The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, December 8, 2007

PSA: An Amateur Analysis

As I recently mentioned, I'm not a believer in the theory of the Atonement commonly known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement ("PSA"). Now there are many forms of this doctrine, some of which even noted evangelical scholar J.I. Packer has called "crude," and addressing such a form of the doctrine is taking on a venerable part of tradition (dating to St. Anselm) only at its weakest--it's setting up a straw man. So, in the interest of fairness and intellectual honesty, let me use Packer's own statement, from his 1973 Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, "What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution," linked above. In his lecture, after a careful and scholarly exegesis of biblical and traditional sources of the doctrine, Packer proposes his own statement of the doctrine:
The ingredients in the evangelical model of penal substitution are now, I believe, all before us, along with the task it performs. It embodies and expresses insights about the cross which are basic to personal religion, and which I therefore state in personal terms, as follows:

(1) God, in Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

Thus we see what, according to this model, the cross achieved and achieves.
Packer's summation is admirable in that it reflects a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of Biblical text as understood throughout the Protestant tradition, and even invokes the Catholic tradition as well (Anselm over Abelard). He helpfully notes that the alternative meanings of the Cross (particularly the "moral theory") does not contradict PSA, that those meanings are all valid and contain truth. Despite these nuances, in my opinion, Packer's view underplays the Biblical theme of our "sonship" (sorry for the sexist terminology, but I'm quoting Henry Scott Holland's essay "Faith" from Lux Mundi). This theme, as explicated by Jesus himself, and consistent with the Book of Genesis, suggests that PSA rests upon too stark a vision of God's forgiveness and emphasizes human depravity over our status as children of God.

God as Parent

The central point of Holland's essay is that we can have faith in God because of the personal experience of relatedness to God that stems from cultivation of the spritual life. He described this as "sonship" and points to our feeling that Creation, in some manner, is ours as much as we are its. We feel privileged as heirs, not merely living by sufferance.

Biblically, of course, this concept derives from several statements of Jesus. John 1:12, and 10:34 depict him as describing his followers and Israel as "children of God" (or "sons of God," depending on translation). Jesus is, in Jn. 10:34, quoting the characterization of Israel from Ps.82:6. Similar statements can be found in Phillipians 2:15 and 1 Jn.2:1-2.

But I think the most telling statement is not a reference but an explication from Matthew 7:7-12:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets
See also Luke 11:9-13.

Moreover, in the Old Testament, God is depicted as not delighting in sacrifice, but in loyalty. Hosea 6:6; Ps. 51:16. In Genesis, of course, God intervenes before the sacrifice of Isaac.

And, of course, John 3:16: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish..."

Now these biblical texts do not, of course, disprove PSA--indeed, John 3:16 is deployed by Packer in support of it. But they do establish certain aspects of God and our relationship with Him that are central to Christian thinking:

1. We are called to be children of God;
2. God's love for us is like that of a parent to a child--only far more so--more pure, more giving, more generous;
3. God does not value sacrifice or pain for their own sake.

Packer's Assertions in the Light of Holland's Notion of "Sonship"

Moving on to Packer's nine-point summary of PSA, let's look at several of his points in the light of what we can glean about our relationship with God, from Scripture and relation as emphasized by Holland.

1. "God Condones Nothing and Judges Sin as it Deserves" Undoubtedly true. However, condonation and forgiveness are not the same. Forgiveness includes judgment, and can only happen after judgment that there is something to forgive. This is, if I may draw upon my legal studies, where many who write on retributive justice go astray: retributive justice does not merely provide a substitute for private vengeance; it rather represents an assay by the community of the weight of the transgressor's offense--an assessment of the scope of the infringement of the community's norms. That assessment is far different and distinct from the question of deciding what, if any, punishment should be inflicted upon the offender. Indeed, even in the criminal justice system, in rare but compelling cases, even serious crimes may be so judged but nonetheless deemed to warrant no punishment.

Theologically, we are told by Jesus again and again to forgive--seventy times seven times--and to not arrogate to ourselves judgment. Matt. 18:22. Indeed, we are incentivized to refrain from judgment of others by the warning that we shall be judged by our own measure. Matt. 7:1.

So, while I agree with this point, I do not see it as particularly supporting PSA.

2. "My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence"

Well, this is the big step, isn't it? Let's think about this, though. Do the sins of mankind merit "ultimate penal suffering"? Well, if we're acknowledging that even the best of us is in need of God's salvific love, I'm on board. If we're saying that even those who devote themselves to Christ's service for a lifetime in humility somehow are as undeserving of God's love as the worst of humanity--that there's a moral equivalence between Vlad the Impaler and Mother Theresa--and that finite sins deserve eternal punishment--I have to say, that sounds to me a tad much. In jurisprudence, there's a concept called proportionality", which states that punishment in excess of crime is unjust. If we, who are fallen, can see this and moderate our flawed justice systems accordingly, isn't it arrogant presumption to believe our heavenly father is blind to such justice? At some point, even a weighty debt is, in justice, repaid. Is God who in Exodus 21:23-27, enunciated a doctrine of proportionality, blind to it Himself?

To accept this step, you must agree that, in the words of
Jonathan Edwards, "God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire." God abhors his children? That flouts Jesus's own words that we are as children to God--erring children, no doubt, sometimes even very wicked children--but if you have, as I have, condoled with a parent whose child has been convicted of a grevous criminal offense, and who knows that that child is guilty, you would know that the word "abhor" is not applicable. Love never dies--not a parent's, and, by Jesus's own express analogy, not God's.

3. "The penalty due to me...was paid for me by Jesus Christ on the Cross"

There's a lot of truth in this--and yet, I think that the metaphor of Christ the Lamb sacrificed at Passover has been overly literalized as deployed here. Also, doesn't this endorse the rather chilling words of Caiaphas in Jn. 11:50 that "it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not"? PSA here actually places God in a position that is less forgiving than we, his children, are told to be--we are told to forgive wrongs without payment, to carry the burden two miles when forced to carry it one, and to turn the other cheek rather than to return a blow. But God requires payment? But our Father is, we are told, more, not less, giving than we are capable of being.

Again, as a metaphor, it's powerful and conveys much truth--that if we do not take up our Cross, and follow Jesus, dying to ourselves to live in Christ, to borrow from St. Paul, we cannot fulfill our destinies as children of God. As a literal truth--dubious, I think, at best.

4. Justification By Faith: Agreed, but see 3 above.

5. "Christ's death for me is my sole hope" Well, add Christ's life and resurrection, and modify as described in point 3, above, and I agree.

6-9. Again, see 5 & 3. Christ's death is important--my next post will be on a Lux Mundi-influenced theory of the Atonement--but stressing Christ as Ransom over God as loving Father is to, in my opinion, concretize metaphor in an unhelpful fashion. Again, if we can forgive without payment, then surely God is able to. With great respect for Packer, I think in his enunciation of PSA he loses sight of that most basic, most biblical of truths.

No comments: