I was privileged to spend some time today in a nearby Orthodox monastery, which did my soul the power of good, on all sorts of levels. The above is a photo that I took in their refectory (one of their refectories!) I plan to go back before too long. I was very struck by a quotation in an icon of St Nicodemus about humility, which I now can’t find, but I found this instead, which will serve:

Fanaticism can appear on two levels, individual and collective. On an individual level, fanaticism is bold in sick minds and psychologies. It stems from personal pride, lust for power over others. It says ‘I am right’, and therefore cuts itself off from all others in sectarian self-righteousness. It uses its supposed exclusive truth as an axe to grind, as a stick with which to beat others. It loves laws, behind which it can conceal its own insecurities. In saying that he alone is right, the fanatic is automatically wrong. The Saints never said that they were right. The signs of absence of fanaticism are peace, humility and love – not saying that one is right. Fanaticism and intolerance stem in fact from a weak faith, insecurity, and often affect neophytes, recent converts. True religion does not admit of fanaticism.

(found here, my emphasis)


This might seem paradoxical, but I suspect part of my drive in digging into PSA is a desire to find common ground with evangelicals. It’s one aspect of how and where I’ve grown in my understanding of the faith over the last few years because in person (and I accept that this may not come across on the blog!) I do seek consensus and common ground. I just find PSA virtually impossible to swallow. So it becomes like a pebble in the shoe – I just won’t get comfortable until I know what to do with it.

A different image: I feel like I am emerging out from underneath a heavy rock as I get stuck in to understanding evangelicalism. I still carry some wounds from early exposure to bad theology (bad evangelical theology). The trouble is, I see PSA as part of the rock and I still have to do some heavy lifting to get the rock off my back.

If PSA isn’t part of the rock then that is a good thing. But clearly – as at least Tim has realised 😉 – some of the issues at stake in all this aren’t simply about PSA! Ho hum. This blog – and my life – are works in progress.

Or: it’s not enough to be right, I have to be loving. I have become precisely that which I was criticising; I am mirroring the spirituality.

I am cursing the darkness when what I actually need to get on with is lighting candles.


Sometimes the search for the truth can become overbearing and oppressive, both internally and externally. A sign that the sense of proportion has been lost, and idolatry has been entered into.

Which is a way of saying I might change the direction that I was going in with my PSA posts…

A bit too much PSA

For today – too much PSA. Maybe a bit more tomorrow. In the meantime, two youtube video clips of tracks from the new Martyn Joseph album. He’s coming to Colchester soon!!! Yeah!

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.