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James McGrath - Penal Atonement is wrong

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#1 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 08 June 2011 - 05:41 AM

I suspect James McGrath would not be overly enamored of Cur Deus Homo.

Let me conclude by noting what are perhaps the biggest problems with penal substitution. One is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin asdebt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do isforgive.

The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.

The heart of the matter is that there is a stream of Christianity that soothes the conscience of Christians about the misdeeds they do by claiming that (1) God is the only one whose forgiveness matters, and (2) this forgiveness is already available and can wipe away your debt through a miracle of divine bookkeeping. All sense that anyone is harmed by what one does (whether God or other human beings), and that that is what matters, disappears from view entirely (cp. Job 35). Again, I can understand the popularity of this view. But it isn’t popular because it is Biblical, neither is it popular because it is self-evidently true. It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves in spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that have to do with how we relate to others. I say this as someone who used to hold this view, and so my discussion of psychological motives for the popularity of this view, I am being first and foremost self-critical. Indeed, discovering that the Biblical view of sin and atonement is not that set forth in the penal substitutionary view was a key step in my ability to be self critical in precisely this way.

Shall we continue to sin so that grace may abound? God forbid.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 Evangelion



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Posted 08 June 2011 - 06:50 AM

You can always rely on Big J for the good stuffs.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#3 Phil



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Posted 08 June 2011 - 07:52 AM

That is a ripsnorter. Bring it.

#4 Fortigurn



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Posted 08 June 2011 - 10:17 AM

That is a ripsnorter. Bring it.

Big Jim has indeed brought it.

#5 luke



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Posted 08 June 2011 - 04:12 PM

Thanks for sharing. I've read a few entries about this before on James McGrath's blog and was hoping he's return to the subject.

(BTW, Cur Deus Homo isn't technically a penal substitution text: it's about the satisfaction of honour.)

Edited by luke, 08 June 2011 - 04:12 PM.

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