Divine Child Abuse and the Use of Scripture

It has probably seemed a little odd that I, as a non-evangelical, would follow the atonement discussions as closely as I do. To the extent that I have managed to do so, it has been for two reasons. First, no matter what stream of Christianity one belongs to, the atonement comes out somewhere near the center. If it does not, then I have to wonder if we’re talking about Christianity at all. Second, some of my best friends are evangelicals. Seriously, they are! I have been frequently told that I could be an evangelical if I wanted to, and I have even met people who call themselves evangelicals who are somewhat more liberal than I am.

Nonetheless I prefer not to try to defend my use of a label for myself, so I’m going to stick with the twin “passionate moderate” and “liberal charismatic” labels that make so many people crazy, and allow others to define just what an evangelical is.

I was interested in two posts by Adrian Warnock today. The first one dealt with the emerging church and the Emergent Village. There are a couple of points I want to engage in that post. The first is simply the statement of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Bluntly I think advocates of this position are either a bit careless with their vocabulary, or they do believe in a doctrine that is dangerously flawed.

Adrian is doubtless right that this problem is one that is not limited to the UK. While it was not so public an issue, I was part of a discussion group in seminary in which we debated some of these issues, and my seminary days are more than several years ago.

Since Adrian’s post consisted largely of an extended quote from an article by Brett Kunkle on Resurgence, I will quote and work directly from that article. I am operating on the assumption that Adrian quoted this article approvingly. The article covers a great deal of ground and does so very carefully and so far as I can tell, fairly. I should note that in making my own judgment of fairness, I am working from what appears to be a weaker knowledge of the Emergent Village (EV) than Kunkle’s. My response is to his comments, and not intended either as a critique or endorsement of specific EV views.

Here’s the first key quote:

. . . Carol, a Christian, answers with a summary of substitutionary atonement: “Well, I believe that God sent Jesus into the world to absorb all the punishment for our sins. That’s what the cross was all about. It was Jesus absorbing the punishment that all of us deserve. He became the substitute for all of us. As he suffered and died, all our wrongs were paid for, so all of us can be forgiven.” . . . [quote footnoted to Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 101.]

Please note that I have grabbed a piece of a paragraph. In order to limit the size of the quotation, I’m making the dangerous assumption that you will check the broader context. My reason for quoting this is that, as stated by Carol, the fictional character in McLaren’s book, PSA would, in fact, be divine child abuse. This statement of PSA ignores the doctrine of the Trinity, in my view, and carelessly states the doctrine of substitution as though God found some other person, an innocent person and had that person absorb the punishment for the rest of us, making forgiveness possible.

At the same time, the idea that such “absorption” made it possible for all of us to be forgiven is troubling, at best, in terms of theology. Do the advocates of PSA truly believe that God is universally locked into this Medieval sense of punishment and satisfaction, so that he will somehow believe that justice has been done when an innocent person has been punished? Do they believe that he is unable to create the universe in any other way? That short statement, without a broader context, displays an impotent God, caught off-guard by our sin, and unable to resolve the matter except through this odd mechanism of killing an innocent person. Yet this is a description I have frequently heard in churches. It is precisely how many older Christians understand atonement. I am in no way surprised that McLaren would have the character in his book find injustice here–it would be hard to miss–and would look for better formulations.

In response, however, Kunkle quotes two scriptures:

Let me say three things in response. First, does McLaren actually think Jesus did not know why he had to die? What about Matthew 20:28? “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Or what about Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper? “And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.'” Surely Jesus knew why he had to die. One cannot read the New Testament and conclude otherwise.

Now this is one of the things that disturbs me in these debates even more than someone’s position on the issue of the atonement. Texts are trotted out, and we are told to assume they mean a certain thing when they don’t mean anything of the sort. Matthew 20:28, for example, is not a PSA text at all, it speaks of a ransom. Discussing to whom the ransom was to be paid has generated a whole string of weird theories over the years, which illustrate the problem when an illustration or a metaphor is extended beyond its intended use.

Barclay comments eloquently in the Daily Study Bible on the parallel passage in Mark 10:45. His whole comment is worth reading, but let me just quote briefly:

He had come, He said, to give His life a ransom for many. This is one of the great phrases of the gospel, and yet is is a phrase which has been sadly mishandled and maltreated. People have tried to erect a theory of the atonement on what is a saying of love. It was not long until people were asking to whom this ransom of the life of Christ had been paid? . . .

. . . Suppose we say that freedom can only be obtained at the price of blood, sweat and tears, we never think of investigating to whom that price is paid. . . . [Barclay, Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Mark, pp. 268-269]

The second text likewise simply tells us that the blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins, but fails entirely to tell us why this was necessary, or even that the pouring out of blood was absolutely necessary, or how such atonement would work. The advocates of PSA are trying to make the mechanism of the atonement be the key issue, when it should be the fact of the atonement. God, however he did it, has made reconciliation possible. Certainly, the two texts Kunkle has cited do not challenge McLaren’s approach (or mine) in any way.

It seems to me that there is a greater concern amongst certain people about not merely understanding the mechanism of atonement (a task I believe we human beings will never accomplish this side of heaven), but in making sure that the mechanism is understood in a specific way. In so doing, they are happy with statements that include the mechanism, Jesus dying for our sins, even though those statements impugn God’s character.

In his second post, Adrian makes quite a number of comments. I simply want to look at two:

As we finally draw near to the conclusion of this long-running series on the atonement, it has struck me just how the lines are being drawn. On the one hand there are those of us who feel PSA is essential to the Gospel. It’s not that we think it’s the only thing—or indeed that every Gospel presentation must major on it. It’s just that we think it’s essential, and that Gospel presentations can’t deny it.

This is succinct, and I must state my disagreement. The mechanism of the atonement is never an essential. The fact is. There is no requirement for theological understanding as a part of salvation. Thus, while I can state that PSA, carefully phrased, is a valuable metaphor for atonement, I believe it is also a very dangerous one, because it can so easily be stated in such a way as to look like injustice and abuse.

I would say that my position on this issue has hardened, because I truly had not been aware that there were so many careless, and in my view dangerous, statements of substitutionary atonement from people who ought to know better.

Wherever you stand on all the debates that fly around the blogosphere, I hope we can journey together for awhile and learn from each other—if nothing else, we should at least be able to gain an accurate view of what we both believe. I do believe that if we each focus on moving from where we stand one step closer to the God of the Bible, we will find ourselves gradually drawing closer together in what we believe.

I have been far out on the periphery of what seems to be more a conservative evangelical debate. Nonetheless I have enjoyed the opportunity to interact even in a small way with this debate, and to hear what my more conservative brothers and sisters (I am an egalitarian after all!) are saying on an important topic.

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  1. If you have the time, could you relate this statement

    First, no matter what stream of Christianity one belongs to, the atonement comes out somewhere near the center.

    With the this

    On the subject of the atonement, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has some quite different ideas to the Protestant tradition, and the whole paradigm of salvation tends to be very different. Many of the essential protestant concepts such as original sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and salvation by faith are not present, and instead other very different ideas tend to be utilized. The Eastern Orthodox church traces its tradition and teachings very strongly to the writings of the church fathers of the first millennia.

    Thanks, whether or not you choose to take me up on my question. 🙂

  2. I may need some clarification on the question. My argument for several weeks has been that the atonement is not defined by penal substitution, but rather that PSA is one metaphor among many and not the central metaphor.

    When I say atonement is near the center, I do not mean PSA. I see the incarnation as absolutely the center, expressed liturgically through the Eucharist and ethically through the two laws (love for God and love for neighbor) which get their Christian meaning from the incarnation. Atonement follows immediately from the incarnation, and can be described in various ways. Penal substitution isn’t even the only version of substitution.

    As an aside, were I asked to explain why Jesus had to die as Brian McLaren was, I would say that the incarnation would be incomplete if Jesus didn’t share all characteristics of his brethren, and experiencing death is an integral part of that.

    Thus I am rather happy to hear that the Eastern Orthodox tradition does not use penal substitution. I would love to read some of what they do. Could you recommend some eastern church fathers I should read and particular references? I’m more acquainted with the western fathers, though friends often tease me that I don’t know anything that happened after 100 AD. They’re not entirely wrong, either.

    This is a subject I’m always happy to discuss.

  3. “Could it be that the immortality that we all inherently seek can only be granted to “perfect” (for lack of a better French word) people, due to the inherent calamities an immortal entity may wreck on the universe .

    And hey, once you’re immortal – by definition, there is no stopping you – because your, well, immortal.

    To me, this is the only reason any of the “sinless in God’s eyes” stuff could make sense. Not that it necessarily does make sense, or is true. I don’t know. This is just the only way that it could make sense, to me.”

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