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.