Dwayne recently shared a Tom Wright piece with me in which Wright addresses the shades of meaning 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(er) 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, not so that God can do to Jesus what God in his holiness must do to sinners (which is how I’m reading Wright and Greg), but so that God can endure our doing to him what we do to other innocent victims, and thereby demonstrate 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 upon (his estimate, verdict, 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. God takes no action ‘in addition to’ his loving us to judge sin, no positive judgment that is the polar 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, Wright (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.