Rejections of the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement these days by previously orthodox people come around as regularly as flu viruses in the winter.
And they’re just as toxic and catching.
Scott Higgins’ latest post is a case in point. You can read it here. It’s got a nice click-baity title in keeping with the current social media times, so that much is new:
But the content? It’s pretty much a re-run of the standard rejections of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) by many a mainline, failing denomination over the past five or so decades.
That’s not to say that PSA has only been rejected in the past five decades. Its been a thorny issue in the side of many a person over the centuries of the church.
Scott’s piece is just the latest, and it comes up with no new information or reasons why PSA is a problem. And as usual the problem is the doubled-headed one of biblical and church-historical misunderstandings.
That’s not the only problem here though. Scott’s article does what so many anti-PSA articles do. Their usual stance is to purport to stand above the cultural mix and show how PSA is so culturally bound. Unlike the author of the articles themselves of course, who, curiously, are the only ones who can see pan-culturally.
So it’s no surprise in an age like ours, an age of therapy, an age in which the word “phobia” is attached to so many words to describe the problem one might have with something, that Scott’s version of the gospel comes across quite therapeutic. It sounds just like the kind of Kool Aid this culture just might drink if given the opportunity.
And the opportunity to drink it is what it this about. Note Scott’s blog post title: “Your Gospel Ain’t Good News to Me.”
In other words, how can we go about promulgating a gospel that has the idea of God’s wrath and his Son’s death in our place as a substitute for our sin, and an appeasement for God’s wrath?
That’s not good news to people at all. Certainly not 21st century Western people who live in therapy-land and for whom the idea of wrathful vengeance towards sin is abhorrent.
After all we live in places where our local villages are not likely to be slaughtered at a whim by warlords of various descriptions, so our understand of the depths of human depravity are understandably muted.
But if it’s not good news in this context, then it can’t be the gospel, right?
Wrong. St Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:16, that he as a purveyor of the gospel is the stench of death to some and the savour of life to others. The gospel is NOT good news to those who would reject it. The gospel is NOT good news to the self-righteous, the self-sufficient, the proud and the unjust. That’s the point.
Scott’s biblical framework is ropey to say the least. And he’s nothing if not audacious. He quotes plenty of verses that say that Christ did die for our sins, but then, airily dismisses such verses as having nothing to do with PSA. He goes as far as to say this:
“It’s not taught in the Bible.”
Yet we use this type of language all the time without invoking ideas of a person paying a penalty for us. For example, a police officer might swap places with somebody being held hostage; a firefighter might give her life to rescue a child from a burning building; a football fan might say that a particular player scored the winning goal “for us”. When we say that the police officer took the place of the hostage there is clearly a substitution, but it is not penal.
Inadvertently, or otherwise, Scott’s examples here prove what Scott does not believe. He does not believe that humans are perpetrators against God in the sense that they are sinners against Him. He believes – or seems to believe -, that we are only victims of something having been done to us (hostage, a child needing rescued).
The weight of Scripture is huge – HUGE – in the direction that human beings are at enmity with God on the basis of, not their victim status, but their perpetrator status. They have sinned against God. We are not simply passive victims, but willing perpetrators. There is no book of the Bible that you can go to where the idea of humans being in rebellion against God as active sinners is not found. Nowhere.
And in Scott’s refusal to countenance that from the very start, of course he’s going to say that PSA is not in the Bible. Which is proof that in the therapy land of Western culture, in which everyone is scratching around trying to prove that they’re a victim of something in order to absolve themselves of either guilt or responsibility, Scott is offering deep draughts of that cultural Kool Aid.
But it goes deeper than that. Scott’s dismissal of the Old Testament is astonishingly glib. He states:
Nor will it do to say that the New Testament describes Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for sin and that just as the Old Testament sees sacrificial animals taking the place of the worshipper, so Jesus as a sacrifice bore the penalty we deserve. This simply misrepresents the Old Testament sacrificial system.
Scott then says “you might like to read my post on this”, and provides a link. Well, before you read his post on this, read the book of Hebrews in the NEW Testament.
The whole point of the book of Hebrews is to show the shadow/reality nature of the Old Testament/New Testament frameworks. It’s a “this is that” book. It’s hard – impossible – to read the book of Hebrews and come up with any other conclusion than what is foreshadowed in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament. Jesus is presented as exactly the fulfilment of what the Old Testament worship system prefigured.
Oh, and then there’s always this in Hebrews 10, if you’re not convinced:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshippers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
At his best Scott is being naive, at his worst he is recommitting the problem of the heretic Marcion who was affronted with most of the Old Testament and was even unsure about those parts of the New Testament in which the life and pattern of Israel was predominant.
But what is worse is that if you follow Scott’s logic, the plain meaning of Scripture is no longer plain.
Evangelical faith is built upon the idea of the perspicacity of Scripture. That the text’s meaning is plain if you look at it, study it and think it through. Scott is saying otherwise. It’s plain what Hebrews 10 is saying above, and it’s even plainer when you read it in the context of the rest of Hebrews, and then you hold that up against the pattern of Scripture.
Inadvertently or otherwise, Scott is saying that you can’t go to Scriptures such as Hebrews 10 and draw the conclusions for yourself as you read it. You need a mediated reading through the lens of scholars and cultural critiques. That is a classic rejection of the Bible’s own understanding of itself.
So don’t take Scott’s word for it. But don’t take my word for it either! Read the text yourself!
Be a Berean. What do I mean by that? In Acts 17 Paul and his companions arrive in Berea with the gospel. Here’s what happens:
The brothers[a] immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
The Bereans heard Paul and Silas’s message, and they didn’t immediately go “That sounds right.” No, they searched the Scriptures daily to see if Paul and Silas were telling them “porky pies”. We need to do the same. Indeed I am confident that we can do the same!
Why do we need to do the same? Because of what Paul says in Galatians to a church that’s swerving away from the gospel delivered to them:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8-9)
Of course Scott is not coming across as a devil from hell is he? He’s coming across nicely. Indeed he seems a lovely bloke. But that’s not the point is it? After all would we expect plausible error to come from people we abhor or despise? No, that’s the point of error – it’s never so enticing as when its attractively packaged by attractive people.
Scott’s other big flaw is his use of history. And at this point he’s assuming that most of his readers don’t know church history. And I assume most of mine don’t either. But he lumps PSA in with Anselm of Canterbury, and then in one fell swoop states that the Reformers simply lined up with Anselm.
Two things to note about that: One, Anselm didn’t come up with this theological position out of the blue. He’d been going back to the texts of Scripture. It’s not hard to see PSA in the text, unless of course you’re culturally against that.
But secondly, and more importantly, the catch cry of the Reformers was “ad fontes” – back to the source!
Faced with a ropey medieval Catholic Church that had covered up the text, that was full of superstition and unbiblical methods, the Reformers, all classically educated in the original languages of the Biblical text, did exactly that, they went back to the original source in the original languages and discovered that what the Church had been teaching was very different to what the Bible had been teaching.
Which, again, is what I am calling you to do! Don’t take your theology from the new authorities of our culture such as blog posts from people we like.
Be brave enough to go back to the text of Scripture and see what it says, and say to yourself, “Even if a blogger from heaven were to bring me a different gospel, I will not believe it.” Ask God to open your eyes to what the Word says. In fact, when you come to read the text pray the prayer of Psalm 119:18:
“Open My eyes that I may see wondrous things from your law.”
Now Scott may be, understandably, reacting to a position that says that all there is to the cross is PSA, as if the Incarnation and the life of Christ was simply getting in the way of the real stuff. We need to reject this reductionist understanding of the whole gospel story and its implications for this life as much as the next. I understand there are facets to the atonement that many evangelicals, in their zeal to protect PSA from attack, have overlooked.
Yet whatever else we say about Christ’s life – his perfect life – it has to be substitutionary. Indeed his perfect life provides us with the flip side of the “penal” part. The benefits of his righteous life before a holy God are conferred – gifted – to his people, even at the time that he takes on the demerit of their sin within himself on the cross. He is cursed on the tree so that we might be blessed. It’s call the Great Exchange.
And speaking of a great exchange, don’t exchange the multi-faceted diamond of the gospel, with God’s substituting of himself in Christ in our place to condemn sin in the flesh, with an anaemic version of the gospel that is bound by culture. Don’t do it.
I say that for pragmatic reasons. Because if you do, I can guarantee the end result – maybe not in your generation, but in the next – will be the jettisoning of the gospel altogether.
I noted with sadness these words in one of the comments on Scott’s blog:
Thanks Scott for your explanation I have often felt awkward when explaining PSA to children it was so hard to explain – next Easter will be different
Yes it is hard to explain. Yes it’s awkward. But it’s a bit like having the sex talk with your kids. It’s awkwardness is no reason not to have it. Same with the gospel message with PSA at the centre. I have to explain it to my children and ensure they grasp it. And maybe next Easter will be different for your kids as you explain a gospel that is more about therapy than it is about good news for those who have fallen short of God’s glory.
But I can guarantee this: You may enjoy explaining the Easter message to your kids without PSA, but they won’t be bothered enough to explain that hollowed out gospel to their own kids – your grand-kids – in thirty years time.
Why? Because it just isn’t astonishing enough to last. It just isn’t counter-cultural enough to push against the therapeutic tsunami of late modernity. there’s nothing vital at its core.
So, if you’re the person who wrote that comment and now you’re reading this, then suck it up, do the hard yards, and figure out a way to explain PSA to your kids, not as the only doctrine of the cross, but certainly as the central one, and the only one that ultimately deals with our ultimate problem – our sin that has separated us from a holy God, who in his great love for us, took on the punishment our sin so richly deserved.
And that IS good news!