The Old Testament heart

Note: first posted 7/5/07. I thought it timely to repost it.

This is a long one! I’ve been pondering the themes in this post for many months now, especially on my recent holiday. Now is the time to write it. The lyrics which structure the post are from the song ‘The Dive’ by Steve Knightley, of Show of Hands. Click on ‘full post’ to read.

One November noon, we left the docks
Heading southwest from Morecambe rocks.
My dad and me, our ‘nine to five’,
He used to steer. I used to dive.

So over the side I slowly went down,
A hundred below, the seawater brown.
Well, after an hour, I got low on air,
When I surfaced again his boat wasn’t there.


I miss my father.

Shortly after his death I went to see my spiritual director, a very wise old Franciscan monk. He asked me how close I was to my dad, and after some scattered comments I said ‘Somehow I feel much less afraid of death now. I feel he’s now right there on the other side, and when I die his will be the first face I see.’

‘Ah,’ said my director. ‘Very close then.’


I have very vivid memories of that time. In particular I remember when I decided that I was going to take the funeral, which was a very strange decision to make in many ways. I was sitting on the hospital bed in the room where my father had died – his body had been taken away but our things were still there, so the staff hadn’t yet put another patient in.

I made the decision in part because there were very clear reasons why it would have been inappropriate for the local incumbent to take the service, which I need not go into here. More, though, was the sense I had of being propelled forward with great ferocity – almost an anger – an insistence that the funeral had to be done right. More than anything else, though, was an awareness of something very strong within me that was coming forward; something really rather primitive in many ways, but also very vital and alive. A remarkably powerful sense of will and purpose.


My father wore two rings – his engagement ring and his wedding ring. My elder brother got the engagement ring as it was inscribed with my father’s initials, which my brother shares. I wear the wedding ring on the middle finger of my right hand. I would like my eldest son to have it when I die – he was named after my father.

When I first put it on it was too large for the ring finger. My mum suggested putting it on the middle finger, where it now sits. Of course it’s now a bit tight. As if I have expanded to fill the space.

I felt different as soon as I had put it on. Not sure if it is because I am a Lord of the Rings fan or otherwise superstitious but it represents to me now precisely that strength of will or affirmation of purpose that I felt come upon me at that time. It marks a change in me. A death. A birth.


Looking back now I see that until he died I always lived under the shelter of my father. He was always there, and he always supported me. I was lazy; not necessarily in a physical sense but, perhaps, in a more fundamental moral sense. A passenger perhaps; not a driver. I didn’t pass my driving test until two years after he died. It had never seemed urgent until then, but I passed my driving test on the day I was appointed to my present job. There is a sign in that, I believe.

And it is when I am driving now, especially when I am on my own, that I am most aware of my father’s presence with me. There are times when it is stronger, other times when it is weaker, but there is this persistent awareness of him being with me; and that is as much a moral image as a spatial one.

I remember long car journeys with him, either to boarding school or university. Sometimes talking, sometimes just a companionable silence.

I believe osmosis is a generally ignored form of parenting.


My marker buoy had come untied
And drifted away, his boat at its side.
He looked at his watch, three miles to the South,
And turned back again, his heart in his mouth.

Soft rain on my face, the sun nearly set
I cut loose the weights, let fall the nets.
Lights on the shore so bright and clear,
The combs drifting in and nobody near.


I first heard this Show of Hands song live, down in Putney. I was utterly bowled over by it, not least because I was so hooked by the story – will he live or will he die? It’s a true story, and the writer knows the people about whom he talks. I find Show of Hands to be a very male group, which I intend as an unambiguous compliment.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have long struggled with the question of non-violence (newcomers can explore the links on my sidebar). The debate is sharpest within me when considering the ‘frightening scenarios’, ie ‘what would you do if…’. Stanley Hauerwas says that this is a failure of Christian imagination and that Christians should be concerned with the wider questions that arise prior to such scenarios taking place. I am becoming clearer in my mind that this is not the whole truth, however much sympathy that I have with his perspective. If an opportunity had arisen then it would have been the right thing to do to kill Seung Hui Cho. I do not mean that killing him would have been without sin; I mean that in such situations there is a choice between the present reality and possible futures. Sometimes a love for the concrete present must be allowed to restrict the possible future. We trust that the future lies in God’s hands and that he can redeem us from wherever we are found.

There are good men; and there are bad men. Sometimes a man is good because he is somebody near.

Sometimes a man is good not just because he has killed the bad, but because he is prepared to do the same thing again. That is, he is not crippled with regret or remorse. He recognises the link between death and life.


We do need ways for warriors to be re-integrated into society. Hauerwas is very good on this, not least that the greatest sacrifice asked of a soldier is the request made of them that they sacrifice their unwillingness to kill.


There is, of course, the equal and opposite error. Not the exercise of the will but the elevation of the will, the ‘puffing up’, the Alpha Male expanding his chest.

At the age of ten I was made Head Boy of my primary school; I instantly began trying to copy the authority figures and give my classmates orders. I was rapidly and violently disabused of my authoritarian notions.

That lesson has gone very deep. For most of my life I have been suspicious of my own will. It has been kept caged up in case it got me into trouble. I proceed cautiously and patiently. Also relentlessly, it must be confessed. I find it very difficult to go into reverse – one reason why I am so conscientious about moving forward, thinking through as many options as I can before I take a decision.

Thing is, decisions cannot be avoided; or, better, the avoidance of a decision is also a decision itself, and therefore it is not without consequences.

My father’s death woke me up. It woke up my will. This frightens me sometimes.


Was there ever a reel, a rod or a line
So strong and true, so straight or fine?
That tied and wound him through time and space:
He came out the darkness right to that place!

Now we don’t talk much about that day;
Got two kids of my own now, and one on the way;
But if they’re to grow, and if they’re to thrive,
One day they’ll go, one day they’ll dive.
And when they come up for light and air
I hope someone’s close; I hope someone’s there.


One of the reasons why shivers went up my spine when I first heard this sung were because the lyrics fitted so well with regard to children, though my ‘one on the way’ has now arrived.

Fathers are needed. I’m sure I’m not on my own in thinking that I fail sometimes; but this isn’t me seeking reassurance – I think I do OK! – it’s more a recognition of the truth, that I struggle to raise them well, that often I really don’t know what I’m doing.

This is most acute when considering the question of smacking. I am short-tempered sometimes; normally if I am in some stress from other things; so occasionally I shout more often than I consider genuinely wise. I never believed I could become so cantankerous.

I can’t believe that smacking is absolutely out of bounds. Not as a routine issue – and certainly not done with any instrument or as some form of structural discipline (in the way that I was ‘slippered’ at school…) – but sometimes a child needs to see that a parent can be provoked into anger, and that that anger can have physical consequences to reinforce the lesson, the establishment of a boundary. It has only happened, with my eldest, perhaps five or six times; even less with number two. I always hate myself later, but I don’t regret it. The benefits seem to be so clear.

Of course, perhaps those benefits are false – it’s just conforming somebody else’s will to my will, and who am I to impose my will? Actually, who am I not to? That is precisely the point. It is the father’s job to raise a child able to enter into society and make their own way in life. The mother will identify with the child and seek to nurture and affirm. It is the father that must prune and shape. I think there is a biological basis to this, but actually the roles are not unequivocally biological. Sometimes it is the father who is nurturing and affirming whilst the mother exercises discipline.

“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgements which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it. So that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.” (Deuteronomy chapter 6)


Hebrews 9.22 states that unless there is the shedding of blood there is no άφεσις (aphesis – remission/ forgiveness/ redemption & new life). This is about Jesus and his death; it is also a wider Biblical principle. Not one that is comfortable for a modern awareness.

A few months ago I read an outstandingly good book about survival, by Laurence Gonzales. I liked it especially because it linked in with the neurological work done by Damasio and others which I have been interested in for a long time. I’d like to share this quotation with you – Gonzales is describing a group of people who have been cast adrift at sea in a small boat, and the way in which some of them were mentally ready to do the work of survival, whilst others were ‘losing it’ – and becoming a hazard that would potentially kill everyone. Hard decisions had to be made, and Gonzales quotes another writer in saying this:

“To survive, you must at some point allow cool to become cold. Stockdale wrote, “In difficult situations, the leader with the heart, not the soft heart, not the bleeding heart, but the Old Testament heart, the hard heart, comes into his own.” Survival means accepting reality, and accepting reality takes a hard heart. But it is a strange kind of coldness, for it has empathy at its center. Survivors discover a deep spiritual relationship to the world….”

The Old Testament heart is the capacity to inflict pain for the greater good; to keep eyes fixed upon the essential point, and to take the measures needed to ensure long term flourishing. It is when the heart is set wholly on God that priorities find their proper place, and God’s hand guides the blade. It is when will power is allied to idolatry that darkness and destruction descend on the community.


At my father’s funeral I preached the resurrection. I was profoundly grateful that I had had a conversation with him not long before when he had explicitly avowed his belief, and that he found my rather academic explorations rather beside the point. I said this: “when we are faced with the harsher realities of life, and we are thrown back from the everyday, the Christian faith, the faith which Bruce shared, comes with a clear message, a message of hope. For Christianity was born when Jesus rose again from the dead, and the shockwaves from that event are still rolling around our world. Many people, perhaps most people today, question this Christian belief in the resurrection. Bruce didn’t question it – he told me so himself. Bruce had a simple and living faith, which worked through him and animated all that he did. He lived a Christian life; he didn’t talk about it much, he just did it. And at the heart of the Christian message is a testimony that death does not have the last word.”

My memory of giving this sermon is exceptionally clear. I felt totally exposed; my will was utterly present; and it was right. It was as if this was the place where I received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, here is where God affirmed me as a priest.

“I came that you might have life, life in all its fullness.”


It’s November noon
We’re leaving the docks
My son and me
From Morecambe rocks.

Let’s dive.

Let’s dive.


Astonishingly, viscerally violent – virtually misanthropic. If this was an episode in a TV series it would have been quite a good one, but not quite enough plot for a whole movie. Much better than 2 or 3, but not a patch on First Blood, which remains one of my favourite films ever. 3.5/5


I scanned the screens viewing soaps, news, comedies, sports, plays, documentaries, reality shows, games, music videos, cartoons and films searching for commonality among the diversity of genres. In a matter of seconds I laughed, shed tears, mourned, experienced thrills, fear, elation and boredom seeing family arguments, drunken fights, martial arts, torture techniques, abusive language, sexual predators, demonic possession, terrorist atrocities, murder investigations, football hooliganism, child soldiers, rioting protestors, police aggression, self-harming, drug abuse, automobile accidents, plane crashes, knife crime, insults and mockery. I spoke the answer before I knew it.


300 (Zack Snyder movie)

This was really good – a faithful rendition of the graphic novel which managed to capture some of Miller’s visual style (as did Sin City) and pay homage to Spartan virtues. So: four out of five.

However, having enjoyed it and been stimulated by it, I have to say that I’m glad I don’t live in Sparta. I think that our culture doesn’t honour the martial virtues (something I’m probably going to preach on for Remembrance Sunday), and clearly Sparta was the opposite of that, but I think that the martial virtues have a point beyond themselves, ie they are there to form a safe space within which other – higher – virtues can manifest. I find it intriguing that it was the mistreatment/ different treatment of the hunchback which led to the downfall. Not sure what could have been done otherwise, but I think a community within which all have a place is stronger than one which denies the existence of the weak. Sparta as an element in Greece, perhaps, rather than the epitome.

For I am God, not man (IV)

An interlude, giving a few more ‘big picture’ points.

What most drives me in my rejection of PSA is the pastoral consequences of the doctrine. That is, the insistence on PSA as ‘the heart of the gospel’ seems to me to elevate divine wrath and punishment, and therefore the notion of justice and rule following, above the elements of gracious forgiveness within the gospel – and this has very damaging consequences in the life of the faithful. This isn’t just an abstract thing for me – a not insignificant part of my ministry is precisely picking up the pieces of souls that have been smashed by this insistence. The healing is difficult, and takes a long time, and both those parts testify to the depth of the damage done

I don’t have a problem with an acceptance of PSA which sees PSA as a minor element of the gospel, as one image – one METAPHOR – with which to ponder the mystery of salvation. That seems to me to accord moderately well with the importance given to it in Scripture and Church History. In this understanding it is essentially adiaphora – it is something on which Christians may disagree, whilst being united by the much more crucial doctrines (creation, incarnation, resurrection, redemption, trinity…).

The problem to my mind is when that single image is raised up and reified as the defining theory for understanding the work of Christ. When the wider testimony of Christianity and Scripture is conformed and constricted around a metaphysics built upon that image. Hence my remark that penal substitution is what happens when you take a metaphor and turn it into a metaphysics. I had two people in mind influencing that statement – James Alison, who criticises PSA precisely because it is a theory and not something that of itself changes lives, and Wittgenstein, with his criticisms of metaphysics more generally. Sometimes the whole weight is in the picture.

It is rather ironic that PFOT begins with a Foreword from John Piper saying precisely the opposite to this – but for the same reasons. That is, John Piper also sees this as a pastoral issue, and he references Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees as an example of how importantly we can take this issue. Piper goes on to say “…if God did not punish Jesus in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.”

That is precisely what I object to, and which I see as a distortion of Christian faith. It is an attitude which has raised up God’s wrath into the determining feature of reality and existence.

To sum up my position:
– I would accept that there are some comparatively minor passages in Scripture which can be construed as referring to something like PSA; however
– I believe that Scripture has many more full and explicit passages which undermine PSA and give a much more healthy and liberating understanding of God and his most gracious favour;
– I believe that PSA is virtually unknown in the early church, and hardly more known for the first thousand years of Christian history;
– I believe that Anselm paved the way for PSA, but that Calvin was the first theologian to give it something like its modern form and place weight on it; more crucially I think Charles Hodge is the thinker with most influence on the way that it is presently portrayed;
– I think the doctrine is intimately tied together with a Modernist understanding of faith; it is a very good example of a ‘doctrine of men’; and I think that as we progressively move away from a Modernist culture so too will PSA lapse first into irrelevance and then it will be forgotten;
– I believe that PSA is a factional and party issue; that is, it is virtually unknown in orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism; it is not actively central in mainstream Protestantism; it is principally pursued by those who are already committed to a Calvinistic perspective on Christianity. It has become a shibboleth separating one Christian from another, and that, in itself, is one of the things most wrong with it.

For I am God, not man (III)

Continuing the sequence on penal substitution, this time wondering – if there are some who support the sort of doctrine that I am objecting to, what would we expect them to look like? Click ‘full post’ for text.

I should say right up front that I have specific examples from my own personal experience in mind as I write this, but the truth of what I say isn’t dependent on that.

I’ve outlined what I object to in the doctrine of penal substitution, viz:

the doctrine is believed in wholeheartedly and the consequence drawn from the doctrine, within the life of the believer, is that the character of God is fundamentally one of inexorable justice; that the response to any transgression is ‘there must be punishment’; and that the life and witness of Jesus Christ is conformed to this controlling narrative, rather than all other narratives being conformed to the life and witness of Christ.

In other words – there is a distortion in belief, in terms of the prominence given to punishment when describing God’s character (a form of idolatry), and there is a distortion in christian behaviour consequent to this, which (to summarise in advance) becomes a form of ‘law not grace’ – guilt is prominent, and fostered, and forgiveness is underemphasised. Where rules and punishment are given excessive emphasis in the presentation of salvation there will be consequent harm done to the listeners. Where there is paradox – God is a God of justice and mercy/forgiveness – then much depends on how things are presented, if one isn’t to eclipse the other.

I’ll unpack that, as it’s quite dense, and begs lots of questions.

1. The character of God
Advocacy of this form of PSA would emphasise the holiness of God, understood as the utter incompatibility of sin with God’s existence. Such sin would be seen in personal and individualistic terms, and much would be made of the offence given to God. There would be less emphasis upon the gracious and forgiving aspects of God’s character, along with the corporate side of sin.

2. The character of Scriptural witness
PSA would be seen as either the sole or the determining way in which Scripture talks about redemption. Texts referring to PSA would be given the highest possible prominence; texts which give different models would be addressed less; arguments about the character of Scripture as a whole would be downplayed. The teaching of Jesus, eg about the Kingdom, would be considered much less important than the achievement of the crucifixion – understood through the lens of PSA.

3. The nature of preaching and the call to repentance
Emphasis would be given to the way in which humanity has sinned and broken the laws of God; PSA would be explained and the guilt provoked would, instead of being eliminated, be nourished as a healthy response to ‘the truth’. The important thing for a disciple would be to understand the way in which ‘Christ died for you’.

4. The nature of church behaviour
Consequent to the consistent emphasis upon rules and the breaking of rules, there would be an excessive concern to establish and police the boundaries between the rule keepers and the rule breakers, in order to prevent further provocation of God.

5. The tone of advocacy
There will be a shrillness of tone (eg “damn this diabolical doctrine to hell” 😉 associated with discussions on the topic; this will be directly linked to the level of fear of punishment felt by the advocate. There will be little concern to understand the objections to PSA, and there will be a comprehensive rejection of the possibility of Christianity without an acceptance of PSA.

6. The most important: the pastoral character of doctrine
The sheep pastored under this understanding of PSA will remain bound up in guilt and sin; they will not be enabled to experience forgiveness; they will remain emotionally crippled and not enjoy the abundance of life promised. Aware of their own sinfulness they will be reminded of it on regular occasions and not encouraged to affirm their original blessing of being made in the image of God.

Now – obviously! – these are very broad brush strokes, but I think they will serve for the time being. The question is: do such places and advocates exist? That’s for the next part.

For I am God, not man (II)

Continuing a slightly more reasoned out – rather than ‘ranted out’ – discussion of penal substitutionary atonement. This one is looking at wrath. Click ‘full post’ for text.

I want to flesh out the distinctions that I made in the last post, especially the difference between the second and third ways of believing in penal substitution. (BTW It may help to give more specific labels to these two alternatives (the first is largely irrelevant, and for my purposes simply collapses into the second). Let’s call the first the ‘Tom Wright interpretation of PSA‘ (TW), and the second the ‘Pierced for our Transgressions interpretation of PSA‘ (PFOT)(PSA = penal substitutionary atonement!))

Now there is a way in which ‘penal substitution’ makes sense to me, and it will help to delineate what I don’t like about the PFOT approach. The idea of substitution itself is a noble one – “greater love hath no man than this than that a man lay down his life for his friend”. There are myriad examples of this, and I am very happy for this to be used to describe what Jesus is doing, that Jesus is a substitute for us in this way. A bullet is headed in our direction – Jesus pushes us out of the way and takes the hit on our behalf, out of love for us, and by this we are set free. [I think the most recent example of this I came across was in the last X-Men film which I re-watched recently, when Mystique saves Mysterio]. Indisputably, PSA does not describe a form of this.

The difference between this and PSA is the status of the bullet fired in our direction, which is seen as the direct consequence of our sin, ie it is a punishment for our sin – it is a ‘lex talionis‘ applied on the cosmic scale. God’s holiness and justice cannot allow sin to go unpunished – for this to be the case then God would cease to be God. Tom Wright puts it like this: “if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again”. This is God’s wrath. How should we understand it?

A few years ago I attended a conference on the atonement, and I wrote up my notes here. At the end of it I outlined an analogy for understanding God’s wrath that I think is worth bringing up front again:

In studying various species, biologists and zoologists distinguish the genotype from the phenotype. The genotype is the DNA sequence which is found in every cell of the life-form. The phenotype is the expression of that DNA sequence in a specific context, eg the wing of a bird as opposed to the beak, where both have the same DNA but the end-result is very different. In the same way, it seems to me that we must understand ‘God is love’ as referring to his essential nature, his ‘genotype’, whereas we must understand God’s wrath as something which derives from the interaction of that nature with a particular context (our sin), and so is derivative or ‘phenotypical’. The problem that I have with the notion of penal substitution is that it makes God’s wrath part of his genotype (and therefore part of the fabric of His creation), rather than being a reflection of human sin. If we are called to work towards a ‘peaceable kingdom’, as I believe we are, then I don’t think we will achieve it by worshipping a God whose fundamental nature is violent.

This remains my perspective: what I dislike about PSA is the way in which it makes the wrath of God something essential to God’s character rather than something which is a response to our action – that is, a secondary phenomenon. The problem is the idea that ‘there must be punishment‘ – that this is an essential, indeed THE essential attribute of God’s holiness. My concern is that in the doctrine of PSA this is the irrevocable point around which the world turns. To quote Tom Wright again, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God.” In other words, it is the love which is primary.

(Note – I don’t have any worries about the use of wrath to describe God’s activities as such; what is at stake for me is the core character of the God whom we worship, and whose image we seek to cultivate). I doubt that PSA advocates would suggest that this is an obligation placed upon the Father by some outside force, for what is at stake is the character of God himself, unconstrained by any external pressure. The core question might be phrased: what is the character of God’s holiness? In what way is God holy?

There is one way of understanding God’s holiness which is manifestly pagan, and that is the sense in which God is simply an irritable human being on a large scale, with a well developed sense of social propriety and honour. Consider – an example I’ve used before – the story of Andromeda from Greek mythology, as dramatised in the film ‘Clash of the Titans’. The driver of her story is that her mother has praised her beauty excessively, and therefore offended the Gods, who lay down a curse upon her city until she is offered up as a PAGAN sacrifice to the Kraken. What makes this pagan is the scale of values employed – the people are the playthings of the Gods and there is nothing noble or humane about the divinities involved. They are simply monstrous human beings. (Note well the role of offence here! I suspect that Anselm’s account partakes more than a little of this pagan approach, but discussing him would take me away from where I want to go.)

Clearly there is Scriptural support for a frightening sense of God’s holiness. Consider Moses on the mountainside, and the way in which even goats who trespassed had to be stoned to death. Yet that has to be placed in juxtaposition with the babe of Bethelehem, born into the animal’s feeding trough and kept alive by their breath. The issue is: which is the determining image? Which account takes us closer to the holiness of the God revealed in Scripture (as opposed to the holiness of the God of the philosophers)?

I would want to argue that the God of the Scriptures revealed and known in the person and work of Jesus Christ is one who seeks repentance and offers forgiveness, who is always reaching out to us in mercy, but who allows us to embrace a wrathful destruction if we so choose. The classic source for this is the story of the prodigal son. I was reminded by my visitor the other day that one of the crucial aspects of the story is that the society in which the father lived would have poured shame and scorn upon the father for acting in the way that he did. The Father absorbs the ‘punishment’ that would otherwise have fallen upon the son; he accepts the loss of his own social standing, his own ‘loss of face’ in order to re-establish a loving relationship and home with the prodigal.

For me, that is the heart and transformative good news of the gospel. God is like that; God is not like Zeus or any other pagan deity. This is what I see as the distinction between the two senses of PSA. Tom Wright worships the Christian God; PFOT is worshipping a pagan deity.

Continued in part three.