Thursday, October 29, 2009

Discussion on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Though I'd share another facebook discussion. This one is related to penal substitutionary atonement. Here was the phrase I posted that was in contention: The Gospel: Saved by God, From God, and For God.

Here's the Dialogue

Jeremiah: Actually, the "from God" is indicative of the penal substitution model of salvation developed in the middle ages by the Roman Catholic Church. As may seem counter-intuitive, this legal view of salvation as a transaction made its way into the doctrine of the reformers, and eventually modern evangelicaism. Hence doctrines such as Calvinism (which are also based on Roman Catholic views of Original Sin in conjunction with penal substitution )This model was never a part of the early church as a whole (I know there were a few who held to this). The Eastern Orthodox hold to a view that does not have such a view of God. THAT is good news.

Jake: Jeremiah. The development of doctrine is certainly important for consideration. Clearly the Eastern fathers had a far more sophisticated view of the triunity of God than someone like Clement of Rome, and even Scripture. But we affirm that such sophistication is grounded in Biblical exegesis (with a few exception). Similarly, I would contend that the penal substitionary "model" is thoroughly Biblical, especially Pauline, and therefore a part of the early church. The fact that there is development (e.g. Augustine articulates it more clearly than Polycarp) doesn't negate that it is rooted in Canon, affirmed by early church fathers, articulated more clearly by later thinkers, and revived in the reformation.

Sorry, didn't get that last point. "The Eastern orthodox hold to a view that does not have such a view of God. THAT is good news." So, its good news that the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn't hold to penal substitutionary atonement. Is it good news because you feel that God is misrepresented by the doctrine? If so, how so?

Jeremiah:I don't deny that some language of the Pauline Epistles lend themselves to a formulation of a penal substitutionary model, but that does not necessarily mean that is what is intended by Paul. If I am not mistaken, the earliest Church Fathers and the majority them, did not hold to the penal substitutionary model. I don't have the space here to fully articulate the Eastern Orthodox model of salvation. But I can say that what I meant by "THAT is good news" is that the Orthodox view does not view God as needing to be saved "from" in the sense meant by the penal understanding.
I believe God is misrepresented by the penal model, because His mercy is overshadowed by a kind of peranoid fear of punishment, or makes God look bi-polar to an unsaved world. The Orthodox understanding recognizes that while God is a consuming fire, He is love. The two are inseperable. While we experience His love as a refining fire (those being saved), the unsaved experience His love as a tormenting fire. While this doesn't answer every verse or refernce to a God who punishes, has vengeance, is full of wrath, etc (so don't quote a bunch to me), the Orthodox take God Mercy and Grace into consideration first. That is what I meant by good news.

Jake:I don't get what you mean when you say that the penal substitutionary atonement position (PSA) overshadows the mercy of God by a kind of paranoid fear of punishment or makes God look bi-polar... Please elaborate.

I'm not sure the distinction between refining fire and tormenting fire escapes the same dichotomy that you ascribe to the reformed position. You say "tormenting love," we say "wrath and vengeance." They both equate to hell being hot and long (unless you don't affirm that hell hurts and is eternal). I too, though reformed, believe that hell is probably the most loving thing God can do for someone who continues to be an enemy of the cross. I see no inconsistency between affirming this and PSA.

The good news, as Romans 3:19-26 describes it, is that God's loved moved him to propitiate our sins on the cross by Jesus (absorbing wrath deserved to us) so that God could simultaneous be "just" (maintain his holiness) and "the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus," that is, so that God can treat us as if we were righteous though we are not. (thus, expressing his love for a lost humanity). This is forensic and penal in nature.

Mercy and Grace are terms that are logically dependent on notions of justice and righteousness. Justice is when God maintains what is right. Mercy and Grace refers to how God treats us when we are not right. Considering Grace and Mercy first is a false move. Just as truancy (as in "your child was truant today") presupposes and depends on the idea of attendance, so grace presupposes and depends on justice. Propitiation "allows" God to treat us graciously without sacrificing justice in the process. That, my friend, is gospel.

Scott: It seems that there is clear language of a judicial nature in the doctrine of the atonement, but it doesn't seem to be the only language. If one seeks to negate the judicial language, I believe he would have to argue against the empirical evidence of Scripture. However, as John Stott would point out, there are other ways of describing the atonement, as well, which contribute to a fuller sense of the sacrifice that Christ made. J.I. Packer would even caution not to view the atonement solely on human models of retributive justice and suggests that it be seen not as a mechanical explanation (how it works) but rather kerygmatically (what it means to us). There is definitely a spiritually valuable application from the PSA model, one that should not be despised.

Jake:Good points Scott. The PSA model doesn't exclude other facets of the atonement (e.g. Christus Victor), but likewise those other facets don't exclude PSA. I would add that "substitution" grounds almost every way we view atonement. I would even argue that penal substitution actually grounds many of the other facets of the atonement, and so is foundational in understanding the rich language describing the atonement. So when we say Christus Victor, Jesus saves humanity from the powers of evil and sin, why are sin and the powers of evil a problem? The power of sin is in the law. The accusation of Satan is grounded in the law. And the law is just an extension of God's nature. So, the reason why sin and Satan are issues, is because God is at issue.

Scott: Agreed. If the law is perfect, reflecting the character and holiness of God, it shouldn't be seen as an offense when it's transgressed by humanity, nor, especially, should the satisfaction made for it by Jesus, our Advocate, Ransom-payer and Bearer of God's judgment on us.