Smartypants Notions Like Cosmic Child Abuse

Somehow it seems as thought advocates of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) as the key model of the atonement (I’d prefer metaphor) can’t stay kind and respectable. I wonder why it is that those of us who think that one needs to consider the character of God in terms of love, mercy, and forgiveness as well as justice, and who are concerned with careless formulations, are somehow less pious.

I was really not planning to post any more on this topic for awhile, but then Adrian Warnock quoted this from J. I. Packer:

Since all this was planned by the holy Three in their eternal solidarity of mutual love, and since the Father’s central purpose in it all was and is to glorify and exalt the Son as Saviour and Head of a new humanity, smartypants notions like “divine child abuse”, as a comment on the cross, are supremely silly, and as irrelevant and wrong as they could possibly be. [emphasis (color) from Adrian’s quote]

But it’s not theologically educated opponents who are generally missing the point here. It is careless formulations that are being heard regularly in the pews as something very similar to cosmic child abuse. Some people like it, because it allows them to proclaim a tough God. They want the God of justice to put fear into the next generation. Others are driven away by it. It’s not the critics who have a problem here. It’s the proponents.

I understand the trinity and the incarnation quite well. That’s why I’m disturbed by formulations that do sound very much like cosmic child abuse. It’s pointless for theologians who are writing for a lay audience to say things like “God’s wrath was poured out on his innocent son instead of on the guilty people who deserved it” and then complain that if people really understood the trinity, they’d realize it is really God pouring his wrath on himself. If people don’t understand the trinity–and you’ll find a crowd of folks in the pews who don’t–then they’re going to hear that sentence incorrectly and get the wrong idea about God.

In fact, if they really do understand the trinity, I think they’ll have to see that PSA must be a metaphor. It elucidates part of the problem, but if you try to make it stand on all four, it just doesn’t fully make sense. Now not fully making sense isn’t entirely a bad thing. That just shows that a full understanding of the atonement remains outside our human grasp.

If you want to call that a “smartypants” response, that’s your privilege and also Packer’s. But I think that dismissive attitude is dangerous. (Note that much of Packer’s article itself avoids the difficulties in phraseology to which I’m referring. He simply seems to ignore the problem of other formulations to which critics may respond. Of course, I still do disagree with him on making PSA central, but I do think he formulates PSA appropriately.)

After having been annoyed by that quote, I also read this one by Peter Kirk. I think he deals well with Carson’s material. I would simply add that I prefer the word “metaphor” to “model.” “Models” need to be worked together into a single whole, or at least that is the feeling I get with the word. Metaphors can illustrate different parts and need not necessarioly stand on all four feet.

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  1. Will says:

    God: “You people are so sinful and so awful, and you have made me so mad that I’m going to have to kill my own son before I can even start forgiving you.”

    Makes perfect sense to me. Riiiight.

  2. Many statements of PSA do sound precisely like what you said, and I’d have to answer in the same way.


  3. Andrew says:

    Jesus is God who is omnipresent and immortal and yet at the same time he is a man and confined to a body and died. Riiight.

    And yet it’s gloriously true isn’t it? Just because you can put something in a way that is counterintuitive doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, especially when the Scriptures testify to it. Be careful mate, don’t end up blaspheming because God doesn’t do things the way you think he ought to.

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