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.