Is the doctrine of penal substitution “divine child abuse”? If you haven’t seen this expression before, keep your eyes open because more and more are using it as a rhetorical weapon against the traditional (Reformed) view of atonement. I first saw it in J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement and then Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, picked it up (though I think they were not wise in using such an expression, I’m not sure their critics gave them a fair hearing).
The definitive form of this polemical expression probably comes from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, in their jointly-authored and jointly-storied book, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. And they are forthright about a number of points:
1. That penal substitution propagates the notion that the Father punished his son in an act of violence, and therefore there is divine child abuse.
2. That penal substutution therefore gives the image of justifiable violence of a parent against a child.
3. That the Christian virtue of suffering as a means of redemption is inherently dangerous to the oppressed and powerless, especially women.
4. That their own experiences shape determinately how they understand atonement. Parker’s powerful story of sexual abuse and depression and Brock’s ethnic marginalization, with more than one layer of complexity and confusion involved, give rise to a theory of atonement as the “presence of the other” as a form of relational atonement. By the time they are done, there is nothing left of their theory of atonement that is recognizably Christian. Their criticisms, however, will remain in the Christian conversation.
And many, including Steve Chalke (I’ll look at him tomorrow, including DA Carson’s critique of him), have picked up this expression and used it against penal substitution. I have two firm convictions about this expression:
First, that it is dead-wrong to describe penal substitution as divine child abuse — it is inaccurate, it is rhetorically evocative, it is rhetorically evocative because it raises an image that is intolerable (abuse of a child), and it is completely uninformed on what penal substitution is teaching when it is taught properly, which leads me to a second point.
Second, the use of this expression is deserved because so many evangelical types or Reformed types have expressed penal substitution in such a manner that God’s nature is bi-polarized (his holiness is at war with his love) and the persons of the Trinity are bi-polarized (Father is against the Son). The best treatments, say that of John Stott or the even more nuanced study by Bruce McCormack (see yesterday’s post), clearly avoid any suggestion of bi-polarizing in God but try as they may, kids hear it and pew sitters hear it and many have absorbed a view of God that is nothing less than preposterously unhealthy and inaccurate.
So, my request is two-fold: first, those who affirm penal substitution need to begin speaking more clearly and with more nuance so as to avoid serious theological inaccuracies; and second, feminists need to be fair to a more accurate presentation of penal substitution.
Defeat by misrepresentation is the opposite of genuine conversation. And affirmation without nuance perpetuates long-held hostilities.