Diagnosing the demonic (research plan)

I am hoping to start a PhD at the University of Bristol from January. This is the research plan that I have submitted.

Bristol PhD application (part-time/half-time)
Research plan

Diagnosing the demonic

A conceptual comparison of the metaphysical frameworks employed in the Ministry of Deliverance and in Psychiatric Diagnosis

The overall aim of the research is to understand and clarify the nature of the difference between the psychiatric diagnosis carried out by medical professionals and the spiritual discernment carried out by ordained clergy in the ministry of deliverance. There is an existing conversation within the field of psychiatry that is metaphysical in character and I would like to bring insights from the Christian tradition into that conversation: when there are strange, troubling or unexplained phenomena that affect individuals or groups what are the criteria that are presently used to distinguish the greater applicability of one field of expertise rather than another to a particular situation? Are they the correct criteria to use? I would like to more precisely delineate the boundary between the professional competences involved, with a view to enabling a greater facility between deliverance ministers and consultant psychiatrists in multi-disciplinary teams.

The research is essentially an exploration in metaphysics, ie what are the philosophical presuppositions within which the different experiences are interpreted and understood? What is actually going on when certain words are used in particular contexts? The principal philosopher with whom my research will engage is PMS Hacker, and this in two ways. Firstly, the methodological framework within which the work will be undertaken is conceptual analysis, as understood within the analytical tradition following Wittgenstein and elucidated by Hacker, most especially in his commentary on the Philosophical Investigations. I shall rely upon the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical practice as a tool for dissolving conceptual confusions. Secondly, the research will include a sustained engagement with Hacker’s recently concluded Study of Human Nature, especially volume 4 on the language of good and evil.

The research plan involves four phases of work. The first two phases are essentially a task of exploring and explaining the different frameworks used in a) deliverance ministry and b) psychiatric diagnosis. The research will therefore look at how particular words and phrases are used in each area before engaging in the more fundamental work of elucidation and the dissolution of conceptual confusions – within each of the two fields. The third phase of work will engage principally with Hacker’s Study of Human Nature, situating that work within the present debates in the philosophy of psychiatry, and drawing on Hacker’s critiques to comment upon both deliverance ministry and contemporary psychiatric practice. The final phase of work will then seek to synthesise the insights generated into a systematic account of the languages of psychiatric diagnosis and deliverance ministry, with a view to comparing these different frameworks and assessing their variable viability and potential for creative engagement with each other. I would hope, at the end of the research, to be able to articulate the areas within which one field of expertise is more suitable for dealing with unusual phenomena rather than another, and why.

Phase 1: The metaphysics of deliverance ministry
(what is meant by the demonic in the Christian tradition?)

In this first substantial part of the research I will set out the practice of deliverance ministry as presently undertaken within the Church of England, setting out the philosophical tradition within which this work takes place.

I will start by sketching out the metaphysics of contemporary practice in deliverance ministry, in the light of the review above (distinguishing poltergeists, ghosts, place memories, unquiet dead, possession experiences), using the work Deliverance edited by Michael Perry as the key text, supplemented by more recent work by Gabriel Amorth, Tom Clammer and Francis Young amongst others. These texts are the materials used for the training of deliverance ministers, and which therefore provide the best guides to the use of language in this ministry. I will highlight a) the variety of metaphysical presuppositions involved in the different areas of the work, and b) the interface with medical expertise in present practice;
I will then look at some contrasting areas from church history where language similar to that used in deliverance ministry is deployed, especially the language of the demonic. This will begin with a review of Jesus’ actions as recorded in the New Testament, which are taken as normative and paradigmatic for deliverance ministry: Jesus’ own ministry of exorcism, the use of exorcism by the disciples, and the language of ‘principalities and powers’ especially by St Paul. Here I would want to use in particular the work of Graham Twelftree and Walter Wink;
I will then seek to elucidate the understanding of demons in the early church looking especially at the desert fathers and the way in which this language was used in the development of the seven deadly sins (eg ‘the noonday demon’ as a way of talking about the sin of accidie). I would here engage specifically with the work of Christopher C H Cook and Olivier Clement;
I will then look at the way in which Augustine adapted the classical understanding of the cure of souls (using rhetoric as a form of therapy, to regulate the emotions) looking at the work of Paul Kolbet and Martha Nussbaum;
I will lastly look at the way Aquinas understood the language of deliverance ministry, looking most especially at his understanding of angels and demons in the Summa Theologica part 1a, and his overall understanding of the nature of good and evil. Aquinas has a status and authority within the Catholic tradition (including the Church of England) which makes his understandings definitive for the practice of deliverance ministry, although I will seek to engage with the critical literature also on these points, especially Herbert McCabe and Fergus Kerr.

Phase 2: The practice and metaphysics of psychiatric diagnosis
(how does psychiatry understand the demonic?)
For this area of work I would seek to understand contemporary psychiatric practice, taking the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) as representative of the mainstream of that practice, with a particular focus on those areas which have the strongest overlap with exemplary deliverance issues such as demonic possession (depression and schizophrenia, and possibly manic/bi-polar disorders).

As with deliverance ministry I would begin with a review of the present practice of psychiatric diagnosis, using the DSM as an authoritative text, with a view to elucidating the philosophical presuppositions within that tradition, in other words, how is the language of psychiatry used in the specific, relevant contexts? If permitted I would very much like to audit some of the lectures (medical training) offered within the University of Bristol in this area as this will enable my understanding to be informed by contemporary practitioners;
I would then seek to explore contemporary critiques and developments of the DSM framework from various perspectives, firstly by looking especially at the appropriateness of the use of the ‘medical model’ as a metaphysical framework within which to consider mental disorders, engaging with the work of Szasz and the secondary literature around his critique, and also drawing on M O’Connor Drury’s work ‘The Danger of Words’ as he was a student of Wittgenstein who became a professional psychiatrist;
I will then look specifically at the understanding of depression and schizophrenia within the DSM and engaging with criticisms of the DSM in this area, both by medical practitioners (Mary Boyle) and by philosophers (Louis Sass)
I will lastly consider the work of the Critical Psychiatry Network (especially the writings of Joanna Moncrieff, but also Lucy Johnstone, David Healy and others) and in particular the recent development of the Power-Threat-Meaning Framework which is conceptually very different to the DSM framework. The work of Bill Fulford in relation to Values-Based Medicine is likely to be relevant.

Phase 3: PMS Hacker’s Study of Human Nature
Once the groundwork of the first two phases has been set out, this will lead into a detailed engagement with the work of PMS Hacker. This will take the form of a detailed commentary on five volumes:
firstly his critique of cognitive neuroscience in his work with Maxwell Bennett, the Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. This will clarify the inter-relationship of mind and body and especially how this can be applied to the practice of the DSM, for example, what does it mean to say that a feeling of sadness (depression) is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain? Is such a comment meaningful?;
secondly I would take each of the four volumes of his recently concluded Study of Human Nature, beginning with the Categorial Framework which considers rationality and explanation with respect to human behaviour, which is relevant to considerations of human will – and therefore what it means for a human will to be ‘possessed’ or impaired;
Hacker’s Volume 2, The Intellectual Powers, looking especially at the nature of belief and the way in which imagination interacts with reason, and therefore the importance of the metaphysical (narrative) framework within which phenomena are intepreted;
in Volume 3, The Passions, Hacker engages with human emotions that are considered sins within the Christian tradition (eg envy) and I shall here compare his treatment with that outlined in my earlier research;
finally, and most importantly, in volume 4, The Moral Powers, Hacker considers the nature of good and evil, and human meaning in the face of death. Considering his arguments here will feed directly into the considerations of the language of the demonic considered in the first two phases of my research.

Phase 4: Synthesis
Once these three phases are complete I would then seek to do the more synthetic work and attempt a detailed conversation, looking at human behaviour from different aspects, exploring how the different metaphysical frameworks might interact and critique each other, and therefore how the language and practices within psychiatry and within deliverance ministry might better understand each other. I would hope to be able to clarify the nature of each discipline in such a way that collaborative working across the disciplines might be facilitated.

I would expect each stage of the work set out above in phases one and two (each bullet point) to require some 4-6 weeks of work, resulting in around 5,000 words of suitable material. Assuming a January 2022 start I would expect phase one to last until the summer of 2022; phase two to take through to Easter 2023. Phase 3, the engagement with the work of Hacker, will take longer for each section, at least four months for each volume. This is therefore likely to take until the Christmas of 2024 – at least two and a half years after the start of the research.

Gesticulating with ‘wrath’ – why we need to rehabilitate traditional language if we are to learn what God want to teach us

When it comes to language about wrath I have been accustomed for a long time to quote what Julian of Norwich says – that there is no wrath in God. When pushed, I have tended to nuance that comment by saying that wrath is a real thing that we need to take account of, but I have been comfortable not to identify an experience of wrath with the experience of God’s purpose for my life.

I have come to believe that I have been missing something essential to the life of faith, which traditional language of wrath preserves, and I’d like to briefly sketch my thinking. I would say at the outset that I’m going to argue for a rehabilitation of the language of wrath in principle – I’m not here going to say how that language needs to be used in practice, with respect to COVID. Hopefully we can engage with that work in our discussion.

My title draws from a passage that I have been mulling on, which is something that Wittgenstein once wrote (Culture and Value 85e). He says this:

Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense”

My thinking is simply this: our language of wrath is a way of saying something about our lived experience before God, and if we outlaw this language then we are not making anything clearer. So what might our gesticulating with this word ‘wrath’ be about?

Now, two more elements of throat clearing, before I suggest a tentative answer. The first is to make a reference to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which so famously begins “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” I don’t believe that it is possible to do theodicy as a Christian. That is, as soon as we start to make some sort of moral evaluation or justification of the ways of God to humanity then we have embarked upon the path of idol worship. We are not the measure of God; God is the measure of humankind.

Yet we do want to insist that God is good; that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Even with a properly reticent and analogical understanding of that language I do not believe that we can escape saying that God is good and that this is foundational for our faith and spirituality. So my second element of throat clearing is this: when Job loses his health his wife invites him to “curse God and die”, which invites the rebuke “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

So to weave these three things together – Wittgenstein, Bonhoeffer and Job – and finally make my point, I want to say that when we use the language of wrath, when we gesticulate with it, we are not engaged in some sort of theodicy, as if we were making some sense of judgement over God; rather we are asserting, with Job, that the good that we receive in this life cannot be separated from the evil.

As a matter of theological grammar, I would now say, we cannot give thanks to God for the good things that we receive in this life from Him if we cannot at the same time cry in lament for the bad things that we receive in this life from Him. If we say that the bad things that we receive in this life are not from God, if we abandon this sense of God’s wrath, then the blood drains out of our thanksgivings to God too.

What, to refer back to Wittgenstein’s language again, is the difference that this language makes in our lives? Or, given how widespread the abandonment of this language has become, what difference did this language make in the devotional lives of those who have gone before us? What spiritual lessons might there be for us if we pay attention to their prayers?

I would say – if we look at the Book of Common Prayer for example, that +Christopher discussed, and the language wherein pestilence and horror is taken as a form of chastisement, and an invitation to repentance – that this is above all an insistence that the experience being undergone is meaningful. That we, who are in a state of dependence upon God, experience God more intimately when we are in extremis, when we are put to the test – and that God opens up a path of redemption for us that proceeds directly from the place of our suffering.

In other words, the spiritually essential heart of this language of divine wrath is not that we gain a heavenly imprimatur for our own prejudices, nor that we come to some rationally satisfactory accounting or justification of divine activity but that: without wrath we have no redemption. To use the language of wrath, to insist upon God’s agency and responsibility in our suffering is to make the claim that all of life is meaningful, and that there is a way forward from where we are. It is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to cling to the cry that God loves us even when he chastises us.

If we are to find the path that God is giving us to walk in out of this present pestilence, I do not believe that we will succeed unless we reclaim a healthy sense of God’s wrath. We must repent of our ways and return to the living God, for he has torn us, and he will heal us.

The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

(A talk given to the Severn Forum last night)

Leonard Cohen’s Amen – how to live faithfully in the context of suffering

I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.

I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.

I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.

To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).

I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.

Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.

All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.

This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…

This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.

As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.

Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:

Treaty (pleading honesty with God)
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

If it be your will (surrender to God)
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

Show Me The Place (begging for guidance)
Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement)
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge)
From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:

and even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue
but Hallelujah

No matter what happens, we praise God.

From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.

I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Tell me again
When I’ve seen through the horror
Tell me again
Tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then

Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.

In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.

In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.

Amen leads to joy.

You got me singing
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.

Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.

This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.

The wisest man brought myrrh

Latest Courier article.

I was all set to write a jolly article suitable for Christmas festivities when the news came through about the tragedy in Connecticut. So much doesn’t seem appropriate any more, even though, in a cynical sense, there is nothing new about what has happened. One of the things that I have most come to believe over the last several years is that God is never in “the drama”. That is, whenever there is a conscious desire to attract attention – to ‘glamourise’ in other words – there is also a turning away from God, a turning away from that same source of life and vitality. Consider a previous act of slaughter, the attacks of 9/11 in the United States. These were the very definition of a spectacle, and yet – despite what was claimed – I cannot believe that God was behind the spectacle, in the sense of desiring it, or having his purposes accomplished through it.

There is something of a truism here – that evil is banal and repetitive, whereas it is only goodness that is creative and capable of bringing something new into existence. When a soul is turned away from the living source of life and vitality it often seeks to artificially induce that vitality through a quest for stimulation, like Frankenstein charging his monster from the storm. So we have the epic spectacles of terrorism and slaughter where the monsters inside people are unleashed upon the world.

There is a passage in one of my favourite works of Christian spirituality – Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ – which says this: “Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.” Souls turn to the darkness when the light which they crave is denied to them; and sometimes, which I take as the definition of evil, that darkness is embraced, justified and celebrated. The sorrow of our society is that we have become a place which has lost an awareness of the distinction between the light and the dark.

How are we to try and understand this, to regain an appreciation of the light, in order that we may, as a community, move back towards the light? One aspect is, I believe, to recognise that there is such a thing as evil and to accept that we will never be able to achieve a society which has banished sin and suffering, no matter how many well-intentioned programmes are undertaken. We need to have a greater sense of realism about the world that we live in, not to become cynical, but to recognise the cost of pursuing goodness, and the inevitable element of tragedy in human existence.

Which is, after all, the hidden side of the Christmas story. After all, we see and hear the story through the prism of two thousand years of telling; consequently, many of the most substantial elements can be missed. The point about a new king being born amongst the animals, resting in the trough, where there is no room in the inn – this is the very ‘anti-drama’ that is the sign of God’s presence. I sometimes have the sense in reading these classic stories that the original writers could not be content with God’s choice to be born as a nobody from a nothing town, and so all the elements of angelic messengers and visits from kings had to be imported to try and dignify God’s activity with human hyperbole. It is too staggering for our imaginations to believe that God might just simply be present as a naked and mewling infant.

An infant, of course, who would one day be slaughtered by the state for being inconvenient to the projects of power. This is an aspect to the story that is present from the start – the cost of standing for life and truth when the established powers are bent on a course in opposition to such life and truth. A few days after Christmas, a few days after Jesus was born, the order was sent out to slaughter the innocents – those who had done nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Holy Innocents and all who loved them bore the pain at that time, yet Jesus himself was destined for pain, humiliation and death himself. It was the wisest man who brought the myrrh – the ointment used for preparing bodies for burial, the sign of Jesus’ own fate. Right at the beginning, amidst the cherubs, nestled in the arms of his mother, the undertone of pain and suffering was present.

There is so much to be thankful for, and to rejoice in, through the Christmas season, most especially for those who have much – much family, much friendship, much good cheer and wealth to celebrate. Yet there is this hidden side of Christmas, where the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it. The story of Christmas is that the Lord came to be with those who have nothing – those who can find no place of shelter, those who hunger, those who are lonely and bereaved – those who bear the cost of tragedy in human life. For those of us who suffer – and, if truth be told, I believe that we all suffer in our different ways, we each have our own cross to bear – the message of Christmas is that God is with us. Despite all the ways in which our world distresses us, despite all the ways in which we fall short of our own hopes and desires and each other’s expectations, despite all the ways in which we are most conscious of not becoming the people that God intends us to be – the message is that God has not abandoned us, and that, mysterious though it is, the way through our vale of suffering can be found by hearing the story of a baby boy, born out of wedlock and shunted into the stables two thousand years ago. May the light and peace of the Christ-child be with you and all whom you love this Christmas time.

Tell me again – Leonard Cohen and the problem of suffering

Long time readers may recall a long and eventually fruitless argument I had with Stephen Law about the problem of evil. My concluding thoughts are here, and a link up is here.

Time and reflection haven’t changed my thoughts much. I still think that the ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering is a life lived, and that the intellectual analyses rather miss the point. Most crucially, I believe that the essential path is to be like Job – to tell God that you have a bone to pick with Him – but to accept the answer that isn’t given, and pray anyhow. Or, as Elie Wiesel describes, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something’. Then we went to pray.”

I’m listening to Leonard Cohen a lot at the moment, and this theme runs through so many of the songs – I see Cohen as articulating the only faithful response that is possible. Consider this:

I don’t smoke no cigarette
I don’t drink no alcohol
I ain’t had much loving yet
But that’s always been your call


Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

The troubles came, I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains so I hastened to behave
There were chains so I loved you like a slave

And most clearly of all, this:


Britain’s defence review and the end of NATO
8 reasons why the UK SDR must not savage the military

Capitalism saved the Chilean miners
Psychobabble didn’t

Judith Curry on the specific nature of IPCC overconfidence (part one)

My new favourite blog, Edward Feser with a brilliant analogy for humourless atheists
and a specific rebuttal to Stephen Law’s ‘God of Evil’ argument
More succinctly, Kim Fabricius with twelve swift ripostes to atheists

Reasonable Atheism (30): some brief comments on the problem of suffering

It seems to me that there are two ways to understand the problem of suffering: the abstract question and the existential question.

The abstract question says that God has certain attributes – fully good, fully powerful, fully knowing – and that these three attributes are inconsistent with the presence of suffering in the world. (Stephen Law has a variation of this argument which states that these attributes are inconsistent with the degree of suffering in the world. I don’t find that this variation adds much to the argument; I’m with Alyosha Karamazov.)

My answer to the abstract question is to say that defining God’s attributes is a mistake. That is, we’re never in a position to give an overview of God’s attributes; in particular, attributing ‘goodness’ to God seems to presume too much, and I don’t think we’re in a position to judge whether God is good or not. To my mind God is ‘beyond good and evil’. In that assessment I view myself as being four-square in the mainstream mystical tradition of the church.

Yet, as I’ve tried to articulate before, these discussions, whilst of some interest in themselves, don’t actually address the core of the issue, which I see as existential. They are abstract and philosophical, and end up provoking more or less ‘so what?’ responses, rather like the decision about choosing one way of organising a library rather than another. The existential question is much more important, which is simply: how should one live in the face of suffering? In particular, in an environment where random events may render any person’s life-projects impossible, how are we to retain any sense in the meaningfulness of life?

Martha Nussbaum does an excellent job of describing the Ancient Greek response to this issue in her marvellous ‘The Fragility of Goodness’ – so answers to these questions by no means need to be Christian. Yet, obviously, the Christian faith also has an answer – indeed, I view the story of crucifixion and resurrection as the answer to Greek tragedy. The only perspective, in fact, that doesn’t seem to have an answer to the existential question is that of the humourless atheist – but then, they seem content to play in the abstract shallows, avoiding the muck and bloodiness of full-bodied life.

Stephen continues to believe that my answer to the problem of evil ‘does not exist’. I continue to believe that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. He could persuade me differently by, eg, discussing Nussbaum’s work and his views on it.

Transcript of Penal Substitution talk

The audio of this talk can be found here (downloadable mp3, played about 5% too fast so I sound as if I’ve just been snorting helium), but I realise that I have never actually posted the transcript. Please note that this is an unedited transcript as I want to link to it somewhere else…

Penal Substitution talk

Good morning and welcome. Today looking at penal substitution I want to begin with an apology because I am defeated by our new printer, I really wanted you to have some bits of paper in particular this chart which will come up later, but I apologise but it wasn’t going well for me up there, if I had had an extra ten minutes it might have been sorted, notes will be provided at some point, God willing. Now penal substitution, what’s penal substitution all about and why do I think it is being used as a shibboleth? My discussion of shibboleths is really focused on this issue and really then going wider into other issues about contemporary evangelicalism, but this is really where it gets sharply focused.

Well all Christians agree that Jesus saves, that’s almost axiomatic, no Christians would disagree that Jesus saves, OK, so to be a Christian is to accept the mystery of salvation in Christ. The discussion comes when we start to talk about how that salvation is accomplished, OK? So discussions on this subject are all discussions about the how, not the what. Does that make sense? I’ll come back to talking about the what next week, but there is a clear consensus, all Christians would say there is something wrong with us, there is something wrong with humanity, OK? Generally coming under the heading of sin, and Jesus puts it right, faith in Christ puts us right, reconciles us with God, etc. That’s universally accepted, so don’t talk anything I am going to say this morning as going against that, and as I say I will come back to that more strongly next week, but the issue is how is this salvation accomplished? Now the thing is the church has never actually established a set doctrine for how this is accomplished. In for example the creeds of the early church there isn’t a single way of understanding this which is prescribed. We are not told this is the way you need to understand it. Consequently there are lots of different ways of understanding it and what I want to do today is look at one particular, give emphasis, to one particular way of understanding it which as I say has become something of a shibboleth.

I should also say that as a doctrine, because that’s really what we are talking about, a doctrine of salvation, a way of understanding salvation, it’s not the most central Christian doctrine, the most distinctive and essential doctrine is that in Jesus, God became man, in other words the incarnation, the unification of the human and divine, and salvation is if you like a spin-off from that, so again all Christians would recognise the truth of the incarnation, that’s one of the things that makes them Christian, but how exactly salvation is accomplished comes on after that.

Now a quick summary of my perspective on this just to give you a bit of a steer before getting into some details, going back to my triangle with the green area being scriptural and so on, the doctrine that I am going to be talking about today is penal substitution. Now that’s very much a doctrine identified with the, well I would say it is almost a hallmark of a conservative evangelical perspective. Now I would really emphasise a distinction, it is not a fundamentalist doctrine at all, it is historically mainstream protestant, so it is not extreme even in that sense I have been describing before, it is very much slap-bang in the green section, the solid green section of my triangle. A bit like Luther, Cranmer, Calvin and so forth. Moreover, the rudiments of the doctrine can on the whole be found in scripture. In particular Isaiah 53, references to Isaiah 53 in the letter of Peter, some passages in Paul, do lend pretty clear… (well one of the things I am going to do today is look at one passage in some detail) but there is a plain reading of scripture which supports this doctrine. So Isaiah 53, he was pierced for our transgressions and so on. There is a fairly natural, certainly in terms of our culture, a natural way of reading that which lends itself to what’s called a penal substitution understanding.

However, my perspective is that this is a marginal theme in scripture, it’s there but it’s not where the main emphasis comes in scripture, it’s not the main presentation of the nature of God and in particular my concern is that an insistence that this way of understanding salvation is either the most important or the only way of understanding salvation is becoming a very divisive issue, it is being used to divide Christians, and I will flesh that out with a particular example later on.

Now as I say, this gets a little bit technical so a little word of warning, my talk this morning will get a bit more technical than usual, mainly because I want to look at the Greek in a particular passage of Paul, right with just a little bit of warning I hope to make it fairly clear. Now how are we to understand the phrase from scripture He died for us, now people are familiar with that language, Christ died for us, OK? Well let me run through half a dozen, six or seven different ways of reading that language. Is it that Christ was a martyr? This is something very much in Greek culture of the time, the heroic death that saved another group of people. I recently watched the film, “Three Hundred”, about the battle of Thermopylae where you have got three hundred Spartans sacrificing themselves so the rest of Greece might be saved. OK? Or the example used in Alpha from the “Bridge of the River Kwai” story where the nutty Japanese guard miscounts the amount of tools that the working group has and insists that someone has to be to blame, someone steps forward, is killed for it, when then they later discover the truth there weren’t any tools missing, that man saved the other group. So that’s the sort of martyr type model.

There’s a ransom model, an economic model, the language of redemption is very much part of this economic model, the language that Paul uses is language taken from the slave market. So Christ pays the price to set people free to set people free from their slavery. A diplomatic sense that we are reconciled through this death. So you have got two parties who are not at peace with each other and a reconciliation takes place. A sacrificial understanding that “by the blood of this sacrifice we are cleansed”. So the power is in the blood. A scapegoat understanding, are people familiar with a scapegoat? That He borne our sins, you know in the scapegoat ritual the priest lays his hand on the scapegoat, the sins are laid on the top of the scapegoat’s back and the scapegoat is driven out into the wilderness carrying the sins with it. And penal substitution that He the Christ died in our place, that we were condemned by a verdict and Christ steps in to receive the penalty on our behalf, so you can see the different ways of understanding just that phrase, Christ died for us.

What is this last one I mentioned, the doctrine of penal substitution? Quoting from this book, one of two of you may have come across, “Pierced for our Transgressions”, anyone heard of it? Does anyone know Oak Hill Theological College? This is written by the new Principal and a couple of the students, highly educated students, they have all got PhD’s in Science which is quite interesting. It’s a response to some of the controversy which I will come onto at the end, but it is a very thorough going through of a lot of the objections, it’s the doctrine of penal substitution. I have to say I am really not persuaded by it and most of the time it lists lots of the objections, you know I agree with the objections rather than the response, but this is a thorough an analysis and defence of penal substitution as we are likely to get in our generation. But the definition it gives at the beginning is this, “PSA, penal substitutionary atonement”, sorry I am going to use a little bit of jargon, atonement is the word given to how we are saved, atonement is a way to describe how salvation takes place. So penal substitutionary atonement says, our salvation takes place in this particular way, and this is their definition, “PSA states that God gave Himself in the person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” I’ll run through that again, because it is quite key. There are lots of quotes this morning and I will circulate these notes. The doctrine states, “God gave Himself in the person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” So human-kind has sinned against God, God’s holiness requires that sin be punished in order that we might be saved from that punishment God sends His Son and the Son accepts the punishment on our behalf. That’s penal substitution. Clear?

Right, a few things just to pick out from this just to really bring out, it’s a western emphasis of understanding, the eastern church it’s completely foreign to their spirituality, it doesn’t exist really in the Eastern Orthodox church. So it is very much a western model and part of the way in which it links into western culture is the emphasis upon the judicial process, the impact of law and the importance of law and the processes of law, which stems really back to the way in which western culture, especially after the split in western empire really emphasised law, Roman law, so it is one of ways in which it is a western understanding.

It comes in most strongly after the Reformation, so with people like Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and so on. Now the thing to really emphasis is that it’s not simply about substitution, it’s not just about Christ being in our place, because I will come on to explain various models talk about Christ being in our place, the key bit where the weight of it comes is on the penalty, that there is a punishment, Christ takes a punishment in our place. So it is not just substitution, it’s penal substitution, alright? And one of the elements of it is that God is required to punish else His holiness is impaired. God’s holiness is such that it cannot be as the same place as sin, and so to allow sin to go un-punished is to make God less holy, so if you like where some of the weight lies in this doctrine is the emphasis upon God’s holiness, understood in this way that sin must be repudiated. Does that make sense?

And the other element I would pick out just for now, is that the punishment comes from God, God is the one doing the punishing, that sin offends God, breaks His laws, therefore God must punish. Alright? Now get onto the technical bit which I hope won’t be too scary. Right Romans Chapter 3, first half of verse 25, which I am sure many of you are crucially familiar with, I’ll give you some different translations. New International Version says, “God presented Him (Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” King James version, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation,” which is strictly speaking, propitiation is about appeasing God’s wrath. “God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” The New Revised Standard version, “Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith”, but has a little note, the note by the phrase “sacrifice of atonement, says, “could read ‘place of atonement’.” Now what I want to focus in on is the word which is translated as “sacrifice of atonement”, or in the new RSV, possibly, “place of atonement”. Now the word is Hilasterion, I apologise it’s getting a bit technical, a Greek word, Hilasterion, that is the word that is translated in those different ways. OK? Sacrifice of atonement, propitiation, place of atonement, can you see that they are similar sorts of words, but much of the weight of understanding the text comes in quite how you take Paul’s argument to be developing.

Now this book has an analysis of this text and it says, “The undeniable teaching is that the Lord Jesus Christ was set forth as a propitiation to turn aside God’s wrath from his people by suffering it in their place.” In other words this is one of the key texts used to defend the doctrine of penal substitution, what’s claimed is that Paul is arguing very specifically that Christ’s death is this sacrifice which gives propitiation, in other words, it appeases the wrath of God. Does that make sense? That’s the weight which this passage is carrying. Now the issue is, is that the right way to understand this word? Now this is a source of intense academic debate and I am really just dipping into the surface here, but to say, which that book, those defenders do, that this is indisputable is simply not true, it is not at all indisputable. It is highly disputed. Now what I want to do is run through a different way of reading this text.

Now this word Hilasterion, there are really two environments in which that word is used in the time of Paul. One is in the wider Greek culture, where it does have this meaning of propitiation as used in the NIV. Now for example there were commentaries on Homer at the time that talk about the Trojan Horse being an Hilasterion that this was how in terms of the story Acclahysa and the Greeks offered appeasement to the Trojan’s to say sorry for attacking them. Make sense? So the Trojan horse is a Hilasterion, it is a means of appeasing the wrath. Alright, understand the image?

The other way in which the word Hilasterion was used was in more Jewish circles, in particular in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it refers specifically to something called the mercy seat. This is the Ark of the Covenant which was central to the sacrificial rights in Solomon’s Temple, before it got stolen and destroyed, and these are the two cherubim, the mercy seat is here, this is the place of God’s graciousness, and what happens in the sacrifice, in various sacrifices is the blood is placed on here as the means of atonement. But the Hilasterion is this place, it’s the mercy seat. Now it is a rediscovery of this which is why the Revised Standard Version has “place of atonement” as a possible translation. Now can you see there is quite a significant difference between something being the means of atonement, the means of reconciliation, like the Trojan Horse, this is the offering to appease wrath, and something being the place of atonement, this is where the reconciliation happens. Does that make sense as a distinction? Because a lot hangs on understanding that difference. There is the means of accomplishing reconciliation and there is the place where it happens. So Hilasterion in the Septuagint in Silas, people like that, it refers the mercy seat.

Now, there is something quite crucial about this, which I think, for me is really the key for why I don’t think that penal substitution reading of this text works, there is another description in scripture. This is the Ark of the Covenant, you have got two angels with the mercy seat in between. There is another rather important episode in scripture in the New Testament which involves two angels with a place between them – the empty tomb. My suspicion is that this is what Paul is referring to. He is referring to the empty tomb, this is the place where reconciliation happens, in other words if you accept the resurrection, if you enter into the resurrection, you are reconciled, because you have got one angel here, one angel here and the gap in between, that the resurrection is the place where reconciliation happens. Does that make sense?

So one of the key texts used to explain and support the doctrine of punishment, or the element of punishment, Christ was the sacrifice, can be read in a different way, that’s really what I want to say, I don’t want to say, this must be the way it’s read, I just want to say it can be read differently, it can be read so as to talk about resurrection as the most important element rather than crucifixion for example.

Now I want to say a little bit more about the Old Testament sacrifices and how to understand them, and again a little chart which you will get. I want to discriminate between sacrificial language, the language of sacrifice, and the language of the scapegoat because the underlying logic of them is really very different, so the language of sacrifice is whenever we have the language of blood, you know , “we are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb” for example, that is using sacrificial language. It is drawing its meaning from the way in which Old Testament sacrifices were conducted and the meaning of them, whereas the scapegoat one is the burden of our sins was laid upon him. Does that make sense? You have got two different routes for the language, one is in the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, one’s in the scapegoat ritual, so just drawing some distinctions. In sacrifice what is important is what is being sacrificed is pure, OK, it must be without blemish, whereas with a scapegoat it doesn’t matter, the one on which the sins are laid doesn’t have to be pure, there is no regulations about it. The sacrifice is offered up to Yahweh whereas the scapegoat is absolutely not offered up to Yahweh, it is cast out into the wilderness. Sacrifice is a very careful and controlled process that happens in the most sacred space in the community and there is no sense in which the object of the sacrifice, the bull or whatever is being punished. So in the notion of sacrifice there is no notion of punishment, whereas it is in scapegoat, that the goat is literally punished and abused, before being driven out of the community. So can you see how they are really very different logics going on. That the sacrifice is all about the purity being offered up to God within the most sacred space in the heart of the community. The scapegoat is all about this is the vehicle to carry our sins away from the community. It is all about expulsion and punishment. Does that make sense, the distinction, there are two different logics being involved?

Right this is a red Heffer. One thing I was reading yesterday they only managed to in Old Testament times sacrifice 8 red Heffers, but the red Heffer was sacrificed to cleanse and purify the people and so the red Heffer was burnt, the ashes mingled with pure water, the water was sprinkled, that purifies. But the red Heffer had to be absolutely perfect, you couldn’t have hairs of a different colour. It had to be young, you couldn’t have one that had had for example a yoke on it’s neck. They only managed in the whole of Old Testament times, eight times to get a red Heffer that met all the requirements. You know Moses did it once, Joshua did it once, and so on. So just a little bit about the red Heffer.

There is in the Old Testament a progression in how sacrifice is understood, that when you go back to the earliest descriptions, for example Noah, after the flood, it is very explicit that what is going on is that literally the sacrifice appeases God. There is reference for example to the smell. God likes the smell and therefore his wrath quietens down. Now as the story of the Old Testament progresses, this understanding of how sacrifice works slowly becomes less literal, less anthropomorphic, OK less as seeing God as a big human being, and more spiritualised. So for example you get in Isaiah we had it the other day, Sunday morning, do you think I drink the blood of bulls and so forth? All the language that says “Don’t treat me like a big human being”. In the Prophets, in the Psalms. OK, you start to get within the Old Testament itself, a critique of what’s called the cult. Now cult here is not prejudicial, it’s not saying, “It’s a cult therefore it must be really, really bad”, it’s a technical terms describing the way in which sacrifice, the whole process in the temple hangs together, it’s the cultus. It’s a cultic practice. And what you have got within scripture as the story progresses is an on-going critique of what goes on in the temple, that the temple processes aren’t getting the understanding of God correct and that what is needed is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, for example, that right action is the sacrifice demanded of God, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love kindness, to walk humbly with your God and so on.” So within the Old Testament you have got this gradual change of understanding in the Old Testament sacrifice, so it’s not so much about appeasing an entity that likes the smell of burnt bull, it’s about God of the whole world demanding a righteous life, that’s within the Old Testament.

Now of course you could say that that’s about what’s going on in the Old Testament from “do it like this”, “to do it in the right spirit”, “to make sure you get the right spirit whether you do it or not.” Can you see that as a progression, you must do it like this, in other words “if you don’t perform the ritual in this exact manner God will be offended,” very much part of you know the Hebrews in the wilderness, to “it doesn’t matter if you do it right, if you do it in the wrong way.” Think of 1 Corinthians 13 which we did in the housegroups recently, you know, you can speak in the tongues of heaven and of men, but unless you do it with love – it’s that sort of thing. To the emphasis in the end it is actually doing it with love, getting the spirit right which is the essential thing. Does that make sense within the Old Testament. Because of course what you then have is Jesus as the culmination of that process, Jesus who abolishes the temple and thereby the whole system of sacrifice and replaces it in three days. Again you have got this link back to the resurrection. “After three days He will rebuild it.” And it ties in with Paul’s language for example in Romans, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship, in other words finally with Christ you have a letting go completely of that sacrificial system. That in Christ we see what God is really like and we see that He is really not that interested in the blood of bulls, and so on. Does that make sense that Jesus is the culmination of growth through the New Testament? This change in the understanding of God, that finally in Jesus we see God clearly revealed. Whereas in the Old Testament we have got this gradual process of refinement in the understanding in the Jewish community as they slowly get to know what God is like. And in particular that the prophets who criticised often really radically criticised the processes that go on in the temple, that Jesus is the culmination of that. Make sense? Happy?

Right, well let’s leave that there because that was really all about whether this language of sacrifice has to mean penal substitution. The thing about the sacrifice and the scapegoat is that you have really got two metaphors, you have got two metaphors to understand what Jesus accomplishes. I really want to get at the logic behind those two metaphors is very distinct and actually if you really push it the logic of those metaphors is incompatible, but I’ll come back to that. Now, something about the early church, that Jesus criticised himself, one of the things which this book claims to do is to show how penal substitution is fully supported in the early church. They have one reference to a text from the first three hundred years of the churches history, as might go unsaid the interpretation of that text might be disputed but really what I wanted to get at there, if you imagine the writings of the first three hundred years put together with text the same as one of our Bibles, the amount of material there is six Bible’s worth. So three hundred years of writing about Christianity, about what Christianity means, about the wonders of the incarnation, salvation, etc., etc., etc., out of six Bible’s worth there is one sentence which might mean penal substitution, so effectively penal substitution is unknown in the early church. So what did the early church think about how our salvation is accomplished. Well one of the most common images and metaphors that they used is a light shining in the darkness. Simple as that. John 1, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” We were in the dark, Christ comes into the world and now we can see. That is probably the single most common image in the early church.
But there are a few others and these are, the next one is very much the way the Eastern Orthodox church primarily understands salvation, and that is that Christ is our medicine, we are sick, if we receive Christ, and of course explicitly the eastern church emphasises communion, if we literally take Christ into our bodies we will be healed. To really bring out, can you see how what we have got here is a metaphor, Jesus is not actually a pill, but the metaphor of healing and medicine is being used to articulate the truth that Jesus saves. Now hang on to that healing as a metaphor and come back to we are in the law court, we are condemned and Jesus takes the punishment. Can you see how that’s also a metaphor? It is using a different framework to understand what’s going on, I’ll come back to that because that is really my major theme.

Now another one often called Christus Victor, that Christ conquers the devil. We are in bondage to Satan, Christ conquers the devil and sets us free. We are free from the principalities and powers that previously held us captive. That is one of the most dominant images. Another one, a second Adam, in Adam we all sinned and we therefore all share in the brokenness of Adam, what God does when he sees that we are broken is that we have a second Adam which allows humanity to be restored and in a sense improved, according to God’s design. That’s something called recapitulation, that God is creating something new again. You see it’s different languages, different images. And the thing to really emphasis is, it’s all metaphorical. There are lots and lots of different ways to understand how salvation works but they are all metaphorical. This is Aslan, speaking to Edmund. No-one would say that C S Lewis’s discussion of salvation is literally true, it is an image, a way of understanding what is going on.

What I want to get at is particularly in Paul’s writings he is using metaphorical language, often through a flaw in the same sentence. He is cramming metaphors together because he is trying to testify to this overwhelming experience of salvation, and he is drawing in language from where ever he can find it, from the slave market, from the old temple sacrifice, from the scapegoat ritual, and he is bundling them all up together, which of course, in the context of the time was rhetorically seen as excellent. These days we think, “Oh well that’s a mixed metaphor, you can’t do that.” Well of course Paul is the master of the mixed metaphor. He bundles them all up together because he can’t think of any other way to express how wonderful it is. He is using everything he can and cramming it all together, often in the same passage. So to say for example, we are redeemed by his blood, is a mixed metaphor, you have got redemption, which is about a monetary payment and specifically in Paul, it is often talking about the slave market, we have been bought at a price, but we have been bought with the blood, and the blood is a sacrifice metaphor. So he is putting two metaphors together to try and explain what’s happened. Of course we two thousand years later have got so used to hearing, “redeemed by the blood” as simply a single very specific and often literal meaning, that we don’t hear the mixing up of the metaphors. Paul is jamming all these different metaphors together, because he has got something wonderful to share, something wonderful to say and the language isn’t quite adequate, so he is cramming it all together.

Now what worries me about the insistence on penal substitution is that what seems to happen is that it’s status as a metaphor is missed, and that this way of understanding how salvation works is taken as the literal truth. That this is literally what happens. So first step, the metaphor becomes literal and the second step is that this literal taking of Paul’s language becomes the single way of understanding what is going on, around which all these other ways of understanding it have to shift and adjust themselves. So think of a diamond, lots of facets to a diamond, it is a bit like saying one of the facets which is gleaming, not only is there only one way of gleaming the diamond, but the gleam is more important than that diamond. Does that work as an image of what I am trying to get at? It’s taken one metaphor and it’s saying this must be literally true and it’s really the most important thing, way to understand it, so as a diamond, diamond has lots of facets, no this one facet is the most important, this one gleam, and actually it’s the gleaming which is key, not the diamond itself. That’s what I think is slowly starting to happen. Does that make sense?

Let’s say a bit more about punishment, because one of the things I want to say is that I don’t think it really matters, I don’t think which way you understand salvation to take place is something that should divide Christians one from another. I think there are lots and lots of different ways in which you can understand it, all of which are acceptable. If someone says that God so loves us that He forgives us our sins through faith in Christ, that is fairly generally accepted as a Christian understanding, God loves us therefore our sins are not allowed to get in the way of that love. People are happy with that as a core Christian teaching? Change that to “God so loves us that He gave His Son to be a sacrifice for our sin so that He might forgive those who are in Christ.” In other words, you have still got God loves us, we are forgiven in Christ, and there is an extra step in the middle which is what penal substitution does. God so loves us He forgives us, God so loves us that He sends His Son to be the punishment for our sins so that we might be saved. The question I want to ask is what is that extra bit doing? Is is actually carrying any weight? Can you just say “God so loves us, black box, we are forgiven our sins.” because if you take the black box out you’ve got something which all Christians can unite around. But if you say, “God so loves us, this whatever is in the black box is the most important thing,” then it starts to get a bit divisive. What is it that penal substitution the doctrine, the defence of it, what is it actually accomplishing, what’s being emphasised? If we say the way in which God’s love for us and our salvation is accomplished it has to be this, what is being emphasised?

This brings us to Steve Chalk. There has been a lot of controversy in evangelical circles the last couple of years about this doctrine, triggered by a book by Steve Chalk, called “The Lost Message of Jesus” which is really good, there is a copy in the library upstairs if people want to read it, I would recommend reading it, it is very readable, and it really is a book about the Kingdom. Most of Jesus’s teaching is about the Kingdom, what it means to live in the Kingdom and the argument of the lost message of Jesus is that we have forgotten that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom so much, and it’s really just a popular presentation of that. But there is one part of it where he starts talking about this doctrine of penal substitution and he describes it as a barrier to mission. He says it gets in the way, it gives people the wrong understanding of God and, this is one of those classic examples of misquotation, he says, “Salvation is not about cosmic child abuse, that is a caricature, it’s not like that,” and of course he then is taken to be arguing that this doctrine on penal substitution is cosmic child abuse. Can you see how he is being negative about something, and he is saying “salvation is not this distortion.” Anyway it all gets a bit complicated and redundant really. He accepts substitutionary atonement, he accepts I think what is called the Christus Victor model, that Christ conquers the devil or God conquers the devil through Christ, and in many ways Christ is a substitute for us, Christ suffers where we ought to be suffering, but what he doesn’t accept is the penal bit. Now this is the source of the controversy.

I want to share some quotations with you. This is from the Evangelical Alliance, “It may be true as Steve has claimed that evangelicals are often perceived to be harsh, censorious and ungracious and that this can hamper evangelism, however, we do not accept Steve’s assertion of a causal or necessary link between affirming penal substitution and being harsh, censorious and ungracious.” Steve Chalk thinks if you go on about penal substitution all the time you end up being really harsh and judgement, because at the centre of the doctrine of penal substitution is this harsh judgement. That’s Steve Chalk’s critique. Now this is something which has been very much divisive, it is something which is separating out people in the evangelical community. For example on one side, have people heard of Wayne Gruden, he is a American theologian, very much in the conservative, evangelical stable, and he says, “There is a returnable, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for.” There must be someone to bear the penalty of sin. This is an eternal and unchanging requirement, no way round it. Let’s read from the passage in Jonah who is in Nineveh, “When God saw all their deeds that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which he had declared he would bring upon them and he did not do it.” Now of course, what Gruden would say is that the punishment was foreseen at this time and the punishment that was due to Nineveh went on Christ. I think that is quite a creative reading of the text. I think that if you just stick with the text throughout scripture you have a different understanding of God being presented. That God is perfectly capable of forgiveness.

There are lots of examples in human society of forgiveness taking place. One that came to mind the other day is Enneskillen, remember the bomb twenty odd years ago, and one of the survivors, I think the father lost his daughter, and the father comes out and says “I forgive those who did this.” To me that is him participating in the nature of God. That God is capable of forgiveness, full stop. That there doesn’t have to be this mechanism by which forgiveness takes place. This is a picture of people waiting for a verdict of the Court, I thought it was quite Dickensian, this seems to be to be, if you like, the son waiting to try an alter a verdict which he has taken on for someone else. I don’t think that is a good way of understanding how our salvation takes place. But the thing is, this question about boundaries, which is really my emphasis, the shibboleth, and this is really where I am going to finish with, just some more quotes, from this book, “If those who impune penal substitution refuse to reconsider their position, there comes a comes a time when we have no alternative but to part company, for the critics are right in this, differences over penal substitution ultimately lead us to worship a different God and to believe a different gospel.” One of the things I vehemently disagree with about that.

Another one, this is after Steve Chalk had an open meeting with the Evangelical Alliance in Westminster where I think something like a thousand people turned up and he was grilled about his acceptability as an evangelical and Joel Edwards who is the leader of that group said, “The question we have to ask honestly and biblically together, is whether or not someone could deny penal substitution and legitimately remain in the Evangelical Alliance.” This is becoming the marker about, you have got to accept that particular doctrine or else you are not an evangelical. Here’s another one, people have heard of Spring Harvest, a group called Word Alive, which is the youth work element in Spring Harvest and there has been a division, a parting of the ways between Spring Harvest, which you might think of as mainstream evangelical and the people behind Word Alive, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, UCCF, this is a very widespread ministry to college age kids. UCCF as a result of this controversy over Steve Chalk and his views and so on said, “UCCF believes it can no longer work with those whose understanding of the nature of the gospel and the distinctive of the atonement is so different to theirs, and mainstream evangelicals and across the world.” They think that mainstream evangelicals have to have penal substitution. “There comes a point when loyalty to gospel as we believe it to be clearly set out in Scripture, and the drive for unity with others can come into conflict and we have reached that point”. So Word Alive and all that section of Spring Harvest no longer wants to have anything to do with Steve Chalk and the people associated with him in Spring Harvest. So this boundary is getting set.

This is the chart I wanted to print out for you in particular, I will just run through it extremely quickly because we are running out of time, these are just the different ways of understanding how salvation is accomplished, they all agree that there is a problem and the solution is Christ. That’s universally agreed, but quite how it’s done is different, so the only church, it is all about the light in the darkness, the incarnation is the light of God revealing us to ourselves. What’s called the Christus Victor, Satan holds us captive, so God either conquers Satan, or God pays Satan a price to redeem us, again early church but also quite common in a lot of contemporary theology, that’s pretty much the one I like, although I think there is truth in most of them. Recapitulation, we share in Adam’s sin, humanity is recreated in Christ. Satisfaction theory, this is the medieval one, in an honour society, an honour based society where honour is seen as the most important thing, our disobedience dishonours God and there must be a gift to restore God’s honour and the gift is Christ’s obedience. Can you see how the metaphor is what works in that culture of the time. Penal substitution which is the Reformation one, that what we need to be saved from is God’s wrath and so Christ is punished in our place.

Another one which runs really throughout a lot of the writings but is associated with a medieval chap called Abelard, is that it is all subjective, our hearts are dead, we have got hearts of stone and it’s the crucifixion which breaks open our hearts and reawakens our moral sense, our sense of what is right and good, so it is an inward conversion. These are all different models held by Christian’s throughout history, and what seems to be happening is that this one is seen as the most important to hold. And that if you don’t hold this, we are not prepared to be in a church with you. And that’s what I think is really wrong.

Anyway, pressing on rapidly, a final question. What are we set free from? This is the end of Shawshank redemption that I am sure you have all seen, you have got this wall and you are set free by getting past the barriers, and penal substitution seems to be the establishment of a barrier. I think the barriers need to come down. I think that the other models of the atonement often fit much better with biblical evidence taken as a whole. There are distinct passages which support something like penal substitution, but there are lots of other passages which support the other models of atonement much more clearly, they emphasis God’s gracious character, his forgiving mercy and so on. The other models can fit better with the early church, they emphasis the resurrection as much as the crucifixion which I think is really key, that don’t divide the communions, that don’t divide churches. The thing is ultimately, it’s a mystery, we are trying to describe how God has done this, and of course we will use the language of our community to do so, but if you look through Christian history that language which has changed over time, lots of different ways of understanding it have been used and deployed and I am sure it will continue to develop. The church has never said “this is the way you have got to understand it.” We are free to explore different ways of understanding it. I think that what Steve Chalk is putting his finger on is that this particular emphasis, that this is the only way possible to understand it can become distorting. You end up talking so much about the wrath of God that there isn’t enough room to talk about the God of love. That’s his worry. Because it’s the God of love which is primary and needs to be emphasised. Now neither he nor I would want to drop language of God’s wrath but if you like God’s wrath fits in underneath, the overarching of God’s love, it is not the other way round, it is not that God’s wrath is the most important thing we need to understand and then if we get that right there is a little pocket of God’s love available for us, it’s the other way round.

A final quotation which will set up next week. This is from John Piper, have you heard of John Piper, American theologian, he wrote the foreword of this book, he says, “If God did not punish His Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.” I think that is profoundly wrong. And I will say more about that next week.

Any questions, thoughts?

Q: You are quoting from Jonah and the fact that God doesn’t visit his wrath on Ninevah, I wonder if you perhaps remind us of Jonah’s reaction to this.

A: Indeed, indeed it is half past ten by the way so if people want to head off, please do. Jonah’s reaction to the mercy shown by God is to lose his temper and get really fed up because his understanding of justice of the wrath of God is more important to him than the notion of the God of love. Exactly.

Q: What strikes me about penal substitution is that Christ didn’t to be divine, he only needed to be sinless and there is a great flaw there, a huge flaw there, and I think what I like about Erinais is that creation is a part of the cross as well, the work of the cross, creation is restored and I think that’s where penal substitution comes in.

A: One of the downfalls of penal substitution is that it tends to emphasis the cross above everything else. I think the cross is central, I don’t think you can really understand the cross properly without the Last Supper before it and the Resurrection after it, the whole package ties together, that is if you like the Christ event. You need to talk about his life, you need to talk about his teaching, who he was, what sort of God he showed us to be. Whereas this singular emphasis upon the cross ends up being distorting. If you hang on to the resurrection as at least in equivalent in importance to the crucifixion you are more likely to end up getting what God is like. Because the resurrection is all about gratuitous mercy and forgiveness. That’s the heart of what the resurrection means.

Q: What do you think Jesus was saying when he talks about the story of the rich man and Lazarus, was it too late then after death to go God’s way?

A: Can you be a bit more specific?

Q: Just what was he getting at in that story, the rich man who from the grave ..

A: Oh Dives and Lazarus? I don’t see the link, sorry I’m being a bit dense.

Q: Well it’s just about being too late isn’t it, after death, that you have got to come to God first in life and that’s coming to believe in Christ first which is our message as Christians.

A: Fine but I don’t see the link between that and penal substitution.

Q: No perhaps not.
A: It’s about the reality of hell. I’m quite happy to run with the reality of hell. That might be another whole session. I think there is something eternal at stake.

Q: Yes, and isn’t it the wrath of God then that puts us there because we haven’t accepted his calling on our lives? I mean there is some punishment there surely?

A: Next week I’m looking at the language of being born again. I will talk much more about that. And remember saying to me right at the beginning between what salvation means and how salvation is accomplished. This week is all about how salvation is accomplished. Next week I am going to talk about what salvation means. I might even start off with a quote from Jonah because it is all about repentance, what is repentance, what does it mean.

Q: Sam, I am worried that you are dividing what the Lord God has joined together which I believe in certain rituals in the Church of England you are not supposed to do, can I start off by saying that the central doctrine is the incarnation, I was always brought up that the real doctrine was the cross, this was heavy emphasis in my upbringing. The position I am now coming to is slightly different. It might be helpful to look at what our Lord said before he died in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said, “What shall I say? Shall I say Father take this cup from me, but for this reason I came forth?” In other words the purpose of the incarnation was the cross and we should not divide the two and one of the mistakes that modern theologians are making that they are dividing things which in fact stand as a heap and we really cannot understand the cross without the incarnation.

A: I would agree with that, in particular I would say all the different bits join together. It is the seamless robe. You know, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, for example, the whole sacramental process of Last Supper and so on. It all fits together it all coheres. Now actually I think the problem is the reverse that the cross has been over emphasised compared to everything else going on in the Christian story with this doctrine as it’s being done now and I suspect for example in Luther and Calvin’s time it worked as a way of telling people about the love of God, because it fitted so naturally with the wider culture. I think it is because our wider culture has changed that this model, this metaphor is no longer doing the work it was intended to do and the insistence of hanging on to it is starting to distort the faith. Does that make sense? I think when Calvin and Luther were describing this they wanted to emphasis the love of God, and within the culture of the time this image worked to do that, but I think that because our culture is so distinct from that of the Reformers, it can no longer do the work they wanted it to do, which is to share the love of Christ. Any others?

Q: I’m desperately trying to find a way of getting this lectures to mean anything to me when I sort of walk out of the door, and go home and what I do next week, and I find it all terribly academic really.

A: This morning’s was the most technical and academic I’ll do in this sequence.

Q: One of the things that you talked about today was the black box in the middle of God and the sinners. I feel that that black box contains the recognition of the people that they have done something wrong. I mean God didn’t kill Christ, the people did, and they had to recognise their folly and it’s no good them just being forgiven and walking away, if they don’t actually see what they have done and this really we can relate to in our lives all the time, we are all the time making mistakes and unless we actually see the biggest mistake it doesn’t help.

A: I agree with you. I will tie in much more strongly with that next week, when it will become a bit more practical, but I just want to pick up one thing when you said, “we killed Christ, it wasn’t God who killed Christ”, one of the inferences of penal substitution and sometimes it is a distorted way of putting it, but one of the inferences is actually, God is responsible, whereas I think very much that we were responsible, it is sin who executes him, it is the actions of sinful humanity which cause him to be killed. But that is disputed. We’re hitting twenty to, thank you very very much for coming, next week I am going to be talking about what it means to be born again and repentance. Thank you.

God and human rights

Andrew Brown has a new blog on the Guardian. Go and discuss this with him:
“if there is no God, then we cannot be made in his image, and we cannot be his children: in that case there is nothing which it is wrong to do to a human being simply because they are a human being. Note: this isn’t a claim that no atheists can believe in human rights. That would be absurd. It is a claim that the atheist who believes in human rights must believe that they are no more than a socially constructed reality and that if no one believed in them, they would not exist. Otherwise, Rowan would say, if you reach to some standard of humanity independent of actual humans, you are reaching for something that makes sense of a lot of talk about God.”
(He’s channelling Rowan)