“The mere fact that in changing cultural and religious settings we find it hard to understand or communicate key biblical teachings is not,” writes Veli-Matti Karkkainen in Christ and Reconciliation: A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, vol. 1 (324), “a valid theological reason for their dismissal.”

Wise counsel, and he applies this in a helpful discussion of violence.

But he doesn’t always stick with it. In a weird tautology, he claims that “The term ‘penal substitution’ is not a useful way of naming this view [of the atonement] primarily because of the overly ‘penal’ and judicial connotation” (311). And why are penal connotations problematic? Because the phrase has a “checkered history, and elicits so many negative feelings” and thus “is not useful for constructive theology” (342). But if Karkkainen’s statement above is true, then those negative feelings are not decisive.

Behind this maneuver is Karkkainen’s claim that theologians have always used contemporary concepts as a “lens” through which to view theological questions (292). No doubt some have; no doubt, to some extent one’s cultural formation plays in inescapable role in theology. Yet this is not the same as making it a methodological principle to interpret the Bible through cultural lenses. At significant moments (such as the early Trinitarian and Christological debates) theologians had to break the lens to do justice to the gospel. It was the heretics who adjusted the Bible’s teaching to cultural assumptions.