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:
- The Central ThemePenal 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.