On Mere Orthodoxy’s Delusion

Leading evangelical ethicist David Gushee – who in 2014 came to the position of LGBTQ inclusion, to the jeers and riotous attacks of conservatives everywhere – has written a piece on the quickly-vanishing middle ground on the matter of the full rights of LGBTQ persons in the larger culture. “It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions. Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

I found this piece intriguing, as I have been discovering the same thing myself in the last year. Nothing about Gushee’s observations here are false or incorrect. The issue is emerging as a defining issue of our time, and the middle ground is rapidly vanishing beneath our feet. The issue will come and find you.

I am bisexual. Obviously I find this to be a good thing.

Others disagree with that assessment.

One of those others is the supposedly-moderate, deep-thinking evangelical website Mere Orthodoxy. One of their writers, Jake Meador, penned an absurd, comical post in response to Gushee. I think calling it “absurd” and “comical” is fair; he called Gushee a coward in his piece, and has more respect for the sludge he scrapes off the bottom of his shoes than for progressive Christians. “It’s all par for the course for progressive evangelicals like Gushee, of course,” he sighs, with an implied eye-roll. Yes, we’re all a bunch of dum-dums, barely able to get food the narrow distance between our plates and our mouths, woefully oblivious to nuanced debate, facts, or the noble ancients they revere over at Mere Orthodoxy, the same ancients who were cool with slavery, the oppression of women, murdering Jews, and burning witches and pagans.

But I digress. Meador was meandering.

He takes umbrage at one of Gushee’s comments in particular, a comment that has thrown a number of my conservative evangelical friends into apopleptics online since Gushee’s piece was published. “(Religious conservatives) are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.”

This, more than anything, Meador dislikes. Presuming that Gushee has no knowledge of the lawsuits against conservatives refusing to provide service to paying LGBTQ customers, Meador reviews the (four) cases thus far. But far from not knowing about these cases, perhaps Gushee has a different perspective on them, one in which they are not actually religious persecution. This would indicate Gushee (and progressives generally) are not idiots, but simply see the situation differently, which would put the issue in the category of the pluralism to which conservatives like Meador pay lip service but don’t actually believe in.

Far from being the facts on the ground, Meador’s persecution narrative is just that – a narrative. As the smarty-pants over at Mere Orthodoxy should know, all events are interpreted. From Meador’s perspective, “if you tell a person ‘I am ordering you to choose between your conscience and your livelihood,’ you are persecuting them.”

But is this accurate? Is this a full or correct assessment of what is happening? What if, for example, the right to decline service on the basis of gender orientation is a privilege, and an unjust privilege at that? What if – just imagine for a moment – if LGBTQ people had been systematically oppressed, opposed, feared, and discriminated against from the beginning in American history? The imaginative leap is difficult, because we know how welcomed LGBTQ people have been from the founding of our nation down to the present. But just imagine. Imagine that we had a system in place that privileged certain belief systems – Christianity, for example, of a heteronormative persuasion – to have a privileged place in our political and cultural life? What if that was a violation of the first amendment and the separation of church and state? What if, say, churches didn’t have to pay taxes? What if churches were supposed to avoid political entanglements as part of their 501c3 status but regularly ignored this law and the state didn’t enforce it? And what if, just by default, most Americans thought this was totally normal and a public good.

In that case, would the state saying you can’t discriminate against people on the basis of gender orientation be persecution? Or the removal of an undeserved and unjust privilege you shouldn’t have had in the first place? Is that persecution? Really? Are you sure?

It is obvious this is the removal of a privilege to discriminate, not persecution. Nobody is telling conservative, exclusionary Christians what to think. Nobody is telling them what correct dogma is. Nobody is telling their churches what to preach, or what they can say. They are merely laying down guidelines for what a person can do, in the public square, that place of lauded pluralism which conservatives have, in the last six months, suddenly fallen in love with.

All of these supposed persecutions have come in the public square, or when private religious institutions are using public money to proselytize. The state is merely saying, “If you want state or federal money, you must abide by state and federal non-discrimination guidelines.” In an act of unspeakable arrogance and privilege, conservative religious institutions have said, “No, we (and we alone) must get special dispensation to not comply with state and federal standards.” Or, in the case of private businesses, “We must have special dispensation to discriminate on the basis of gender identity (as well as race, sex, and disability, if we want).”

If these religious persons and institutions were arguing for something they didn’t already have, something that actually took their rights away under the law, they would be persecuted. But they are fighting to preserve a special exemption from the cooperative pluralism with which the rest of us get on with our lives. And they have the audacity, the singular arrogance, to suggest that this is persecution.

That’s pretty fucked up.

Meador, though, isn’t done. He accuses Gushee of the same sin with which every social reformer is accused by every recacitrant traditionalist since the beginning of the Enlightenment period. The sin of automatic progress (gasp! orchestral sting!)

Gushee, he claims, is dishonest in his piece down to his very language, because his language forms the situation as abstract historical forces of inevitable progress verses the bigoted enemies of progress refusing to bend before the inevitable.

This is an absurd accusation, and for a couple of reasons.

1) just because Gushee is speaking of cultural movement now doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of the efforts of reformers to bring us to this place. Meador’s suggestion is so silly it almost defies words. Does he really imagine Gushee is oblivious to the blood and sweat shed by reformers to win key victories and bring about meaningful reforms? Of course not, he’s just counting on his audience to simply nod their heads at the pathetic silliness of those stupid progressives.

2) there is such a thing as the weight of history. Far from inevitable, of course, but cultural phenomenons become phenomenons because at a certain point they take on a life of their own. “Ideas have consequences,” as one conservative writer (Richard Weaver) once put it. Some call it “the long tail,” others call it “the tipping point.” Gushee is doing little more than suggest that tipping point has been reached, or will be reached very soon. Maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong, but his point remains. The middle ground is vanishing, and soon everyone will have to take their sides.

Reformers have forced the issue. I don’t deny that, and I doubt Gushee would deny it either. This is how change comes. A few people point out inconsistencies in the mainstream belief system. A few become a lot. The huddle of a couple voices at the outskirts become a din. The arguments which Meador is making now were the same arguments made against Martin Luther King by the conservatives of his day, and against the abolitionists in their day, against the suffragettes in their day and the feminists in theirs. “Radicals have forced this upon us,” they whined, in every generation.

Whine all you like, but the question still stands: “Are LGBTQ people actually people, and do they deserve full protection under the law?” That is the question that stands to hand right now, and the culture is increasingly cool with saying “Yes” to both aspects of the question. Not because radicals have duped the unthinking masses into changing their philosophical worldview, but because reformers have pointed out the fundamental inconsistency at the heart of what has passed for mainstream thought for the last several hundred years.

You see, all people are given inalienable rights by the Declaration of Independence, and all people are granted full production under the Constitution. If LGBTQ people are really people, then if we really believe “all men are created equal,” then we don’t get to discriminate against LGBTQ people in America. Not in our public life, not by our government.

Conservatives are unable to answer both sides of that question with yes. They must find a way to answer with “Yes” to the first part (because the weight of history has passed the tipping point on calling LGBTQ people less than human or not deserving of being treated like human beings) but “no” to the second (because it is the last line of defense for preserving their privileged discrimination).

Of course, by answering no to the second part of the question (“do LGBTQ people deserve full protection under the law”), the conservative must internally answer no to the first part of the question (“Are LGBTQ people actually people”). If we are people, we deserve full protections against discrimination. If we do not deserve full productions against discrimination, we must not really be people, not in the full, healthy, teleological sense. Disordered people, like women with their small brains and frail natures, like slaves with their need for white masters to care for them because they cannot govern themselves, don’t have full rights, because they are somehow full of wrongs.

Meador’s post is full of further absurdities. Like the suggestion that progressives are somehow tied in their ideological agenda to capitalism – I rarely laughed harder at a suggestion. But let’s end on Meador’s beloved pluralism. Gushee’s piece, you might recall, begins with the loss of the middle ground. The middle ground is all I have heard conservatives talking about in the last year, the disappearing middle ground and why can’t we get back to it. But what middle ground is there between full personhood and full protection under the law, and some personhood and some protection under the law? Or perhaps, more starkly, what difference is there between some personhood and some protection and no personhood and no protection at all? When the issue revolves around how much discrimination should be allowed, there is little room for compromise. It isn’t that we’re losing the middle ground, it is that we’re realizing there never was any to start with.

We’ve tried the middle ground between full exclusion and full inclusion before. The answer of the conservatives was telling at that time, because it is the same compromise they are offering now. “Separate, but equal.”




Breaking the System

The modern evangelical church is obsessed with systems. The evangelical scholars who gain accolades write systematic theologies, they write papers “refuting” the “logic” of “unbelievers,” and they have a confidence in their own interpretations that long ago turned into certainty. Apologetics that try to expose the views of others as stupid and illogical are a booming business among evangelicals.

This is what I mean by systems. Evangelicals construct doctrines that are mutually dependent and feed into each other. The result is a fragile balancing act of almost equation-like precision in which evangelicals must walk a tightrope of correct beliefs that themselves must be further correctly defined in order to be a real Christian. Any breach in the syllogism has catastrophic effects and can send people spiraling away from the brittle orthodoxy, or so it is claimed.

Because of this, there must be CONSTANT VIGILANCE to preserve the borders, guard the fortifications, and remain on constant alert for any possible threat. This is the reason for the protectionism and fear of everything outside of the evangelical circle. A lot of evangelicals would protest that they’ve opened their borders on a lot of stuff, that the people who are really afraid are the fundamentalists. But they can’t deny the same kind of gatekeeping doesn’t go on in the evangelical world. And when looking at a figure like John Piper – patriarchalist, literalist, premillennialist, strict infernalist, penal substitutionist, retributionist – I’m left wondering what the real difference is between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. He claims the term evangelical for himself, but his behavior is no different from the hellfire preachers of yore.

Anyway, when every piece in the theological system is necessary, it is like building a house in which every single wall is a supporting wall. Take that wall away and the whole thing comes crashing down. You can understand their jumpiness a little more when you realize they’re really just trying to stop the roof falling in on their heads. But the logical consequence is that every little doctrinal niggle becomes a hill necessary to die upon. And this forces evangelicals into a number of consequences just out of necessity.

First of all, it means they have to deny scholarship when it contradicts their reading. For example, there’s no evidence there was ever a wall at Jericho, speaking archaeologically. This becomes a huge battleground for polemics in the evangelical wing of the church because any single error in the text, any hyperbole, any literary convention, and by their own claims the whole thing is untrustworthy. So if they’re wrong about Jericho’s wall, the only other option is atheism. This leads them to feeling the need to win, regardless of what sort of claims this leads them to make. The most popular response among a number of evangelical circles is to claim the archeological timeline is wrong; the reason those sneaky secularists can’t find a wall is they’re looking in the wrong historical period. Which leads to conspiracy thinking about academia and scholarship – they must be stupid or lying intentionally.

I believed in the system for my entire childhood, adolescence, and college years. That’s right, even college couldn’t crack this intensely ingrained system. I finally broke when I saw what it did to people firsthand, what it did to me. The system is a meatgrinder. It chews you up and spits you out again. And it manufactures as many atheists as it does true believers.

And there’s a certain sense in which they’re right. Their system does depend upon every single point being as important as all the others. But their system is not Scriptural. It is an invention of man by which we bind God. But when we break free of the system, we realize that there are other options out there. We can live perfectly happy and fulfilling lives without the system. When it is finally grasped that God is in charge and He can do as he pleases regardless of whatever systems we might want to put into place, once we see that God is love, does not hate, does not give up, and will bear with us to the end, we escape the various pieces of the religious system. In this new world, Jesus becomes the most important thing, not the system. Not everything needs the same weight put upon it. My faith in Jesus no longer depends on whether there really was a wall around Jericho, or whether Genesis is to be taken literally. The sky doesn’t fall. Wrath doesn’t come. We are not smote. There is life outside the system, outside the nervous, paranoid life in the factory.

Join us in the sun.

Dear Western Church: You are Not Being Persecuted

Benjamin Corey has a great piece on how President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination is not itself discrimination. I agree with his assessment; this is not an issue of Christians being discriminated against. No one is telling individual Christians what to think or ordering the Church to redefine their theology. Nothing like that is happening. What is happening is that businesses and non-profits that accept federal money must abide by federal guidelines and that means they cannot fire LGBTQ people for being gay. One would think this would be self-obvious to Christians, but evidently it is not. The only thing this executive order will do is tell federally-funded employers that they must hire on the basis of merit alone, and can only fire for job-related behavior, not identity.

Conservative Christians object on the basis that they might be contaminated by the sin of those evil gay sinners out there, but the real reason they are upset is because they are losing their privileged status. Ever since Constantine the Church has had certain privilege and special consideration under the law. They got asked to all the fancy parties and held the ears of kings and emperors. This period of Church history is at an end and the Church, now accustomed to a certain lifestyle for the last sixteen centuries, is freaking out because there are other factions now being invited to the same parties.

In my view, the Church in the west really needs to do some soul-searching as to whether they’re really being persecuted or whether they’re just losing their exclusive rights to certain legal perks. It is pretty clearly the latter.

The Doctrine of God

One of the problems with “systematic theology” is its starting point. Theology, of course, is a Greek word that comes from “theos” (God) and “ology” (study). Thus, theology is ostensibly to be about the study of God. But our theology all too often becomes about other things, and this problem is particularly obvious in the practice of “systematics.” Unlike other forms of theology, like Biblical Theology, which approaches the Scriptures as an unfolding and expanding narrative, systematic theology is organized topically. That is, it pulls all the passages about the Church, sin, salvation, and so forth out of the narrative and arranges them in a logical order. This effectively de-contextualizes the passages and flattens all of the contours, tensions, twists and turns of the Bible out into an abstracted ideology that proceeds like a logical argument.

Systematic theology starts, typically, with the doctrine of the Word of God, the Scriptures. Once that is discussed, it moves on to the Doctrine of God Himself. This approach is already problematic (which came first, God or the Bible?), though I understand the idea of establishing the trustworthiness of the book from which we’re drawing our doctrine. But I don’t want to get sidetracked here. My beef is with the way we deal with the doctrine of God.

The doctrine of God is bogged down by complicated philosophical questions and Greek categories like God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes, and the list of Greek words like omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc.

But the Bible doesn’t talk this way. The images and symbols of God in Scripture are robust and active, not static Greek idea-forms. But further than this, none of these topics give us a definition of who God is. We have a list of things that God can do, but no definition of His character. I can’t think of a single, easy-to-remember definition of God that stood out to me over the years I spent reading systematics. In fact, if Kenotic Theology is correct, then none of these listed attributes are actually essential to God’s person, because the self-emptying of Jesus (Philippians 2) means He gave up his omni-powers to become human. They are little more than abilities, however noteworthy, not defining characteristics.

In fact, the Scriptures only ever give us one definition of God’s character and personality. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Yet I remember no discussion of this in any systematic theology I have ever read. Certainly not in more than passing, and in no detail. Nothing that would stand out, or suggest this was the central thing about God which the Scriptures wish us to remember is the most important aspect of God. God is love.

But if this isn’t enough for you, let’s take it a step further. There are personality traits which God defines as “love,” and thus these definitions of love become character traits of God. Paul’s phenomenal definition of love in the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, is as follows:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

Thus, we can replace “love” with “God” to illustrate God’s character:

God is patient, God is kind. He does not envy, He does not boast, He is not proud. He does not dishonor others, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, God always trusts, God always hopes, God always perseveres. God’s love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

In all my years of reading theology, I have never read a discussion of the Doctrine of God that started or ended here, or paid this much attention at all. I can’t help but suspect that part of our trouble understanding God and His Scriptures starts here – we don’t actually know much about Him. It seems to me we need to start right here and approach the whole Bible again, and let this definition mess with our categories, let it sink down into our bones, talk about it over and over again until it is so natural we simply assume it to be true.

Getting Radical

Frankly, I’m fed up with Anthony Bradley. Who, you might ask, is Anthony Bradley? Bradley is a professor of ethics and theology from King’s College in Philadelphia and is a research fellow at the right-wing Acton Institute. In the last year, it seems that Bradley has decided to make the “radical” movement his whipping boy in print. He’s written on how caring for the poor and relocating to underprivaleged neighborhoods is the “New Legalism” of the evangelical world, accusing pastors and authors like David Platt of all kinds of unsavory things.

It is, however, readily apparent from what he has written that he has conflated a number of different approaches and movements under a single roof, and that he doesn’t even accurately understand that which he is critiquing. Or, to say it a different way, he is unable to make sense of anything that doesn’t come to him in the pre-packaged categories of the neo-Reformed movement.

Bradley even says this. In his review of Platt’s excellent book Radical, he complains about Platt’s approach and then writes, “Admittedly, I am biased. I’m a Reformed theologian who understands the biblical story in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.”

Yes, Bradley, you are biased.

Platt is not a 19th century or 2nd Great Awakening holdover revivalist, as Bradley complains. He writes, “in the end readers are left with nothing more than a ‘compassionate revivalist’ Christianity that fails to radically call Christians to live in harmony with God’s desire to redeem the entire creation.” Bradley is certainly right to say that we’re called to live in harmony with all of creation. The question is how we’re called to do that. How is the creation to be restored? Well, St. Paul tells us: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” (Rom. 8:19). The creation is waiting for the redemption of all things that will begin with the unveiling of the Church. The “present time” is the former age that was passing away in St. Paul’s day, while the coming revelation of glory is the glory of Yahweh dwelling on earth in the Church. The Church is the principle place where the redemption of the creation takes place, because it is the redeemed community, the spring of New Creation in the world, the living Temple in which the Spirit dwells.

Somehow the Reformed community has gotten to a place where we think that making disciples and focusing on the community of the people of God is somehow retreatist, a charming holdover of pietists and Holy Rollers, fundie-anabaptists bent on fleeing the world. Reclaiming a good teaching (God is redeeming the whole creation) has bent our theology so far out of shape that we now think that this is His primary agenda, or that He will accomplish this miraculous deed outside of the Church. But when Jesus gave instructions for his Church to follow, He did not say, “Work according to your vocation, according to your skills, cooperating with a neo-capitalist society in order to live in harmony with God’s desire to redeem the entire creation.” You can’t find anybody in the NT that says this. What Jesus does say, however, is to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This statement replaces the creation mandate of Genesis 1 in the New Covenant. When did Reformed people stop understanding that this is a call for cosmic restoration? When did we start thinking that Jesus’ commands to us shouldn’t have to stand front and center, at the top of our list of things to do? When did we start pitting Jesus against some supposed doctrine that trumps His Own words?

This “radical” (pun!) restructuring of the priorities of the Christian faith is seen everywhere in Bradley’s review. “Christians are called to be more than disciple-makers.” “Disciple-making is a major part of the cosmic redemptive mission of God, but the work of the Kingdom transforms people, places, and things.”

Yes. That last command of Jesus couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the means by which we transform the whole creation. It’s a part. Maybe even important. But not the thing. Not the central thing. No, the central claim of the gospel is that we ought to adopt a neo-capitalistic work ethic and “do business” for the Kingdom of God.

Part of the problem, of course, is the pervasive confusion about the Church and the Kingdom. Most neo-Calvinists today see the Kingdom as broader than the Church. The Church is one thing, but Kingdom work is what’s really important, and our duties are duly outlined. Do your work, don’t complain, be content, get married, have babies, and work to support the common good. But the Kingdom of God is clearly and repeatedly identified as the Church. The Church is the Kingdom and the Kingdom is the Church. No, this doesn’t mean you should go get a “Church job,” but it might mean rethinking your vocational skills so that they operate within the sphere of the redeemed community. It might be that the only way to accomplish the good ends we say we want to accomplish will mean giving up on the dreams we thought could get us there. It might mean that God’s economy of sharing and vulnerability and risk is better, in the long run, at doing what we say we’re trying to do using Mammon’s economy.

The problem with Bradley’s radical alternative is that it simply isn’t radical enough yet.

Biblical Universalism?

Those who know me know that I can in no sense be fairly described as a fan of Charles Hodge. However, I have run across a remarkable passage in his Systematic Theology that I cannot agree with more. As usual, I am happy to be wrong.

Hodge wrote, commenting on Romans 5:18,

All the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved. … Not only, however, does the comparison, which the Apostle makes between Adam and Christ, lead to the conclusion that as all are condemned for the sin of the one, so all are saved by the righteousness of the other, those only excepted whom the Scriptures except; but the principle assumed throughout the the whole discussion teaches the same doctrine. That principle is that it is more congenial with the nature of God to bless than to curse, to save rather than to destroy. (Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 26)

In short, Hodge declared as a sweeping principle that, in the light of Jesus’ death, all men are to be said to be saved by the death of Christ, save only for those which Scripture excludes from this. It is clear that even Hodge never applied this universal principle consistently and that almost no one took much notice of it. Yet there it stands – the greatest 19th century Old Princeton Calvinists proclaimed that all men are saved except those excluded by Scripture as a broad principle of application. Such a statement invites us to view all men as saved until they publicly and finally exclude themselves.

Restorative Justice or Divine Wrath?

Fair warning: my musings here are only penultimate thoughts, not rigorous defense of a position I have claimed for my own. That’s what this blog is for: musing and exploring on subjects that often don’t get discussed.

This post concerns atonement theory. It would surprise many evangelicals to hear that the “propitiation of divine wrath” theory is not the only way to construct the nature of salvation. The other popular view is typically referred to as the “nonviolent atonement,” but is better termed “restorative justice.”

The “restorative justice” atonement theory questions the evangelical construction of salvation, which claims that the principal appeasement of Christ on the cross was done in order to alleviate the “wrath of the Father.” We’re so used to hearing the work of Christ explained in this way that any other explanation is likely to sound odd and tin-eared at first. We must be on our guard not to dismiss such issues out of hand as impossible, but attempt to give them a fair hearing.

Doug Jones (Dismissing Jesus, ch. 12) covers this in some detail, and he points past himself to Darrin Belousek’s Atonement, Justice, and Peace for a detailed defense of the “restorative justice” theory.

Boiled down to their basic differences, the two theories work out in this way.

Penal substitution views the central problem solved by salvation to be the wrath of the Father – we sinned and violated the Law of God, therefore He is angered with us and must be appeased by the blood of a human sacrifice (this position is defended by Steve Jeffery et al, Pierced for Our Transgressions).

Restorative Justice views the central problem solved by Christ’s work on the cross to be our enslavement to death and Satan – we were betrayed by Lucifer, sent to help us, and labored under the dominion of spiritual death which leads to sin. In this view, Jesus’ death was not intended to appease the Father through blood-letting, but instead was designed to absorb all the powers of death and evil until their strength was broken, so that their hold over the cosmos was undone.

Notice that these two views aim in opposite directions.

The implications of the penal substitution view is that God is angry with us to such an extent that He must be sated by blood sacrifice. This assumes certain things about how to understand the Mosaic Tabernacle and Temple system, as well as the intention for the sacrifices – namely, that it was by blood sacrifice that sins were forgiven. This view tends to be focused on the individual – Jesus died for each individual, so that they could be atoned for by his blood one at a time.

The implications of the restorative justice view, on the other hand, is that mankind is enslaved to death and Satan, and that Jesus’ intention in dying on the cross was to break the power of these two dominions over man and the cosmos. This view sees the Christus Victor model (aka, Jesus defeated Satan and all the principalities and powers on the cross) as central to Scripture and Jesus’ work on the cross, and it seems as though Scripture is on their side in this:

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)

And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matt. 12:27-28)

Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. (John 12:31)

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:14-18)

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14)

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Col. 2:15)

Moreover, what are the implications of seeing divine wrath as the problem to be solved, so that Jesus must come down and appease the Father by way of blood sacrifice? Among other things, it implies that God cannot bear with sin, even though we know that He does, and did, before Christ: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30).

The effect of arguing that God’s own anger is the problem to be solved is to turn God into the Accuser of the faithful. It is God who is prosecuting us for our sins, so Jesus had to come to calm God down by the shedding of his blood in a human sacrifice. But in the great cosmic courtroom drama in Scripture, this is not at all the picture that we are given. God is not the Accuser, God is not the prosecuting attorney. That job falls to Satan (the word satan literally translated means “the accuser.”) Satan is the one who accuses the saints of their shortcomings before a forbearing God in an attempt to get Him to punish His own people, His beloved (Job 12:1-7; Zech. 3:1-2). In the book of Revelation, we see what salvation actually grants to God’s people:

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev. 12:9-11)

So we can see that “salvation and the power an the kingdom” arrive precisely because “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.” God certainly does judge nations and peoples, but this is never a judgment upon His people. Judgment is reserved for the wicked and unrepentant; that same judgment is a glorious vindication of God’s chosen people.

So the penal substitution view seems to have cast their actors in the wrong parts. God is turned into the Accuser, and Satan for some reason doesn’t much matter, or play much of a role. But a God that accuses His own people of every little stumble does not seem to characterize God very well. “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever,” (Psa. 103:9). “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” (Psa. 103:10).

I need to do more reading on this subject before I come to any firm conclusions, but what is given above ought to at least make us keenly interested in investigating every possible angle to ensure we have not built our understanding of the cross on a mischaracterization of the Father.