November 18, 2017

Rob Grayson: The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?

Geth CrucifixThe cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?
By Rob Grayson

Most Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.

However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.

If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does notmean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.

Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.

Understanding 1: Crime and punishment

If asked to explain how they understand the cross, a great many Christians – probably most – would answer using language something like this: Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins so we could be saved from the curse of death and hell and spend eternity with God. Of course, the actual words used may be different, but the underlying understanding of the significance of the cross would, in most cases, be something along these lines.

Now, if this is how we understand the cross, and if we believe that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ crucified, what does this understanding tell us about what we believe about God?

The most important thing to note is that little phrase paying the price. This is the language of commerce and exchange. What it usually indicates is that the event of the cross was a kind of transaction: some sort of divine deal was done in which the punishment due to us for our sins was transferred onto Jesus so that we could be released from our guilt. This has two major implications for what we believe about God.

First, this understanding requires us to believe that God deals with us on a transactional basis. After all, if that is how God is seen to operate at the central event of the cross, why should we expect him to behave differently in any other situation (unless, that is, we believe he’s fickle and unreliable)? If a price was paid at the cross, an important question to ask is who it was paid to – and there is only logical answer: it was paid to God. What we have here is the God of the quid pro quo, who insists that something must always be given before anything can be received. The something that must be given could be many things – obedience, time, money, evangelistic fervour… I could go on. (I note in passing that this is clearly the God of Deuteronomy 28, who doles out blessings in return for obedience to a set of prescribed rules and punishment in return for missteps.)

Second, central to this understanding of the cross is the notion of punishment, and central to that notion is the idea that the one meting out punishment is God. Within this paradigm, God is quite unmistakably a God who requires us to follow rules and who is compelled – nay, obliged – to punish us if we infringe them. And when I say punish, I’m not talking about a slap on the wrist. We know what the required punishment for transgression is, because it’s the punishment Jesus supposedly took in our place: death. And not just any old death, but the most gruesome, shameful death imaginable.

If this is how we understand the cross, then, the implication is that God opts to deal with his troublesome children on a transactional basis and decrees death to those who fail to keep their part of the bargain by living up to his impossibly high standards (which is what is usually understood by sin). The only escape is to believe (by which we mean rationally agree) that Jesus took our due punishment at the cross. If we accept that, it’s all good and we’re guaranteed a place in heaven.

I may be caricaturing a little here, but if I am then I’m only doing so to make a point: whether we’re aware of it or not, what we believe about the cross really does have clear, logical implications for what we believe about God. You can wrap it up in warm, fluffy language about love and forgiveness, but make no mistake: what’s inside the wrapper can be deadly.

There are other troubling implications we could draw out of this understanding of the cross, but for the sake of time we’ll confine ourselves to just these two. Let’s move on to briefly consider an alternative understanding of the cross.

Understanding 2: Submission and forgiveness

I used to understand the cross pretty much in the way I’ve described above. Now, however, I see it very differently.

First, for me, the cross is no longer the place where Jesus paid the price for my sin to God in the form of his life. Rather, the cross is the place where Jesus suffered the effects of humanity’s collective besetting sin – the sin of scapegoating violence. The wrath he assuaged by his death was ours, not God’s. The price he paid was the consequence of consistently speaking and living out the truth and refusing to play ball with the religious powers. And he paid it not at God’s hands but at the hands of humanity.

Second, where I used to believe that God’s required default response to sin was punishment, avoidable only by entering into the transaction of believing in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, I’m now passionately convinced that God has only one response to sin: forgiveness, full and free. Think about it. Humanity commits the worst possible atrocity, the apogee of violence: it murders God, and it does so in the most shameful and denigrating way possible. And how does God respond? Even as the nails are being driven into his flesh, Jesus responds by praying “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”. And when Jesus takes everyone by surprise by returning from the grave, he announces not vengeance and the threat of punishment, but shalom. Peace. He absorbs the worst of our sin and recycles it into forgiveness and peace.

The God we see revealed here, then, is a God who, in the words of Brian Zahnd, would rather die than kill his enemies. And he’s a God who would rather freely forgive even the very worst of our inhumanity and brutality than risk seeing us alienated and separated from him.

Do you see how beautiful this is, and how radically opposed it is to the first, more common understanding of the cross we looked at above?

Geth Cross Graves

Concluding thoughts

In the title to this post, I posed the question of whether the cross represents religious self-projection or radical discontinuity. I’d like to wrap up by explaining what I meant.

We are a violent race. You only have to look at history, or even at the world today, to see that. And we are hopelessly, thoroughly embedded in a transactional, exchange-based paradigm in which we demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. For all our talk of grace, we are generally so enmeshed in a transactional worldview that we can’t even see it.

This is why I contend that the crime and punishment view set out under Understanding 1 above doesn’t at all reflect what God is actually like. Rather, it is the projection onto God of what we are actually like. The God who engineers and oversees the payment of Jesus’ body and blood to divert his wrath away from his wayward children is not the Abba of Jesus: it is humanity on steroids. That’s what I mean when I say that, understood this way, the cross is a case of religious self-projection.

Conversely, the submission and forgiveness paradigm set out under Understanding 2 looks very different from how we humans typically think and act. It’s a view in which there’s no place for legal transactions; the only exchange on offer is one where we inflict violent death on God and he stubbornly insists on forgiving us and announcing peace to us in return. Far from being a picture of humanity on steroids, this conception of the cross represents a radical departure from the conventional human order of things. The God we see here is one of whom we can truly say that his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, the cross is the one place where all our false and misleading ideas about both God and ourselves are brought to naught. This can be a painful experience, especially when those ideas are ones we’ve held onto tightly for a long time. But isn’t it better to experience the pain of letting go than to stubbornly hold onto false ideas just because they’re familiar? Only by being prepared to risk letting go of such misconceptions can we gain the fresh ears we need to hear the wondrous news of just how good God really is.

So as Easter slowly approaches and the events of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death begin to come into focus, I encourage you to give some serious thought to how you understand the beautiful catastrophe that is the cross of Christ. And as you do so, ask the Father to show you whether you’ve really been seeing his tender, forgiving heart of love, or simply a reflection of your own very human inclinations.

Comments

  1. When you say that the God of crime and punishment is humanity on steroids, you are implying that humans are intrinsically just. That is just silly. “Eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth” implies a dispassionate objectivity that we are simply incapable of. We always believe we are wronged greater than we wrong. We never believe we deserve what we got coming, but the other guy always does. We are not impartial judges, and our ability to rationalize self-centered decisions is truly boundless.

    Humanity also does not always punish evil. We only like to punish evil against us. We all have evils that we celebrate.

    To reject penal sub is, in a sense, to insist that we do not have justice owed us by God. We were told in the garden that the fruit would kill us. Instead, God killed an animal and clothed our nakedness with its carcass. This is simultaneously crime and punishment, and forgiveness and submission. The wages of sin are death, but the slaughtered animal goes willingly to his death in our stead.

    At the heart of most objection to the brutality of the cross as an expression of divine justice is the insistence that our sin isn’t really that bad. We don’t have that much justice owed us by God, really. But the cross doesn’t only show us how God sees evil: It shows us what his children are worth to him.

    I am a staunch supporter of hybrid atonement theory. I think many of these views can be found in scripture, but few can be ruled out without ignoring vast portions of it. I am very skeptical of versions of Christianity that insist that only one is correct and the rest are wrong (penal sub in fundamentalism, moral influence in liberalism, etc…).

    As we shall be singing in just three days:

    Ye who think of sin but lightly
    Nor suppose the evil great
    Here may view its nature rightly,
    Here its guilt may estimate.
    Mark the sacrifice appointed,
    See who bears the awful load;
    ‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed,
    Son of Man and Son of God.

    • You know Miguel, I could probably sit here for hours and pore over books and the internet to find a nice systematic point by point and verse by verse refutation of your “theory”. There was a time years ago that I would have done that. But that time has come and gone. All I’m going to say here is that this one sentence of yours, “That is just silly”, just made me shake my head. Have a wonderful Easter.

      • It’s an odd thing, realizing that something I’ve spent thousands of hours in my life studying, theology…is basically stupid. It’s dumb. Arguing the details like Trekkies or D&D nerds, what is the real My Little Pony, how can Superman kill in Man of Steel, what happened with that trope on The 100…so dumb.

        But also, so important. Theology is defensive. It protects you from those who’d control and abuse you. It’s a two edged sword. One I can’t seem quite to lay down, because that wouldn’t mean laying down my life…it would mean ending my life.

        • It’s challenging to always keep Grace as the bottom line. It helps if the focus of our theology is Jesus himself, and things that the Gospels say he did and said.

          • Exactly. But those are all liberal things nowadays, not found inside most “dead lukewarm churches”.

    • Miguel, thanks for your comments.

      “When you say that the God of crime and punishment is humanity on steroids, you are implying that humans are intrinsically just.” No, I’m not. What I’m implying is that our idea of justice is vastly different from the kind of justice God pursues.

      • Is our sense of what is right and what is wrong also vastly different? Do you think God is unconcerned about the pain and suffering of a family whose beloved member is murdered, and not angered by the callousness of the murderer?

        I fear that this movement away from the penal substitution model of the Atonement is just as based on what some would like to perceive God to be, as they claim for those of us who do acknowledge penal substitution…

        • “Do you think God is unconcerned about the pain and suffering of a family whose beloved member is murdered, and not angered by the callousness of the murderer?” Of course I don’t think that. I believe God is deeply grieved and angered by such things. The question is what he does with that grief and anger.

          • If at least part of it isn’t focused on the guilty party, how just could that be?

          • Eeyore,

            Certainly part of the focus is on the guilty party. In the Cross we see how God dealt with that guilt; “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

            “The point is this: if God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe-all theodicies and nearly all theologians to the contrary-evil is where we meet God. Maybe he isn’t bothered by showing up dirty for his dates as creation. Maybe-just maybe-if we ever solved the problem, we have talked ourselves out of a lover.”

            Robert Farrar Capon, The Third Peacock

          • Excellent RFC quote, Tom!

          • Love me some RFC! And he’s not saying here that God is not going to make evil go away but that it’s just not our problem to try to fix. Isn’t that what Paul writes in Romans 12?:

            “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

          • Tom:

            I wasn’t talking about *our* sense of justice, but God’s – and I never attached any timetables to it. 😉

          • The question is what he does with that grief and anger.

            Brutally murders a male virgin? Appoints a divine punching bag to lash out at with all his anger for a brief time? Constantly holds that over our heads every time we look up?

            Nah.

        • movement away from the penal substitution model of the Atonement

          How can this be, when historically, we can prove someone made up this model. Moving away from it is actually going backwards to primitive or base or fundamental Christianity.

          Moving away from penal sub model is akin to (within the story) Josiah finding the Law and reading it to the people. It’s reminding them of what they used to believe and were before it all went wrong. How can that be a bad thing?

          • Not a bad analogy, but not that simple. All “atonement theories” were developed by the church after scripture, as a way to trying to understand it. I think atonement theory is one of the most important places for a little ecumenical liberality.

    • I think many of these views can be found in scripture, but few can be ruled out without ignoring vast portions of it.

      Or wishing them away. You can argue from the text that the world was not created in six literal days, that this or that mode of baptism is acceptable, or even make a distinction between homosexual relationships. But you cannot disbar penal substitution entirely and still keep any sense of major swaths of *both* testaments.

  2. Also,

    The God we see revealed here, then, is a God who, in the words of Brian Zahnd, would rather die than kill his enemies. And he’s a God who would rather freely forgive even the very worst of our inhumanity and brutality than risk seeing us alienated and separated from him.

    And yet, God kills everyone. He cursed the earth, flung us from Eden, and appointed a time for all to die. He isn’t the God of one or the other. He is simultaneously beautiful, tender, and merciful, but also terrible, fierce, and consuming. It does not become his children to ignore those of His attributes that we do not like.

    Christ, as the incarnate Word and visible image, is the last word of God’s true nature, showing us who God is to his children. But to those who are not in Christ, for whom Jesus is not their brother, this final Word they will not have. Yes, he does freely forgive everybody of all sin. Except one.

    • I used to believe in that God too. No more.

      • Then what do we do with the Bible that chronicles all these things, attributes them to God, and calls Him just for doing so?

        I may have lost most of my abrasive edge and Calvinist convictions, but this I do and still believe – that God is holy, and humanity is twisted and evil at heart. I see too much evidence for this crossing my desk day in and day out to dismiss it. I will certainly open my view to the Atonement encompassing more than justicial payment for our sin, but I refuse to exclude it. To do otherwise is for US to put God on trial for His actions, and that, if anything is, is totally unacceptable.

        • “Then what do we do with the Bible that chronicles all these things, attributes them to God, and calls Him just for doing so?” That, as they say, is the question.

          I’ve come to believe that the Bible is a divinely inspired but very human collection of ideas about God, humanity and the often uneasy relationship between the two. It’s the record of a long, uneven and scattered conversation about God. As an Orthodox theologian friend memorably said, “The Bible is inspired, but it’s the inspired record of our journey towards understanding a God we didn’t get”. One of the implications of this view is that just because the Bible attributes certain attitudes and/or actions to God, that doesn’t mean they are actually God’s attitudes and actions. They often say more about our (i.e. humanity’s) own condition and thoughts about God than they do about God himself.

          • Robert F says:

            Taken in isolation, some parts of the Bible are only inspired by the writers’ concepts of a wrathful, violent deity.

          • Who are we to say that there is no wrath in God?

          • Robert F says:

            According to the Gospels, Jesus did display some wrath, it’s true; what he did not display was the sort of petty, frightened, insecure, I-will-have-my-pound-of-flesh wrath of an all-too-human tyrant that the Bible too frequently attributes to God. I think it’s this pettiness and smallness of character that bothers me most. It makes God seem scared, as all human tyrants are.

          • Exactly, Robert F.

          • You believe the Bible is a collection of ideas about God, some of which are right, and some of which are wrong, and you set yourself up as the ultimate arbiter of which is which. That does make you more inspired than the Biblical authors.

          • That does make you more inspired than the Biblical authors.

            Which is precisely what each new biblical author did as well…

            The idea that the Bible is a unified collective whole here is an issue. It’s not, never has been, except in print. That’s the reality, that’s the truth, that’s the fact.

            Saying the whole thing collectively is inspired, that’s a faith/theological distinction.

        • God is holy, and humanity is twisted and evil at heart. I see too much evidence for this crossing my desk day in and day out to dismiss it.

          God is often at best a reflection of humanity. We’re describing the unknown, the invisible. Everyone puts a piece of themselves into him, and it’s reflected in the scriptures. Just as man is evil and twisted at heart, so too is God at times. Just as God is holy, so too is man at times.

          Just the way it is.

          And to that I say, amen. That’s gospel right there.

          • I am still enough of an Augustinian and Calvinist to insist that we reflect God, not vice versa. 😉

      • Right, the God of the scriptures is rather offensive and inconvenient to accept as is. We’ve got to scrub his hands with our purer ideology, don’t we?

        • “You believe the Bible is a collection of ideas about God, some of which are right, and some of which are wrong, and you set yourself up as the ultimate arbiter of which is which.”

          Careful, Miguel. Where did I set myself up as the ultimate arbiter of anything? I set out my understanding, which I believe is credible and has merit, and I tried to do so with conviction. No one is obliged to agree.

          • When I first began hearing a friend or two talking as you now believe, Rob, I was worried about them. I didn’t necessarily think “that’s heresy,” but I believed it was a dangerous drift in theology.

            But now, as I find myself believing the same thing, I’m glad that they shared those thoughts with me and I’m glad there are other like-minded believers. You never know…maybe some day Miguel will understand potential truth in this thinking.

          • Rob, you set your self up as arbiter when you decide which portions of Scripture you accept as eternally true, and which portions you write off as human err, primitive thinking, or human projection onto God. In other words, the portions you like describe God accurately, the ones you do not like, you explain away.

            How is that not making yourself the final arbiter?

            Rick, I’m not afraid to engage this kind of thinking. I just think it is self contradictory. It appeals to the text to paint an image of God, and then it uses that image to explain why other parts of the text are wrong.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            I was afraid to engage in that kind of thinking, too, at one time. But here’s the thing…we must somehow reconcile the contradictory statements made about God in the scriptures. Is He loving and forgiving and mercy, or is He wrath and anger and judgment?

            If He’s BOTH, then He’s clearly outside of whatever box I try to fit Him inside. I know the Bible is a great description of who God is and lays out all the whys and hows and whens and whats, but ultimately it’s just a box (I’d argue that using words to describe God is a limiting factor, just like a box), a box made of words that people were inspired to write to describe Him. But because PEOPLE wrote those words, I have a sense that some of those words are how THEY see God, but not exactly who or how God IS.

            I could be right, I could be wrong, but that’s where I’m at these days. I’m thankful God loves me despite my potential error in theology.

          • “Rob, you set your self up as arbiter when you decide which portions of Scripture you accept as eternally true, and which portions you write off as human err, primitive thinking, or human projection onto God. In other words, the portions you like describe God accurately, the ones you do not like, you explain away.

            How is that not making yourself the final arbiter?”

            Newsflash: I am the final arbiter of my own thinking, as are you of yours. You can tell yourself you aren’t, but that doesn’t change the facts. I am not pronouncing judgment or bringing accusations of heresy against anyone who disagrees with me; I am simply setting forth what I believe.

            And you are dead wrong about how and why I interpret scripture the way I do.

          • Rob, I’m trying to wrap my head around it. Bear with me:
            “just because the Bible attributes certain attitudes and/or actions to God, that doesn’t mean they are actually God’s attitudes and actions. They often say more about our (i.e. humanity’s) own condition and thoughts about God than they do about God himself.”
            How is that not saying that the text is untrue on some points, and we can tell what they are?

            Of course we are the final arbiter of our own thinking. But you are claiming to make distinctions between portions of the scriptural text that are true, and those that are human err. Am I wrong there?

            Nobody is saying you’re a heretic. I just don’t understand on what grounds you claim to decide which portions of the Bible are believable and which are simply a reflection of someone’s evolving perspective (and thus technically incorrect). Because how I see this rhetoric used 99 out of 100 times is to downplay inconvenient teaching, and the consistent use of it can be used to overturn nearly anything the scriptures claim.

          • I was watching one of SFDebris’ reviews of a DS9 episode last night. He mentioned the Klingons were a lot like the story of Lancelot. Lancelot was hitting the king’s wife on the side, and some would call him an adulterer. Lancelot would stand up and loudly declare combat to the death for anyone who accused him of that. So he’d fight and kill anyone who called him an adulterer.

            So was Lancelot an adulterer? No. Because anyone who called him that died.

            Where did I set myself up as the ultimate arbiter of anything?

            You dared to disagree. Who gave you that permission? Must have been yourself. You are now ultimate arbiter.

          • Miguel, you’ll forgive me if I decline to pursue this discussion with someone who appears not to be open to considering other viewpoints without making judgements. Plus, it’s getting late here (in the UK) and my brain is getting tired.

          • Feel free to tap out if your tired and busy. But it seems you’re pretty certain about what kind of person I am.

            In the years I’ve been coming here, I’ve probably had my mind changed and my perspective evolved more than most. It literally altered the course of my vocation and transplanted me on the other side of the U.S. The paradigm shifts I’ve gone through as a result of these discussions have cost me.

            If I wasn’t interested, why bother engaging? Oh, that’s right. I’m just here to prove how correct I am.

          • Miguel, you have my apology. I was less than gracious in the way I responded to you here, and for that I’m truly sorry. I was tired, but that’s no excuse.

          • No worries, Rob. I don’t take these things personally. As I said below, gentleness and respect is the ideal for these discussions, and it can be very hard to do sometimes. I have no trouble overlooking when it isn’t extended to me, because I know that often in my zeal to get to the root of the question, I can be more provocative than necessary. This continues to be a good place for me to learn that (Robert F usually leads the way).

            You’ve started an outstanding discussion here that is challenging and stretching my thinking. I appreciate it, even if when my rhetoric is aggressive.

          • STUART!!!!
            You’re killing me, bro! Again with the Sci-Fi analogies. Just when things are starting to get serious, you always go there!

            It’s like bringing a rubber chicken to a knife fight.

            You know who else used Sci-Fi analogies to parse controversial issues? Hitler. That’s right.

          • Thanks, Miguel. I appreciate your gracious response.

        • WHICH God of the Scriptures? Which Scriptures?

          • The God described in the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments. That’s what we have to work with traditionally speaking.

          • Neither of which are a collective unified harmonized whole…

          • Never said they were. Just that that is what we have received.

          • Although to be honest, Eeyore, that is a completely arbitrary circumscription.

          • In what sense? Every Christian tradition has always held Scripture as a key revelation of God’s person and plan to the world. What other inputs did you have in mind?

          • Eeyore, you wrote, The God described in the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments. That’s what we have to work with traditionally speaking.
            Except it isn’t. It depends on what tradition you are talking about, what scripture you are talking about, and what interpretation of scripture you are talking about. For starters, there are the disparate Christianities of the first three centuries that have since mostly died out. Then there is the Apocrypha. And then there are the stories of saints and other traditions that the majority of Christians throughout time and space have held to. And then of course, you have cultural context. All of these things influence what a person thinks about god. And while a god could be objectively ding an sich, the only objective revelation of the Christian god is Jesus, who is (obviously) absent in the OT, and who is understood through multiple lenses in the New. Which means that subjective approbation essentially becomes the definition of god. Which is probably why the prophets in the OT obviously worship different gods.

        • Patrick Kyle says:

          Exactly Miguel,

          This is a ‘roll your own’ god and spirituality. Who’s to say the ‘nice parts’ of the bible aren’t the human interpolation, and the ‘mean parts’ are the truth? Given the way the world actually is, this holds as much merit as the views set forth in the article above. It sounds like a bunch of wishful thinking to me. I find it convenient that those who hold to the above view also ignore Jesus’ very harsh words about judgement and hell. The text becomes clay in the hands of these interpreters, they pull away or excise those lumps that don’t fit into their ‘creation.’ It’s fundamentally dishonest, maintaining that they can separate out what is human schlock versus what is divinely inspired by God. If the text is such a mish mash why hold it in such esteem? Any number of stoic or Buddhist texts would seem to be much more compelling.

          • If every word, every single world, of this Book isn’t absolutely and totally true, from cover to cover, well then I tell you it’s not worth diddly-squat! (preacher throws oversized Bible onto stage at his feet, with much energy) Just throw it away! You might as well just throw it away! IT’S WORTHLESS!!

          • Patrick Kyle says:

            Robert,
            Easier to defend that than what the author of the essay is implying. The problem with a lot of you guys is you just flat out don’t believe the Scriptures. “Has God really said….?” It’s also why I rarely frequent this blog anymore. Most of the discussion revolves around ‘things I no longer believe’ and to hell with the text.

            I suppose it’s my own fault for periodically checking back and expecting things to get better…

          • Patrick, istm that you’re missing Rob’s points, and those that some other commenters (Dana Ames in particular) are msking. Rob isn’t saying anything new – this goes back close to 1500 years, at very least. But it is not the wsy evsngelicals view yhe stonement, or any other group thst puts PSA out there as the sole understanding of the cross.

            I do believe in substitutionary stonement, but not in PSA. Substitutionary goes bsck to the early centuries of the church. And i am just not able to accept the picture of a wrathful, angry God that do many believe in – that i once belived in. It is just plain contrary to so much in Scripture – the thing is, I’m no longer in a strict evangelical environment. Being out of there has given me the freedom to think, explore, ask questions, and wonder about all of this. I think many here who were in fundagelical environments aren’t any longer, hence the various shifts in thinking. Agree or disagree isn’t the point, really, so much as is discussion, pondering, looking at thinks we *thought* we knew but have perhaps misunderstood. All of this is a logical consequence of going from a post-e wilderness to other ways of interpetation and belief.

            Thank God that there is nothing about PSA in the ecumenical creeds!

          • That so many believed in…

            Tablet/phone typing can be maddening. Please excuse all my typos.

          • What numo said sums things up rather well.

            Patrick Kyle, try dialling back the judgmental overtones. They don’t look good on you.

          • Patrick Kyle says:

            numo, ” i am just not able to accept the picture of a wrathful, angry God that do many believe in – that i once believed in. It is just plain contrary to so much in Scripture” The question becomes ‘Which Scripture?’ The nice, meek, God, without any wrath is also contrary to so much in Scripture. If you have given up trying to reconcile/harmonize the complete picture of God presented in the Scriptures then by necessity, you have to arbitrarily choose which view you believe in. And the choice is arbitrary, based on personal preference. I wouldn’t be as bothered with it if people could just admit it. But instead they claim that this choice is ‘Truth’ based on the Scriptures, unlike those other mean, nasty, chunks of the bible and attendant interpretations.

            Rob, no judgemental overtones here. You have plainly stated what you think and in doing so have dismissed or radically reinterpreted passages like Isaiah 53. If you don’t believe those parts, then you don’t believe them. What can I say?

          • @ Robert:
            The preacher in your scenario is actually wielding a copy of Moby Dick. Just in case, CYA, he can always say “I never threw the Bible.”

            @Numo,
            I’d like to learn a bit more about non-penal substitution. FWIW I think PSA exclusivity is going extinct. Modern ecumenical dialogue and technology driven dissemination of information is bringing together these kinds of conversation where people realize that atonement theories aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and discovering a new one for the first time is always eye opening.

            But how can you maintain that a wrathful God is contrary to scripture? It just isn’t so. Sure, he is the complete opposite in some places, but he is absolutely shown to be very wrathful, in both testaments. It may be hard to wrap our mind around how someone could be wrathful at times and good, but you certainly can’t say the text NEVER portrays God as wrathful. You can say that the nice parts overrule those, but then you’re claiming that the wrathful descriptions (including Jesus wielding a whip) are untrue. So you’re arguing against the text and then saying the text never argued with you.

            I get it if people need a break with the overly wrathful, manipulative God of fundamentalism. It’s hard for us as humans to understand what righteous anger truly is, completely free from the flaws of impatience, insecurity, frustration, and ulterior motive. But wrath is a just response to evil, and I think we can trust the benevolent God revealed to us in Jesus to use it at the right way, in the right time. I fully support his driving out of the money changers. “Come on, now Jesus, don’t you think you’re maybe overreacting here just a little bit?” …some wrath-o-phobic theologies would seem to say to him. There is such a thing as righteous anger, however evasive it is for humans to maintain, and I can not imagine a God that has none of it. Not with all the evil in this world.

          • Rob, it kinda looks like you’re saying that people who disagree and push back on your ideas are judgmental. Pat has challenged your ideas, not your character.

          • Patrick, I’m happy with “radically reinterpreted”.

          • Dana Ames says:

            Miguel,

            if you want to learn about non-penal, go to Fr Stephen’s blog and read. He talks about it a lot. His latest post, in fact, discusses it.

            N.T. Wright holds to non-penal substitution. Try one or some of his shorter books, particularly “Surprised by Hope.”

            Dana

          • Miguel, I am absolutely not saying that those who disagree and push back are judgmental. However, statements like “you just flat out don’t believe the Scriptures” and “to hell with the text” are unfair judgements based on mistaken assumptions. As I said to Patrick in the comment I just left, I’m happy to be “accused” of radically reinterpreting some scripture, but not of flat out rejecting them and saying “to hell with them”.

          • I see. It’s just very difficult, at times, to tell the difference between some reinterpretations that are so radical they do the text little justice, and simply sidestepping what the text actually claims with a theory of inspiration that provides the contingency that any part of the text could possibly be just human opinion (which seems like a nice way of saying “flat out incorrect”).

          • Patrick – How do you deal with tedts like “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” then?

            Robert Farrar Capon’s books on the parables might intrigue you, actually. I highly recommend them.

          • @ Miguel

            Yes Fr Freeman’s blog has had some good stuff. I might also suggest Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood, Saved From Sacrifice by Mark Heim, Stricken by God? (which is a compilation) by Brad Jersak/Michael Hardin.

          • A few others:

            -Salvation And How We Got It Wrong – Kenneth Myers (Anglican)
            -I’ve seen a lot of great quotes by Herbert McCabe (Catholic) over the last few weeks – his book “God Matters”. Jason Micheli at Tamed Cynic has been posting quotes. These, to me, aren’t complementary to PSA but suggest a different view when it comes to the particulars.

            Virtually all traditions have something to say to this.

        • WHICH “God of the Scriptures”, Miguel?

        • Joe Deutsch says:

          Miguel,

          This is mostly about some things you wrote below in an exchange with Rob, but I can’t reply there. You inferred from what he said that he was saying somethings in the Bible are true and some aren’t, and that Rob set himself up as the one who decides which is which. I don’t mean to speak for Rob, but I don’t see it that way. I am developing this same sort of view as Rob myself and don’t yet know how to put it all together, but for me what you’re inferring is a false position. When someone says that scripture is a record of people’s thought about God and that some are really what God is like and some aren’t necessarily what God is like, that doesn’t mean that the record is not true. That IS what the writer was thinking about God and/or what that person thinks God is like at the particular moment in history when it was recorded/edited/preserved. For me, it’s true, and God wanted me to know about it, so He saw to it that it was recorded. It doesn’t have to ultimately be what God is actually like for the record to be true.

      • Amen

    • “And yet, God kills everyone. He cursed the earth, flung us from Eden, and appointed a time for all to die.”

      This assumes that humans were created immortal and that was taken from us. Perhaps we were created mortal and were offered immortality, but forfeited that in the garden. Perhaps death is the natural result of sin and grace is the ‘option’. The statement above makes a lot of assumptions that are also questioned regularly.

      • Regardless of your reading of Genesis, the wages of sin is death, one way or another.

        • “Regardless of your reading of Genesis, the wages of sin is death, one way or another.” That may be so, but how we understand that little phrase “the wages of sin” is critically important.

          • Agreed. And look at Jesus. He didn’t even sin, yet he suffered death on the cross. Apparently “the wages of sinlessness” is death, too.

          • “[…] according to the Gospel, love is just a recipe for getting yourself crucified.”

            — Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart

          • Seriously, Rick? You just missed the whole point of the argument, which is that Christ took our death in our stead.

            Yes, Capon, no good deed goes unpunished.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Admittedly, that statement was meant to be more provocative than what I necessarily believe, but it is curious that in order to take care of the “wages of sin” for us sinners God would choose to take out the only one who NEVER sinned. It gets back to a comment I made a short while back: Who, when their child does something wrong, says, “Someone must pay the price,” and then kicks their dog who’s innocently standing nearby, then says, “There, that’s done”…?

          • Funny, it’s almost as though he was exactly like a lamb without blemish and without spot….

          • That’s a clear analogy, Rick.

            We don’t punish our children, we discipline them for their betterment. It is done out of love for their good, because we care about our children and want them to grow into mature, responsible adults.

            The cross isn’t that. Jesus didn’t come to whip us into shape to be morally better children of God. He came because we were enemies of God who hated him. The power of his sacrificial love for God’s enemies turns those enemies into friends.

            The cross doesn’t make God the Father into a dog-kicking scapegoater. It makes Jesus into the older brother who give you his milk when you spill yours.

            But sin is so much deeper than spilled milk.

            I don’t know if I can come up with a good analogy, though.

          • Apparently “the wages of sinlessness” is death, too.

            s

            Wait, no…no, Jesus was totally sin, he was pure sin, God magically put all the sin of all time both past and present (except what you just did, young man, get on your knees and repent) on Jesus when he was on the cross! Voila, all of sin and death and entropy and damnation magically forgiven in one brief glorious moment!

            /s

            ugh

          • Wait up. Are you saying that you DON’T want your sins forgiven because of Christ?

        • Miguel wrote;

          “Seriously, Rick? You just missed the whole point of the argument, which is that Christ took our death in our stead.”

          Seriously Miguel, that is not the point of what happened on the cross–however that is the point of PSA.

          The Incarnation is God’s gift to us. The crucifixion is our work against God.

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      So, an image of God that is fickle and vindictive, arbitrarily angry and willing to die to save the people from the destruction He wants to wreak on them? I think you’re confusing God with some sort of an all-powerful Gollum. Or as a parent who beats you for spilling cereal but then works overtime to get you into college.

      Is it too far removed from the realm of possibility that the stories in the Bible from which you get this image of God were written by people who were describing God in terms of the limited perspective that they could sense or perceive within their own frame of reference? As a result, God is never fully described enough for you to conclusively talk about him like he’s an abusive husband. All the writers who have written about him can only try to make the connection based off of where they are at in place and time.

      I’m just saying, right now, the god you’re referencing sounds like an abusive parent or husband, and I don’t see how you plan to convince anyone that this being a) exists, or b) deserves our worship. This person that you’re describing sounds more like a human being than a divine eternal Presence.

      • Or as a parent who beats you for spilling cereal but then works overtime to get you into college.

        I stone you because I love you. This hurts me more than you. Just remember this next time.

        This person that you’re describing sounds more like a human being than a divine eternal Presence.

        The final expression of the Old Testament God is revealed in Jesus, right? Kinda scary to think about; maybe the Romans did us a favor before he got too big and powerful.

      • So, an image of God that is fickle and vindictive, arbitrarily angry and willing to die to save the people from the destruction He wants to wreak on them? I think you’re confusing God with some sort of an all-powerful Gollum. Or as a parent who beats you for spilling cereal but then works overtime to get you into college.

        I don’t think God wants to wreak destruction on anybody. Neither is he fickle, vindictive, or arbitrary if he punishes evil. That’s called being just. You aren’t seriously saying that evil should never be punished. I know few who behave that way towards those who sin against them. And nobody should behave that way when the weak are trampled.

        Is it too far removed from the realm of possibility that the stories in the Bible from which you get this image of God were written by people who were describing God in terms of the limited perspective that they could sense or perceive within their own frame of reference?

        Of course, this is a possible idea. But you know what’s more possible? That we are highly presumptuous to pat ourselves on the back for not having such a limited perspective as the authors of scripture. It is entirely possible that they were wrong about some things, and in our enlightenment we know better than they did. Aside from the challenge of determinacy (how do we know when to take their word?), there is the simple fact that Jesus was not too enlightened for the OT. I think we would do well to follow the lead of how the NT treats the OT, unless we’re also too enlightened for the words of Christ and the Apostles as recorded and handed down through the centuries.

        As a result, God is never fully described enough for you to conclusively talk about him like he’s an abusive husband. All the writers who have written about him can only try to make the connection based off of where they are at in place and time.

        I do not think that is the inevitable result of believing the entire text is true. I believe that is a caricature of Biblical integrity progressives whip out to justify theological innovation. If the authors are just making connections, how are we any better off than they for having their texts?

        Or is it even remotely possible that God has SOMETHING to do with the authorship and compiling of the canon, and we can take its teaching to the bank, even as we wrestle over how best to understand it?

        Where does the God I’m referencing sound like an abusive parent? Because he cursed the earth in the fall of man? I suppose he should have just said, “That’s ok, it’s only a fruit” when they sinned. Or maybe it isn’t that simplistic, and the story is meant to help us wrestle with a world in which sin, death, and the devil appear to have dominion, yet somehow, God calls this bad and does something about it.

        You are going to die, and God isn’t going to stop that, even though he theoretically could. He didn’t have to let us be born mortal. Perhaps that’s where the issue lies: Who gives God the right to take back life from his creation?

        Death exists, and it is bad. So either God has passively allowed it for a time (in response to sin?), or he is powerless to stop it, or he just don’t care. One of those is a monster, but I don’t think it’s the first.

        • Marcus Johnson says:

          Okay, lots of stuff to unpack here:

          Sure, I want to see evil punished, and I think there are some forms of evil that are so great that no human means of punishment will be good enough for me. It is an incredibly insulting and stupid argument to argue that I would, as though it hasn’t occurred to me before. But that doesn’t prove your point. The God you’re talking about automatically assumes everyone is evil by default, so all are headed for eternal destruction (which, granted, God might not want or enjoy, but that does nothing for the person headed for the same hell as the serial rapist because they didn’t seek forgiveness for the cookie that they stole back in the sixth grade). I love the story of redemption and salvation, but one in which God saves us by saving the world, not by rescuing us individuals from individual death sentences because of individual crimes. Jesus’ sacrifice was much more of a cosmic event than that.

          As far as inspiration, I have no problem whatsoever in believing that God was behind the authorship of the Bible, but he was behind its authorship, not the author itself. Inspiration does not necessarily mean dictation, and it is much more feasible to assume that people used stories and poetry and letters to describe profound encounters and complex questions, and that someone else put those stories into written form, and then someone else years later put those written texts into one book. Sure, let’s take it to the bank, but I would no more presume that cash and checks are the same than I would that inspiration and dictation are the same thing.

          And I certainly don’t believe that I am smarter than the creators of the Biblical narratives, but I do have the benefit of being able to see all of their work compiled into one book. It’s not presumptive to claim that I have a different perspective because I can put Paul’s writings up against Joel’s and David’s, when John and Peter couldn’t. If anything, that makes them wiser and more inspired than me, because they could communicate truths about the nature of God and man with far fewer resources than I have. I also don’t think that they were wrong, as much as that they reflected the evolutionary stage of truth in which God wanted them to be in at that time. Because I take that approach, I don’t have to defend commandments to stone people for gathering sticks or narratives where someone drops dead for being irreverent; I can talk about them as stories that reflect historical lenses and individual experiences, and make the connection to how God has moved through time and in imperfect people. Go ahead and presume that the truths presented in the Bible have no anchor in history or culture, but it makes more sense to assume that God works through real, imperfect people with specific messages for specific populations in different histories.

      • Joe Deutsch says:

        Yes!

  3. Danielle says:

    “When you say that the God of crime and punishment is humanity on steroids, you are implying that humans are intrinsically just.”

    I don’t see any statement in Rob’s article suggesting that humans are intrinsically just. I took the point to be that we humans live in transactional, often violent world of crime-and-punishment. As you hinted and as I’ll affirm, our crime-and-punishment world is also one we also clearly do not govern particularly well, but like to think we can maintain and manipulate to our own advantages.

    I take Rob to be asking if this might not, as such grand manipulation-schemes tend to do, sneak over into our view of God.

    • Thanks, Danielle.

    • we humans live in transactional, often violent world of crime-and-punishment.

      If only. All too often, the guilty go free and enjoy the fruits of their actions. That includes us too, BTW…

      • Eeyore, would you feel better if the guilty all received appropriate punishment?

        • No, because I am counted among the guilty. But at some point, feelings don’t enter into it. Is our sense of morality derived from our image of God, or is it not? Is everything we dislike about the image of God as given to us in the Bible to be brushed off as “human contamination”, or do we wrestle with it and accept the limitations of our mortal understanding – as we rationalists are constantly reminded by you kind non-rationalists? 😉

          • Robert F says:

            I’m unwilling to completely write off the idea of substitution, and God’s wrath at injustice; if there is some mysterious way in which they are true, a way that I can’t grasp, so be it: I can accept that.

            What I can’t accept is the too frequent depiction of God throughout the Bible, mostly in the Old but some in the New Testament, as a petty, vain, self-centered monarch who, under the pretext of being just, actually uses the most horrendous violence to secure his own position and supremacy. I see little of this in the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels, or in the Epistles or Acts; wherever I do see it, in Old or New Testament, I attribute it to the human insecurity and fear of the writers and redactors, not to God. I’m familiar with such insecurity and fear, because I share it myself.

          • Eeyore ask;

            “Is our sense of morality derived from our image of God, or is it not?”

            Yes, and it’s been twisted and warped because we’ve re-imaged God in our image. (Cred to Oscar Wilde)

          • “Is our sense of morality derived from our image of God, or is it not? Is everything we dislike about the image of God as given to us in the Bible to be brushed off as “human contamination”, or do we wrestle with it and accept the limitations of our mortal understanding – as we rationalists are constantly reminded by you kind non-rationalists?”

            Eeyore, my whole point in this post is that when we flatly accept that God uses violence and vengeance to execute justice (“because the Bible says so”), we are operating at a human level and projecting our own fears and limitations onto God. A God who does not resort to such strategies is indeed a God whose ways are higher than our ways.

          • The problem I have with it – and you will have to forgive me for starting with my own point of reference rather than a ‘thus saith’ approach – is that it seems to me that if you were to hurt me, esp. if the wrong were very serious, and I obtained a perfect judgement against you, and that judgement were to be that you were to be punished in the worst ways or destroyed utterly, the most I could hope to gain from it is vindication. I might hope that the this judgement against you would set the world right. But I don’t believe it would ultimately set the world right; the world wouldn’t be made a “just place,” if by just we mean “as it ought to be”. The hole clawed in the fabric of things by our conflict – by whatever the fallout had been – by the harm I sustained (and most likely, that you sustained as well) – it would still be there. Frankly, the judgement seems like a poor substitute for or an intermediate step toward a new reality where the harm has been repaired.

            Is my desire for vindication actually an expression of my own pain? If so, if I were actually to be healed (if things became, in the end, alright with me), would I really need the judgement to extend onward? Wouldn’t it become instead a source of grief to me? I wonder.

            Don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for rules and “justice”; it’s just that I see them as having temporary, instrumental value and not essential or eternal value. It just seems to me that we are all, in a sense, parts of each other, so that it’s very hard to imagine a solitary salvation that means a lick for me in the end, if it does not restore the broken relationships that comprise who “I” am.

            What I think substitution atonement might do a good job addressing, and the complementary Biblical imagery as well, is the human need for reward and punishment and with the sense of legal and personal guilt. These are real, not imagined, needs. But I’ll venture an idea: if the law is a schoolmaster, then maybe justice according to the law is a schoolmaster as well; neither is void or pointless or bad. But neither is anything more than a guide into or toward something else beyond them. Signs, not the thing itself. Signposts, pointing in a direction.

          • What I think substitution atonement might do a good job addressing, and the complementary Biblical imagery as well, is the human need for reward and punishment and with the sense of legal and personal guilt.

            So God has no sense of wanting to reward righteousness and punish wickedness?

        • When its you’re loved ones who are murdered, it isn’t easy to see the murderer walking around free in society. Neither is it right. This isn’t petty vindictiveness, it is justice, plain and simple. The NT is full of table-turning justice, where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and those they trampled are lifted up. It is a good thing when wrongs are set right. The cross is about so much more than Jesus merely turning the other cheek.

          • Burro [Mule] says:

            What if the murderer is walking around scot-free in the Kingdom of Heaven, smiling like a cat?

            This is not an academic pursuit for me. A woman who wounded my wife’s family deeply, going so far as to hire a contract rapist to violate my mother in law, repented of her misdeeds and asked forgiveness of my wife’s family before she died.

            She was wealthy, did not suffer in life, and had a relatively peaceful death. Her hatred of my wife’s family was motivated primarily by envy, a besetting sin of my wife’s country. Some of my wife’s sisters feel she got off very easily, and that her penitence was not “genuine” enough.

            Unless my sisters-in-law can find the resources to forgive this woman, Heaven will be Hell for them.

          • Yes, forgiveness is an absolute necessity of the kingdom.

            It doesn’t therefore follow that all such people ought to live peacefully insulated from the temporal consequences of their abuse of others. That is a confusion of the two kingdoms.

            No matter how much personal forgiveness is given between victim and offender, and between offender and God, we still owe mercy to the victims, too. It is one thing to let something go, it is another to have it constantly rubbed in your face.

            The cat smiler in heaven isn’t that. I’m a firm believer that God has enough grace for Hitler. It doesn’t therefore follow that we should not have defeated his army. There were wrongs, in the temporal realm, that were good and right for us to address, as best as we are able.

            The cat smiler in heaven is there because of penal sub: Christ paid for his sin on the cross, just like everyone else there. Believe me, he’ll be happy to be there, he won’t be rubbing it in your face that he got away with it. Those people aren’t getting in.

          • “The cat smiler in heaven is there because of penal sub: Christ paid for his sin on the cross, just like everyone else there. Believe me, he’ll be happy to be there, he won’t be rubbing it in your face that he got away with it. Those people aren’t getting in.”

            And there we have it. That’s great… as long as you’re not one of “those people”. Penal sub underpins an economy of merit in which there is always an in group and an out group. And it’s funny how “those people” – the ones who “aren’t getting in” – always look, sound, think, act and believe differently from “my group”.

          • Burro [Mule] says:

            I remember something on an Orthodox website somewhere saying that we should be praying for mercy and salvation for all men, even the unrepentant, because that is the only way that I, the king of sinners, will obtain salvation.

          • “The NT is full of table-turning justice, where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and those they trampled are lifted up. It is a good thing when wrongs are set right. The cross is about so much more than Jesus merely turning the other cheek.”

            Thank you, Miguel. You nailed it.

          • No, Rob, you’re still not getting “sola fide.” There is no merit. “Those people” are not great sinners. They are unbelievers, that’s all. “Those people” are left out because they are unbelievers. The faithful in paradise aren’t grinning to themselves that they got away with as much as they could and still made it in. They’re just happy to be there and grateful for the grace that covered them.

            This is SO not about tribalism. Heaven will be the most diverse place there has ever been. The criteria isn’t “people like me.” You’re having a turkey shoot with fundagelical straw men instead of engaging a serious argument. Jesus spoke in very stark terms about who would be in his kingdom and who would be shut out of the party. Apparently he had no problem telling some that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to those more worthy. But the “worthy” are not standing on their own merrit. Seriously, how do you miss this stuff?

            There is no “economy of merit,” because in Penal Sub NOBODY can ever possibly have enough merit, save Christ. And Christ has enough merit for the whole world, which he gives away FREE. Not if you choose wisely, not if you check the right boxes, not if you conform to the right cultural stereotype. These arguments are very tired.

          • When its you’re loved ones who are murdered, it isn’t easy to see the murderer walking around free in society.

            Tell that to Trayvon Martin. Tell that to Walter Scott. Tell that to Michael Brown. Tell that to so many, so damned many, day after day, year after year.

          • nd it’s funny how “those people” – the ones who “aren’t getting in” – always look, sound, think, act and believe differently from “my group”.

            You’re having a turkey shoot with a fundamentalist straw man.

            There is no economy of merrit in penal sub, because nobody can ever have enough merit. That’s why they say Jesus paid it ALL. I don’t understand why you keep trying to shoehorn the concept of earning into a theory built around the work of Christ being the final and ultimate fulfillment.

  4. Good news of a loving and forgiving God. Thanks Rob.

  5. Thank you Rob, at the cross our Lord Jesus met the worst that humanity can be and returned not judgement and vengeance but love and forgiveness leading to resurrection and restoration for Himself and the human race that killed Him.

  6. Robert F says:

    In kitchen window,
    glimpse of falling moon, low and
    white in dark blue sky.

  7. Wille Marais says:

    Thank you Rob , for showing us that Jesus revealed as the express image of the Father subverts our notion of penal substitution and demonstrates that His love is even greater than we could ever have imagined. We were the ones demanding sacrifice all along. Good work

  8. Burro [Mule] says:

    St. Isaac of Nineveh:

    Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal. Because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side neither is it partial in the retaliation.

    But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it although it overfills him who deserves good. …

    And as it is not possible for hay and fire to be able to exist in the same house, the same way it is not possible for justice and mercy to be in the same soul. As the grain of sand cannot be compared with a great amount of gold – the same way God’s need for justice cannot be compared with his mercy.

    Because man’s sin, in comparison to the providence and the mercy of God, are like a handful of sand that falls in the sea and the Creator’s mercy cannot be defeated by the wickedness of the creatures.

    Fr. Stephen Freeman goes so far as to call our desire for justice a passion, something that interferes with our salvation. The scales will never balance the way we want them to.

    As far as the family of the murdered and abused child is concerned, I don’t have the pastoral chops to explain it properly, but even the most grieving father knows instinctively that even casting the murderer into the lake of fire bodily will not “restore” things.

    One of the struggles that all thinking Orthodox have is the Tragedy of the West. The West was completely Orthodox for 1000 years, then they fell away into darkness. Why did the West go off the rails and get so redondamente jodido? Some Orthodox think it was due to the Latin preoccupation with jus, that desire to get everything straightened out.

    • Exactly Mule.

      In the Gospel, all […] bookkeeping and scorekeeping are simply trashed in favor of the free acceptance of everybody and everything by grace. Nobody has to pass a single test. God is not the infinite Watchbird. Instead, he becomes incarnate in the whole, slimy, messed-up world; and his last word on the mess is simply to shut up about it in the death of Jesus and offer us a New Creation in his resurrection. The old order is simply bad news. And it’s bad news because nobody can pass the tests it keeps imposing. In the New Creation there just aren’t any tests. Everybody’s home free.”

      (from The Mystery of Christ… & Why We Don’t Get It)

      “The king [in the parable of the unforgiving servant], however, responds to nothing that the servant has in mind. He ignores the manifest nonsense about repayment. He makes no calculations at all about profit and loss. Instead, he simply drops dead to the whole business of bookkeeping and forgives the servant. Wipes the debt out. Forgets it ever existed. Does, in short, what the servant couldn’t even conceive of doing. And do you know why the king could do that and the servant couldn’t? Because the king was willing to end his old life of bookkeeping and the servant wasn’t.”

      –Capon, The Parables of Grace.

      “[…] even God is not above dropping the subject of sins. If you think about the death of God incarnate in Jesus on the cross, what is that if not the gift of God’s silence to the world? After millennia of divine jawboning about the holiness of justice and the wickedness of sin, God himself simply shuts up about the whole business. He dies as a criminal, under the curse of the Law – as if to say, ‘Look, I’m as guilty as you are in this situation because I set it up in the first place; let’s just forget about blame and get on with the party.’ ”

      (From The Mystery of Christ… & Why We Don’t Get It)

    • Can’t mercy be a form of justice?

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        St. Isaac, I believe, although it may have been St. John of Damascus (I get these old holies hopelessly confused), said “Mercy is all we know of the justice of God.”

        • Oh! I’m going to be chewing at that one for a while.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi BURRO,
          “Mercy is all we know of the justice of God.”

          I love that quote! I don’t ‘understand’ it . . . doesn’t matter . . . it helps me to contemplate the mystery of Christ, the Crucified One . . . for some things ‘contemplation’ is possible where ‘understanding’ is not to be had

        • Mule, that quote is marvelous. Thanks for posting – it is one way to start to realize that mercy is meant to triumph over judgment.

    • Thanks for that wonderful quote from St Isaac, Mule.

    • Amazing quotes from St Isaac, Mule.

  9. One of the struggles that all thinking Orthodox have is the Tragedy of the West. The West was completely Orthodox for 1000 years, then they fell away into darkness.

    Oh, the roots of the Schism run much deeper and go back longer than that, and you know it. ;-). Besides, the West could just as easily accuse you Easterners of getting too hung up on your own theological hobby horses – and they would be just as correct in their assessment as you are in yours. 😉

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      A good place to start, if you’re really interested in understanding the Orthodox position, is with one of the podcasts in the series Paradise and Utopia by Fr. John Strickland, “The Rise of Anthropological Pessimism in the West”.

      You are right about one thing, though. In the kaleidoscope world of Western Christianity, there is no need to explain the Fall of the East. We are just another group of schlubs doin’ the best they can, just like us. There never was a TRVE CHVRCH, just schlubs and their momentary, ever-changing permutations of communion.

      • We are just another group of schlubs doin’ the best they can, just like us. There never was a TRVE CHVRCH, just schlubs and their momentary, ever-changing permutations of communion.

        If you believe this, then you are not far from the Kingdom of God. 😉

      • There never was a TRVE CHVRCH, just schlubs and their momentary, ever-changing permutations of communion.

        AMEN!

  10. Rob, I have ALWAYS appreciated your willingness to go against the flow.

    Looking forward to someday having that pint (or quart) with you.

  11. Thank you, Rob.

    The differences between the 2 understandings are indeed stark. Despite the common language (love, justice, holiness, forgiveness, etc), a careful consideration of these terms leads them to mean (potentially) wildly different things.

    I love that you quoted Isaiah 55. God’s ways being “higher” in the context of those verses (and Isaiah 55 as a whole) is precisely that God “shows mercy” and “freely forgives”. It is this forgiveness that make God’s ways “higher”. Too often it’s used as a proof text for the exact opposite – “higher” being more like a resignation to a God who must kill to satisfy Himself and be propitiated, or a God who can do whatever, whenever. Pure power.

    It’s very telling to me when #2 is viewed as actually being “unjust” or “not taking sin seriously”.

    For all the talk of it, there is no actual “forgiveness” in PSA. Only payment.

    • Thanks, Mike. I could not agree more wholeheartedly.

    • Sorry, Mike, you do not understand PSA at all. You can only see a fundamentalist abuse of it, where it is pounded as a law upon the head of prospective converts to manipulate them into drinking the cool-aide.

      PSA is all about forgiveness. What is the payment for? The canceling of our debts. The difference is in the way it is used:
      In revivalist circles PSA is wielded as a club to pound, guilt, and manipulate the hearer into submission to ideology, piety, and activism. “Jesus did all this because of you, so now you get to work re-paying him by ___.!” This, ultimately, leaves the debt UNPAID, because the cross doesn’t satisfy God, rather, it places another huge debt on our backs for us to grovel under for the rest of our lives.

      The right use of PSA is simple this: For the comfort of troubled consciences. Those who have no guilt have no need of this doctrine. But for those who internally question whether there is a God who could truly love them knowing they did __________, the cross is the ultimate answer that, yes, the death of Christ is sufficient to win grace for even you.

      These are the sick in need of a doctor for whom Jesus came.

      • My goodness Miguel. Nope, I understand PSA just fine.

        The means of and definition of “faith” are not the issue that is being addressed in this post. The Revivalist “transaction” of “faith” for “forgiveness” simply is not the “transaction” that is being discussed in this post. Or at least not the only one. Very important, but separate.

        It is the very issue of the cross “satisfying” God – the propiatory aspect of it originating with Anselm – that I am talking about. David Bentley Hart has done an admirable job of trying to rehabilitate Anselm and his theory of “satisfaction”, but it’s to concede that he has been fundamentally misunderstood for hundreds of years. Nevertheless I really like DBHs view even if I don’t believe it’s Anselm’s. It can stand on its own.

        The idea that PSA makes no theological claims other than it’s proper usage is for “the comfort of troubled consciences” is just ludicrous. Convenient but ludicrous. The language of “the sick needing a doctor” is indeed essential – but the mechanics of PSA as “balancing the ledger” and “satisfying” God are of a different category all together. Rhetoric of “needing a doctor” or “taking sin seriously” does not in and of itself make self evident that PSA is the NT understanding of the cross.

        • Dana Ames says:

          Well said, Mike H.

          Miguel, I would like to add that the “penal” aspect was not part of the understanding of what the Cross was about in earliest Christianity. The New Perspective, because of its emphasis on the Jewish milieu of the first century, makes room for the understanding of restoration rather than penalty in St Paul, and I have never found the penal view in any other writings of the first few hundred years of Christianity. I think there’s reason to consider the interpretation of scripture and the Cross by Ignatius, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen etc. – and when you do, you can’t help but see the difference between them and Augustine and the Reformers as to the character and purposes of God.

          It all comes down to interpretation. If my interpretation of the OT understands a God of whom Jesus Christ is not “the exact representation/image” then it is my interpretation that is faulty. If we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. There is no other God.

          Dana

          • But that just makes you the ultimate arbiter of truth…

            /s

            Sorry, that was unfair.

          • Dana – yes.

            Rob, thanks so much for this post. I’d love to see it expanded beyond the crosd, to encompass the resurrection. ..

          • Nulo, thanks for your kind words. Perhaps a future post on the resurrection, then…

          • Excellent thought, thanks Dana.

            I would further add, that in looking to Jesus as the fullness of revelation, this ought to give us the most clear picture of what God’s wrath is like. Jesus used it very selectively, it wasn’t nearly his dominant trait. Nobody would have used that word to describe his personality. He was known for teaching, healing, dying, and rising.

        • Mike, in our tradition, the comforting of troubled consciences is one of the chief aims of all our theology, not just atonement theory.

          I haven’t read Anslem, so I’m going to guess that “satisfying God” refers to his wrath?
          I’m ok with a God who is wrathful towards evil. I think that is relatively conversant with the NT. When we sin we are going along with evil. So help me understand: Should God not be wrathful about that?

          • Dana Ames says:

            Mike can answer for himself, but in the meantime I would like to say that, like Luther (as I understand it) i really did need to have my conscience comforted, and believing that trusting Jesus’ penal sacrifice obliged the Father receive me in forgiveness was comforting… for a while.

            Then I started to ask myself what kind of God it was who could forgive only in this manner? Who loves us but has one hand tied behind his back, so to speak, because our sins are somehow too big for his love and forgiveness to overcome? Whose holiness must somehow be appeased, not much different than pagan gods need to be appeased? Who is part of a Trinity that seems divided? (“Dad, wontcha forgive those poor slobs?” – “No, I can’t do that until I see your blood!”) Who possibly thinks that we are snow-covered dung?

            The possibility that the Father was really like that was not comforting at all.

            I have found exponentially more comfort for my conscience in the unremitting love of God who is slow to anger, and abounding in faithful action (hesed/dikaisoune), who is the only true Lover of Mankind, whose character of humility is demonstrated in the kenosis of Jesus, who displays his forgiveness as he comes into his Kingdom and glory on the Cross, who wouldn’t let even death itself stop him from uniting himself with us. I couldn’t find that comfort in western theology ***anywhere***. Believe me, I looked.

            It’s not that when we sin we are going along with evil – evil is a deprivation, not a thing in itself. It’s that when we sin we are turning toward death and non-existence, and that *is* a real thing and has ramifications. God didn’t and doesn’t simply pass time being wrathful. He actively set a particular people group of humanity in place so that in the fullness of time he could become united with humanity (his plan from the start) from the midst of that people, and then actively did something about DEATH, so that humans can get back on the road to becoming what he made us to be. He has already forgiven us, for that is his character. And he continues to be actively engaged in and through his Holy Spirit in helping us toward that healing end (soteria: in the Greek, salvation as deliverance and healing).

            Yes, God will judge – that means “set all things aright.” When each person comes face to face with him, we will all finally know our hearts as he knows them, and we will understand how our acts of un-love have affected everything, and we will beg the rocks to cover us. And he will yet display his forgiveness. “When our transgressions prevail over us, thou dost forgive them.” Ps 65.3 That God is worthy of worship.

            Dana

          • Beautifully said, Dana.

          • Clay Crouch says:

            What better comfort is there for the troubled conscience than to realize that God is not an accountant? The steward’s debt was not satisfied, it was cancelled.

          • I understand that the comforting of troubled consciences that arises from Luther’s troubled conscience is one of the chief aims. Separate thing though. The claims of PSA are not reducible to nor synonymous with providing comfort to my conscience. Nor is it particularly effective in providing it. You can have that comfort independent of the particularities of PSA.

            The PSA question isn’t necessarily about “wrath” in a general sense. Or at least it doesn’t start there. An awareness of the brokenness of humanity simply does not prove that the cross is about PSA. The “seriousness of sin” prove PSA. Neither are we left with the false dichotomy of either PSA or “God is indifferent to evil.”

            For me the questions of PSA begin with the particulars of the cross:

            To what extent was God the Father meting out punishment on Jesus on the cross? Why would Jesus forgive people if they weren’t REALLY doing the killing, or if they were mere instruments enacting what God actively wanted to happen?

            What is the “price paid” on the cross and to whom was it “paid”?

            Is the death of Jesus a placation/appeasement of the Father? M. A condition before forgiveness might be offered by a “holy” God? Is that how Jesus understood His death, to whatever degree we can ascertain that?

            From a popular PSA teaching (Calvinist) preacher: “God?s accumulated and justified anger fell, in all its power and severity, not on us who deserved it, but on his Son. Jesus didn?t just save us from our sin? he saved us from God himself”. Is this theologically coherent?

            And so on and so on. I have a whole series of questions that I’ve worked through – way too many to list here. They are questions specific to PSA, not generalities about wrath or any number of things that can be understood outside of the particularities of PSA. But the particulars have forced me to look at the big picture differently. You may view some of these as caricatures of “penal substitution”, if so we’ll just have to disagree on that.

            Rather than begin with a modern western theory of punitive justice and force the mechanics of the cross to fit into that framework, I look at the particulars of the cross, try to figure out what is going on, and work outwards from there. The assertion of where I start doesn’t resolve anything of course, but I think that looking at the specifics of PSA (not all versions are the same of course, and terminology is very important) ultimately renders it inconsistent, incoherent, and far short of good news.

          • Amen, Dana!

          • @ Dana,

            Wow, thanks for sharing. That is a very compelling case you have given, and a beautiful picture.

            One concern:

            Then I started to ask myself what kind of God it was who could forgive only in this manner?

            Forgive me for not having enough pity for Jesus here, but I am not personally driven to that question. From where I stand, forgiveness is such a beautiful thing that we need so desperately, I’m not about to point the finger at God and tell him he’s doing the forgiving wrong. I’m just happy to have it.

            I may be mixing atonement theories here, but I think the cross is partly about the sin itself being punished, not necessarily the “sinner.” The idea is that our sin is defeated by killing the sin, and Christ’s body was there to bear the sin to death, where it could be obliterated. I don’t know how much PSA requires Christ’s suffering before death as a part of satiating God, I imagine it would depend on whether you’re going with earlier writings on it or later Calvinist ones.

            We must be careful in asking your question that we don’t overlook that Christ and the Father had unity of will. Naturally, Christ would dread what he had to endure, but he faced it gladly to win his bride. The Father wasn’t merely delegating the dirty work. He was GIVING His son for us when he sent Christ to be our savior. That was no small sacrifice on his part. He gave his Son because he loved us. So this idea of a petty tyrant with a thirst for blood overlooks the text, and superimposes pagan religious themes upon it.

            God the Father, in all his wrath, was not happy about the crucifixion, and he does not desire the death of sinners, but rather, desires all to come to faith and repentance.

          • Dana Ames says:

            Miguel,

            It’s okay if you don’t have the same questions. (Interestingly, Mike H’s questions – at least the ones he listed – were mine too.) Of course we desperately need God’s forgiveness; it’s just that he is not bound in the timing of his forgiveness by necessity of any kind. And to me, penal atonement automatically sets a division within the Trinity and imposes necessity upon the Father.

            Your instinct about sin itself being dealt with on the cross is good. Again, Fr Stephen has written about that from the perspective of the early fathers. Search his blog for the 2Cor 5.21 quote. I know you’re busy this week – whenever you get to it. Blessed Holy Week.

            Dana

          • @Mike:
            Thanks for taking the time to unravel the knot in my brain. You’ve made some very clear distinctions that I think are clearing a few things up for me.

            To what extent was God the Father meting out punishment on Jesus on the cross?

            If I said, “Only to the extent that he bore our sins into the grave,” would that make me non-PSA?

            Why would Jesus forgive people if they weren’t REALLY doing the killing, or if they were mere instruments enacting what God actively wanted to happen?

            I think he would. God sent him into the world knowing exactly what would happen. He was the Lamb slain from before the foundations of the world. I think if Jesus had incarnated in any different time and place, we’d still have brutally tortured and killed him, because that is how sinful humanity responds to sinless perfection, at least, when it comes to us in frail human form. When it is revealed in power, we tremble in fear. Christ put on the garb of weakness, so when we had our chance to kill God, we did.

            The “price” paid was, as I understand it, a natural consequence of evil. Not so much a quantitative sum rather then a a necessary result: Cosmic treason against the source of life itself IS death. Christ superimposes himself into that chain and absorbs that death into himself to spare us and restore us.

            I am beginning to wonder if I’m describing a different atonement theory. I’m also beginning to wonder how different Lutheran and Calvinist takes on PSA generally are.

            Christ’s death isn’t so much an appeasement as it is a re-balancing. If you steal something from me, in order to “forgive” it, I have to accept the loss and write it off. That would the cost of forgiveness to me. In the cross, Christ is accepting humanity’s rebellion against the one who gave them Edenic paradise, in order to have the relationship restored.

            Wow, the Calvinists actually teach that Jesus saves us from God? I’ve heard Rob Bell caricature that of them, but I did not realize they would own it. In Lutheran circles, we are very clear that by his cross Christ is rescuing us from sin, death, and the devil, and winning for us eternal forgiveness, life and salvation. We always describe things in lists of three.

            FWIW, the modern western theory of punitive justice evolved from Judeo-Christian soil, and I think it can be clearly seen in the sacrificial system of the OT. This could, at least in part, account for the rise in popularity of PSA, don’t you think?

          • @Clay
            When a debt is cancelled, it doesn’t cease to exist. Somebody eats it: the payee.
            The idea is that Christ, on the cross, was eating the debt as the payee.

            I’d rather hear God say, “I’m fixing it” than “it didn’t matter anyways.”

          • Clay Crouch says:

            @Miguel, you’re still thinking like an accountant. ?

          • Miguel, what if there is NO transaction to “balance the books”? What if God is saying “aphes”–leave it alone, forgive.?

          • May have missed the window to respond but I’ll go anyways.

            The quote I provided above was by CJ Mahaney.

            Reading an essay in CWR magazine by Brad Jersak called “Out for Blood” (and I see Rob has an essay in there), he highlights specific works by RC Sproul (What do expiation and propitiation mean?) and Tim Challies (The Just Wrath of a Holy God). Both are available in their entirety online.

            Sproul flat out says that “propitiation” brings about a change in God’s attitude toward humanity and that it has to do with “appeasing” or “placating” God.

            This is just to say that these are not caricatures. These examples happen to be Calvinist in their theology, but the same underlying theology is dominant elsewhere (if articulated less clearly). This is THE Gospel for many many people.

            There are indeed ways where “penal” can be taken to mean different things. “Penal” can just be taken to mean that Jesus “paid the price” of a cruel death at the hands of men. But PSA – in the sense that the original post is framing option #1) – is comprised of particular ways of viewing these questions of “payment”, propitiation, appeasement, etc.

            The cross is indeed multifaceted, but IMO the particular ways that PSA (the ways that don’t overlap with other views – “trampling down death by death” for example) frames the cross is NOT one of those facets. I think it’s theologically incoherent, logically contradictory, and repugnant.

            I do think you’re describing a different theory /understanding. But the language of “rebalancing” is still there. The numbers have to sort of work out. How does that work? I still contend that “paying a debt that I couldn’t pay” and “forgiving a debt” are mutually exclusive. The framing of the cross as “payment” (payment to God in particular) just exposes a categorical error IMO. Salvation isn’t the balancing of a math equation – I think the economic/legal language gets taken too literally. It’s an ontological thing.

            I’ve enjoyed the dialogue Miguel.

          • …..my last post was for Miguel.

      • What is the payment for? The canceling of our debts.

        This goes against the biblical notion of Jubilee. Debt forgiveness is a wonderous, glorious, grace-filled thing. But debt forgiveness is not having someone else pay the cost.

        Come to think of it, no one likes the concept of Jubilee. That’s Law.

        • Actually, in Jubilee, I believe the person to whom the debt was owed wound up eating it. According to simple math, anyways. Their debt forgiveness cost somebody something. The idea was that such person would be in a position to afford it, as a way of helping out those who were economically destitute.

          I don’t think that’s such a bad idea in theory. I bet the poor really loved it.

  12. As they were walking along, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to which theory of atonement was correct. Jesus overheard them and sayeth, “Greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his brother or sister. Peace I give unto you, not as the world gives. Pick up your cross and follow me.”

    Peter sayeth unto John, “We will continue this discussion sometime when the Master is not around to interfere.”

  13. As noted in a recent iMonk post (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/63679), our theology is very much shaped by our time and culture. Is it mere coincidence that Anselm developed his ‘satisfaction theory’ in the midst of the rise of mercantilism in Europe (950-1350) and the decline of feudalism? Is it mere coincidence that Luther developed his theology, emphasizing individualistic salvation based on faith alone (in reaction to what he perceived as ‘works righteousness’ and then read Paul through that lens) at the time when humanism and individualism were starting to become the dominant ideology? I think that much of what we assume to be orthodox theology (from a Protestant/Evangelical perspective) would be quite foreign to the Apostle Paul. I often wonder if he were to appear today if he would not ask ‘exactly how did you get here from there?’ (Douglas Campbell does a masterful job of revealing the many cultural presuppositions behind Luther’s salvation theology in ‘The Deliverance of God’, a book that, if it were 600 pages shorter, didn’t require at least 2 years of Greek, and was written at a ‘college level’ of literacy could be a very important book for the church).

    Granted, one might also ask the same about Rob Grayson’s ideas. Is this understanding of the cross not a reflection of the values of our time? Certainly it is. But even what we find in the Bible (e.g., the Old Testament ideas of holy war, retribution, family, etc.) is a reflection of the values of its time, and perhaps much of what God says, even commands (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Bible records what GOD said and not merely the struggles of humans to figure out God) are specific to that time and culture and that we must always ‘rethink’ our ideas about God and try to separate them from the ‘encapsulating culture’ (both that of the Bible, and our own). I don’t, like some fundamentalists, believe we can go to the New Testament and find a ‘pristine’ faith and emulate its values and practices; the faith of the New Testament is very much influenced by its culture, and reflects the same kind of struggles to understand God as we have today. What we have to find are the essential truths (which is admittedly very difficult and subject to, well, subjectivism) and ask ‘what does that look like today?’

    The more I have come to understand the influence of culture (ancient, medieval, and our own) on our understanding of God and the Bible, the more convinced I am that we really don’t understand nearly as much as most of us think we do (I certainly don’t – I used to have all the answers; now I’m not even sure I’m asking the right questions). But I do believe that the culture and values of the ancient world were so different from ours that we simply misread much of what we read in the Bible (they simply did not think like we do, and if we read the Bible as though they did, we will get it wrong – always!, well often anyway). As I have begun to say too often, if there’s a theology test at the pearly gates, we’re all screwed. God must be far more generous with his grace than most of us think he is.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Greg.

    • our theology is very much shaped by our time and culture

      But that makes them the ultimate arbiters of truth. Truth is eternal, not dictated by whims of culture and time…

      Can I repeat this point enough?

      • True (not ‘eternal truth” though :)). Luther is an obvious example (low-hanging fruit) of one whose culture and the issues of his day shaped his view of truth. But even when we read the Bible as objectively as we can, ancient culture is so different from our own that finding that ‘eternal truth’ is a challenge (and we are learning more about the ancient world all the time, so it is somewhat of a moving target).

        Is it possible that some ‘truths’ only apply to certain cultural settings? For example, Paul says that women should have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy (and we will assume Paul speaks with apostolic authority as the command of God rather than his personal preference). However, not many women today cover their heads in church so they obviously don’t believe that is an ‘eternal truth’ or ‘timeless command’ (or they simply disregard the commands of God), whether they understand why or not. (In the first-century Roman world married women were expected to have their heads covered in public; an ‘uncovered’ married woman was a woman ‘on the prowl’, which is why Paul rather sarcastically says they should just shave their heads – if they are going to act like whores they might as well look the part). But that is clearly a command (in the BIBLE – even the NEW TESTAMENT) based on the expectations of that culture, and shaped by that culture, and PROBABLY not an ‘eternal truth’. So perhaps even Paul’s theology was influenced by his culture and its expectations (e.g. the household codes in Eph 5).

        Given issues like this one (and there are multitudes in the Bible) does not sound and responsible biblical scholarship (and theology) require that we interpret the Bible taking into account those cultural factors (and also being aware of our own cultural baggage) when forming our theology and determining ‘truth’? A simple ‘the Bible tells me so’ approach to Scripture is both naive and disrespectful of Scripture. And it will often lead us to confuse what is ‘eternally true’ with what are simply reflections of culture in biblical times (or projections of our own cultural ideas – including our religious traditions – onto the text).

  14. Dan Hinkle says:

    Rob, Once again, an excellent article. The God of love and forgiveness trumps the wrathful, retributive and violent human projection onto God. Based on some of the response here to your article, I can see that it is difficult for us to let go of the old view of God and to accept that we are accepted by such a remarkably loving God.

  15. Frankly all of this makes less and less sense as I go along. Where this will lead I have no idea.

  16. Rob, your rejection of Penal Sub is still based off a terrible misunderstanding of its foundation in Justification Sola Fide.

    First, this understanding requires us to believe that God deals with us on a transactional basis.

    No, it most certainly does not. We have no more to offer him by way of transaction than Lazarus. It is a 100% one way deal. It is a free gift. Dead men don’t make deals or bargain for their life, they sit there and do nothing, unless acted upon from outside.

    What we have here is the God of the quid pro quo, who insists that something must always be given before anything can be received. The something that must be given could be many things – obedience, time, money, evangelistic fervour… I could go on.

    Wrong again. Penal sub means we have nothing to offer God in exchanges for his grace and forgiveness. No amount of obedience, effort, or piety makes an ounce of difference, period. “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone.”
    There is only one “transaction” that takes place: Jesus trades us his righteousness for our sin. But he doesn’t do that by taking our tomb in order that we might take his resurrection. He does it by uniting us to Him in His death, that thereby we might share in is life as well. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” THAT is the only “transaction” in penal sub. But we “give” nothing. Rather, we are “taken into” something else.

    I note in passing that this is clearly the God of Deuteronomy 28, who doles out blessings in return for obedience to a set of prescribed rules and punishment in return for missteps

    Yes. Either this God speaks untruth, or the “inspired” Hebrew authors here were just making stuff up?
    It’s very simple to understand. This is absolutely true. It is called the Law. It is one of the only two doctrines in all of Scripture, the other being Gospel. They are both true, yet with a paradoxical relationship to one another. The Law says “Do this, and you will live,” but it is never done. If we did follow these demands that God places on our lives, we would receive the blessing. The problem is that we simply do not. None of us. No partial blessing for partial obedience. Yes, God’s demands are unreasonable and impossible to fulfill. But not because God is unreasonable; because we are broken, shattered remains of what humanity was meant to be. It is ultimately not about you, the law is about Jesus. He has done everything it requires, he was everything man was meant to be, and this is why he is the eternally blessed one. We cannot attain to these blessings by our effort to imitate him. We attain to the blessings given to Christ and earned by him by the simple virtue of our union with him. Not because of something we bring to a transaction, but rather, because of a miraculous gift of grace that snatched us from our union with Adam and his eternal death.

    Within this paradigm, God is quite unmistakably a God who requires us to follow rules and who is compelled – nay, obliged – to punish us if we infringe them.

    Nope. You’re still describing a God whose work was not completed on the cross, whose labor needs to be completed by our work, or “choosing” him. Jesus bears the sin of the whole world. There is nothing left to punish, except for unbelief. Penal sub doesn’t make God the record inspecting cop in the sky: It puts an end to that game completely and forever, because the ledger has been permanently balanced, for the past, present, and future of all men.

    The only escape is to believe (by which we mean rationally agree) that Jesus took our due punishment at the cross. If we accept that, it’s all good and we’re guaranteed a place in heaven.

    That is a terrible understanding of the nature of faith. But I understand that it is what is taught in Evangelicalism. If you view faith as something we create and offer up to God, then perhaps you do have a transaction (though even this is apart from any obedience, effort, or piety on our part). But faith is something that God creates in us, through the means of grace, not a product of intellectual achievement, good decision making, or pulling ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. Mankind is as incapable of “choosing” faith in God as Lazarus was to chose walking out of the grave. It was the Word that called him forth, acting upon his corpse to give him life. This same word calls to our souls which are dead in Adam, through the written, preached, and “visible” Word, creating, sealing, and sustaining within us a faith which unites us to Christ in his life.

    There is no transaction.

    • Thanks for your efforts, Miguel, but I really don’t need schooling in atonement theory.

      (And yes, my post was primarily aimed at a section of the evangelical church – a large section – that has been taught penal substitutionary atonement in pretty much the way I characterised it.)

      • Then why is your description of PSA objectively incorrect? I’m simply responding to what you said and calling out err in your words. Sure, the rest of the Evangelical church also makes this same mistake. But you aren’t arguing that they are wrong about Penal Sub, you are saying PS is simply incorrect, it makes God a barbarian. Which, by this wrong understanding, it does.

        You can’t have penal sub and Justification Sola Fide without the means of grace and the proper distinction between law and gospel. Grace, apart from means, will always need to be earned somehow. This doctrinal err is the foundation of Evangelicalism, whose rationalistic presuppositions lead to a kind of grace that comes to those who reason correctly.

        You will never escape transactionalism simply by ditching PSA. The communities from which other theories of atonement proceed are generally very sacramental.

        • Where did I say “penal substitution is incorrect”? Please note that I never used the words “penal substitution” in my post. All I did was describe one view of the work of the cross that is highly prevalent in the western evangelical church and set out an alternative view which is, in my opinion, much healthier. You can turn it into a war of atonement theories if you want, but I’m not playing.

          • That’s fine, if you want to argue against the prevalent understanding of revivalism I’m in your corner. The more I reflect on this, the more merit I see in the case you are making. I don’t necessarily disagree with everything you are saying. If we must caricature the vindictive, petty, vengeful God to pull people away from an unhealthy view of God, in order to help them see a picture of God, through Christ, that is actually a nice person, then by all means, have at it.

            I do prefer the C.S. Lewis analogy where God is a lion. A good lion, but not necessarily safe or tame. (Also a lion who dies a vicarious death on behalf of others…)

            I don’t have a dog in the “atonement theory war.” I believe that most of the dominant theories have significant merit to them (and in the case of PSA, prevalent misunderstanding and abusive mishandling).

  17. Being acutely aware – as I am – that I am drawn to a God that seems infinitely more attractive, independently of whether He exists or not, I now tend to check myself twice, just to make sure it’s not my inherent bias kicking in.

    Of course I’d love to make this God of yours be my God too, but other than the fact that it sounds nice, what have I got to go on?

    Because, you know, maybe God isn’t civilised…

    • What have you got to go on? The life of Jesus, the idea that God’s ways truly are higher than (i.e. of a wholly different order to) our ways, the witness of a good number of the Church Fathers, your conscience, etc.

  18. This is an interesting topic, not least of all because it intersects with so many other issues currently being discussed in the church, such as hell, salvation, biblical interpretation, etc. I see no reason to offer my own opinion on the matter, beyond saying that I agree with the author. We can argue scripture and theology until we pass out, but it boils down to whether or not one finds the “traditional” view of God’s nature, which includes wrath and violence and punishment and everlasting hell, to be palatable or compelling. If one does not, then it doesn’t much matter how many scripture verses or systematic arguments can be mustered for it. And if one does, the attempts to reinterpret scripture and theology can only seem like unnecessary departures from tradition. Attempts to argue for a traditional understanding will be fruitless for those to whom it has become too problematic; likewise, attempts to argue for a non-traditional understanding will be fruitless for those to whom it is not problematic.

    • Thanks for your comment, Matt, which I think is a fair assessment. I would add that something many who hold to a traditional evangelical view don’t realise is that they come to the text of scripture with a boatload of prior assumptions, things that are read into the text rather than following from it. I’m not saying non-traditionalists don’t do the same – we all do it – but I often find non-traditionalists to be aware of it.

      • The kind of evangelicalism that produces this kind of thinking is revivalistic, driven by pop culture trends in order to have mass appeal, and therefore inherently anti-intellectual.

        It is not only the non-traditionalists who are capable of thinking through their biases. The framers of Christian tradition did an excellent job of this, and thereby rallied the church for centuries around a core set of truths. It isn’t always necessarily those who overturn truths who have the clarity of vision, but rather, those who are able to hold them when they are vastly unpopular.

        • If you read Luther’s commentary on Galatians, it is obvious that he wears his biases on his sleeve, and is completely oblivious to them.

          • It’s always much easier to see when you’re reading someone else.

          • Miguel, yes it is much easier to see in others. And that is why I have learned to hold my theology rather loosely. My theology has gone a long way (some would say in the wrong direction) in the last 37 years. I started out as a fundamental Southern Baptist, dyed-in-the-wool dispensationalist who read the Scofield Bible in KJV (the only real one) and ended up abandoning most of that theology along the way. Back then I was certain of just about everything (one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism). Now I’m content to live on the ‘slippery slope’ and trust in God’s goodness and grace, and constantly questioning my thinking. As a good friend often reminds me, ‘thinking rightly’ is a difficult thing.

          • Great story, Greg!

            I’m about halfway between where you started and ended. I try to remain open without being rootless in terminal uncertainty. Being certain of things we have learned isn’t bad, so long as we are able to keep listening, in case the things we “know” just ain’t so.

            I’d be surprised if you really abandoned most of your theology. Most of us here share great truths in unity with Fundamentalist Baptists: Issues of creedal orthodoxy, for example (even though most of them don’t even realize that).

            And God’s grace is definitely large enough to cover our technical theological errs. Salvation is, thankfully, not an accomplishment of our intellect, but rather, a free gift of grace.

            I think the key isn’t to wallow in uncertainty. We can know the things we’ve learned and hold them with conviction, but at the same time, we all must learn to contend for them with gentleness and respect. A steep challenge that can be, but I am convinced it is one of the keys to a deeper understanding.

        • SottoVoce says:

          “It isn’t always necessarily those who overturn truths who have the clarity of vision, but rather, those who are able to hold them when they are vastly unpopular.”

          . . . Said the Lutheran. 🙂

        • Miguel you’re doing great. Thank you.

    • but it boils down to whether or not one finds the “traditional” view

      This is part of the problem. It doesn’t. It pits one traditional view against another traditional view. Good luck deciding the original. One side sees this, the other side denies this, and that is where a lot of the fights start.

  19. Did Jesus need to be sinless to die, or did he just need to be a virgin? Or are those one and the same to many/the Biblical authors?

    Dim bulb brightened for me a few weeks ago when I realized that, opposite to the OT God who hated human sacrifice, he sure wanted one in Jesus…and different from the standard trope of a female virgin, he wanted a male virgin to die.

    • kerokline says:

      I recoil at thinking of G-d on the same level as Joss Whedon. Next thing you know, he’ll lampshade the sacrifice by bringing the virgin back from the dead. Or give the apostles superpowers. Or save up the budget for a big finale that gets delayed/cancelled.

      I’ve been on TV Tropes for to long…

      • Well when you put it that way…

        But that’s totaling Satan copying the TRUTH! or something, even if Satan did it first. I willfully forget how that rebuttal goes.

    • Wait…. hold the phone.
      Have you seriously encountered people out there saying that the only sin Jesus really needed to avoid was sex? I’ve heard it all, if so.

      • Nope, I haven’t, thank god! But just observing and thinking about that. In a lot of cultures and views, sex is evil, a loss of innocence…sin. Jesus had to be a virgin, sinless, spotless, pure…innocent.

        Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?

        • Mary didn’t need to be a virgin either. She just needed to be immaculately conceived, right?

          But we lean heavily on Mary being a virgin.

          Why? besides the whole “proving godhood of the child” aspect

        • I don’t know that many cultures ever view sex generally as bad. Such a culture wouldn’t last a second generation.

          Rather, I think most culture have standards of acceptability, ranging from highly restrictive to libertine. But even in the former, there is usually an acceptable outlet. Find me the culture that discourages marital union.

          And actually, we lean more heavily on the virginity of Mary than her immaculate conception. We’re more worried about who the Father is than the actual DNA. Whether or not Jesus is indeed God is kind of a bit deal.

    • From an EO acquaintance;

      What makes Jesus unique is not the fact that he overcame all temptations, a rather Pelagian view, but rather that he is wholly divine and wholly human, with his humanity being wholly deified–without change, admixture, separation or division of his Person.

      Nor is he our savior because he never sinned. He is our savior because he unites, in his one Person, full divinity and full humanity. Even if each of us had never sinned, we, as creatures, could not be united to God. Only through Christ’s bridging the gap between Creator and creature, can we truly be one with God (this is what Jesus is talking about in John 17, for instance).

      This moralistic view that somehow Jesus saves us because he never sinned is very problematic. For if that is the basis for our salvation, then any human could have saved us, and there was no need for God to be incarnate.

  20. kerokline says:

    I’ve been dealing with lots of insurance companies recently, which has been a sort of punishment all on its own, but it has introduced me to the word and concept of “indemnity”. “To make whole”, or, as I prefer, its root words “un-hurt”. It’s apparently mostly a legal phrase? Anyway.

    I think it highlights my problem, conceptually, with Penal Substitution. When you have a scale that is uneven, there are two ways to make it right – add or subtract. “Justice”, in the PSA sense, is solely subtraction – a party was injured, and now injury must be done. Nothing has been made right, it has been made less.

    I think that’s how I understand what you mean by projection – here on earth, justice usually looks like someone getting hurt. If G-d’s Justice looks more like indemnity, I don’t even know if I would recognize it.

    • This is a really good analysis. The theology of some Christians still baffles me. “A price must be paid…” (in your words, “a party was injured, and now injury must be done”) leaves me thinking, “Says who? And why?” I mean, for goodness sake, when my daughter does something wrong I don’t immediately think, “I must hurt you, I demand blood.” No. It’s wrong. It’s clearly not how our Heavenly Father thinks.

    • “Justice”, in the PSA sense, is solely subtraction – a party was injured, and now injury must be done. Nothing has been made right, it has been made less.

      Which is why I think Lewis’ conception of hell is the closest to reality – for those who refuse forgiveness, their punishment is to be subject to their own self-subtraction for eternity, until they become almost as nothing.

    • Interesting thoughts there. The paradoxical idea behind the cross is, though, that the cure looks like the disease. Moses lifted up a snake to cure snake bite, and Christ trampled down death by dying. He promises us to gain our lives by losing them. So in a sense, it may be injurious (whether or not you do Penal Sub, the cross was a serious injury), but it is a injury that somehow mysteriously heals. I don’t necessarily think we should pit these ideas against each other as exclusives.

    • When you have a scale that is uneven, there are two ways to make it right – add or subtract.

      Thus, the third way – remove the scale.

      Now no one needs do anything because of anything.

      God righted his own wrong.

      • That works well, since nothing really matters anyways.

        Says the nihilist, as he robs all good things of their significance.

        • Good things are not robbed of their significance if they are not rewarded. Their significance is that they are good things.

      • Stuart, this is not an uncommon interpretation in academia at all. What I’ve found in my time in Christian academia is that there are many good theories that can model the substance of the texts; the problem for some religious institutions is that it doesn’t match their dogma; as a result, these theories don’t really become popular (contrariwise, some really crappy theory, like the revivalist PSA that Miguel has soundly and roundly outed, gain traction because they are popular in church, even though most of Christian academia doesn’t give it the time of day). But this particular idea – that god instituted retributive justice and then learned from his mistake and “undid” retributive justice – is fairly common.

  21. Dana Ames says:

    Thanks, Rob, well done.

    You expressed a great deal of the understanding of EOrthodoxy in your post 😉 Some of the Eastern fathers understood about scapegoating and projection before Aulen and before the Discipline of Psychology came to be…

    Dana

  22. Randy Thompson says:

    I’m currently reading Fleming Rutledge’s excellent (!!!) “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,” which deals with the same issues being looked at here. She looks at the many Biblical metaphors to describe what happened on Christ’s cross. Penal substitution is one of many, and, as such, has something to tell us about who God is and who we are and what Christ did for us. Yet, because it is one of many, it needs to be viewed as a way of understanding atonement, not “the” way. The atonement, in other words, is greater than the law court.

    I was powerfully struck by her comments on “outrage.” To put it simply, how can we read a newspaper or a news website and not be outraged? How can a God who is holy not (!) be outraged? In Rutledge’s words: “Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves” (page 132). She quotes Miroslav Wolf approvingly: “A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.” (page 131).

    God’s wrath is God’s outrage experienced from outside of God; it is God’s righteous activity against the power of Sin and Death that destroy God’s Creation.

    Yet, there is Good News in this righteous activity of God. In her words, “Even more astonishingly, however, he [Christ] underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized by also for the perpetrators.” And, truth be told, we hapless human beings are both victim and perpetrator.

  23. Cartoon #092 by David Hayward, the naked pastor, shows a man straining upward with all his might toward the brightness of God above him. Attached to his right ankle is a very large ball and chain labelled My Theology.

    • yes, much of theology is mysterious, nuanced, above our complete understanding, we should not let it weigh us down or allow it to cause confusion and disillusionment

    • Clay Crouch says:

      That brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s Tragedian in The Great Divorce .

  24. Delinquent Miner says:

    The question came up the other day: “Has there ever been another game that had more on it or more hype?” The answer is no. … I think this one goes down as an all-time all-timer. — Keith Jackson

    Yay, Team! Go. Fight. Win!

    If lovin’ the Lord is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. — Rev. Brown

  25. Ken Nic hols says:

    Good job laying out both views clearly and concisely. This is one of the first things I “relearned” in my journey into a more “progressive” faith (label not mine, but given to me).

    What I found, though, is that this is merely one pillar in a faith constructed on the idea of a wrathful God who, as ultimate authority, must punish sin and rewards “correct beliefs”. In other words, once this pillar falls, some other very large pillars also begin to crumble. Pillars like eternal conscious torment in Hell, Scriptures as inerrant and authority, and eventually the exclusive salvation of men. All these things are intrinsically tied together and a change in one eventually requires a change in all these belief areas, which results in a full paradigm shift into a completely new worldview that radically changes your life.

    And this, to me, is the challenge we face in trying to return to the “good news” that was once the gospel. People are very unwilling to change what they have always believed without some “divine intervention” in their lives that allows them to open their eyes to the possibility that there might be more to this “Christian” thing than we have been previously taught.

    • Excellent!

    • Point #6 from the 10 propositions post seems pertinent as a summary of Rob’s argument:

      I repeat: God does not punish Jesus, or even will the death of Jesus tout court. Herbert McCabe: “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…. [T]he fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged.” That is, the crucifixion of Christ is not a penalty inflicted by God but the result of human sin, what inevitably happens when human sin encounters divine love. The cross, therefore, represents the wrath and judgement of God not directly but indirectly: God “gives us up” (paredoken, Romans 1:24, 26, 28) to the consequences of our destructive desires and actions, the human condition with which Christ identified himself in life, and to which God “gave him up” (paredoken, Romans 8:32), and to which we (with Judas) “betrayed”/“handed him over” (paredoken, Mark 3:19), in death.

  26. I’ve also moved away from the transactional theories (e.g. ransom, penal substitutionary, etc.) as the primary way to understand the atonement. I’m not saying they doesn’t have some value, but for one thing, they are a very retributive model of justice, and while you can argue that the Bible has a lot of examples of that, I don’t see it as the overall trajectory of the story of scripture or its ultimate goal.

    What I do see in the cross and the atonement is something with a lot more mystery and wonder to it than that. One thing that has always helped me is something one of my theology professors once said: the New Testament, especially toward the end, is Genesis in reverse. In other words, it’s about restoring something that we lost, that the world lost. That is something different than a simple transaction or retributive justice. It is mainly a restorative process, not a retributive/subtractive one.

    This idea also aligns with the idea, which N.T. Wright states so well, of the Kingdom of God as something that’s available now as we apprehend it more, something that is actively being established.

    I see the cross and the atonement as the decisive moment in that restoration and the establishment of God’s kingdom.

    How exactly it all works I am not sure (and I’m not sure anyone else is either), but iI see a lot more than a simple transaction, and I’m fine with the mystery that entails.

  27. Burro [Mule] says:

    All of this talk of atonement and forgiveness has given me a powerful thirst, the kind that can only be assuaged by a liter mug of India Pale Ale, no darker than a grocery bag. And ice cold, unusual since I usually like it room temperature.

    What is it about soteriology that makes me want to drink beer? Is it the Luther connection? I can barely think about that nasty old Augustinian without the back of my mouth getting scratchy.

    And here it is just over a week into Lent, with no oasis is the desert until Friday (feast of the Annunciation).

    Nyack nyack nyack

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      It jut dawned on me. This Friday is also Western Good Friday. How are you liturgical Occidentals going to juggle that, Good Friday and the Annunciation on the same day?

      • The occurrence is rare but meaningful. This year the Catholic Church has moved the Annunciation to Monday, April 4. As a Catholic, I’m not sure I approve of that, frankly.

        In 1608 the Annunciation also fell on Good Friday. It inspired John Donne to write:

        TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
        My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
        She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
        That of them both a circle emblem is,
        Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
        Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
        She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
        She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
        Her Maker put to making, and the head
        Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
        She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
        Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
        Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
        At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
        At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
        Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
        Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
        At once receiver and the legacy.
        All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
        Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
        As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
        Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

        • Burro [Mule] says:

          Alas, since I am in a New Calendar parish, this will never happen. In 1608, all of England was on the Old Calendar, so to speak.

          If I begin attending an Old Calendar parish, or if the Orthodox Church in toto reverts to the Old Calendar, or if through some miracle of grace we come to an agreement with you guys on the date of Easter, this could happen and I could appreciate Donne’s beautiful meditation more fully. All are unlikely but not out of the realm of the possible.

  28. Eeyore says:
    March 22, 2016 at 12:52 pm
    What I think substitution atonement might do a good job addressing, and the complementary Biblical imagery as well, is the human need for reward and punishment and with the sense of legal and personal guilt.

    So God has no sense of wanting to reward righteousness and punish wickedness?
    ———————————————————————————————————————————

    I think the reward is intrinsic to the action. Right action moves us closer to communion with God (and each other). Wrong action (sin: wages of which are death) moves us away. God doesn’t need to add to this mix, except I suppose in situations of grace, which might undo the consequences of wrong action for the purposes of bringing the kingdom. We humans want “justice”, but methinks it isn’t necessary in the grand scheme outside the intrinsic consequence. We may not see all of the consequences, hence our screaming when evil goes “unpunished”, but they are there.

    • I forgot to say that this was a GREAT post. Thanks, Rob! What a lively discussion!

    • God doesn’t need to add to this mix, except I suppose in situations of grace, which might undo the consequences of wrong action for the purposes of bringing the kingdom

      IOW, the Atonement in all its facets – *including* the penal sustitutionary one.

  29. Not all facets. There is a sense of atonement as a coming together, an at-one-ment (phrase used by others, I didn’t invent it). All facets of atonement as reparation, yes. But as a coming together, I think it is the cornerstone of what God is doing in the world. And I would say that the perceived differences are on the human side, not God’s, in line with what Rob is saying in the post.

    • Sorry, this was supposed to be a reply…

      Eeyore says:
      March 22, 2016 at 4:03 pm
      God doesn’t need to add to this mix, except I suppose in situations of grace, which might undo the consequences of wrong action for the purposes of bringing the kingdom

      IOW, the Atonement in all its facets – *including* the penal sustitutionary one.

  30. Rick Ro. says:

    167 comments and growing. Nothing sparks discussion like saying, “My view of God is changing into one that isn’t traditionally held.” LOL…

    • I normally don’t do much theological fighting, since most of the stuff I once fought over I now think is extremely secondary (or even tertiary) in nature. This, OTOH… pretty close to primary.

  31. Wow. Some really good comments here today. I can certainly understand where Rob is coming from – coming from Armenian Orthodox on my mother’s side, I’d have to say that I doubt anyone in the Eastern tradition would have any problem with what is written here. However, there are a few aspects of this conversation that cause me to just sort of shrug.

    1) What if the Scripture writers used “transactional language”, but it only comes across that way and is understood that way in the west because of our rampant commercialization?This is a euphemism for audience horizon, and can quickly devolve into Derridian recursion. Still, at what point do the preconceptions and lenses that we bring to the text actually change the text? Many would argue that individual readers create the text with every encounter, and we know this is true from personal experience – or do you understand your Bible the same way that you did 20 years ago?

    2) Not sure what atonement is or why it matters. As far as I can tell the AD world is precisely the same as the BC world. One thing about PSA – it doesn’t ever promise more than “pie in the sky when I die, by and by”. Which, while immediately giving it a fairy-tail flavor to thinking people everywhere, is actually a strength, since simple observation seems to indicate that the human condition is largely the same as it ever was.

    3) Crossan has an excellent article, that ended up as an appendix in “The Birth of Christianity”, that essentially asks, what god do you worship? His point is similar to Rob’s – what you believe about theology quite naturally creates inference about the god to whom the theology applies. Now in fundamentalist circles that kind of introspection or critical thinking is often brushed off with a simple “Well the text has an objective meaning, and that is just what theology is and who god is.” Of course, that doesn’t wash, but the point dovetails with #1 above – we need to come to terms with how we choose to understand the text, and what it means that we are saying about god.

    4) On the other hand, I couldn’t care less about the topic. Stuart is right. This all has the feel of 3 nerds arguing over whether the Big Bang Theory characters are true nerds or just inaccurate hollywood representations of nerds.

    • This all has the feel of 3 nerds arguing over whether the Big Bang Theory characters are true nerds or just inaccurate hollywood representations of nerds.

      The analogy is flawed because that argument is much simpler. They’re Hollywood representations, no question. 😛

    • I think your point #1 is a key one. Much of the scriptural language around atonement is metaphorical, but we often take it as though it’s literal.

      • More to the point, the metaphors meant something different to the original audience. Imagine a metaphor that referenced a woman wishing not to give birth to her unborn child. In our culture that means something dramatic because a woman can actually make that choice. But what if it were written in a culture where the woman didn’t really have a say in conception, and did not have access to abortion services? In the first case, the metaphor would be understood as a painful moral choice, or even a commentary on the selfishness of the woman, etc. But in the latter context, it all of the sudden would change meaning to be about the oppression of women, the terror of feeling trapped and unable to make a choice, oppression of women, etc.

        • Yes indeed.

        • Dr. F., i think you kind of missed the boat on this one.

          – Women have been feeling that way for as long as humans have been reproducing, for all kinds of reasons (including “I’m a refugee, starving to death, and am not sure I’ll live long enough to be able to care for this baby”).

          – Women have had various abortifacients for thousands of years. It’s not a “new” thing, but a very old one. Unfortunately, most of those methods could be/were deadly if not administered properly. (See War and Peace for a relatively recent example, re. Pierre’s estranged wife).

          No offense, but sometimes you fellas miss the obvious. I suspect that *women* who heard/could read these texts had a very different view than, say, a lotta men, then and now.

        • I forgot to mention something important – “selfisness” by whose standards? And in what circumstances?

          Honestly, i thing “judginess” is more accurate. Not implying that women would all defsult to not being judgy – far from it – but there certainly are deeply impoverished people depicted in the Bible, eho are often refugees and often starving or assuming that they’re going to starve to death (cf. the widow who let Elijah stay on her property – per the text, she and her young son were about to eat the very last of their food, then basically lie down and wait for their deaths).

          • Numo, of course my metaphor is problematic when viewed *objectively*. I’m talking about a metaphor in the Bible, and I chose this one deliberately. There is a whole lot of “abortion politics” in evangelicalism, and I believe that if this metaphor were in the Bible, that American evangelicals today would interpret it the way that I described. And please don’t compare the “abortifacients” of 2,000 ago with any kind of modern healthcare, especially abortion services.

          • OK. I’m still a little uncertain as to you op on this issue (metaphors, abortion, etc.) but appreciate the clarification. Looks like we’re on the same track, pretty much. Apologies for having misread, or misinterpreted. Comboxes can be tricky things, on the whole.

        • Dr. F., i think we are talking at cross purposes, maybe? I thought you meant it literally, and i was thinking less about politics and more about human experience.

          Besides that, most people living in this world today do not have access to ehat you call “modern health care.” Ask someone from Cameroon or even Jamaica if they would compare an American hospital (even the worst)?to their local dispensary. We live in cushioned isolation, and conspicuous luxury, by the standards of most.

          Also, you are equating “I don’t want to have this child” with the whole mess over abortion. There are plenty of women eho feel this way who would not consider such a drastic step. There are all kinds of reasons that someone might despair that have nothing to do with “selfishness,” regardless of what anyone else thinks or assumes.

  32. Hi Folks,

    I would suggest that “Theistic Personalism” is one of the problems here, which has been with the church since inception and is a reason the Holy Spirit has worked through creeds & councils, along with the Scriptures:

    “The emergence of theistic personalism has made it possible for theologians and philosophers to begin to significantly redefine the attributes of God. The first to go were immutability and impassibility. After all, don’t the biblical writers speak of God as changing his mind, repenting of his actions, and experiencing grief, anger, and joy? More recently, open theists have begun telling us that the divine omniscience is limited—”

    Whenever people from within the church being to question previously held beliefs, in a way that completely neglects Patristic records, monastic communites and liturgy, the doctrines within the church morph into things quite unpalatable… The narrative of Israel straying in the OT plays out in AD history again & again…

    From: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/how-anthropomorphic-is-your-g-o-d-2/

    Maybe through the centuries the concepts of PSA has been redefined to include notions that fit a rationalised mindset that dominates in institutionalised Christianity (pick your poison here…)

    “In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin. Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound, says Hart, ‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’

    Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.

    As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’”

    From: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/10/anselm-reconsidered/

  33. Excellent and thought provoking discussion today. Kudos to all.

    Most of my thoughts (and they are all over the map) have been better said by others today. Just a few thoughts:

    –Miguel had said somewhere up thread that PSA as presented by Rob is a caricature; no, it isn’t–this exact formulation in almost the exact words was presented in the sermon I heard this past Sunday and this was presented as the Gospel.

    –Going from memory, but I seem to recall one of the keys to Luther’s insights was he had access to better translations than ever before, specifically Erasmus’ Greek NT and, of course, this new information led to a reevaluation of all he had known and been taught. Shouldn’t we, who have even better resources and a more clear (though still muddied by being several millennia removed) understanding of ancient cultures also reevaluate what we have known? We are, most of us, after all children of the Reformation–Semper Reforma–and, in light of this “reforming”, new ways of thinking about and approaching the text, and more importantly, thinking about and approaching God will necessarily result. As Dr. Fundystan says above, none of us probably read our Bibles the way we did 20 years ago. Why would be expected to read them the same as 500 years ago or 2000?

    Thanks to Rob for being bold enough to post his thoughts and thanks to all for a most enlightening discussion.

  34. Very interesting discussion; some of it far over my head but still well worth trying to understand. Thank you, Rob. My only tiny addition to the discussion is: Once you have begun to question or rephrase or reinterpret your previous beliefs, it is just about impossible to UN-question them. Theologically, you really *can’t* go home again.

    • Thank you, H. Lee. And yes, that’s true. Once you’ve taken the red pill, you find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. There’s no turning back.

      • True, once you entered that wonderland the adventure begins and how terrifyingly mystical is the journey.. Like Lee, I thought this a very interesting discussion, some of the comments were hard to understand–yet, mind-expanding to realize how deeply complex is the Gospel. Thanks to all who commented.

  35. Reconciling the demands of God’s holiness with His mercy, grace, and forgiveness is always an intellectually trying exercise. This has been an interesting discussion, for the most part conducted with a certain measure of grace. But none of us sees the whole picture, as none of us has the mind of the Almighty. We would all do well to remember that personal humility and love for and service to the Body of Christ are our first calling when we try to bring light to one another.

    I am intrigued in this particular discussion at the extent to which recent and current trends in social theory underlie theological arguments. Theological developments do not occur in a vacuum; it might be beneficial for many writing here to avail yourselves of more reflective study in other theoretical frameworks to identify how these might intersect with your own belief structures.

    May the Lord make Himself known and vital to you all.

  36. P.S. Phil. 4:5-7 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.