PS doesn't matter: hyperbole or understatement?

Lingamish, in a comment, is relieved to read that Penal Substitution just doesn’t matter. Well, in comments on his new lingalinga blog he and I were just discussing hyperbole, which he calls “my default discourse register”; I wrote

We Brits, maybe the Kiwis too, go in more for understatement.

to which he replied

Understatement on the Internet works about as well as whispering in a train station.

Maybe. Well, the Kiwi I had in mind in the above quote was not our friend Andrew, and as I can’t read his mind I’m not sure quite how literally he intended anyone to take his post Why PS just doesn’t matter. But for me, affirming what Andrew wrote was in fact a touch of hyperbole. Or is a hyperbolic statement of something negative, like this one, in fact understatement? Of course what I wrote, and probably what Andrew wrote, was intended as a reaction to the hype (this word is surely an abbreviation of “hyperbole”) about Steve Chalke’s comments and about Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Let me clarify my position. I do affirm and believe in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, as defined for example by JI Packer in a clearly Trinitarian way, as one proper and valid description of the atonement. But this doctrine seems to be largely a theoretical one, with no practical consequences, as long as the character of God is not demeaned by presentations with connotations of pagan child sacrifice. It is not central to my faith or to my understanding of it. I am happy for theologians to debate this doctrine, as long as they heed Packer’s point that “there is here an element of transcendent mystery” and avoid presuming to tie down God’s work with detailed formulations. But these are matters for the experts, not for everyday teaching in churches, and still less for initial presentations of the Gospel to unbelievers.

In a comment here, in response to one of mine, Iyov asked:

Hmm, which is the more important doctrine in Christian thought: Junia or atonement. Tough one.

A tough one indeed! Of course the atonement has been discussed more through the ages. However, decisions on practical issues for the church, whether one accepts women in leadership, depend on a proper understanding of Junia in Romans 16:7; see the more than 30 postings about this at Better Bibles Blog. But what are the practical consequences of a precise understanding of the atonement? None, as far as I can see, except for ones artificially imposed by those who set up a particular doctrine of the atonement as a touchstone for unity.

So let’s cut the hype and move on to some understatement about penal substitutionary atonement.

Adrian claims at last to have finished his series on the atonement. We shall see if this really is the end. If so, I expect to bring my discussion of this issue to a gradual end, although I do intend to look at the second part of Reuben’s review of Pierced for Our Transgressions, and I also plan to read and review Norman McIlwain’s book The Biblical Revelation of the Cross, of which he kindly sent me a copy.

7 thoughts on “PS doesn't matter: hyperbole or understatement?

  1. Peter,
    You seem to have read my post in the sense it was intended. My point was intended to be that PS is largely a theoretical doctrine with few practical consequences, and that as a result PS can be denied without it majorly affecting theology.

    To read some of the defenders of PS’s views such as Adrian’s or PFOT’s, it seems like they think a denial of PS amounts to a rejection of the fundamental tenants and doctrines of Christianity, and terrible practical consequences.

    In reality, PS is not a consequential doctrine and I have met people who didn’t believe PS and yet whose Christianity and life were perfectly in tact. They believed in the realness of God’s wrath against sin, in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, in a loving God who forgives sin, in a Christ who on the cross defeated the devil, and who calls us to follow him as Lord and live transformed lives.

    Now you could argue that these people’s theology is not 100% accurate or 100% biblical (but who would truly claim that for themselves?), but it seems off-base to take the view that their theology or lives are sub-Christian or that severe theological or practical consequences have resulted from their complete rejection of PS.

    In this way, I am unable to find any negative consequences of a denial of PS. Hence, not only does PS seem to me to be not “central” to Christianity, it can even be completely denied without affecting any other doctrines or practices of our faith.

  2. You might be right, Andrew. But I think PS is poorly explained more often than not. Refusal to accept it depends on that in many cases.

    I also think denial of PS correlates pretty highly with rejection of a God of anger. My rule of thumb is this: if one cannot imagine how love implies anger, at least for a time, then one does not really know what love is, and hence one does not know God either.

    By God’s grace, of course, things aren’t so bad in practice. I know many people who cannot imagine God except as a warm fuzzy, but who, thank goodness, get angry with their own children when they step out of bounds. By God’s grace, people are contradictory. By God’s grace and mercy.

  3. Andrew and John, I think I agree with both of you. One certainly can believe in the wrath of God without believing in PS, but this is probably unusual at least in these times.

    But we need to understand properly what is meant by “rejection of a God of anger”. Now of course most parents get angry with their children at times, but they also generally recognise that anger as something wrong, even sinful. A clear distinction needs to be made here which is not always made when God is the agent. A human parent is right and justified (according to popular understanding and, I think, according to the Bible) in strongly warning and reprimanding a child, and in punishing the child in an appropriate way proportionate to the offence (opinions differ on how far this should go). But they are not justified in losing their temper or punishing the child in an immoderate way based on anger rather than proportionality. Parents recognise that to do the latter, uncontrolled rage, is unjust and sinful. And the words “anger” and “wrath” are usually used for this uncontrolled rage. So when Bible teachers talk about the anger or wrath of God, most people think they are saying that God goes into an uncontrolled rage about sin, throwing around thunderbolts (but not very accurately, as in the alleged York Minster incident) and arbitrarily condemning people to eternal punishment for minor transgressions. This is not of course what is meant in the Bible by the wrath of God, and I cannot imagine how this would be consistent with the love of God. But because of such misunderstandings, often not clearly corrected, many people reject the whole concept of the wrath of God. I could almost say that I do. I accept that there is a biblical concept of he orge tou theou, translated “the wrath of God”, but I really don’t know what it means, if it means more than that God has a negative attitude towards sin. If someone can help me to find out, I would be very grateful!

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