PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

I want to warn those who expect a certain amount of conciliatory tone in my posts on doctrinal issues that I intend to speak more harshly in this post. If that offends you, try reading a different one. I don’t mean to dismiss you, but I feel the need to make some points very strongly so as not to be misunderstood. Also, for those who may not be aware, PSA stands for “penal substitutionary atonement.” I will also be speaking very much of a debate within Christianity, and I will make many assumptions that will generally be shared only by Christians.

As has happened very often recently, this post starts from a comment made or quoted by Adrian Warnock. In his recent post Mark Driscoll Preaches on the Atonement in Edinburgh, Scotland, Adrian provided a video of Mark Driscoll preaching on the atonement. Peter Kirk has responded to Mark Driscoll’s comments, and I am in agreement with what he has said about those.

I, however, am responding only to one line in Adrian’s summary of Driscoll’s comments:

  1. The Central Theme—Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)

This is the reason I have spoken out against PSA so frequently, not that PSA has no basis whatsoever in scripture (though as I study the new perspectives on Paul that basis gets smaller and smaller), but that its centrality has no basis in scripture, and in fact, does great harm to large portions of salvation history. I like Tillich’s definition of idolatry, paraphrases as “having as your ultimate concern something that is not ultimate.” I apply that doctrinally to state that making something central that is not, in fact, central will have the same effect, and will lead to idolatry.

Now before I go on, let me answer a question. Just what do I regard as central to the gospel?

I can answer that in two parts. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV). The first central point is God’s love. God gave his son so that, if we believe (or put our trust) in him, we could live with him eternally. That’s one statement of the gospel in a nutshell. Now note that it doesn’t mention a courtroom. It doesn’t mention God’s wrath. It doesn’t mention punishment. It does not call for belief in a set of doctrines, but rather in a person. It operates from a foundation of love that results in giving–giving of the Son, and giving of eternal life.

I can inversely state this with the two laws, love for God and love for one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). The starting point for this command is loving God with the whole heart, mind, and soul. I cite the Matthean version because Matthew explicitly records Jesus as saying that the law and the prophets “hang” on these two commands, thus giving them a certain centrality. I think they are central as the opposite side of the same coin with John 3:16. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). While the two commands are central, they attach to the even more central idea that love in general starts with God. If God did not “so love,” then we would not love God, and if those two events did not happen, the full measure of love for one’s neighbor would never become a reality.

Note here that I’m not claiming that only Christians can love. God’s love is there because God is love (1 John 4:7-8). I actually think I should be able to stop there, because I think it is so abundantly clear that God’s love is more central than any theory of it, and that’s God’s love is the central point of the atonement. God loved; God gave. The courtroom is simply one way in which people have tried to express how God can carry out his love in practice and how we can understand it. But the metaphor, the attempt to understand, cannot take over the center from the reality.

How would PSA suggest we express the first commandment? Well, we have at the foundation of PSA God’s essential revulsion at human sin, and even his inability to look at it. In order for God to accept us he must look at Jesus, who is the only righteous one. Rather than God’s love, we have God’s loathing placed into focus. Even if one says he’s doing it all ultimately because he loves us, PSA puts the focus on the negative, on the complete depravity of humans and God’s inability to forgive them without killing somebody.

So how does this evoke my love for God? I am to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, even while he loathes me, a sinner, with everything in his being. To look at me, he has to play pretend, and look at Jesus instead.

How would this work in real life? Supposing that I inform my wife that I loathe her, that I cannot stand to look at her body, and that in order to make love to her, I must imagine her to be someone else. Would this tend to improve or to destroy our relationship? Would she enter into passion with her whole heart, knowing that I must imagine another in order to find her presence acceptable in our bed?

Yet this is essentially the “love” with which we are presented in PSA. Is it any wonder that advocates search for texts about God hating his enemies, and find the language of hatred, disgust, and loathing more appropriate than any normal language of love? We are constantly reminded that various excessive expressions are just individual views, and may be hyperbole taken out of context. But should I constantly tame the rhetoric of actual advocates of PSA in order to match up with an ideal view that is rarely expressed?

Now in a few paragraphs I’m going to spend a few moments on PSA as a metaphor, taken out of the center, but nonetheless seen as expressive of the atonement. But first, let me look at the human centered nature of PSA.

Human centered? The constant refrain is that those of us to don’t accept PSA as central are the ones who are taking God out of the center. But consider just what the most important issue in PSA is for the believer.

Let me take this through a metaphor. When I was a boy I would occasionally get in trouble, shocking as that may seem. I would be confronted by one of my parents. Now think of me as a boy standing before mother or father after I have committed some significant infraction. What is my major concern? Well, as I remember it, my major hope was to avoid punishment. Reform, relationship building, the peace of the family as a whole, and ultimate justice in the universe were nowhere in my thinking. I wanted to avoid punishment.

That is precisely the focus of PSA. With all the emphasis on human depravity, on God’s sovereignty, on universal justice, and other such concepts, at the bottom line PSA tells me that I get to avoid punishment. If PSA is the central understanding of the atonement, then that implies that the primary problem following the fall was not the damage caused by evil actions, or the devastation caused by people separation from and rebellion against God. The central problem that God faced, in this scenario, was that he just has to punish someone.

On the one hand we have helpless humans. Having committed one sin, they have become totally incapable of doing anything good, totally depraved. They are helpless. But on the other hand, we have a God who is so hopelessly out of control and helpless that he cannot manage to handle this in any way but to strike out and punish someone, anyone. So this helpless God arranges some sleight of hand, and strikes out at his son instead, so he doesn’t have to punish those helpless depraved humans.

The only thing that is solved in this view of PSA is that the people don’t have to be punished. I don’t have to be punished. Now that’s some pretty good news right there, but it is a very narcissistic set of good news. I’m filled with joy that I dodged the bullet. There is no purpose, however, other than this satisfaction of an oddly medieval sense of justice. So the problem of punishment is solved, but the nasty behavior continues, and is essentially doomed to continue.

It has always seemed odd to me that so many people of my acquaintance can find such joy in predestination, when the opposite side of that coin is that some are predestined to hell, or if we state it in a less extreme form, some simply fail of being predestined to heaven and thus default into hell. I’m sure that while burning in the fire, this doctrinal nuance will be of great comfort to them. But supposing I believe that I am predestined to heaven. What if my wife is not? You say, “Is she not a Christian?” Well, according to some Calvinists I have encountered, should she backslide, one might conclude that she never really was. Or perhaps I will backslide. Great comfort there! But for some reason nobody who currently professes belief assumes that he or she is headed for the wrong place. That seems a bit narcissistic to me, and so does PSA if made central.

Now how can PSA be read when not central? Well, first, we do not have to make it walk on all four. If it’s central, then somehow each element must fit around the core, and thus we get imbalances such as God’s loathing for sinners.

Second, we no longer have to assume that the problem referenced and solved by PSA is the central problem of the fall. Certainly, we would all see avoiding punishment as a very important point, but if that was the most important point, then surely a most powerful God could figure out a way to solve it. But there is a more central problem of sin–the damage that it does to the creatures God loves. I think the atonement addresses this problem as well, and I think that the problem of sin and its damage is more important in God’s eyes than the problem of the consequences I face for being a rebel.

Third, I am more free to bring the trinity into the equation. In some ways, PSA starts to make less sense, when we bring trinitarian theology to bear. God killing himself? God taking the penalty on himself? In other ways it begins to make more sense. One way for God to demonstrate to us both that sin is horrible, but that he is willing to forgive and redeem is to himself take on those consequences.

And those are not the only items. What I want to bring out here is that there are many theological themes that tend to blunt the nastier aspects of PSA, but those themes also tend to move PSA out of the center. As the central doctrine of the atonement I think PSA will always become a stumbling block and result in the language of pure wrath, loathing, and of a God who is truth challenged, limited, and has to pretend in order to accomplish his will.

I am not a pastor, though I took my MA in Religion (concentrating in Biblical and cognate languages) at a seminary. But for me the key issue here is first pastoral–how do I reach people. I believe Jesus gives me every license by his words and deeds to place that first. Second, the issue is Biblical, and only third do I see it as theological. (The theologically trained may blame that on the lack of theological training in my Biblical studies programs.)

My focus is illustrated by a gentleman who came to my office, referred to me by a pastor. He believed he was oppressed by the devil and by demons and I began to ask him about his relationship with Jesus and his personal trust in Him for salvation. He could recite doctrines. He was a sinner, and knew it. He knew the offer for his salvation. He could recite John 3:16. But he could not honestly say, he told me, that God so loved him.

He was a transient, and he left the area before our second appointment, so I do not know how well the seed I tried to sow grew, or if it grew at all. But for me the bottom line on a view of the good news and the atonement is this: How well does it help you look someone in the eye and say, “God loves you!”

In that task, I believe, PSA repeatedly fails.

22 thoughts on “PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. You have put you finger on some things that have bugged me about PSA that I had not been able to voice before. There is much food for thought here.

  2. Hi Henry,

    Thanks for this post. It has helped solidify some of my long-time misgivings on this particular point of theology. For me the question is simple: how can God claim to love someone if he only loves *part* of them? Your analogy of how it would work if you applied the same principle to your wife is particularly apt. The answer is: unconditional love has to start by being *unconditional*.

    I guess my belief is that sin is not something damaging to God — it is something damaging to *us*. Yes, of course it hurts God when we turn from him, when we hurt ourselves — vulnerability is an inherent part of loving someone. But, to my mind, God is far more concerned with the damage we do to ourselves — and each other — than with the damage we do to him. At least, that is what a good parent worries about when eir child is engaged in self-destructive or hurtful behaviour. If we are to see God as a good father, then how much more so would this be true of him?

    I find the idea of exclusionary salvation to be particular offensive. It implies God loves some of us more than he loves others. That is not the behaviour of a good parent. To be honest, I am currently struggling with how to integrate that viewpoint with what I’m reading in the bible. At present, I have no good answers to the apparent conflict there, but my heart tells me that a God of love does not love only those children who are “good” (whether they are that way directly or by proxy). That God’s love is bigger than that. If I am told to love my enemy, then how much more capable must God be of that very thing?

    Regards,
    Chris.

  3. Well thanks for expressing ‘the other side’ as it were. I of course dont agree, and sadly dont have time to explain why. I am glad, though, that you have explained your position for me.

  4. Henry:

    Thanks for your wonderfully thoughtful post.

    It is interesting that you write this. I am in San Diego for the SBL conference and Joel Green has delivered a paper on this very subject. It is interesting to note that the church has never made an official pronouncement on atonement in the way it has on the person of Christ. The early theologians were content to allow the richness of the work of Christ stand. How sad it would be for any of us to reject one or more in favor of only one aspect.

    That is also why I am opposed to the notion of atonement “theory.” I prefer to spaek of “aspects” of “facets” of atonement.

    And as a devotee of the new perspectice on Paul, I think there is much more to be said about atonement than only PSA, though we must keep that facet as well.

    Thanks again!

    We must not abandon the notion of PSA; it does express an important aspect of atonement, but the problem is when it becomes the central notion to the exclusion of the others.

    It is not an acident that the ecumenical church council never came down with an official pronouncement on atonement like they did in reference to the person of Jesus.

  5. This is a bit cross-posted with a comment I made on Peter Kirk’s blog. I’ve been rereading ‘Recovering the Scandal of the Cross’ by Joel Green and Mark Baker. I’ve been intrigued for some time why PSA seems to be held with such fervour.

    Green and Baker suggest that our culture is obsessed with fault-finding and punishment.

    This makes sense to me as a reason. They point out that Anselm’s culture was obsessed with shame and honour. Having insulted God’s honour, only the guilty (a human) could appease God’s honour but, of course, this task is impossible for us. It is, however, possible for Jesus: both human and divine. Satisfaction makes a heck of a lot more sense in this latter social context. There need to be too many mental gymnastics for satisfaction to work in a blame and punishment culture like our own.

    The problem when debating with PSAers is that I feel I’m in a different paradigm. They are utterly convinced that blame and punishment are ‘how things are’ and part of God’s divine plan and I am not. I remain mystified as to how we talk across these different paradigms.

  6. I think the main reason some people see PSA as central and are reluctant to let it go is because the Christianity they have been taught sees it as central and revolves around PSA. If the only form of Christianity you have ever known and understood teaches PSA as its central doctrine, and has its other doctrines constructed around PSA, then if someone asks you to deny PSA or deny the centrality of it, it’s like asking you to choose between Christianity and the void. That’s why they make comments that denying PSA is denying Christianity or denying the gospel. Because PSA is the only Christianity they have ever known.

    The way forward then with these Christians is not to deny to them the centrality of PSA, but to share with them our entire understanding of Christianity. Once they see a true choice between Christianity version A and Christianity version B, they will be able to look seriously at the pros and cons of the different views. But if all they see is a choice between Christianity version A and nothing, then they will not take criticism seriously, because to them criticism of their version of Christianity will look like an attack on Christianity itself.

    The real problem, I think with this whole PSA debate, is that those of us who reject the centrality of PSA are often not very good at explaining clearly and simply our atonement views and systematic theology. Thus when we talk to those Christians who have been trained in PSA-focused-Christianity we end up giving them a choice between the clear, coherent, systematic view they’ve been trained in, or a confused, incoherent, I’m-not-quite-sure-about-the-details view of our own minds.

  7. But if all they see is a choice between Christianity version A and nothing, then they will not take criticism seriously, because to them criticism of their version of Christianity will look like an attack on Christianity itself.

    I agree with you up to a point. I think that there are a number of people who see ‘Jesus died to save you from the punishment that your sin deserves’ as being a statement of the Gospel.

    But theologians are not offering ‘PSA or nothing’ and the works which PSAers see as ‘an attack’ on PSA (like Green and Baker’s book which is fairly old now) don’t set out primarily to attack PSA; Green and Baker seem to have set out to give a richer theological narrative to soteriology than offered by PSA.

    Adrian Warnock is certainly aware that it’s not ‘PSA or nothing’ as are John Piper and the authors of ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’, to name but a few people. If you read PFOT, they just dismiss out of hand a non-literal reading of scripture and they summarise and dismiss a number of other soteriological viewpoints in one or two paragraphs each. Rene Girard and Walter Wink summed up and dismissed in less than two pages.

  8. Adrian Warnock is certainly aware that it’s not ‘PSA or nothing’ as are John Piper and the authors of ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’, to name but a few people.

    People like these are intellectually aware that there exist other points of view within Christianity, but are not versed in those ideas to remotely the same degree compared to how steeped they are in their own denomination’s teaching. They’ve heard that there are other ideas, but they don’t see them as a serious option and any investigation they’ve done of alternative positions has been with the goal of trying to disprove the heretics and confirm their own beliefs. How much have they heard these alternate versions of Christianity positively advocated in an environment and situation conducive to their listening and taking them seriously? Virtually not at all. Compare that to the massive number of times they have heard their own denomination’s ideas expounded to them as gospel, and it’s easy to see why they think the way they do.

    If you read PFOT… they summarise and dismiss a number of other soteriological viewpoints in one or two paragraphs each.

    I’ve read PFOT, and yes of course they simply dismiss alternatives out of hand. They don’t understand the alternatives very well, and that’s reflected in their one-to-two paragraph summary which corresponds to their own level of understanding of those views – they write that much because they know that much. Whereas they can write hundreds of pages about PSA because that’s the view they know and understand.

    Can you see how if you were in this position, you would come to the same conclusion they do about the centrality and importance of PSA to the Christian faith as you know it? That’s why I’ve come to realize that best way to help these people is not by trying to criticize PSA and cut the limb they’re sitting on out from under them, but to help them expand their knowledge.

    Now a lot of the exegesis, ideas, and evidence presented in PFOT was amusing from a scholarly point of view. But if I believed that what was said in PFOT was true (and I have to assume the authors do), and that was the limit of my knowledge on atonement doctrine in general, then their conclusions about the truth, centrality and importance of PSA would definitely follow. Their viewpoint thus results from a general lack of knowledge on the subject. It’s easy to see why, given what they think, they got so upset at Steve Chalke’s criticism of Penal Substitution. For them it is central to the gospel, and they don’t understand any views where it is not central.

  9. I think there are many things in the Bible that we fail to see because of theological preconceptions. (That “we” is inclusive–I too have my preconceptions.)

    A great deal of the fun, as I see it, is in the continuing search.

  10. Adrian,

    Well, the reason I read your blog regularly is to be constantly challenged by the more conservative view of things. If you find time to respond at some point, I’ll certainly read your response with care.

  11. We must not abandon the notion of PSA; it does express an important aspect of atonement, but the problem is when it becomes the central notion to the exclusion of the others.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly here. I believe there is great value in PSA, especially, but not exclusively, in communicating forgiveness and remission of the penalty. Those are good things.

    I took Exegesis of Romans in college from a professor who taught moral influence, a view with which I have much sympathy, but he had made moral influence the center of the doctrine of the atonement, and re-read Romans in order to work that way.

    It was an oddly disorienting kind of experience!

  12. Pam and Andrew,

    I do think there is an importance in making positive presentations, but there is also a value in pointing out the negative consequences of placing PSA in the center. Similar problems will occur, I believe, with any metaphor that is elevated to the status of exclusive reality; the result is imbalance.

    There is also, however, the simple problem of getting people to read or hear presentations of the other side.

  13. People like these are intellectually aware that there exist other points of view within Christianity, but are not versed in those ideas to remotely the same degree compared to how steeped they are in their own denomination’s teaching. … How much have they heard these alternate versions of Christianity positively advocated in an environment and situation conducive to their listening and taking them seriously? … Compare that to the massive number of times they have heard their own denomination’s ideas expounded to them as gospel, and it’s easy to see why they think the way they do.

    Andrew, for several years I attended a church that was a mile away from Oak Hill College (‘home’ of the authors of PFOT). I sat in the pew as a moderate, orthodox Christian and constantly heard my beliefs denounced as unbelieving and heretical. (For explanatory purposes, I began attending this particular church because it was my parish church at the time.)

    If you can tell me how to have such a conversation with people, I’m seriously all ears. Individuals were prepared to have friendships with me and to take me seriously as a ‘lost seeker after God’ but they were not prepared to see me as a Christian sister.

    I say this not in bitterness but rather to communicate that individuals were taking me as seriously and as respectfully as they were able to do, yet to my knowledge my Christian witness had no influence on them whatsoever other than their prayers that I would eventually accept Jesus as my Lord and saviour.

    From where I sit, it wasn’t a failure to establish a relationship nor a failure to witness but a failure to communicate across paradigms. Personal guilt and blame are ‘how things are’ in their perspective and it’s difficult and impossible to communicate a different perspective, in my experience. At least not without the power of the Spirit.

    That’s why I’ve come to realize that best way to help these people is not by trying to criticize PSA and cut the limb they’re sitting on out from under them, but to help them expand their knowledge.

    Well, I’d love to hear how you do that. I’m not speaking sarcastically; I’m speaking seriously. I’d genuinely like to hear so that I can start learning how to do so too.

  14. Pam,
    Thanks for sharing your story and perspective.

    I write from a perspective of having rejected PSA myself as untenable and spent a long time researching other options within Christianity. I have for years attempted to convince PSA advocates of the problems with their system, but met with almost complete failure.

    But the more I gain knowledge myself in my own academic studies in theology, the more I think “man, if those guys knew the half of it, they wouldn’t advocate PS in the way they do.” So increasingly I have come to the view that trying to criticize to them is of little assistance (especially as it often leads to them getting defensive and becoming more sure of it), and trying to share a wider knowledge and understanding with them has to be the way to go.

    But at the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I cannot control what others believe. I could do everything right in terms of my method, and at the end of the day they could still choose to reject everything I say, because it’s up to them.

  15. I have a great deal of sympathy with your viewpoint, though I am taking a bit more of an aggressive position myself. I have become tired of having people assume that I care less about my beliefs simply because I try to treat theirs with respect.

    It’s an odd reaction, but it is one I have encountered.

  16. OK, Andrew. I hear you. I think that in the context of my church, I gave people utmost respect and I think that they saw enough of my faith to be convinced – if they could be – that I have committed my whole heart to Christ. I lived and worshipped and studied with people and I tried to be where God had placed me rather than seek out a more like-minded congregation. I really don’t know how much more respectful I could have been. (Obviously, in the end, I did seek out a different congregation.)

    I have become tired of having people assume that I care less about my beliefs simply because I try to treat theirs with respect…It’s an odd reaction, but it is one I have encountered.

    I would still explain this as a paradigm problem. I think that if you want to be a witness to people with very fixed views, then you just have to put up with the remarks about how you don’t believe. I find it painful too and it often feels quite hurtful. But I remind myself that people really do believe that I really don’t believe and that, consequently, I shouldn’t be hurt by being told that I don’t believe. But I hear you.

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