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.

For I am God, not man (I)

I want to develop my position on penal substitution in a more rational manner than last week’s stream of consciousness. Tim commented that the issue has become a ‘King Charles’ Head’ for me – lovely image, derivation explained here – and I wouldn’t want people to think I was tilting at windmills too much. I want to narrow down more precisely what it is that I object to – what I really do consider damning and damnable – and explain why. In this first post I want to make some preparatory remarks about the nature of doctrinal belief and clear away some potential misunderstandings. Click ‘full post’ for text (not very long).

I have often commented (and preached) that there are two forms of belief. One is a purely intellectual and rational construct; the other is embedded within our patterns of life and – crucially – both reflects and structures our emotional commitments, ie what we give value to. (In practice there is a spectrum, but run with the dichotomy for the sake of argument!)

To quickly grasp the difference, consider the difference between ‘Mrs Jones is committing adultery’ and ‘your wife is committing adultery’ – the second is, other things being equal, much more embedded in a person’s patterns of life and will likely have much greater emotional impact when heard and understood.

Theology as I understand it is about the second form of belief, not the first. (Interestingly, the common perception of ‘theology’ is the exact opposite – ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’ etc – and I’m sure this underlies much rejection of Christianity, the idea that it has no relevance.)

Theology is about the second form of belief because it is the study of ultimate value – it is the language that we use about God, that which is ultimate. Consequently, debate about doctrine is essentially a debate about what is most important in our lives. What is at stake in the question of whether penal substitution is an adequately Christian account of salvation is the nature of the God that Christians worship, what it is that is most important to us – and as a result, the nature of the discipleship and formation that we follow as we seek to reveal the image of that God within us. That is why it is so important.

Peter Kirk put me onto this post by ‘Theo Geek’, well worth reading in full, who wrote:

The difference between “a God who is loving and forgives sins out of love” and “a God who demands justice be repaid but removes this need from himself by Jesus and thus forgives sins out of love” lies only in the semantics, logic and character of God depicted within this statements and not at all in the resultant functionality of these two doctrines or how they relate to our everyday experience of life.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this perspective. It reminds me strongly of Wittgenstein’s discussion of private language. I think it is perfectly possible for someone to believe in penal substitution in two ways with which I would, in principle, take no objection (I think Tom Wright falls into the second of these categories):
– the doctrine might be believed purely as an intellectual matter, ie something which is abstracted from daily life, has no emotional consequences in terms of life lived, is simply seen as a coherent way of understanding the process of salvation etc etc; or
– the doctrine is believed in wholeheartedly but the consequences drawn from the doctrine are precisely those outlined above by TheoGeek: God forgives our sins out of love, and thus the ultimate value preserved by the doctrine in the life and witness of the believer is that of a loving and forgiving Father, revealed in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. Jesus remains the controlling witness and revelation of the nature of God.

My concern is not with either of these two interpretations. My concern is with a third possible interpretation 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.

I believe, and my so far not radically wide experience confirms, that this third form of understanding
– is prevalent within segments of the Christian church;
– upholds patterns of behaviour and belief which are destructive of Christian life;
– is in direct opposition to the gospel of Christ; and
– needs to be identified as a problem and struggled against.

In other words, it is this third way of understanding the doctrine of penal substitution that I consider damning damnable. Hopefully this narrowing down will lower the temperature a little, although I don’t expect the discussion ever to be particularly cool!

More in part 2.

On being saved

Something a bit more positive about the atonement, still in the form of notes. Click ‘full post’ for text.

‘Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’

So wrote Wittgenstein, and this remains one of the clearest descriptions of what I take Christianity to be – it is something which actually takes place in our lives (it transforms our lives) – it is not theory-driven (as if we have been given the equivalent of laws of physics, just relating to those things that cannot be seen); rather it is directly driven by a change of life. This is one of the major reasons why I think atheists just don’t ‘get it’. They misunderstand the grammar of faith – but that’s a separate argument. Trouble is, a lot of self-proclaimed Christians also don’t get it – in precisely the same way. “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.” (Wittgenstein again). I think what I want to say is: those who insist that penal substitution is the way – sometimes the only way – to understand the atonement are ‘gesticulating with words’. The words are floating free of a transformed life. The advocates remain trapped within the world.

But that is still a bit negative. What I want to do is say a bit more about what this ‘salvation through faith’ might mean. And to begin, I want to talk about sin.

Sin I see as something very real and concrete and actively harmful and destructive. (This is why I am more and more persuaded about spiritual warfare, and why what the Church Fathers write in those terms makes abundant sense to me, especially as it is linked to sacramental worship). I do not see sin as something abstract, something restricted to a ‘spiritual sphere’ separate from our daily life. It is not a theoretical construct. It is the name we give, it is the vocabulary we use, to discern, describe and defeat all that enslaves us and prevents us from displaying the image of God in the world.

Jesus saves us from that.

It is sin which crucifies Jesus. The prince of this world, the powers and principalities, see Jesus as the enemy and they use their powers to destroy him. He pays the price of sin: in other words, those values which are limited by the world express their hatred of all that Christ stood for by reacting against him with all the forces that they could command. So Jesus is rejected and despised by society (his social level quality is destroyed) and then his life is taken away from him (his biological level quality is destroyed). The world takes the worldly values (social approval, biological life) and removes them from Christ. That is the crucifixion.

The resurrection proclaims: there is more to life than this.

The devil is defeated. He has over-reached himself. Consequently, to embrace Christ, to believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, is to immediately relativise the biological and the social – all the powers and principalities of the world. That is what makes martyrdom possible: the devil is dethroned. No longer can the existing social and religious practices be seen as final. God cannot be captured.

More than this: the character of God is seen in Christ. The judgement goes two ways, not simply that the devil is cast down, but Christ is lifted up (John 12.31-32).

Our societies are irrevocably bound up in sin – that’s what I take the doctrine of original sin to refer to. We are all implicated, and we cannot get free. We cannot discern anything outside of the world of sin except for revelation. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

To turn to Christ is to say that Christ is truth – and therefore that the world is not, that the devil is the prince of lies. It is to say that the way of Christ is possible, and real, and more deeply rooted in creation than expediency. The church is composed of those who recognise this – who live in the light of the resurrection. It’s not a matter of words, it’s a matter of priorities and the shape of a life.

If you forgive, then you believe in the resurrection.
If you affirm and succour the poor and broken-hearted, you believe in the resurrection.
If you resist the idolatries of the world, and fight for justice and mercy, you believe in the resurrection.

“Not everyone who calls me Lord shall enter the Kingdom, but those who do the will of my father who is in heaven.”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life? Go and do likewise.”

One way of understanding God is to say: this is what I am most committed to, this is what I most deeply and profoundly believe.

I have seen lives – in those who profess Christ and those who do not – which are literally crippled and stunted by an acceptance of worldly value. Those voices which say ‘I am bad’; ‘I do not deserve to be loved’; ‘If only I could do… then I will be worthy and loveable’.

These are the voices of demons. These are the internalised voices of worldly values. This is the realm of the accuser.

The difference between law and grace is: law says ‘do X’ and then you are worthy/ loveable/ redeemed. Grace says you are worthy/ loveable/ redeemed – now you can ‘do X’.

God sent his son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

When that difference sinks into the heart, when it is truly accepted, that is when someone believes in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is when they are saved. That is when they are set free from their sins. That is when their faith has healed them.

And the consequences are visible. It is like a vomiting out of illness. The back extends a little straighter. The eyes are brighter. The tension leaves the body. And the Spirit comes. Now we can forgive – not with clenched teeth and ‘yes I really ought to forgive’ but genuinely from the heart.

This is not a matter of saying ‘Abracadabra’ in order to open the doors to heaven. This is heaven coming down to earth, and the angels rejoicing over the one sinner who repents. For repentance isn’t simply a mental shift – it is the turning around of the heart and the life, it is changing the way we do things. It is Zacchaeus refunding those he has defrauded – ‘this day salvation has come to this house’.

Salvation is not a matter of ensuring a quantity of souls in heaven – as if we were misers hoarding gold to fend off starvation. Salvation is something that takes place in a human life here and now – it is the present shaped by eternity. This is eternal life – life that is not subject to the constraints of the world.

Jesus saves us from our sins.
Until the resurrection dawns in our hearts we are dead in our sin – we are still bound up in the ways of the world that destroy life.
By his wounds we are healed.
In him is life, and light, and that light is the light for all people.

Salvation is to be dead to sin but alive to God through Christ. This is to have abundance of life (Jn 10.10). This is to be filled with joy and peace, the peace which the world cannot give.

1Come, let us return to the Lord •
who has torn us and will heal us.

2God has stricken us •
and will bind up our wounds.

3After two days, he will revive us, •
and on the third day will raise us up,
that we may live in his presence.

4Let us strive to know the Lord; •
his appearing is as sure as the sunrise.

5He will come to us like the showers, •
like the spring rains that water the earth.

6‘O Ephraim, how shall I deal with you? •
How shall I deal with you, O Judah?

7‘Your love for me is like the morning mist, •
like the dew that goes early away.

8‘Therefore, I have hewn them by the prophets, •
and my judgement goes forth as the light.

9‘For loyalty is my desire and not sacrifice, •
and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’

Some notes on divine forgiveness

Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. My question: is Jesus asking us to do more than the Father is prepared to do? Or is he asking us to share in the nature of the Father?

Let me caricature the diabolical side of the doctrine of penal substitution.

Imagine that there is a school. And the head teacher of the school says to the children – you can make the rules. You can decide on what the punishments will be. So the children work out what their rules are going to be. If you’re late for class then this will happen. If you are rude to a teacher this will happen. And so on.

A rule is broken. One boy steals an apple from another boy. The rules stipulate that the punishment is three strokes of the cane. The children discover that the one stealing hasn’t eaten for several days; his family are so poor. So the one whose apple was stolen says ‘I will take the punishment for you’.

Actually, I’m being naughty, this isn’t a caricature, this was a story told to my children at (the otherwise extremely good and beneficial) Mersea Beach Club last week. But this is so bizarre. It’s probably even worse than the story from Bridge over the River Kwai that Nicky Gumbel uses in Alpha, which portrays the Father as a psychotic Japanese guard.

Why can’t the children just say ‘the rules don’t apply here’? Why not ‘mercy triumphs over justice’ (James 2.13)?

No, for some reason, this ‘stepping outside of the box’ is ruled out. What you have is an understanding of the Father that turns his holiness into a mechanism. The argument runs: God is holy, nothing that is not holy can stand in the face of such holiness, our sin is unholy, Jesus takes the heat so that we don’t get kicked out of the kitchen. God’s justice must stand! Otherwise he isn’t Holy! What this really means is that here is what we see as most holy: justice. Justice becomes God, within which God must act and to which God must conform. God cannot simply forgive for that would be to violate his character. There must be some mechanism by which justice is satisfied.

These rules have been graven in stone and handed down on the mountain.

It is not an accident that a mechanical age has raised up a mechanical God. What intrigues me is that the voices which shout most stridently for upholding Scripture against the culture are the ones most deeply implicated in that cultural idolatry.

Rules as such are holy. Irrespective of source or context. This tells of such a querulous faith.

This is not the God of the Bible. Though our sins be as scarlet yet they shall be whiter than snow. Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive us. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.

Jesus repeats that quotation twice; so shall I: Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.

The Father is not a machine in a factory, liable to be hazardous to us, and to injure us, unless we treat it with proper respect. That is the pagan conception. That makes God into King Kong needing a virgin to eat.

Either we believe in a God of forgiveness – a God with the power to make all things new – or we believe in a God who cannot forgive, because his holiness and his justice demand recompense.

Do you think I drink the blood of bulls?

Saying Jesus is the satisfaction simply relocates the problem – either the deity is at war in itself, or else we are now in a protected area but the Father’s fundamental character remains unchanged. That is spiritually corrosive – for how can God’s fundamental character be eternally suppressed? The anger emerges somewhere.

This is a salvation issue. That is, it seems to me – and I have seen much too often – that if the doctrine of penal substitution is heartily believed then salvation is prevented. The believer in this doctrine does not experience redemption and the forgiveness of sins. They may feel better for a short while – the ways of the human heart are undoubtedly mysterious – but this underlying rottenness will come to the surface eventually.

For the diabolical doctrine states: God doesn’t really love you. He hates you because you’re a sinner. But he’s been bought off by the bloody sacrifice on the cross. He’s like an abusive parent kept at bay by a restraining order. There is always the fear that one day he’ll come back. And so the soul remains crippled. God’s true character is obscured and occluded.

In this situation the genuine gospel of forgiveness saves lives and sets the captives free. God loves you. Nothing you can do will make God love you more. Nothing you can do will make God love you less. This means you do not have to be afraid. And that means that you can love – for it is only love that can cast out fear, and when Jesus repeatedly tells us not to be afraid, that is because he loves us. That is what it means to love the Lord and walk in his ways. This is why it is good news.

God doesn’t play the game of blame. It’s not that he plays the game but has agreed to give you a free pass. It’s that this game is worldly and demonic and nothing to do with God at all.

If you repent of your sins you will be forgiven. In other words, a fresh start is possible. The slate gets wiped clean.

This is a spiritual reality. This is not something about some future life after death. This is not about some yellow stain upon the soul needing to be washed. Those are metaphors. Salvation is something that happens in daily life. I have seen it happen. And it is a miracle.

To genuinely believe in forgiveness – and to be genuinely given the spiritual strength to take that dynamic forgiveness out into the world – means to see forgiveness as of the very essence of God. If it is not of the being of God to be forgiving, then neither can it be of the being of humanity to be forgiving. We too will end up pretending, if we believe in our hearts that God is only pretending.

And we will live in a society of rules and law and justice. We will be cogs in the machine. We will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Without forgiveness, there is no grace. Without grace, there is no gospel. Without the gospel, we are still dead in our sins and we are of all men the most to be pitied.

Damn this diabolical doctrine to hell.

Notes on atonement

These are some notes from an atonement conference I attended from 5-7 July 2004.

On the whole I found the conference extremely worthwhile, enlightening and provocative. The doctrine of the atonement, unlike eg the doctrine of the incarnation, has never received an official definition within Church history, and the church’s understanding of it has changed over time. The aim of the conference was to bring together people with different understandings to seek mutual awareness and acceptance. The following are some of the key thoughts that I have taken away from it (this isn’t a representative account of all that was said!).

The theory of penal substitution
The first keynote speech was given by Dr Christina Baxter, the principal of St John’s Nottingham, and she had been asked to describe the way that evangelicals understand the Atonement, which is through the ‘penal substitutionary theory of atonement’. This is the view that Jesus’ death on the cross was a satisfaction for the sins committed by humanity, which meets the righteous demands of the wrath of God and through which Christians gain ‘imputed righteousness’ – Christ is punished on our behalf. That’s quite complex, but it is put across in the Alpha course a bit more clearly:

“What does self-substitution mean? In his book Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon tells the true story of a group of POWs working on the Burma Railway during World War 2. At the end of each day the tools were collected from the work party. On one occasion a Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know which man had taken it. He began to rant and rave, working himself up into a paranoid fury and ordered whoever was guilty to step forward. No one moved. ‘All die! All die!’ he shrieked, cocking and aiming his rifle at the prisoners. At that moment one man stepped forward and the guard clubbed him to death with his rifle while he stood silently to attention. When they returned to the camp, the tools were counted again and no shovel was missing. That one man had gone forward as a substitute to save the others. In the same way Christ came as our substitute. He endured crucifixion for us.” (Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, p48)

Dr Baxter outlined seven ‘drivers’ behind the evangelical acceptance of this understanding of the doctrine. These were:
1. The ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah, especially the text ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed’;
2. The words of institution at the Lord’s Supper, and the idea that it is through blood (which is understood as a reference to propitiatory sacrifice) that we gain access to God;
3. An acceptance of language referring to the wrath of God – there are apparently 375 references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament;
4. The pervasiveness of ‘for us’ language in the New Testament (ie ‘Christ died for us’);
5. The relational framework employed by this doctrine, ie that God acted in Christ on our behalf;
6. The way in which this doctrine is effective as an evangelical tool (especially in prisons); and
7. That it represents a truth that has been found to be worth dying for, eg with missionaries.

In some ways the conference could be summarised as an extended discussion and debate about whether this understanding of atonement was the right one.

Objections to the penal substitutionary theory
At the end of Dr Baxter’s talk I overheard one of the group leaders saying ‘I didn’t agree with a word of that!’, and certainly there was significant disagreement with this way of understanding the doctrine. The objections included the following:
1. The Early Church did not put great weight on this way of understanding salvation, if indeed they employed it at all (Frances Young, another keynote speaker, spoke eloquently on this point; see below);
2. It employs a very thin understanding of ‘sacrifice’; in the Old Testament, for example, the oldest root for the understanding of sacrifice is simply saying ‘thank you’ to God. The idea that sacrifice is fundamentally about appeasing the wrath of God is not true to Scripture; it is a development associated with the Temple; and a strong case can be made that Christ’s achievement was in large part about overturning that theology (see Tim Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance);
3. In particular, understanding the Eucharist through the lens of propitiatory sacrifice ignores the Passover context in which it is set. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – this is a reference to the passover sacrifice as described in Exodus, and the establishment of a new covenant community which is offered life through that sacrifice. So the sacrifice reflected in the Eucharist is an achievement of life, not an appeasement of divine wrath;
4. The character of God (the Father) portrayed in this doctrine seems in profound contradiction to the understanding of God (the Father) portrayed in Christ’s overall life and teaching; eg, in the Nicky Gumbel example above, God the Father is portrayed as a psychotic sadist, not the Father of prodigal sons;
5. The doctrine places violence at the heart of God’s activity in creation and redemption, and this carries through into the human activity of the church. So a culture which upholds the notion of penal substitution emphasises punishment as retribution, rather than notions of repentance, reconciliation, rehabilitation and restoration, all of which seem more Christian and grace-filled. Specifically, support for the death penalty is logically tied in with the notion of penal substitution, so if the death penalty is seen as anti-Christian, so too should the notion of penal substitution.

Alternative understandings of atonement
As Frances Young argued in her keynote talk, the idea that Christ was executed on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice in punishment for human sin is one that is, at best, marginal for the first thousand years of Christianity, and one that is largely unknown in the Orthodox tradition. It descends from the ‘objective’ account of atonement first put forward by St Anselm, whereby God’s honour and justice must be satisfied, but no human has the capacity to make such satisfaction – therefore God must become man. The early church’s understanding centred much more on ‘Christus Victor’ – that in Christ the ‘principalities and powers’ have been overcome, Satan’s hold over humanity in sin and death has been overthrown, and so the Christian is set free for the glorious liberty of the Children of God.

One contemporary account of atonement theory which was discussed is the ‘non-violent Christus Victor’ developed by J Denny Weaver, which seems to hold much potential. Specifically, the achievement of Christ on the cross is seen as being wholly consistent with his teaching and life, in that there is never a resort to violence or coercion, and that it is precisely in that loving approach that the principalities and powers are overcome – as much by exposure to the light as anything else. It is the resurrection that governs how we are to understand the cross, ie that the violence of the world is expressed on Good Friday, but that God’s sovereignty and love surpass that violence, and allow for creative resolutions of conflict within a community of reconciliation and redemption, which is the church. Without the resurrection the cross can only be interpreted through the ideology of wordly power and violence, and as a triumph for the world not for God. It is the resurrection that presents each believer with the choice of which way to follow – violence or non-violence?

There was no consensus at the end of the conference, although there was some agreement that the penal substitutionary theory should not be seen as the exclusive way to understand the atonement. If the atonement is the ‘crown jewel’ of Christian doctrine, then penal substitution is merely one facet.

A final analogy for understanding God’s wrath
I found the conference very useful as a means for clarifying my own thinking about the doctrine, and specifically for how it should be employed in teaching. In particular, my understanding of wrath has benefited. I was struck by the notion that although wrath in the Old Testament is personalised (ie it is always God’s wrath), in the New Testament it is more of an impersonal force. I find the following analogy, using terms taken from modern biology, quite helpful at present. 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.