I would like to commend a fascinating essay by Neil B. MacDonald in Calvin, Barth, and Reformed Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2008). It is entitled, “Karl Barth’s Narrative Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement.” I won’t even bother trying to exposit the whole article here–you need to read it yourself. However, the central argument that MacDonald makes is that Barth upholds a doctrine of substitutionary atonement, founded upon the Scripture principle (and therefore truly Reformed), and based on a historical-critical narratival reading of the Synoptic Gospels. MacDonald argues that the basic threefold structure of the Synoptic Gospels provides a compelling doctrine of substitutionary atonement that is grounded fully in the Synoptic narrative itself, and not merely as a later Pauline (or even a late medieval/Reformational) forensic eisegesis upon the Gospels.
In short, MacDonald argues that the Synoptic Gospels can be coherently read in such a way as to discern that “YHWH, the God of Israel,…takes His own Judgment on Himself (in the Form of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth)” (93).
From a structural perspective, MacDonald argues that in the first part of each Synoptic, Jesus is shown to be one who pronounces God’s eschatological judgment upon Israel and the world. However in the second part of each Gospel (the “Passion” narratives), Jesus is portrayed as taking upon himself this self-same judgment. In this regard, MacDonald argues that Barth reads the Gospels themselves (especially in CD IV.1) as bearing, intrinsically, a “substitutionary doctrine of atonement.” Jesus announces the coming kingly judgment of YHWH, but then the Synoptics portray Jesus as becoming the recipient of this judgment–the substitute. However, it is in the third stage–the resurrection accounts–that completes the narrative. For “inside the context of the resurrection-appearances history, Jesus of Nazareth reveals Himself to be included within the identity of YHWH, the God of Israel” (103). Observing how the NT confession of Jesus’ divinity is always coupled with reference to his exaltation in his resurrection from the dead, Barth says, “God has given him this name [of YHWH] by exalting him above all things (Phil 2:9) out of and after his death on the cross.” (CD III.2, 450, cited from MacDonald, 103). In other words, it is this “third stage” which completes the forensic account: 1) YHWH judges, but 2) receives that judgment in Jesus, i.e., “stands in as a substitute for us”; and 3) declares himself to be united fully to the risen Jesus Christ.
If that isn’t enough to get you reading this article, MacDonald throws in one more treat: At the end he applies this Barthian “doctrine of substitutionary atonement” through appeal to cinematic film. Throughout the article, he points to the action of Pilate of judging Jesus as being the “hidden judgment” of YHWH on Jesus, i.e., righteous YHWH accomplishes his judgment of Jesus through evil Pilate. However, our ability to “see” this hidden presence of YHWH in the narrative depends upon taking the “directorial eye” of the Synoptic authors. As MacDonald puts it,
The pertinent question here is not about the identity of Jesus [as in Jesus’ question to Peter, ‘Who do you say I am?’]. Rather: the question is about the identity of Pilate’s judgment on Jesus: precisely, ‘Who do you say Pilate’s judgement is?’ Is it merely his own so that Jesus’ death is a consequence of the power of the secular and religious authorities alone–or it is in reality and really–though physically embodied in individuals such as Pontius Pilate–really and ultimately–God acting in history and therefore God’s own judgment on Jesus?” (114).
Our ability to “see” this is the “faith-decision.” But such a decision requires us not simply to hear the right words, but to see it from the “directorial eye” of the Synoptists themselves. This is why, MacDonald argues, so many modern films about Jesus ultimately fail to portray the Gospel, despite even those that seek to stick closely to the events portrayed on the pages of the Gospels.
Well, I hope that’s enough to convince you to get your hands on this essay. I haven’t read any of the other essays yet, but this one alone was worth the price I paid!