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PSA: Thoughts on Centering

David Heddle commented on my earlier post, PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement, in his post Penal Substitutionary Atonement: it’s not about Justice. I haven’t had time to respond until now, and I will only respond to a few points. One of the things I have noticed about debates on the atonement is that they tend to cover wide swathes of material, and bring on board large numbers of assumptions. It’s pretty much impossible to avoid.

First let me note a couple of quotes to which I want to respond briefly and then get to the actually topic.

Heddle says: “The scriptural support for PSA is impressive.” He then proceeds to cite Isaiah 53:5 and Romans 3:23-25. Of course both sides claim support from scripture–that’s required–but it seems to me that proponents of PSA find every verse that has both the words “redemption” (or salvation, or something similar) and the word “for” in them, and claim that they support substitutionary atonement as understood in a courtroom setting.

That importation is certainly wrong in Isaiah 53, which quite clearly has the concept of substitution, but lacks the courtroom metaphor and doesn’t deal with someone being adjudged in one way or another. It is not good practice to interpret the substitution of Isaiah 53, in which the servant suffers for a group of people, without looking at the servant passages in general. In this case, we have a small group of people suffering as a result of the actions of the whole nation. There is substitution and representation, but there is no imputation or impartation going on. The more I study “clear” texts supporting penal substitution, the less clearly they support penal substitution. In particular, few can properly be read in a courtroom setting.

Then we have this:

The liberal attacks against PSA, at least the more ridiculous ones, follow the formula that most liberal attacks take, the if I were God, I wouldn’t do that, therefore God wouldn’t do that line of reasoning. The expression of this formula is typically found in liberal insistency that conservatives spend way too much time on the ideas of sin and wrath and not enough time on the nice passages about love and forgiveness. The most notorious recent “in the family” criticism of the PSA is from Steve Chalke, who, in his book The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan 2003) famously characterized it as “Cosmic Child Abuse.”

The problem I have here is that there is clearly a priority and a proper place to be given to scriptural texts. So what precisely is ridiculous about a liberal (or anyone else, for that matter) asking one to give proper priority to one set of texts or another? Jesus himself said that the law and the prophets hang on the two laws (Matthew 22:40). Now there are a number of ways one can view that, but I think it tends to put those two laws at the center. Thus I’m not at all unhappy to ask people to talk a bit more about love when they get hung up on God’s wrath. Jesus did!

It’s also quite appropriate, of course, to ask liberals to look a bit more at texts that reflect a less sympathetic God. One needs to deal with everything that is said in scripture in one way or another, after all. The problem is that we all have a mental framework that we bring to interpreting scripture. If I had different view on how to fit the pieces together, I would understand scripture differently. Those who claim to “just do what the Bible says” are missing some major components, or perhaps they’re lying to themselves.

As a quick example, let’s take Ezekiel 18:32, where God tells us he has “no desire for the death of anyone” (REB). On the other hand we have passages on predestination, which have been interpreted into the Calvinist scheme of predestination. Some people are predestined to life, while others, not so much. Then there’s double-predestination in which God makes two lists (and probably checks them twice), one of those who will be eternally saved, and the other of those who will be eternally damned. None of this is based on anything about the person; it’s just the way God decreed it.

I could go into the texts they use to support this view, but let’s just assume for the moment that they have them, and at least on the surface they seem to support that position. Then we go back to Ezekiel 18:32 (along with the rest of the chapter and Jeremiah 18), and see that God doesn’t desire the death of anyone. So God, who desires nobody to die, nonetheless makes certain that some do. This hits both the Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace elements of TULIP. If God truly desires that nobody perish, and his grace is irresistible, how is it possible that his grace is not universally efficacious? If God desires that nobody should perish, why would he limit his atonement? If God applies irresistible grace to people without reference to their merit, and yet applies it to a number less than all of them, then he must somehow feel it necessary to kill a bunch of people (or torment them eternally in hell) for no reason. (And yes, I eagerly await the “inscrutable purposes of God” answer.)

Yes, I’ve read explanations for how these various texts fit in from Calvinists, but frankly they have failed to impress. They generally seem to me to amount to “it doesn’t really mean that.” To be fair, Arminian explanations of some of the good predestination passages (Romans 9 comes to mind) very often sound very much the same way; we’re just discounting different texts.

Finally, before I get to my main point, Heddle says the following about my previous post (this is actually after the part to which I intend to make my main response):

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that Neufeld is not so much against the PSA but against a different Reformed doctrine: Total Depravity. There is where we indeed find the language of loathsomeness and wrath that Neufeld so dislikes (and who can blame him.) But Total Depravity reflects God’s view of the unregenerate, not his view of believers. And the Atonement reflects God’s plan for those he loves, not those he hates. The two doctrines do not overlap much, but Neufeld, it seems to me, conflates them.

Actually I’m quite well aware of the two doctrines, and Heddle seems to share with his fellow PSA-proponents a certain blindness to the way their doctrine plays. One of the things that has repeatedly amazed me in discussions with Calvinists in general (and Heddle is certainly right that PSA fits well with Calvinism), is the way they can blithely ignore what is going to happen to billions of people through no particular action or inaction of their own. God has just decreed that they are to burn eternally in hell, but somehow I’m supposed to bask in the love of God for me, because I happened not to fall into that group. Elsewhere in his post Heddle mentions that I’m a believer, and thus God doesn’t loathe me. But you see, I’m concerned about what God thinks about my unbelieving neighbor down the street.

If I were one of two children, and my parents loved me dearly, yet hated my brother and beat him regularly, would I be right to call them loving parents? If I did, I would be a very narcissistic person, caring only about what happens to me. “My parents are really loving,” I would say. “Too bad they hate my brother and beat him mercilessly no matter what he does, while they reward me no matter what I do, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are loving.” Of course we wouldn’t accept such behavior on the part of parents, yet God supposedly behaves that way toward the universe, and we’re supposed to call it love.

It’s also instructive that Heddle tries to put my objection down to a point of doctrine. I find that the current day advocates of PSA are very much taken with confessional statements, and that the key to debate is generally found in such statements rather than in a particular passage of scripture. This is one way in which the reinterpretation of “died for sins” takes place. “For” gets instantly filled with the courtroom metaphor, and PSA slips in.

But the real key point to which I wanted to respond was this:

Neufeld argues that God’s love and forgiveness, not the PSA, are central to the gospel. I really have nothing to say about that, because I don’t have a clear understanding of what is meant by “central.” God has love. God forgives. The Atonement happened. It is not that there is something central to the gospel, but instead the gospel in central to all.

But right in there while saying “the gospel is central” Heddle must, of course, define the gospel. “God has love. God forgives. The Atonement happened.” So to him, as to other advocates of PSA, the atonement as they understand it is the gospel. To explain myself, that is what I mean by central. Taking the punishment, imputed sin and righteousness, that’s the central point of the gospel in PSA. And I regard that as unbalanced.

One cannot reasonably say simply that “the gospel is central” because the nature of the gospel is precisely what is in question. I think the core statement of the gospel should be something like this: “God loves you, desires the best for you eternally, and has made provision for your redemption/restoration.” That includes the willingness to forgive. It also means that while God’s anger goes out against sin, and will indeed catch those who stay in sin, God’s redemptive power (God’s love) also calls to everyone.

Now I could quibble about just about every word in that statement. I’m not the right person to write concise doctrinal statements–never say in a word what you can expend 10,000 words to say! But I think it’s close enough for my purposes.

Now we come to the idea of how God accomplishes redemption, and more directly how we describe the way in which God accomplishes redemption. It’s important to realize that we are not seeing or describing the very reality of God. Reformed theologians are very good at seeing how mysterious God’s purposes are when it suits them. “Who am I to question God? Who are you? If he wants to burn billions of people for all eternity, that’s his right! He’s God!” But when you come down to a metaphor describing God’s, PSA, they insist it’s the reality and that they understand just how God approaches it and what he can and can’t do.

Well, I think God’s forgiveness, or God’s willingness to forgive, and God’s love are just as much past my understanding as anything else about God. But he’s chosen to reveal it to me in scripture through different metaphors. Atonement, imputation, impartation, propitiation, and so forth are just words that are combined in metaphors to describe the reality of God’s love and forgiveness. That’s what I mean by “central.” God redeems because he loves–that’s central. The process by which God does that is peripheral.

A courtroom with the judge declaring the defendant not guilty, but yet where someone else paid the penalty made sense in a medieval environment. You couldn’t have justice without the penalty being paid after all. But if you press the metaphor too far, you have an injustice (punishment of the innocent) supposedly making another injustice (declaring the guilty innocent) acceptable in some way. You have God effectively either lying or pulling the wool over his own eyes in saying that the sinner is not guilty. As one metaphor, it works. Pushed into the center it just gets silly. Steve Chalke was quite right to call it divine child abuse.

At this point I also want to comment on misunderstandings and misstatements of PSA. I’m not going to go out and look for the purest, best statement of PSA I can find, and only try to object to that, though as long as it’s still made central, I would object. One of the problems with any metaphor is that it gets stretched one way or another. One way this happens to PSA is that it gets expressed without its trinitarian underpinnings. Without that, we get God punishing his son, who is a separate entity for the sins of the world. At the same time we get God being hoodwinked by Jesus so that he doesn’t see the real sinners. Now these versions are, of course, not proper expressions of the PSA theology, but they are very common expressions out in the pews.

Now I’m not going to say that PSA should be blamed for every misunderstanding, but I do think that when any metaphor is not acknowledged as such, it’s going to be extensively misunderstood and misapplied. As long as people understand that it’s an illustration, then it’s much easier to correct the excesses.

Obviously there are many, many items in Heddle’s post to which I have not responded. I’m currently working on some material on 2 Corinthians 5, responding to Wright and Piper, which will be published over on my Participatory Bible Study Blog. In that, I agree with Wright that 2 Corinthians 5:21, a standard PSA proof text, is not talking about PSA. This is a change of position for me, as I used to regard that as a PSA text, even though I still regarded it as a metaphor.

There is so much to be said about the set of related issues involved here that even in what is probably an excessively long post, I have hardly touched on any of it. I will, of course, return to this topic during the coming months.

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  1. According to Jesus there is a small narrow gate or passage way from death to life. However only a few ever find it. So says Jesus. Wouldn’t it make more sense to understand why he says only a few find it? And wouldn’t it make more sense to actually define what this small narrow gate actually is?

  2. You appear to mean that since the gate is narrow, and it’s really important not to be wrong, I should accept the PSA position. To which I would respond: “Why should I accept a position I regard as wrong, if it’s important to be right?”

    If I have misunderstood where you’re coming from, please enlighten me.

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