premise was that the story of the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ is found woven throughout Scripture. Beggining in the Garden with the sacrifice of the animals for skins to clothe Adam, to the actual crusifixtion of Jesus in the Gospels, then follows throughout Scripture from a historical perspective, and prophetical in certain instances.

My point is, to say I believe the Passover saved no one. Jesus Christ did this work on the Cross of Calvary. (Understanding there is the whole argument of appropriating the gift, personal responsiblity, and all those I am speaking narrowly about what is and is not Vicarious work).


Dan Martin said...


The one point that I would answer to your last comment is that I am concerned with the degree to which churches in American Evangelical Christendom (and perhaps other places too, but I see where I live) see that "scarlet thread" as the essential metanarrative of scripture. This paradigm has been caricatured, and not entirely without basis, as the notion that all Jesus ever had to do was die, and the rest is fluff.

That's not the Jesus I see in scripture, and it's also not the message I see in the prophets or epistles. Don't misunderstand me, Jesus' death was not UNimportant, but seeing it as the be-all and end-all of the God-and-humanity story is a mistake. As I have previously argued, the lynchpin of history is Jesus' resurrection and concurrent inauguration of the new creation. The universe changed Sunday morning, not Friday afternoon.

This is relevant vis-a-vis the perspective in which Dave started this thread. We have been discussing various aspects of atonement and sacrifice--here on his blog, on Nick's Catholic blog, on Mason's New Ways Forward, and on my blog for some time now. One of the many issues we've discussed is whether blood (animal or Jesus') is as central to the redemption narrative, as many variants of Christian theology have suggested. The Passover was just one of several threads in that larger discussion. To really catch up on the context for some of the comments here (presuming you want to put yourself thru all that), you would probably need to search the "atonement" threads on all four above-referenced blogs.

But to make a very long story inaccurately short, some of us (particularly me) have been contending that we're too bloody focused (pun deliberate) on the death of Jesus and not enough on his incarnate life or his resurrection achievements.

Welcome to our messy little world! ;{)


Andy said...

Dan, never havce you heard me mention Jesus' life was meaningless, and only singularly relevant on Calvary. Rubbish. You ae far too glib to dismiss hte body of Christian preaching, teaching, and learning with such blather. I find you far too intelligent to accept you actually are so dismissive, or arrogently blind.

Ressurection Morning is meaninless without Calvary. The two are inseperable in importance. Yet the discussion YOU championed an opposing voice for was exactly his trivial work on Calvary (heaven forbid His work actually tivial in ANY capacity).

So ALL of the work I have read from you, I find only contempt from you about Calvary, and never a pointed answer for what it was all about.

I accept you scolding about me injecting my thoughts without reading your volumes of comments previously written. That may take a bit of time, shall I remain silent until I complete them?

Dan Martin said...

I understand we disagree, Andy, and I'm not going to try to convince you. I apologize, however, that you took the following statement as an accusation against you.

This paradigm has been caricatured, and not entirely without basis, as the notion that all Jesus ever had to do was die, and the rest is fluff.

You didn't say that, I didn't think you said that; that's why I used the word "caricature" to describe the position.

I don't mean to trivialize Calvary. I mean to state (and this I firmly believe) that scripture leads me to the conviction that Calvary and the empty tomb must be taken as a unit--obviously Jesus couldn't be raised if he hadn't died, but if the Apostle Paul could say that "if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile" (1 Cor. 15:13-19) then I think I'm on safe ground to say the same without being accused of trivializing Jesus's work.

And no, I certainly don't mean to suggest you should stay out of the discussion till you've read all of my, or Dave's or anybody else's writings. I was merely trying to save some time and not clutter up Dave's comment section with a lot of repetition. By all means, to the extent I have any business inviting you to comment on anyone else's blog, don't let me try to stop you!

Peace to you, Andy. We're both worshipping the same Prince of Peace here.


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