Brief thoughts on penal substitution

IMG_5205edited-720x380Dwayne recently shared a Tom Wright piece with me in which Wright addresses the shades of meaning of, and confusion over, ‘penal substitution’. While Wright considers it an obvious misappropriation of the concepts ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ to understand them as imagining Jesus to come between God and humanity to save the later from the former by placating the anger of the former, he doesn’t want to reject biblical talk of divine wrath and judgment and Christ’s role in expressing and addressing such judgment. Write says:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates – yes, hates, and hates implacably – anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

There’s a prevailing difference in definitions that plagues disagreements over penal substitution. There are those who define “penal” as merely punitive and thus excluding any wider redemptive intention. A ‘penal’ act is a ‘punitive’ act – pure and simple – a ‘getting even with’ which as such is incompatible with acts that are redemptive and healing in their intention. But not everybody defines ‘penal’ that way. Those who take a wider view on what ‘penal’ might mean (as expressive of loving intentions) seem to say that God’s response to or judgment of evil is ‘penal’ in the sense that it is designed to expose evil as evil, to render its truth plain through bringing persons into an experience of evil as evil, but the purpose of the act does not terminate in this exposition. It terminates in the redemption of those caught in the grip of evil. So then, God wills that those who reject him experience what that rejection is like. I can’t disagree with this, so long as one understands this is the natural and necessary consequence of God’s willing himself as our highest good. To desire something else for those who reject him would be less than loving of God.

But there’s a fine line between this and other statements that posit a competition between ‘love’ and ‘judgment’, and even Wright appears to locate ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ on contrary but inseparable poles of a divine reality, a reality that is ‘now doing this’ (which we call loving a person) and ‘now doing that’ (which we call judging a person). This distinction can be as problematic as reducing judgment to merely punitive terms. Perhaps the line between the two is the difference between organic/natural judgment (like the Orthodox espouse) and imagining God to take more positive actions that are willed by him “in addition to” or “over and against” willing the highest good of those judged. In other words, if ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ compete with the highest good of those judged, then we have problems. But the terms may, as terms, if carefully qualified, express the truth of God pursuing the highest good of a fallen world. ‘Substitution’ may simply describe the Cross in the sense that Christ volunteers to “step into” (taking our place in) our scapegoating mechanism, substituting himself for us in that violence in a representative mode. But this is not so that God does to Jesus what God in his holiness must do to sinners (which is how I’m reading Wright and Greg). Rather, God endures our doing to him what we do to other innocent victims, and thereby God demonstrates how unlike he is from our concepts of justice and peace. (Brad Jersak, though, prefers “identification” to “substitution” and this may better express the truth of what happens on the Cross.)

This love enduring our violence is God’s judgment (his estimate, verdict upon, or opinion) of evil. Where any mind perceives a measure of the depth of God’s abiding, loving beatitude and peace, it comes into an experience of judgment. Its privation is revealed or exposed. It suffers that revelation, but it suffers nothing other than God in and as the undiminished delight that values and loves the world and whose delight is the highest good of creatures. In judging sin, God takes no action ‘in addition to’ his loving us, no positive judgment that is a counterpart to his actually loving us (even if that judgment is inseparable from God’s love as south pole is contrary to but inseparable from the north pole). I think a big part of Wright’s and Greg’s problem here is that they mistakenly view the sheer, undisturbed delight of triune love to be indifferent to evil if all it is is delight. They imagine God has to suffer some internal diminishment (Wright’s “hatred”) over and against divine beatitude or else God is “indifferent” to evil. But perhaps they assume this because that’s how they feel about evil – i.e., joy and delight are not motivation enough to oppose evil and act in the world for its healing and salvation. One has to be disturbed out of the complacency of happiness and act because one “hates” the wrong one acts to correct.

This is wrongheaded in our view. While Wright rightly objects to crude, competitive notions of justice and love that get expressed in versions of ‘penal substitution’ which view Jesus as saving us from God by placating his rage, he (and Boyd with him, I think) doesn’t entirely escape a competitive polarizing of ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ when he suggests that God must be thought of as “hating, yes hating” evil. Exactly what kind of change would that entail in God over and against his loving people and being the life which is the end of all things? Why cannot an undisturbed peace and beatitude be its own motivation to pursue the highest good of all things? And why cannot this beatitude itself be experienced as painful torture for those who don’t love it? Just think of how miserable an angry person is around happy people precisely because they’re happy.

Happy people don’t help miserable people by hating their misery. They help them by being happy.

Certainly God cannot will our highest good in him and do nothing to address our violence or save us from its privating consequences. Wright admits to directing his criticism against viewing God as “indifferent” to sin and evil. The problem with Wright’s criticism is that he feels divine indifference is only avoided if God “hates” something, if he is prompted to act through feeling something relative to evil over and against being the infinite beatitude and peace which is his being and existence to begin with. Beatitude and peace aren’t enough. This bring to mind comments I earlier made on the question of divine motivation and indifference in the face of a violent/sinful world:

I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf, or additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.

Am I suggesting God is, in some sense, indifferent to evil? Yes. But everybody who thinks God exists necessarily has to concede this much. God is ontologically indifferent to evil if it’s the case that evil is a privatio boni (privation of the good), indifferent to evil in the sense ‘being’ is indifferent to ‘non-being’. But this indifference is not a self-absorbed lack of passion or concern for the well-being of others. It just is the well-being of others. But it is not indifferent in the sense that it fails on any level to be and to pursue the highest well-being of all things in him.

Can “penal” and “substitution” be helpfully employed at all? My own feeling is it would require more qualification than its worth. Wright feels that if the phrase is not used, however qualified, we end up embracing an “indifferent” God. That seems hardly the case to me. But I think in the end it’s unhelpful to try to move a conversation forward by reducing positions to particular labels.

6 comments on “Brief thoughts on penal substitution

  1. I like the way you think, and I know that you and Greg often theologically butt heads (I’ve read his response to your reviews of CWG and your responses to him). I read Wright’s “Revolution” book and got stuck in the exact place you have identified here and also in Greg’s recent book. But I have wondered if it is possible that the words “wrath” and “hate” are expressions of differing aspects of love’s intensity. I “hate” what drug abuse does to people because I love people and I get angry (wrath) at what they are doing to themselves. Yes, I am angry at and hate their behavior while I love them as human beings. I haven’t thought through how this relates to sin being judged in the body of Jesus (except that his willingness to permit this violence against himself exposes [judges] how wrong it is). But I still suspect that there was more going on in the crucifixion than meets the eye. Somehow the hold that sin has upon mankind and the powers behind that hold were defeated through his death and somehow a new creation was inaugurated and will eventually overtake the old. I agree that the scapegoat mechanism was one aspect of this, but it seems that there must be more to it. In this regard I agree (so far) with Boyd’s analysis of Girard’s theory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      I agree, Terry. Even if sometimes authors wrongly attribute violence to God, other times I think it’s better to say there is some genuine act in the world that Israel is interpreting in terms of her own perspective. Wrath/Anger can fall into that. There’s a real fervency to God’s love for us that WE associate with anger but which in God is just the unrelenting fullness of God’s ardor and passion for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom, I think Wright has cried ‘indifference’ because he is a responsible high-profile churchman and simply cannot face the common folk unless he publicly sacrifices the truth about true justice, invoking the divine ‘wrath’ to satisfy their outrage over child abuse, bombings, racial prejudice, etc.

    Because I believe he actually knows quite well that the real virtue of justice (and of a just judge) consists in nothing less than perfect freedom from all bias of enmity, anger, etc., toward both the accused and the plaintiff. It is the sacred duty of the judge to keep himself free of emotion, anger, etc., to be indifferent, impersonal, even ‘blind.’

    In the OT Wisdom literature ‘hatred’ is only a kind of disregard or indifference, a shunning or avoidance, a renunciation or utter disregard. Men who are trustworthy hate a bribe, ie., won’t take one (Ex 18.21); fools hate knowledge and instruction, ie., won’t abide it’s discipline (Pr 1.29 & 5.12); He who spares the rod hates his son, ie., is indifferent to his betterment (Pr 13.24); the poor is hated even of his neighbor, ie., shunned (Pr 14.20). And Pr 26.26 speaks of a hatred so passive that it can be covered by deceit (Pr 26.26).

    Last and best of all, when Christ (Lk 14:26) equates discipleship with hatred of father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, he is clearly not telling his would-be followers to go home and start throwing chairs around or terrorizing loved ones. He refers to the way their families are going to feel (disregarded) when devotion to him forces a division between kindred over Messiah and Sabbath, and clean and unclean and sickness and health.

    The Christian truth in this case cannot be easily understood by the bloodthirsty majority and certainly not by the unbelieving media, and so it remains a kind of ‘esoteric’ truth – that God, as God, takes no personal stance toward sin, and yet, that (in Christ) we will all somehow be held to account for all our lack of love.

    Final thought – if Divine Justice is indeed impersonal, it may yet be fitting as a deity group function – maybe a Trinity Function??

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Thank you John. Good points. I’m OK with describing justice as ‘impersonal’ in the sense that nothing of God’s personal being or identity is “at stake” in his defining evil and relating to us fallen evil folk, not indifferent in the “unfeeling” sense – i.e., indifferent in the “already fully feeling” sense, so fully alive and motivated and passionate (impassioned) that he needn’t be moved to act for the highest good of the world by first being moved to do so by some diminishment of his plenitude or some felt inconvenience – as if his ecstatic delight isn’t motivation enough to pursue our highest good.

      Thanks for the Wright comment. Interesting. I’m gonna think on that.


      • While reading the Wright article I noticed it is 10 years old. Do you think Dwayne could be sharing some backstory on Greg’s early inspiration for his Warrior book? Apparently TW was responding to a situation (Jeffrey John’s piece) which had caught quite a bit of public eye in England..

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Yes. I’d love to look into Wright’s view more (when he’s not responding to others and is just expressing his own sense of things). But Wright does figure into CWG.

        There’s a post-CWG video with Greg and TW on it discussing divine abandonment and other items, and on that video Greg asks Wright about his view of the the Cry, i.e., whether he thinks it expresses a trinitarian ad intra affect upon God. Wright seems to say ‘yes’, and Greg feels a bit vindicated by that. But the point is that it’s only after CWG is done that Greg himself gets clarity on TW’s position.

        Liked by 1 person

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