An email to Al Mohler regarding penal substitution

An email to Al Mohler regarding penal substitution August 14, 2013

Al Mohler recently put up a post on penal substitution in response to the PCUSA brouhaha over the hymn “In Christ Alone,” which they withheld from their hymnal because of the line “The wrath of God was satisfied.” In the past you may recall, I shared a study on here of all the ways in which Christ’s blood is described in the New Testament, finding only one possible, tenuous reference to the satisfaction of God’s wrath. In any case, Mohler doesn’t allow comments on his blog so I sent him an email. Since he probably won’t respond, I decided to post it. Keep in mind that I’m deliberately framing how I speak in a way that might be persuasive to an arch-fundamentalist Southern Baptist.

Since you don’t have an option to comment on your recent blog on penal substitution, I figured I’d write you an email. It was interesting to me to see how you narrate the history of Christian atonement theory as though there were a continual consensus on penal substitution from the beginning until Schleiermacher came along and took everything in a different direction. Surely you’re not ignorant of the significant differences in the way that the patristic fathers talked about atonement from the way that the Spurgeonites talk about it today.

My own contention is that Anselm’s satisfaction theory which is what shaped the Reformation and everything that followed involves a major innovation that isn’t really Biblically justified. Specifically there’s no Biblical basis for introducing an infinite scale into the equation (the honor offense against God is infinite, therefore Jesus had to be both an infinite God and a human representative of humanity to pay the price). Nothing in the Bible says what my fundamentalist brothers say all the time, “You think you’re a decent person, but that’s because you’re not measuring things according to God’s standards which are infinite.”

God’s ways are indeed higher than our ways and the verse which says that in Isaiah is talking about the way God is more merciful than we are, which is why it’s ghastly to proof-text that verse as evidence of God’s nihilistically rigorous expectations for human behavior. The scandal of the Bible is the opposite: that God allows His name to dwell among a people who constantly humiliate and betray Him with their apostasy and idolatry. The problem is not that God is infinitely sanctimonious and wants to torture people forever because He hates imperfection; the problem is that we try to justify what is unjustifiable and that keeps us in the hopelessly corrupted delusional prison that Augustine and Luther called homo curvatus en se.

Isaiah 53 is the only text that can be taken to explicitly affirm satisfaction of God’s wrath as the purpose of atonement: “It was his will to crush him.” This requires of course making the suffering servant passage only about Jesus and not about Israel’s exile. That’s the best that you’ve got. All the other texts seem to support an abstract wrath satisfaction purpose only if it is presupposed and eisegeted onto the text. To die for our sins does not mean to die because God needed to spew his anger onto something.

Regarding Romans 3, which you referenced, everything that Paul cites about the wickedness of humanity from the psalms is an answer to his rhetorical question in verse 9: “What then? Are we any better off?” The psalms Paul excerpts provide evidence that the Jews are not any better off (because of the testimony of Jewish poets against their own people) and the Torah is not the panacea that Paul’s polemical opponents make it out to be.

So rather than affirming that all of humanity is utterly, infinitely, nihilistically wicked, Romans 3:11-18 shuts down any claim that the Judaizers are immune to sin. When we see that Romans 3:11-18 is meant to shut down the delusion that the law can produce perfection, then Romans 3:23 is not a statement of humanity’s utter depravity but rather the fact that nobody has the basis for getting on their high horse and judging others since all of us fall short of the glory of God. There’s a world of difference between falling short and being utterly depraved.

I believe in penal substitution in the sense that I believe the juridical/punitive element of the cross is critical to our healing and transformation into people who can live in communion with God and each other. The purpose is to break us of our innate tendency to self-justify/glory in ourselves (Romans 3:20, Ephesians 2:9, 1 Corinthians 1:30) which is the Luciferian impulse that is the basis for all sin and the reason why we need the foundation of Jesus’ cross in order to live in an authentic community where the truth is spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15).

To say that atonement is all a Father/Son transaction that has only to do with an abstract violation of honor is an Anselmian innovation. Why is God wrathful? Because God loves His creation and hates it when we abuse ourselves and each other. God’s glory is not akin to the “glory” of the will to power that Hitler put on display at the 1936 Berlin Games. God’s glory is the beauty that He never stops filling the world with. He hates the ugliness with which we pollute His beauty; and I suspect He has a special unique hatred for those who create ugliness with the ugly Nietzschean fuehrer-God they have created in their own image.

So God’s solution is to offer only mercy and accept only those who accept it. Those who are unwilling to submit to God’s mercy and instead try to justify themselves with doctrinal correctness (which is the Pelagianism of our time) or other means are not safe to the body of people who have put their trust in God’s mercy, which is why they will not be allowed into eternal communion. God’s justice is not impersonal like the modern nation-state, which is the impression given in many presentations of heaven and hell among the penal substitution enthusiasts. God rather defends His people against their oppressors because of His covenantal commitment to them. It is because of God’s mercy for the people who depend on Him for their safety that heaven cannot be universalist, but as Jesus says, the most ardent self-appointed gatekeepers of heaven may find themselves on the outside of the gate (Matthew 23:13).

So what I’m saying is I certainly believe in the Biblically supportable elements of penal substitution, but the caricatures of it that are rampant throughout the Southern Baptist Church (that I left behind along with a growing exodus of others who grew up in the Reagan era of American Christianity) are creating a monstrous people who have come to believe in the total depravity of everyone else.

I would not be surprised if many of the people in the crowd at this week’s Missouri state fair who screamed wildly for a clown dressed up in blackface as Obama were doing so because they have been taught that everyone outside of their churches is infinitely wicked and especially the Democrats. There is no reason to try to understand those people or negotiate with them because God hates them infinitely even though they seem like they might be decent people; we just don’t have the infinite perspective of God to see how thoroughly reprobate they are.

American evangelicals have perversely managed to invert the purpose of Paul’s polemic in Romans. Instead of being chastened by his words, we are emboldened in our judging. We measure our holiness according to the tenacity with which we stick to our guns in speaking out against the sins of other people when what we should be doing is measuring our own sinfulness with sober judgment (Romans 12:3) and covering others’ sinfulness with our love (1 Peter 4:8).

I imagine you get a lot of emails. I would of course be honored to dialogue with you. I figured that you could handle my south Texas feistiness, but if I have spoken uncharitably, please forgive me.

Yours in God’s mercy,

Morgan Guyton

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