Substitutionary Atonement and Proverbs

Team Pyro showing that the Bible is a coherent whole, especially when it comes to the atonement.

Sail carefully

In approaching the Old Testament believingly, two extremes must be avoided.

Off to the left looms the Scylla of atomization. Each part of the Bible is treated as a standalone, an historical artifact written virtually without reference to any other part. If the human author is allowed some awareness of previous revelation, no greater purpose — no metanarrative — is seen as useful (let alone determinative) in interpretation.

The problem with this approach is that it, in effect, rejects the Bible’s self-description as a unified and organic revelation, in which the parts are best understood when set within the whole (e.g. Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24; Luke 24:44-48; John 7:42; 20:9; 1 Timothy 5:18; Hebrews 1:1-2, etc.).

The unity of the Bible is not only a significant fact for doctrine, but for interpretation as well.

Equally, off to the right is the jutting Charybdis of a false Christianization of the Old Testament.

Note: I am not saying that reading the Bible as a Christian book is false. Indeed, I think it false to read it any other way (though what I mean by that would require expansion beyond the purpose of this post). However, the ultimacy of Christ does not cancel out the relevance of each chapter of revelation within and to its own context.

We commit this error when we neglect the fact that the God who finally spoke "to us by his Son" had previously spoken "to our fathers by the prophets" (Hebrews 1:1-2). We effectively deny this fact if we take, as our primary interpretation of any passage, a meaning that the passage could not possibly have had either to the writer nor the readers. If God spoke hopelessly over the heads of both His prophets and His hearers/readers, you couldn’t say that He spoke "to our fathers," and you couldn’t call what He did "communication." It doesn’t honor God to depict Him as, in effect, running the ultimate shell-game.

Having said that: the approach that is (I think) truest to the whole picture of revelation must suggest meanings that would make sense to the original writers/readers, and relate to the ultimate Big Picture that lay in the mind of God.

As an illustration, let’s take the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement as it relates to the book of Proverbs.

"This should be interesting," some of you will doubtless say, "— since there is no doctrine of substitutionary atonement in Proverbs!" At one point, that would also have been pretty much the entirety of my own reaction.

I’d certainty agree that no one could build an entire doctrine of the atonement from Proverbs. But I’d also hasten to insist that no one should build an entire doctrine of the atonement from any single book of the Bible, including Romans and Galatians.

However, I do think that Proverbs contains at least two signposts that, in the context of the whole Canon, point us in the direction of the canonical doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement.

Let me illustrate, then, by expanding a portion of a sermon I recently preached to the good folks at Calvary Community Church in Louisville, TN.

First signpost: "Yahweh"

The first signpost is broadly missed, or undervalued, for a couple of reasons.

First, nobody’s helped by the stupid translators’ trick of hiding "Yahweh" behind "LORD" and "GOD." We are so overdue for some head of a translation committee to look his fellow-scholars in the eye and say, "Brothers… why do we even do this anymore? We all know it’s wrong, none of us can really make sense out of it. The more that people know, the lamer the ‘explanations’ in our forwards are sounding — so seriously, let’s ditch that whole embarrassing LORD / Lord GOD thing, and let the text say ‘Yahweh.’" And then everyone else on the committee needs to vote a hearty "Aye," stop baffling generations of Bible-readers, and start making up for lost time.

If this issue doesn’t resonate with you, then try this: imagine that every occurrence of "Jesus" in the NT were replaced with "the Teacher" or "the Lord," because some group of unbelievers has a superstition about even saying His name. Maybe then the point will begin to stand out more starkly to you.

Second, because of this, too few reflect sufficiently on the significance of the fact that the living God of the Bible has a personal name, and that this means something. All sorts of religions talk about at least one "lord" and/or "god," so we don’t stop to think when we see "LORD" in the text.

But we really should. Especially we plenary, verbal inspiration-types.

Actually, Proverbs is rather remarkable in this regard. Proverbs is different from much of the Old Testament in terms of the mode of revelation. Here we don’t see oracles of Yahweh, or "thus says Yahweh," as in other books. Instead, this kind of "wisdom" literature is seen in other contemporary (and older) cultures, and the sage’s laboratory is the world of observation and reflection.

We see this in Proverbs 24:30-34

I passed by the field of a sluggard,
by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
31 and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
32 Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.

Verse 32 might be rendered a bit more literally: “Then I myself gazed, I applied my mind, I saw, I received an education.” The insight of revelation comes not from a vision or a voice, but through observation and reflection.

Now, given the nature of wisdom literature, and given its provenance in the world of nature and society, what name of God might you guess would dominate: the more generic, general-revelation name "God"? Or the very specific, special-revelation, Israelitish name "Yahweh"? I would have guessed the former.

I would have been wrong.

In fact, whereas words translated "God" occur only about eight times in Proverbs, the name "Yahweh" occurs eighty-seven times — about the same proportion as the (very Yahwistic) book of Deuteronomy (cf. Bruce Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology." Bibliotheca Sacra, 136, No. 544 [1979], p. 305).

"What," you ask, patience finally waning, "does the prevalence of the name ‘Yahweh’ have to do with substitutionary atonement?"

What kind of God is Yahweh?

I would make the argument that Yahweh is by definition the God of penal, substitutionary atonement. Without repeating works such as Leon Morris’ well-nigh epochal The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, the worship of Yahweh prominently featured substitutionary atonement from its very first breaths.

Consider: Adam and Eve sinned, and Yahweh immediately informs them that a Seed of the woman (!) would defeat the serpent through bloody suffering (Genesis 3:15; snake-bit heel = bloody heel); and at least one animal’s blood was shed to cover their shame (v. 21; skinned animal = bloody animal). The faith of believing Abel moves him to make blood sacrifice which Yahweh accepts, while He rejects Cain’s bloodless (and faithless) sacrifice (closely compare Genesis 4:1-5 with Hebrews 11:4‘s "more acceptable sacrifice," before too hastily dismissing the bloody element).

When Yahweh formalized His covenant with Abram, what means did He choose? The bloody covenantal formalities of Abram’s day (Genesis 15).

Surely no Pyro reader needs me to make the point that Israel’s worship of Yahweh was blood-spattered, in a vivid depiction of penal, substitutionary atonement, from start to finish? Yahweh‘s covenant with Israel is inaugurated with blood (Exodus 24:5-8).

And after a series of commands which Israel is urged to obey (Exodus 20-24), Yahweh immediately begins giving instructions as to what to do in view of the certainty that they will not obey. That is, He directs the construction of the Tabernacle and the institution of the priesthood (Exodus 25ff.). And what is the primary function of the Tabernacle? The worship of Yahweh by the offering of bloody, substitutionary sacrifices (among others; detailed in the book of Leviticus). Thus the writer to the Hebrews could rightly say in 9:22 that "under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins."

In fact, the truth is expressed clearly in the central, clarifying text of Leviticus 17:11 — "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. " That is what "Yahweh spoke to Moses" (17:1).

Accordingly, what is "blood" in these Biblical contexts if not shorthand for penal, substitutionary atonement?

Bringing it to Proverbs

Putting this together: a textually-respectful, whole-Bible reading of Proverbs will see each mention of Yahweh as equivalent to saying "the God of Israel, who can be believingly approached only on the basis of penal, substitutionary atonement."

Therefore, I would argue, just as each use of Jesus by NT writers is theologically "loaded," so it is with uses of Yahweh in the OT. No matter the proverb’s subject, this is who Yahweh is: He is the God of penal, substitutionary atonement. It would be legitimate (if stylistically reprehensible) thus to gloss proverbs:

A false balance is an abomination to [Yahweh, the God of penal, substitutionary atonement],
but a just weight is his delight (Proverbs 11:1)

The name of [Yahweh, the God of penal, substitutionary atonement] is a strong tower;
the righteous man runs into it and is safe (Proverbs 18:10)

The purpose of Proverbs is expressly stated to be the acquisition and practical living out of God’s viewpoint (Proverbs 1:1-6), so one will not expect a focused doctrinal exposition per se. However, when Proverbs 1:7 says that absolutely everything is based and built on the fear of Yahweh, we now understand that Solomon means the fear of Yahweh, the God who can be approached only through faith and on the basis of penal, substitutionary atonement.

In sum, then: the first signpost is in Solomon’s use of God’s name "Yahweh." The OT knows of no Yahweh who is not the God approached by faith on the basis of penal, substitutionary atonement.

In the next installment, I plan to examine a verse that directs us towards the atonement in a surprising manner; then to bring both posts together in a concluding statement.

Can’t wait.

6 Comments on “Substitutionary Atonement and Proverbs

  1. You know, it’s funny, but I was just about to write a post on this… Not this specifically, but on Team Pyro and all the others in what I consider the “super-intelligent Reformed” side of the blogosphere. It’s an extreme task for me to read a Team Pyro post, because I honestly don’t understand a lot of what they’re writing about, and that is somewhat disheartening for me, because I wonder exactly how much theological knowledge it takes to be a good Christian. I know it’s probably not a lot, and I’m sure they don’t mean to do it, but those Team Pyro guys make it sound sometimes like everyone needs to be as knowledgable as them. Also, I was raised Methodist and have many, many, Roman Catholic friends. I wonder, what is the Reformed position on people who are not Reformed? Are they responsible for believing what many Reformed writers consider heresies, or are they still Christians who are saved? Regards.

    • Hi Jay,

      I don’t think Team Pyro are intellectual in the slightest. Not that that means that they’re a bunch of thickos, rather that they love Scripture and want us all to understand it. I really haven’t read a single post of theirs that is complicated, but most are full of theology and most Christians, unfortunately, don’t put as much effort into doctrine and theology as they should do.

      • Well, to be clear, when I said they were intellectual I wasn’t saying it negatively. And yes, I do agree that many Christians don’t put enough effort into studying theology. At the same time, it’s hard enough for a lot of us to even find time to simply read the Bible everyday, which is why I was wondering if a lot of theological study was required for being considered a strong Christian. Also, do remember that I’m only 19 and was raised in a very simple, small-town Southern church. I didn’t even know that such a think as Calvinism existed until I came to college. Yet I still think that the people in my home church are strong Christians, despite their lack of theological knowledge. They love the Lord.

  2. I think I can speak for the three of us when I say that the last thing any of us wants to be is hard to understand. Anyone who needs a clarification or rewording should feel free to ask; we’d welcome the opportunity.

    As Peter says, “I don’t think Team Pyro are intellectual in the slightest.”

    There y’go!


  3. At high risk of being uncharitable, this looks to me a very weak argument. If there is a case to be made that a penal substitution theory of the atonement is the best of the models there are, this piece doesn’t make it. It looks like the authors simply assume the word “blood” wherever in Hebrew Scripture it appears, is a shorthand for a penal substitution theory as it’s now understood, but I can’t see where they actually make this case.

    Perhaps that’s quite enough of the ‘I’m right’ – I guess my bias, that I’ve no truck with a penal substitution theory, is obvious. For something quite different I’d suggest (…as I often do admittedly) a piece of James Alison’s – see

    in friendship, Blair

  4. Ould,
    In other words you assume that Jesus by his crucifixion may have perfected the concept of “penal substitutionary atonement”?  Have you ever read the story Jesus told about the tenants? What does Jesus say is God’s intent toward the people for killing the son in this story? And what about Jesus teaching that guilt relative to sin remains as the outstanding issue for you AFTER his crucifixion in Jn. 16:8? And there is something else too. This is a statement by Yahweh a direct quote even. In regard to taking another man’s life by bloodshed Yahweh says:
                                                      “and from each man too I will
                                                   demand an accounting for the life
                                                           of you fellow man.”
    Wasn’t Jesus’ life taken by bloodshed and isn’t an account due to Yahweh? It appears to me that issues between you and Yahweh are not resolved until you give him the accounting he demands from you regarding the sin of crucifying his only begotten son. Right?

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