Atonement and the H-word

September 3, 2013

I enjoy identifying heresies the way some people enjoy pointing out logical fallacies. (“That’s a Straw Man argument!” “That’s an Ad Hominem fallacy!” “Slippery Slope!” Aren’t we all experts on everything thanks to Wikipedia and TED talks?) So I’m enjoying this series of posts by United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli, the Tamed Cynic, about heresies, where they came from, how you can know you’re a heretic, and who is likely to commit them today.

If you know anything about heresies, you know we’re all a little heretical from time to time and to some extent. So I appreciate that Micheli offers his list in a spirit of levity.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a passionate defender of penal substitution as the primary (though not only) biblical way of understanding the Atonement. I love talking about the wrath of God and all that.

That’s sarcasm. I don’t love talking about God’s wrath. But as with other issues, I don’t care so much that Methodist people disagree with me, but that they do so for good reasons, using sound logic and the Bible as our primary authority. I think Wesley called true Christianity a “heart religion,” but he didn’t mean that we don’t also use our heads!

Anyway, when I argue with my fellow Methodists about penal substitution (never mind the atheists and skeptics), I’ve heard a few of them caricature the doctrine as “cosmic child abuse”: God the Father is really angry; he needs someone to torture; and his Son Jesus will do just fine. Or they say the doctrine implies that God is really mean, unlike Jesus, and Jesus comes to earth to protect us from his dangerously petulant father.

The best way to defend the doctrine against this caricature is to emphasize that God is Trinity, and that the Son and the Father desire the same thing. What the Father wills, the Son also wills. Indeed, if you want to know who God is, just look at Jesus, because Jesus is God. If the Father wants to sacrifice his Son, well, the Son equally wants to offer himself as a sacrifice. That’s the way the Trinity works. A proof-text may help here, from John 14:8-9.

 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Disagree with penal substitution if you like, but don’t do so because you think it makes the Father seem cruel. Jesus is not a victim of his Father’s wrath. Instead, be a Trinitarian! You may disagree that our sins require propitiation in order for us to be reconciled with God (even though both Testaments loudly affirm this), but if they do, then it’s very loving on God’s part for God to offer himself as that propitiation, since we human beings aren’t in a position to do it ourselves.

No one that I’ve read has said this more succinctly than someone N.T. Wright excerpts in this excellent article on the subject of penal substitution.

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

All that to say, Micheli helpfully reminds me that my brothers and sisters who use the “cosmic child abuse” argument are falling victim to the ancient heresy of Arianism: “The belief that the God the Son is subordinate to God the Father, effectively dismantling any coherent doctrine of the Trinity.” Arianism says that God created the Son first, and then created everything through the Son; although the Son is above the rest of Creation, he is himself still a creature, not God.

One of the modern-day symptoms of Arianism, he says, relates to what I’ve just been writing.

If you (mis)understand the atonement in such a way that you treat Jesus as someone who protects us from God the Father; that is, the Son and the Father’s wills are not one and the same, then even though you probably consider yourself a bible-believing Christian you’re actually a heretic.

One Response to “Atonement and the H-word”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is an excelleng analysis, Brent. I also agree that penal substitution is definitely taught and is an important doctrine of the faith.

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