Penal Substitution as Trinitarian Love: A Response to Frederick W. Schmidt

Rublev’s famous icon depicts the other-oriented love of the God who is triune.

Is God a violent monster? If you think Jesus embraced the penalty of your sin on your behalf, then the Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. believes you must “believe in a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds the Christian tradition.” At least that what he claims in a recent article called “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution.” Schmidt is no insignificant critic. He is the author or editor of numerous books and holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, all of which are reasons we might expect him to levy an argument that is not marked by fallacy. But, alas, we expect too much.

Steel Man, not a Straw Man

The chief fallacy Schmidt commits is that of arguing against a straw man. That is to say, he marshals an argument against the weakest form of penal substitution and fails to even acknowledge that there might be more robust articulations of the doctrine. Schmidt paints penal substitution as a fundamentalist doctrine that pits an angry God the Father against the “innocent victim” of God the Son. In this way of thinking, substitution is branded as a dangerous teaching characterized by what might be considered divine child abuse. How could anyone love a God like that? How could such a monster be worthy of our worship? Well, I’ve got good news for Schmidt and any who share his concerns. Serious proponents of penal substitution don’t actually believe in that sort of God either.

In the classes I teach, I always encourage my students to represent their opponents as well and as accurately as possible. I remind them that misrepresenting those whith whom they disagree undermines their credibility and makes their arguments easily refutable. The opponent can simply note that the critique is offered against a view they don’t hold. Some put it this way: be sure to argue against a steel man, not a straw man. That is to say, argue against the best version of whatever you are criticizing. It’s easy to knock over a scarecrow. A statue forged of metal takes a bit more work and, when it is toppled, is cause for rather more respect.

A Trinitarian Approach

So, what is the more robust version of penal substitution that critics of the doctrine need to take seriously? It is a version that accounts for the trinitarian nature of God. The problem with the “Monster-God” construal of substitution is that it emphasizes the personal distinction between God the Father and God the Son and neglects the unity of being between God the Father and God the Son. The trinitarian doctrine of God says both that God is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that Father, Son, and Spirit are one in deity, glory, power, eternity, and being. (If it helps, remember that “persons” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian distinction, and “being” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian oneness or unity.) We run into trouble (1) when we emphasize the distinction between persons to the neglect of their union and (2) when we emphasize the union of the Godhead to the neglect of their distinction. Balance must be maintained.

What happens to penal substitution when we approach it with the essential unity between God the Father and God the Son in mind? Consider this. In the person of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity took upon himself the penalty that the one triune God requires for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued. In Jesus, God takes the penalty of human sin on God’s self. It’s worth noting also that Jesus is no passive victim. To the contrary, he is the judge who doles out the penalty. Consider that in the canonical gospels it’s not God the Father who is portrayed as the judge before whom all must one day stand. Jesus insists that role belongs to him (Matt 7:21-24). It is the Son of Man who separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-40). Jesus is the Lawgiver and the Judge who steps down from the bench to take upon himself the penalty he himself requires. And when the triune God, in his eternal counsel, determined that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), the one God knew the day would come when he would take on flesh and feel the horrible weight of those wages for the sake of the rebel creatures he loves. In this way, Jesus embodies and reveals the perfect, self-giving love that characterizes the eternal unity of the Trinitarian persons. If we want a robust account of penal substitution, it requires a balanced account of trinitarian love. This is what Schmidt fails to offer. That is why his argument is flawed and unconvincing.

Resist the Caricature

Let me add before concluding that I would offer the same argument against any who might actually hold the view Schmidt critiques. Against those who promote a caricature of penal substitution as an angry or unhinged monster-God furiously abusing an innocent victim, I would say they’ve failed to reckon with the trinitarian love of the one God, and they need to rethink their account of substitution.

What then shall we say? Is penal substitution the only way to talk about what God has done in Christ to redeem us? Certainly not. Dr. Schmidt helpfully reminds us of other ways to talk about the atonement (e.g., recapitulation). But is penal substitution one of the central ways that God reveals his trinitarian love? It certainly is. And when we miss that, we miss out an expression of God’s perfect love that is not only good and true but beautiful as well.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

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Review: The Quest for the Trinity (@ivpacademic) by Stephen R. Holmes

We continue in the midst of what has often been called a “Trinitarian revival,” but with The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes argues that the revival would be more properly termed a revision. He writes:

I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable (xv).

Having spent the last several years dipping into the literature on the doctrine of God, both ancient and modern, I was, to say the least, somewhat jarred by this claim. The so-called revival has been received with enthusiasm by many in all the major Christian traditions, and welcomed as a promising foundation for ecumenical dialog. After all, if there is one thing Christians can agree on, it is the Trinity. That Holmes would challenge the consensus by arguing that the contemporary debates are in fact a departure from the historic formulations of the doctrine of God points to the value of this book. Whether or not one agrees with Holmes, anyone interested in the doctrine of God and the way it has been handled by modern theologians will have to engage the argument of this book.
That argument begins with a survey of 20th century treatments of the Trinity including the particularly noteworthy contributions of Barth, Rahner, and Zizioulous (chapter 1). Among the contemporary writers Holmes finds a common interest in locating the doctrine of God in the gospel narratives, a focus on the personal nature of God, the entanglement of the life of God with world history, and the univocal use of language with regard to God and the created order. Chapter 2 takes up the biblical material and provides a critical analysis of the way the relevant texts have often been read. The rest of the book (chapters 3-9) traces the way the doctrine of the Trinity has been handled from the Patristic period to the present.
Holmes finds general consensus with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity up through the time of the Reformation. He even casts doubt on the oft repeated idea that the doctrine of the Trinity was lost prior to the present revival of interest. Even during the anti-Trinitarianism of the Enlightenment, there were numerous theologians arguing for the historic doctrine. From the ancient church through to the Reformation, Holmes identifies a common interest in using all of scripture (not just the gospels) as a basis for Trinitarian thinking, an insistence on the ineffable and simple unity of the divine nature, and the recognition that language about God could be adequate, though always inexact. When compared with the many and various approaches to the Trinity in the modern period, Holmes finds these concepts generally absent and sometimes even rejected. As a result, he sees the extensive interest in and writing on the Trinity as a departure from the historic doctrine. Holmes certainly recognizes what is at stake if he is right about the irreconcilable differences between the ancients and the moderns. If the more recent formulations are right, then “we need to conclude that the majority of the Christian tradition has been wrong in what it has claimed about the eternal life of God” (2). 
In my judgment, Holmes is correct that many modern theologians depart in substantial ways from the historic formulations of the Trinity, though I am hesitant to issue a blanket statement that all recent writers commit such a departure. I think we must recognize that the task of modern Trinitarian theology is not quite the same as that of the ancients. The ancients had the great responsibility of forging language that accurately reflected the truth about God in scripture and the worship of God in the church. Theirs was a foundational task, and we do not have to repeat the work that they have already done so well. The task of Trinitarian theology in the present is to explore the implications of the historic doctrine. It sometimes sounds as if Holmes is suggesting that anything other than a repetition of the ancient formulations is a departure from them; but is it not the case that we can stand on their work to consider further and unforeseen implications?  Holmes is certainly right that some modern writers completely revise the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the charge is less clearly substantiated against others. Each new contribution must be weighed on its own merits and evaluated with regard to the degree that it faithfully builds on those who have gone before.
The Quest for the Trinity has much to commend it. Holmes’ detailed account of the doctrine of God from the early church up to the present will greatly benefit anyone interested in understanding the historical development of Trinitarianism and will make it a valuable text in courses on the doctrine of God and historical theology. The summaries of the historic formulations give us a criteria to help us judge the degree to which new contributions stand in continuity with or break from the central components of the doctrine. All in all, this is a very valuable book that will help us approach the doctrine of God with heightened care and increased critical awareness. 
*Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for a complimentary review copy of The Quest for the Trinity.

Thoughts on Love Wins (3): Theology (Im)Proper

This is my third and final (planned) post reflecting on Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Follow these links to find earlier posts for what I like and what I don’t (and more of what I don’t). As Bell pointed out in the now infamous promo video for the book, what you believe about heaven and hell is important because it is related to what you think about God. And that is my interest in this post: what understanding of God emerges in Love Wins? Theologians use the term “theology proper” to refer to the specific branch of theology that relates to the doctrine of God. So that’s what I want to consider, some aspects of the theology proper of Love Wins
As an avenue into this discussion, I want to take a look at something Bell says in chapter 7. He raises the fact that the gospel has often been cast in terms of a rescue. God is holy. Therefore, God must condemn sinners. But Jesus takes our place so that we can have eternal life. Bell is concerned that this telling of the story subtly suggests that Jesus rescues us from God, which is a problem for him. He says, “Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). Two observations are worth making in response to Bell’s argument as it relates to the doctrine of God.
First, Bell rightly points out that God rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. What he fails to recall is that death is the consequence of sin because God has determined that it should be. God is the one who stipulated to Adam, “If you eat, you will die.” And when Adam ate, God implemented the curse of which the man had been warned. Death is God’s judgment against sin, and it is the judgment from which we need to be rescued. Therefore, in needing to be rescued from death, we need to be rescued from the penalty of God’s curse against sin. We need to be rescued from God.
Second, Bell’s concern that we not suggest that Jesus rescues us from God is insufficiently trinitarian. It is most certainly true that Jesus rescues us from God. But we must also remember that we are trinitarians; Jesus is fully divine. So, Jesus’ rescuing of us from God is really God rescuing us from God. In Christ, God rescues us from himself by taking God’s wrath onto God’s self for our sake. It is not as if God is sending Jesus as some detached and unlucky fellow who somehow got conscripted into this rescue plan and ended up with the short end of the stick. So, inasmuch as God was in Christ reconciling us to himself, God rescues us from God. And that is love that wins. Bell has yet to grasp the trinitarian nature of the God’s work of salvation.
Further, if God has indeed appointed Christ as judge of all people (Acts 10:42), and if it is the case, as Jesus says, that he determines who enters eternal life and who is condemned, then we need to take on board that Jesus actually rescues us from Jesus. Indeed, scripture even speaks of “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev 6:16) indicating that there is no reason to think that God’s wrath against sin is not also Jesus’ wrath against sin. Father and Son do, after all, share the same divine essence. This, then, is the result of a robust trinitarian theology: Jesus saves us from Jesus’ wrath. In light of these considerations, I can only conclude that Love Wins is deficient in that it fails to take on board the soteriological implications of a deeply trinitarian understanding of God.
At the end of the day, it appears Bell’s authority for developing his own theology proper is not scripture but his own personal creativity, which is too bad in that it misrepresents scripture and is highly misleading. My only conclusion can be that Bell’s theology proper simply isn’t.
Thoughts on Love Wins Part 1
Thoughts on Love Wins Part 2

At One though Forsaken? Further Thoughts on Dividing the Trinity

Does Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross point to a division within the Godhead? Or could it surprisingly point to an even deeper union and communion between Father and Son in the work of redemption than we might typically imagine?
I’ve spent a couple of recent posts reflecting on whether a division between the trinitarian persons of the Father and the Son is conceivable or even possible. The first post defended the uninterrupted union of Father and Son exegetically while the second approached the topic theologically. I want now to return to return to the biblical text and propose that, not only were the Father and Son not divided when Jesus hung on the cross, they were surprisingly and paradoxically more at one than we might previously have suspected!
As already argued, Psalm 22 should govern our interpretation of Jesus’ cry from the cross. In lamenting his own forsakenness, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1. Some suggest that Jesus may have quoted the whole Psalm, and that we are given the first line as a signal to that. But it seems unlikely to me that anyone nearing death by crucifixion would be physically able to quote the whole of the Psalm. At any rate, that text was certainly on Jesus’ mind, and I agree that the whole text of that Psalm should shape our understanding of Christ’s cry from the cross: Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?
The key observation about Psalm 22 is that it is not exclusively the literature of lament. It certainly begins as such and continues that way through v. 18. Then comes a shift in tone. The Psalm becomes a prayer of hope, a petition that the Lord be not far away (19). The Psalm declares the faithfulness of God and calls for others to praise him and stand in awe (23). The Psalmist continues by remembering that the Lord has heard his past cries and did not hide his face, which is a way of saying his presence (24). As the Psalm moves toward its conclusion, it becomes a word of prophecy declaring that the poor will one day be satisfied (26), those who seek the Lord will praise him (26), the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship him (27). And the dominion of the Lord over the nations is affirmed and celebrated (28). Then in v. 29 there is the assertion that all who go down to the dust (that is, the dead) will bow down and worship him. And the Psalmist declares: “I shall live for him.” It would seem that the Psalmist, who is near the point of death (22:20), believes in the God who brings life from the dead. The earlier lament is never separate from, nor should it be interpreted without reference to, the later expressions of hope and faith in the God who is uncompromisingly present with his own.
If it is the case that Psalm 22 should govern our understanding of Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, then the path is paved for a fresh reading of Jesus’ words. And if Jesus does indeed have the larger content of the Psalm on his mind, then he is hardly simply mourning his forsakenness by the Father. I’ve already addressed the question as to what precisely Jesus has been forsaken and concluded that he was forsaken neither ontologically nor absolutely but that the Psalm suggests he was forsaken unto the pain and suffering of the cross. I want to suggest now that though Jesus was forsaken unto the cross, he and the Father were deeply united both in purpose and plan. Instead of merely crying out in desperation at being left to his fate, Jesus’ takes solace in the Psalm that speaks of God’s faithfulness and the hope of life from the dead. Instead of being absolutely forsaken by the Father, Jesus cries out in faith relying on his union with the Father despite being forsaken to the shame of the cross. Thus, the cry of Christ from the cross is not about some great chasm between the Father and the Son. To the contrary, when read in the context of the Psalter, it points to the Father’s perpetual faithfulness and the Son’s hope for vindication, which will certainly come. And it did, because the Father did not forsake the Son absolutely but accepted his sacrifice. The cross then points not to the separation of the divine persons but to their unity as they work to bring to pass their shared and single plan of redemption.
Some might say I’m twisting the text to make it say the opposite of what is plainly there. I would, of course, disagree. I think the authors intentionally emphasize a quote that gives us something much different than we might have originally expected. They want us to realize that there is much more than is initially apparent. They want us to dig into the scriptures and into the purposes of God in the cross and single the purpose of God who approves and accepts the sacrifice of the Son who has done his Father’s will.
To sum up an already lengthy post, Jesus is quoting a Psalm that speaks of the abiding faithfulness of God despite the presence of pain and suffering. Jesus expresses his faith and hope in his Father in the words of this Psalm. The gospel account of Jesus’ cry of forsakenness paradoxically points to the deeper reality of the Father’s faithfulness. What on the surface appears to be a division of the divine persons actually signals their deepest unity.
Do you find this interpretation compelling? Could Jesus really be praising the faithfulness of God though forsaken to the shame of the cross? Should the whole Psalm shape our reading of this text even though we only get the first line? Let me hear from you.

More Thoughts on Dividing the Trinity: A Zizioulian (!) Approach

Is it possible for the Trinity to be divided? And if it is, what would be the consequences? Yesterday, I posted briefly on whether Mark 15:34 could be interpreted as positing an essential division between the Father and the Son; today I want to consider the issue theologically through the lens of the work of John D. Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon and significant theologian in the Greek Orthodox tradition.
Zizioulas has controversially argued that God is not a necessary being; that is, God does not exist necessarily but instead continuously affirms his free will to exist by begetting the Son and bringing forth the Spirit. Here’s a quote from his book, Being as Communion, in which he fleshes this out a bit:
Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God-the being of God in not an ontological “necessity” or a simple “reality” for God-but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist. And it is precisely His trinitarian existence that constitutes this confirmation: the Father out of love-that is, freely-begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. If God exists, He exists because the Father exists, that is He who out of love freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Thus God as person-as the hypostasis of the Father-makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God (41).
Now plenty of theologians reject Zizioulas’ claim that God is not a necessary being. In fact, all of my philosophy of religion textbooks from college and seminary argue the contrary, that God is indeed a necessary being (which is simply to say: if God exists, then he must exist; he is unable to not exist). I think this is often an Eastern/Western debate and isn’t really what I’m interested in discussing here. But it is duly noted and now out of the way.
My interest is in applying Zizioulas’ perspective to the comments by Marva Dawn discussed in my last post. She has claimed that when Christ cried out from the cross lamenting his forsakenness, that at that moment the Father and the Son were separated.
For Zizioulas, though, the very essence of God is bound up in the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son. Indeed, the Father’s ongoing confirmation of his free will to exist is bound up in his perpetual begetting of the Son. If the Father and the Son were to be ontologically divided, which is to say that the Father would cease begetting the Son, for their union is in this ongoing begetting, even if only momentarily, God would (freely) cease to exist. God the Father continually confirms his free will to exist by bringing forth the Son; if he were to cease and the two were divided, God would have freely chosen not to exist. The obvious implication of this is that everything that God continually upholds and sustains would also cease to exist, namely all creation including all of us.
So, could the Trinity be divided? From a Zizioulian perspective: yes. But then there would be no more Trinity, and God, along with everything else, would cease to exist. And we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Since we’re all still here, I guess we know what he would say to her proposal.

What do you think? Could the Trinity be divided? If so, what would be the consequences?

Dividing the Trinity? A Response to Marva Dawn

I gathered with many of my fellow clergy for last week to hear Marva Dawn speak on the topic of Sabbath. Her presentation was well-done overall, and I found helpful much of what she said regarding the Sabbath. However, at one point she made a stunning and, in my view, problematic remark regarding Jesus’ cry to his Father from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). She suggested that at the moment of Jesus’ cry, the Father and the Son were split; separated; held together only by the Holy Spirit. I made note of this peculiar statement, but didn’t think on it much more until I learned that she said something similar today while giving the Theta Phi lectures at Asbury Theological Seminary. After further reflection on what I heard at the clergy gathering, I thought I’d offer a brief response in two points. I will focus on what I heard at the clergy gathering; Regarding what was said at Asbury Seminary,Isaac Hopper offers a theological response and Jeffrey Rudy a historical one with quotes from the patristics. 
First, the historic doctrine of the Trinity states that all three persons of the Trinity share one, single, divine essence. To say that the Father and the Son are split or divided is at best unhelpful in its vague ambiguity and at worst a wrecking ball to the central way the Church has spoken about God through history. A theologian is certainly welcome to argue as they desire, even when doing so in wrecking ball fashion; however, when a major doctrine like the Trinity is the issue, we should actually get an argument.
Second, there is nothing in the text of Mark 15:34 (and parallels) that comes close to suggesting that the ontological unity is in question in this text. Indeed, there is weighty evidence to the contrary. Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22, the first two verses of which read thus:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
The Psalmist here finds himself in a state of agony and suffering. His cry to God is for help in that moment of suffering. He pleads with God wondering why he is not delivered. In the context of Psalm 22:1-2, the notion of being forsaken by God is a way of expressing the pain in not being delivered by God from the pain of persecution.
Jesus’ use of this Psalm should be taken in just this way. He is not lamenting a splitting-up of the essential unity that is eternally the heart of his relationship with the God he knows as Father. Rather, he is lamenting that God has forsaken him to the suffering of the cross. The text does not indicate that this forsaking should be taken in any absolute sense. Instead, we are guided by the quote from the Psalms; when Jesus cries out questioning why he has been forsaken, he means “Why have you forsaken me to the pain of this persecution?
I propose that this interpretation makes better sense of the text than does the suggestion that the Father and the Son are here essentially divided. It seems much more likely the case that Mark has in mind the fact that Jesus has been handed over to the suffering of the cross rather than the essential relationship between the Father and the Son. 
How do you take this passage? Do you think Psalm 22 should guide our interpretation of Jesus’ cry from the cross? Are there other elements in the text that suggest other interpretive options? How should we go about deriving theological conclusions from historical and narratival texts?