Let me explain. I am currently locking horns with a great theologian (you guessed it, Michael Hardin) over the issue of whether or not there is any penal (however nuanced) element within the atonement wrought by God in Jesus Christ (His initial post, my response, and his response). But, as is the case with these sorts of complex discussions, one quickly realizes that he is not discussing one matter, but perhaps two or three. You see, normally an appeal to the text as the grounds and conceptual matrix for theological formulation (yes this includes our informed and uninformed presuppositions etc.) is a way to navigate between the contesting positions, but with Hardin this is not the case. Appealing to a passage here or there (or in this case nigh everywhere) is unpersuasive because for Hardin these text(s) are simply wrong in light of his overriding theological abstraction of non-violence and non-retaliation.
If I culled a text, for example, that illustrated God exacting punishment upon some disobedient Israelite he might reply with describing it as something like a Sitz im Leben:
I would say that in scripture when we find stories of God punishing humanity we are reading stories from the perspective of the persecuting community that justifies itself with an appeal to a god they have made in their own image.
Or if I appealed to St. Paul, or even Jesus on the matter then he may say (and did): “I also acknowledge that both Testaments contain elements of myth (sacrificial thinking) and gospel (non or anti-sacrificial thinking).” So, over the course of the discussion, I quickly realized that it is not a matter of finding swaths of Scripture to support penal aspects in the atonement, but one of a theory of revelation. It is not easy to win a game when the opponent makes all up all the rules in their favor. Enter my re-work of John 1:1, 14; you see, for Hardin, the revelation of God is not primarily through the person and work and teachings of Jesus, the Logos en persona per se, but through an abstract theory of non-retaliation which has embodied his theory of divine revelation. For him, the darkness of mythically violent Scripture (even the non-western ones!) shall not overcome the light of the principle of non-violence.
Now, notice I did not use words like “plenary inspiration” or “inerrancy” (if you want my ontology of Scripture here), but if we are going to do theology, one that is born out of the revelational work of God in history through and by human beings, then Scripture must be granted some level of principled authority. No doubt all theological positions have some texts that refuse to be stuffed in the box, but when we see something (God executing judgment) in both the OT, in Jesus, and in Paul (Hardin acknowledges its trans-testamental presence) we might have sufficient support for shifting or moderating a theological position. Unless, of course, we have chosen a meta-principle (I see it as ultimately “abstract” if Jesus does not support it either in his teaching or work) that overrides all contrary evidence, in Hardin’s case, the logos of non-violence.
The second issue at play here is that Hardin is not truly consistent about non-violence per se, because when taken at his own words his theory of atonement is in fact “penal”:
However, I would argue that it was exactly a human attempt at propitiation that was occurring on Calvary; an attempt that was subverted by God. Jesus, on Calvary is a ‘propitiatiatory offering’, not of humanity to God, nor even of God back to God’s self. Rather the cross is God’s offering of God’s self to humanity in Christ. We are the propitiated ones, we humans are the ones with anger management issues, not God.
Now, one can forgive Hardin for what is possibly a poetic outburst of penal sacrificial awe, but ultimately Hardin’s (if he didn’t momentarily lose his hermeneutical principles) theory of atonement is an anthropological form of PSA. Only God, working within a top-to-bottom economy of exchange, must sacrifice himself to appease the wrath of the human gods, either way a “sacrifice is still needed for salvation.” No doubt Molech would be jealous. It seems, to me, that Hardin is not even able to escape his own critique precisely at this point. Or to say it another way, because Hardin lacks a stronger theory of biblical revelation to ground his theological formulation he ends up with an anthropological form of the Molechian brand of sacrificial atonement.
This is why we must grant more revelational credence to the OT than Hardin will allow. Its way of subversion is not that there is no exchange, or that there will be no punishment, or that there will be no sacrifice, but that God himself will be the Subject of all these things. Hardin is correct, this subversion takes place as early (even earlier if you ask me) as Genesis 22 when God provides a ram rather than accepting Isaac at the hand of Abraham, surely the ram wasn’t offered to Abraham!
Now if this was merely, some reflection of ancient Israel exchange culture (intersting that Hardin says this is “western” but if it is in fact present here it would be quite “eastern”) we might expect to see it subverted in the NT, but this is precisely what we don’t see; in fact, echoing this passage St. Paul states:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
Interestingly, in what is arguably the climax of the letter, we see both a penal nuance (“He condemned sin in the flesh”) and a notion of “exchange” (“gave him up for us all”). The OT here serves as the conceptual matrix for Paul’s theology of atonement, and rather than subvert the sacrificial elements of exchange seen in the Abraham story, we see it fulfilled and brought at last to its intended telos. Moreover, as I noted in my last post, God is everywhere active Subject (“he did not withhold his Son”) of the atonement worked out in and by the Son, we get absolutely no sense that God sacrificed his Son to appease humanity’s Molechian wrath. I can say it no better than N.T. Wright here:
How does this ‘atonement theology’ actually work? Paul is writing in great excitement, but also with great precision. First, God sent his own son, which as we saw in 5:8 meant that God has not sent someone else, but has come in person. For the entire passage to make sense, we have to presuppose that by ‘God’s son’ here Paul means, not just Jesus as Messiah (though he means that too; it is vital in his argument) but Jesus as God’s own second self. Next, the son came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’; in other words, to the very point where the problem of chapter 7 had been identified (see particularly 7:14 and 7:25). Sin, as we saw in 5:20 and 7:13, had become ‘exceedingly sinful’ through the law; God specifically intended that it should. Now Israel, in whom that increase of sinfulness had occurred, was summed up in one man, the representative king, the Messiah. The weight of the world’s sin was focused on Israel; the weight of Israel’s sin was focused on the Messiah. And the Messiah died a criminal’s death, with ‘King of the Jews’ written above his head. At that moment, God condemned sin. He condemned sin ‘in his flesh’. He had cornered it and condemned it. As the prophet had said, ‘the punishment that brought us peace fell upon him; and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5).
The only true way to escape the entail of retaliation is not avert it to man (Hardin), much less from man to God (Molech), but to see it dealt with by God Himself in and through and by the Son Jesus Christ. No Abraham, we will not need to sacrifice our sons, because “God will provide Himself (literally!) a Lamb.”
 Romans 8:1-4, 31-34.
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), pg. 137-138.