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.