Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Proud God?

There has been a great deal of debate in recent years over the question of the Atonement, specifically the question of which idea or model of the Atonement is, in fact, the primary Biblical perspective. There is no need to go into the history of this debate here, though it is a fascinating topic in its own right.

What concerns me is the primary difference between penal substitution and its detractors (who are, as with any revolutionary group, driven by a variety of ideas). There have been many criticisms of penal substitution that might pass for an overarching fault line, but speaking on a personal level, I believe that there is one distinction in the current models of penal substitution that, as it happens, is the central barrier between the idea's acceptance and rejection.

We all know what penal substitution is even if we do not know it by that name. It is, put simply, the doctrine that Christ's death on the cross saved us because he took our punishment on himself as a substitute in order to satisfy God's justice. Many critics of this view point to its popularity as a sign of theological hegemony or societal degeneration; its proponents point to the same fact as evidence of its truth and power. No doubt both positions have some basis in fact. It is difficult to believe that a doctrine as widespread as penal substitution could be completely wrong. It is also difficult to believe that the dominance of such a narrow view of the Cross is healthy for the Church.

That penal substitution is, in some form, propagated in Scripture, I do not doubt. That Isaiah 53, Romans 8, and a variety of other scriptures at the very least suggest such an idea is clear. But truth be told, this argument, despite what many have said, is not primarily about Scripture. It is about one's view of God.

Interpretation is always a meeting of the text and our own conscience. There are many arguments in theology where various Scriptures, with the aid of two opposing and equally convicted consciences, have come together to form contrary themes and positions. Alcuin and the Orthodox, Luther and Erasmus, Whitefield and Wesley, the names are many. I don't argue here that these men were equally right or wrong. Some were undoubtedly more right than others.

What I do argue is that Scripture was in many of these debates a neutral battlefield. Maybe there is a hill here, or a river there in the terrain of the Bible that happens to aid one army or another, but no one would argue that the landscape was shifting to help a side. This is why most theologians who debate with conviction on uncertain scriptural ground continually seek to entrench themselves on some firm feature of the terrain like faith or Christology. Only the bravest (and most foolhardy) thinkers attempt to scale those cliffs when well defended.

All theologians today will agree that without the Spirit's guidance, Scripture cannot be properly understood. What this means in practice, if not in principle, is that the respective consciences of opposing parties play the definitive role in interpretation on dubious Scriptural questions (I do not, of course, believe this is the case on issues so pivotal as the divinity of Christ, etc...) The conscience may take a wrong turn and run against the rocks of Scripture, but sometimes the consciences of men collide uninhibited by the hand of God's revelation. I believe that penal substitution is one of these rare circumstances.

Is penal substitution scriptural? That would depend on the facet you are referring to. Did Christ suffer a punishment meant for us? Of course. The logic of Scripture (death is a kind of punishment, therefore Jesus dying means he suffers said punishment) is irrefutable. We all can see the great rock tower to our left.

Did Jesus die as a substitute? Once again, the logic pierces like an arrow. How could he suffer anything for our sake that we did not suffer and not be, in some sense, a substitute?

Did he suffer the wrath of God? That, of course, would depend on what you meant by the wrath of God. Certainly Jesus suffered something in respect to the Father when he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". To be forsaken is to be separated and Jesus, in some way undoubtedly connected with sin, was forsaken of God.

From this point on, however, we begin to cross a line in Scripture, the line between what is spoken and what is assumed. Did Jesus satisfy the Father's demand for justice? Did he recompense him for sin? Here we are in the marshes, the fog of things never outlined explicitly in Scripture. There is no Scripture that says, "The Father demanded..." or "The Father's justice..." or "The Father's honor..." and so on. This specific element of penal substitution, namely, the Father's demand for satisfaction, is something that must be assumed if we believe it. We may argue that it is implicit in various statements about the Atonement, but what we mean is that, from our perspective, those statements make no sense without this belief in satisfaction repaid as a context.

In other words, the consciences are colliding. Over what? A simple, but earth shattering question: is God proud? Is Pride, along with Beauty, Holiness, Omniscience and the rest, part of God's eternal attributes?

Now some will recoil from this idea, but they need not do so. God is after all, the only being in existence who has the right to feel complete pride in himself. He is a perfect being after all, and everything he does is magnificent. Why not feel pride?

Others will respond, conscious of some pea beneath their bedding, that God's demand for satisfaction does not infer that God is proud. I ask them: what does it infer? If we say God is "zealous for his glory" (particularly in the context of a demand of Satisfaction) what do we mean by that if we do not mean that God is, in some sense, proud? I am, of course, using "pride" in the most fundamental sense: that of putting one's self forward. (In this way, I could be said to be asking a more fundamental question: does God have a "self"? But we will live this aside for now).

Let us take the assumed demand for satisfaction and put it in human terms. If I am owed something because of my status (I am king, for instance) and I demand that my royalty be honored by some compensation, I am, for good reasons or bad, operating out of a sense of pride and dignity. (This is the image Anselm found so agreeable.) In short, I am seeking a kind of self gratification, one that is, of course, valid.

This unrelenting logic has caused various teachers, particularly from the Enlightenment, to commit theological errors by saying, for instance, that God is bound by some code or Law (whether the Law of Moses or some unwritten standard) to demand satisfaction. Their sub-conscience was reacting to the implicit message. But, of course, no serious theologian would argue that an omnipotent God is effectively bound by a Law, much less one he wrote. The cliffs are very steep in that corner of scripture.

So we are left with a demand that originates, for whatever reason, within God himself. You may say, "God has every right to demand this satisfaction." I could not agree more. "God's holiness demands it," you say, but notice how you have made God's holiness sound like a law outside himself. We have agreed that there is no such power. God is all in all. He is omnipotent. He cannot be gainsaid. Certainly his desires do not run contrary to his holiness. What a poor holiness that would be! No, God's demand is something originating in himself, single minded, unadulterated.

"Ah," say you, "but God did not demand this satisfaction of a mere man. Otherwise it might seem selfish, but in actuality, he demanded it of himself through his Son."

Now let us say I go running. I'm not running as fast as I usually do and so I begin to urge myself to greater efforts. "You're better than this, Benjamin," I say inwardly. "Do yourself justice. Run faster!"

You will, no doubt, see the point. Even when God demands something of himself, such a demand is always, in every circumstance, based on an inner sense of worth. In human terms, we call this sense Pride.

"But how is your "Pride" separate from mere Dignity? Isn't it right to have a clear view of your own personal value and act on that knowledge?" Yes, but not if the focus of this act is self-gratification.

If a king demands that others respect him because he knows that such respect is essential to the stability and safety of his kingdom, then his demand is not rooted in Pride. Such a demand is, in fact, given for the benefit of others. We see this kind of reaction in the Parable of the Ten Talents when the King of the tale has his enemies executed before his eyes. When the King is threatened, the Kingdom is threatened.

But if a king demands such compensation in order to satisfy a personal desire, (say, a desire to satiate internal wrath) his only motive for doing so can be Pride.

Now would it be wrong for a perfect being, namely God, to demand the latter kind of satisfaction? Does God have the right to demand something for himself because he knows his status deserves it?

Of course. God always has this right. But would he, in fact, exercise it at the expense of his creation? Here we come to the crux of the whole matter. The real question is not could God, but would God? Would God make a demand in order to satisfy his pride? Would he look at Creation in bondage and say, "Satisfy me." Did Jesus do this in his own life? Was Jesus thinking, "The Father must be gratified" as he was raised from the earth to the cross?

I say No. What is painted in the Gospel is the picture of a Son committed to the glory of his Father, and a Father committed to the glory of his Son. There is no self-gratification in the Trinity.

Beyond anything, it is clear that no one else benefits from such a demand. If the logic of the Cross leads to law, curse, sin, and death, it does not lead also to a proud demand from the Father on his Son.

Such a demand would be a burden on us and if not on us then on Himself. Since it originates in Himself and directs back to Himself, the only purpose for a demand at the expense of Creation can be self-gratification.

Ultimately, if we are honest, the true fault line in this landscape is between those who see Pride, rightful Pride, as an intrinsic part of God's nature and those of us who serve a God who would wash his disciples feet before demanding anything for himself.

It comes to this: is God Love? Or is God Pride?


  1. Romans 5:8 makes it clear that God was acting in love toward us when he died on the cross.

    1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is not "self-seeking".

    If God was acting in love in choosing to die, and love is defined to not be self-seeking, then how would it be possible for him to also be seeking his own gratification in choosing to die?

  2. Good post, Ben. Thank God that there is no Pride in Love!