What Repentance Means

Cynthia Bourgeault’s wonderful book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message is an absolute delight. She is definitely onto something, even when I find myself disagreeing with her. The book is full of gems, big and little alike.

One that struck me was her understanding of the word “repentance.” She writes,

The Greek that it’s translating is metanoia. And guess what? It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself for doing bad things. It doesn’t even mean to “change the direction in which you’re looking for happiness,” although it is often translated that way. The word literally breaks down into meta and noia, which, depending on how you translate meta (it can be either the preposition “beyond” or the adjective “large”), means “go beyond the mind,” or “go into the larger mind.” The repentance that Jesus really is talking about means to go beyond your little egoic operating system that says, “I think, therefore I am,” and try out the other one–the big one–that says, “I am, therefore I think.” (p. 37).

This is captivating stuff. Growing up, I was taught that repentance meant feeling sorry for sin. When I got older and started reading theology I was told that repentance actually meant to “change direction,” or to “turn around.” But Bourgeault is right, the word actually does not mean either of those things. It means to transcend our selfish, egoist narrative and see the bigger picture. It means “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” in just the mystical sense of transcending the self and seeing a bigger world, the bigger narrative of God.

When I view my actions from my egoist self, I can (and do) justify it all. They deserved it, or I was justified in taking the action or saying the thing that I said, or they had it coming. Our egoist mind conjures up justifications like the federal government prints money. There’s never a shortage. To enter into the larger mind, then, is to see ourselves from outside ourselves, to transcend our own perspective, and to move into a state of consciousness alive to the kenosis of God, the self-giving, non-dualistic means by which we experience God and his presence.

So the next time we read “Repent, and believe,” let’s try to remember that Jesus is actually saying, “Transcend the ego and love.”

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Genesis 1-5 as Ancient Memory

I have recently discovered the work of Riane Eisler, and particularly her classic 1988 work The Chalice and the Blade. Eisler is a second-wave feminist who has specialized in cultural history. Her book is an overview of the apparently substantial archaeological evidence that human society during the Neolithic pre-historical period (that period that before written historical records, before the rise of the Egyptian empire) was radically peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian.

It turns out, there is no evidence that Neolithic communities built fortifications or defenses around their towns, no evidence among what we can find of their metallurgy that they manufactured any weapons, and from what we can tell about their social lives, men and women lived in equalitarian peace, neither patriarchal or matriarchal.

Thus, Eisler distinguishes between two ultimate types of social structures, which she terms the “chalice” and the “blade.” Or, phrased differently, the cooperative and the dominator culture, each organized around the common cup or the power of the sword. It was not until the nomadic herdsmen swept down from the steppes to expand their grazing territories that weapons and defenses begin to be seen, and over a period of centuries the peaceful Neolithic communities were conquered by various nomadic warlords. The Minoan culture on the island of Crete was the last remaining peaceful, egalitarian society, finally conquered by the warring mainland Myceneans (Greeks) in 1420 BCE.

Her research is helpful for us in that it demonstrates that competition, violence, and domination are not inevitable for the human person or the human community.

As a Christian, I found her insights of prehistory and the emergence of patriarchy as a later “de-evolution” from a cooperative, peaceful community very interesting. I was thinking this week about how we might view the earliest portions of Genesis as the collective memory of the Hebrew people, living in and often part of the patriarchal model of human society, of a lost age of peaceful and unoppressive human community.

That is, Genesis was probably written or compiled during the Babylon exile, when Israel was in captivity and under the oppression of the dominator model of human community. While prior to this historical point, Israel had come into Canaan and settled there, eventually displacing the peaceful people that lived there and had desired a king like the dominator model (in 2 Samuel 8), by the time they began to collect the earliest stories of their people and culture, they were slaves and prisoners to this same system. Thus, the idea of a former age of peace and a tragic fall came into their yearning. In other words, because they were enslaved and suffering, they sought the hope that such a plight was not inevitable, but that there had once been an age without such oppression and suffering, and then a fall from such a human community.

To make this clearer, Genesis is a foundational mythic retelling of a cultural memory of a distant past. There are glimmers of a genuine lost historical age found under the mythical trappings of the story, much as there might well have been a real flood that gave rise to the flood account of Noah.

When we turn to Genesis 1-5, then, we see the remnants of their ancient memory of precisely this neolithic past, passed down in stories through the collective memory of the community, of a way of being human in community that had been lost (but might be recovered in some eschatological future). The story of Adam and Eve dwelling in harmony with each other, the creation, and God in the Garden of Eden is the expression of what the Hebrews called “shalom,” or peace, a comprehensive peace and harmony between all creation, where all relationships were properly ordered in equalitarian and healthy, nonviolent terms. (I am here assuming that Phyllis Trible and various eco-theologians are correct in seeing Genesis 1-2 as egalitarian and opposed to androarchy, mankind-rule and people-centrism.)

When the serpent turns up, it inserts disorder and disharmony into all of these relationships, humanity with itself, between the genders, between humanity and the animals and the creation. There is now “enmity” (Gen. 3:15) that interferes with shalom. This could well be, once again, the collective memory of an ancient neolithic past in which communities of shalom and cooperation and harmony were conquered by warlords, which would have plunged people into enmity with one another and with the world. Later, in Genesis 4, this enmity bursts into violent murder between agrarian Cain and herdsman Abel, the precise two kinds of communities that fought with each other in the later neolithic age. Cain, the violent one, then goes on to found the first city (and the implication of it, empire, domination, oppression).

In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, the word “enmity” in Gen. 3:15 is echthran. This is important for the gospel, as Ephesians 2:14-18 makes clear:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

In this passage, pseudo-Paul mentions “hostility” twice as something that Jesus killed. The Cross, then, was the ultimate act of violence of God’s part–the violence of enemy-love, to suffer rather than retaliate, and in that way execute hatred and violence forever. That word “hostility” is echthra, forging a close connection between the serpent-dominator who gets between healthy, harmonious relationships with its enmity [echthran], and the Christ-liberator, who finally killed enmity [echthra] itself in the human soul and in human community. By killing enmity, Jesus opens up new ways of being human and living together in community, restoring “peace,” shalom, that ancient human community based in cooperation, love, peace, and egalitarian life.

Christian(ities): Progressive vs. Regressive

Eight local churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona have decided to team up to attack the only progressive church in their town with a coordinated sermon series. Recently Scott Fritzsche at Unsettled Christianity asked the 8 pastors a series of questions about their intentions.

Their answers are noteworthy.

For example, notice how they privilege themselves as the gatekeepers of the Nicene Creed: “While it is true that there are doctrinal differences between us, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are shared by all: Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried, and then raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures.”

Those foolish Progressives apparently deny the Nicene Creed, the ecumenical guide of historic Christianity. But I’m not aware of any Progressive Christian that could not recite the Nicene Creed in good faith – the question is how to understand the Creed, not whether or not to confess it. By reciting this litany of doctrines, what these pastors really mean is to see these as objective, historical descriptions of What Really Happened in the modern, Western sense of neutral historical description. But these pastors express the very problem themselves; these descriptions come to us “according to the Scriptures,” that is through liturgical and religious documents. Historical reconstruction beyond the literary documents of the Scriptures is impossible, and hence does not bother Progressives too much. Coincidentally, as a member of the Episcopal Church I recite this creed every week in worship. How often do these regressive churches confess it?

Progressive Christianity leads to a Christ-less Christianity. If Jesus is simply a good man we are trying to emulate and not the Son of God, then we dead in our sin and are dependent on works righteousness.

It’s all about Jesus.  Progressive theology denies the Deity of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus.  Sin is not dealt with, thus salvation is not available

This claim is so absurd it is just sad. The fact of the matter is that regressive Christianity turns Jesus into an irrelevancy to the actual lives of their congregations – necessary, perhaps, to have lived perfectly and gotten himself murdered by his father so we could float off to heaven when we die, but beyond that mostly not. Progressive Christians place Jesus at the very heart. Jesus, we might recall, said “Follow me,” not “Think Things About Me.”

Progressive Christians say Jesus isn’t the Son of God? Where? In fact, where have we said any of these things? The truth is that we simply understand these terms differently than they do – and they must be the only ones who can be right. God forbid there be a diversity of opinion on how to understand the Christian faith. No, regressives must impound everyone who deviates from their party line. How dare we present a gospel that is genuinely good news, a God that is genuinely benevolent to all people, a faith that is about love instead of nit-picking rationalism and the primacy of dogma over people.

Progressive Christianity has made it quite clear that they don’t believe in a theistic God, nor do they believe Jesus is the only way to God. Comparatively, Jesus clearly believed in a theistic God (He called Him Father) and it was Jesus Himself who said He was the only way to the Father.

I suppose it is too much to expect that regressives would be aware that the Scriptures employ metaphor to speak about things that are beyond human language, like the nature and being of God and the Trinity. Now, it is true that panentheism is popular among Progressive Christians, but then it was popular among the Eastern Church in the early parts of church history too, which emphasized panentheism and theosis.

Likewise, we should note that saying “Jesus is the only way” and “Christianity is the only way” are two entirely different statements. After the Ascension, Jesus ceased to be an object within the universe and became “enthroned,” a word we use to describe the expansive union of the person Jesus with the divine Logos that indwelt him in his life. Jesus became, in this sense, the cosmic Christ, the Logos in, through, and by the whole world lives, moves, and has its being. We use the words “Logos” and “Jesus” to speak of this “beyonding” presence; Muslims use the name Allah, Jews use the name Yahweh. Precise theological minutia cannot be demanded for salvation, because precise theological minutia is impossible, since God is essentially beyond human language to describe and comprehend. It is simply hubris and human arrogance to suggest anything else. (Not to mention that understanding proper theological doctrines is, then, itself a “work” that man must do in order to be saved.) On this point, Progressives insist upon theological and interpretive humility in the face of that which defies human description.

Thus, one can be saved outside Christianity, but not outside Christ, the cosmic Logos that is in union with the whole creation, by, through, and in Whom we live, move, and have our being.

Doctrine is at the very center of everything we do, but then that would be true for a Progressive Christian as well. In fact, it is at the center of what every human being does; even the atheist. A person only acts on what they believe. The real question is what do you believe? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, as such, inerrant. We then use the Bible as a guideline for the outworking of our faith in day to day life. Fostering that doctrine is really quite simple: blow the dust off the book and read it!

Here we have what is called the “primacy of the intellect.” Originating in Aristotle and Plato, and then employed by the Capitalist bourgeois to define man as an economic being – inherently individualistic and rationally self-motivated. Doctrine and the thought and mind of man, is the highest good for regressive faith. For Progressives, orthopraxis controls orthodoxy. Right action teaches right theology. The center of humanity, for the Progressive, is love, not doctrine. Jesus came to teach us how to live, as human communities, in a new way. He came to show us the way of love, not the way of thought. That isn’t to say thought isn’t important, but it may not take center stage. Those who appear in the judgment in Matthew 25 are evaluated on the basis of their love, not their ability to define superlapsarianism.

The term Progressive indicates something that evolves (changes from one state to a more improved state) over time. Is Christ progressive? Does Jesus evolve? What improvement would you add to His perfection? More to the point, what can man’s knowledge and learning add to Divine perfection?

Does Jesus evolve? No, but our understanding of Jesus certainly does, as even the Scriptures attest.

I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come,” (John 16:12-13).

Here Jesus attests that the Scriptures themselves are simply not enough. The work of the Spirit in the Church, leading us progressively into all truth, is the means by which Jesus provokes us to re-evaluate our interpretations. The Spirit, dwelling in the community of God, will guide us into understanding which were not available to the disciples and to the Church in the past. The Christian faith is a forward-moving faith, not a static faith imprisoned under the totalitiarianism of the dead. Tradition is right and good, so far as it is helpful. Tradition can be and is often wrong. Slavery, women, and Jews, anyone? Where it is helpful, it is retained. Where it is not helpful, it is not needed.

The idea of absolute inerrancy of Scripture simply isn’t taught in Scripture. In fact, the Scriptures directly contradict this very notion. One of the social consequences of inerrancy is to treat the Scriptures as though eternal life was found in them, rather than in the eternal and cosmic Christ himself. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life,” (John 5:39-40).

Manhood vs. Jesus

There has been a long history of “masculine” Christianity in the life of the modern church. The fact that the Christian faith has been the refuge for women and other minorities and vulnerable, weak elements of society has created an aura of anxiety around the men that are active in Church life. They fret about masculinity, manhood and the faith, fearing the “feminization” of the Church, nursing the lurking suspicion that perhaps in the end it is feminine itself.

Men have done a number of things to remedy this situation, but they all ultimately boil down to a “re-masculization” of the faith, emphasizing themes of capitalism, warfare, and patriarchy. From Billy Sunday and Billy Graham to the contemporary Quiverfull movement, Doug Wilson, and beyond, this movement has tried to rediscover, define, and enforce masculinity in counter-distinction to femininity, as a vital need within the Church.

Typically, this is expressed in the traditional masculine roles of Protector, Provider, and Progenitor. As I was thinking about these categories today, I suddenly realized how far these are from Jesus’s vision as presented to us in the New Testament. Christianity, then, innately destabilizes traditional male and female roles by summoning women to ministry, service, and education, and by summoning men to surrender their instinct to self-defense, capitalism, and patriarchy.

Man as Protector. Here the man is seen as guardian, the paternalistic defender of the patriarchal household of wife, property, and possessions. Jesus undercuts this instinct when he summons Christians to the life of nonviolence and non-retaliation.But I say to you, do not resist with violence the harmful person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you,” (Matt. 5:39-42). While the male instinct is the assertion and defense of rights and property, Jesus asserts that the opposite is characteristic in the Kingdom of God.

Man as Provider. In this perspective, the man is seen as the source of provision for himself and his household. Implicit in this idea is the concept of capitalist acquisition, accumulation, and consumption, the making of money and the provision of a household for the subservient wife and children. The degree to which our society insists this is a matter of honor for men (while simultaneously abandoning much of it in practice) shows how ingrained it is in our thinking. Jesus challenges this directly. Jesus himself was not a provider, but received the hospitality and financial support of others, including women (Luke 8:3). He advocated this life for his followers: “You cannot serve God and wealth. For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matt. 6:24-26). The pattern here is mutual support and a radical trust in God, not accumulation and provision.

Man as Progenitor. Here the man’s power is felt in his sexual veracity and his ability to procreate – hence the struggle of men with impotence and other sexual issues. Rather than seeing sex and marriage in egalitarian, equalitarian terms, it becomes a means of planting one’s seed, of “taking” a wife and fertilizing her garden, an instinctual regression to patriarchy, however guided by evolutionary necessity. Even here, however, Jesus reconstructs our view. “But seek first His kingdom and His justice, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” (Matt. 6:33-34).

Jesus, as is apparent from this brief glance, radically un-centers the capitalist, middle-class lifestyle into which modern Christians are desperately seeking to accommodate him, and the patriarchical assumptions that sit behind it. He calls us into a vastly different type of community, organized around a revolutionary set of assumptions that challenge the cultural locations of both men and women. He is not pro-masculine or pro-feminine, but beyond both, a new way of living in which there is “neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:25).

When the Bible is Wrong

The question of when and whether the Bible is wrong (and how to tell when and where it is) has been an ongoing discussion over the last year or so. I think this is a great discussion to have, because prior to about 1970 most Christians didn’t really care about the Old Testament. Since the 1970s the theological trend has been to see absolute and complete agreement between the OT and the NT. Now we appear to be moving into a stage of understanding that there is neither complete continuity or complete discontinuity between the testaments, and to start seriously exploring where they are different.

In this post, I want to explore whether or not the New Testament believes the Bible can be wrong. And the answer I found is actually quite surprising – the answer is a robust yes.

The epistle to the Colossians declares that the Old Testament is a “shadow of what is yet to come, because the substance belongs to Christ,” (Col. 2:17). The word “shadow” there is the Greek skia, which literally means shadow, but is used figuratively for the “darkness of error.” (For those curious as to where I found this, it is the listed meaning in Strong’s numbers). Isaiah in particular connects darkness with blindness (Isa. 29:18; 42:7, 16), a darkness that the coming of the Messiah would remedy: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those that live in the land of the shadow of death, upon them the light has shined,” (Isa. 9:2). This is not mere incompleteness of the Old Testament’s understanding of God, but—at least in some cases—actual misunderstanding.

Sharply in contrast to this “shadow of error” that represented the Torah and Old Testament, Colossians then tells us that the “substance belongs to Christ.” The Greek word for “substance” here is soma, which literally refers to a body in sound health. Its root is sozo, which is the word the New Testament uses for “saved, salvation,” and which means to be kept safe and sound, to be rescued. Thus, this “substance” that belongs to Christ is the remedy to the “shadow of error” that looms over the Old Testament. Jesus “saves” the Old Testament by reinterpreting it according to his perfect knowledge of God.

The epistle of Hebrews tells us several things about the Old Testament that are important. The very first verses tell us this: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son,” (Heb. 1:1-2). The contrast is clear; long ago God spoke through various people in diverse ways, but now God has spoken with the unified voice of Jesus. The implication here, of course, is that if God spoke through various people in various ways, that communication is not perfectly clear. But now, at last, God has spoken with finality through the unified, single voice of Jesus. These various people were not perfect representations of God, nor did they grasp his inmost depths, because only Jesus reveals this, as the next verse tells us: Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of his nature,” (Heb. 1:3).

In the tenth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, we read that the Old Testament “possesses a mere shadow of the good things to come, instead of possessing the true realities,” (Heb. 10:1). “Mere shadow” here is again skia, the “shadow of error” or misunderstanding. The “true realities” it does not possess are eikon, the same word which Hebrews 1:3 uses to describe Jesus as the “precise image” and “exact imprint” of God’s innermost being and character. Jesus possesses something which the Old Testament never did, and therefore understands things which it never could.

The use of skia in both Colossians and Hebrews to speak about what the Old Testament lacked is interesting. The word goes quite beyond incompleteness and into error or distortion. Of course, something that is partial, vague, or incomplete brings with it distortion by necessity. The rough sketch is inexact and incomplete; it cannot give us the detail or clarity of the full painting. The crudely-drawn map cannot possess the full accuracy of the topographical map. The whole discussion of both passages depends upon the rhetorical contrast between vague, ill-defined or distorted pictures of God in the Old Testament and the perfect, precise, clear description and fullness of the invisible God displayed in the visible person of Jesus.

Importantly, Jesus himself taught the same thing. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill,” (Matt. 5:17). It has been vogue in the last twenty or so years among evangelicals to see this passage as Jesus agreeing with everything in the Old Testament, but this is not what Jesus means. After all, the rest of the Sermon is a series of contrasts: “You have heard it said . . . But I say to you.”

Rather, Jesus has come to “fulfill” the Torah. The Greek word here is pleroo, which means both to meet the requirements of something, and also to finish, perfect, or complete something. Thus, Jesus is saying that his teachings meets the requirements of the Torah, but that they also perfect or “fix” the Torah. He is correcting the Torah.

This is why Jesus is our standard, our exegesis, our hermeneutic. This is why he has authority over the Old Testament. He is the exact image of the invisible God, unlike the “inexact” image of God we were given in the Old Testament.

Whenever I think about the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament, I always think of the moment when Moses wants to see God, to look on him with his own eyes. God doesn’t really want to reveal himself, but finally he agrees to let Moses see, but only for a moment. He tells Moses to look between two rocks and God will pass by, just for a second. And all Moses sees is the back side of God: “you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen,” (Ex. 33:23). How precise an understanding of a person can be deduced from their back? The Old Testament knew God, but – speaking metaphorically – all they knew was God’s back. Now, Jesus has come as the very face of God, the face that the Old Testament could not see.

The Nonviolent God of the Exodus

Derek Rishmawy has been one of the Calvinists leading the charge against Jesus’s authority to reinterpret the Old Testament and its portrayal of God as violent. Of course, he wouldn’t say that’s what he’s doing, but the end results are the same. This week he argued that “Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus.”

By this, he means that if we reject the exodus as history we must of necessity lose the liberating God of the exodus who opposes oppression and rescues his people.

This is actually a clever rhetorical argument to make, because those of us who advocate for a nonviolent God tend to see God’s opposition to oppression as vital to His character.

But Rishmawy’s argument is completely bogus, for several reasons.

The first reason is pretty simple. There’s no historical or archaeological evidence there ever was an exodus in the first place, or a conquest of Canaan for that matter. Conservative Christians have tried to find alternative explanations or suggestions that it could have happened, but in the end all those arguments fail and we’re left with the fact that, historically speaking, it didn’t happen that way. So right off the bat, if Derek is right, then everybody loses the God of the exodus, including him. We just have to deal with this fact and move on.

Which leads us to the second problem. Which is that what happened historically doesn’t matter, frankly, because what actually matters is what the text says about God. The exodus doesn’t have to be historically accurate in order for us to get the point that God is all about liberation and his faithful determination to rescue his people. We don’t need to know whether the parable of the unforgiving servant was historical in order to understand that showing mercy on the undeserving is central to God’s character. That point is clear regardless of what might have been the case historically.

In the end, Rishmawy makes the mistake all conservatives do when he assumes the goal of a nonviolent hermeneutic is to “screen out” or “set aside” violent passages or parts of the Old Testament. This is completely untrue. No one is getting rid of bits of the Old Testament. The OT is part of our sacred scriptures. To say that it didn’t happen the way it is recorded is not the same as saying they are worthless or ought to be tossed out. Most of us are completely comfortable saying they represent what oppressors like Egypt deserve to have happen to them, regardless of whether it did.

If the concern is over whether the texts are still relevant for Christians to wrestle with, there is no disagreement. Of course they are.

But ultimately, the real question is this: “Is Jesus the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, or isn’t he?”

If he is, then the Old Testament is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, and we must work to reinterpret it in the light of Jesus.

If Jesus is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, then we have problems that are a whole lot bigger than a few violent passages in the OT.

Questions about Penal Atonement

Toby Sumpter, a pastor in the CREC, a strongly conservative Presbyterian denomination, has written a piece responding to part of a piece by Derrin Belousek regarding the latter’s work on penal substitution. Right, got that sorted out?

Now, Sumpter has not read Belousek’s 600-page tome taking down every brick in the Penal Substitutionary theory, so he can perhaps be forgiven for getting late to the party and trying to chime into the discussion without knowing what’s been going on beforehand. Sumpter objects to Belousek’s description of PSA, which is this:

God, who is holy and just, cannot tolerate sin and so must judge sin by punishing sinners with death; but God, who is also merciful, provides sinners an escape from divine retribution by ordaining Christ’s death as punishment in their place.

Sumpter calls this a “rhetorical setup” which is “skewing the question” in order to make PSA look like a “distortion of God’s character.” Even though it needs no rhetorical skewing to be a fundamental distortion of God’s character – but I digress. No, the problem is that Belousek’s description is the standard definition of PSA given by its supporters, so his complaint that it is an unfair caricature seems like special pleading. Pick any of the major defenses of PSA and you will essentially find this definition (for example, this one).

The second problem with Sumpter’s complaint is a big one, and it has to do with the entire spread of his post, and it is that when Belousek is speaking of God’s intolerance of sin in his article, he is specifically talking about the claim that God supposedly abandoned the Son on the cross. Sumpter assumes that Belousek thinks the intolerance of God for sin means that He must punish us with death immediately, that He can have no patience with us at all. But Belousek’s point is that

if God can abandon his own Son at the cross, what assurance do we have that God won’t abandon us in our time of trial? If the cross shows that God left his own Son derelict as he faced powers of darkness and death, what assurance do we have that God won’t leave us derelict to face peril and sword? Can anyone trust this God?

And Belousek is pulling his punches here too. If, after all, the primary agent that has set itself against Jesus in this place is actually the Father throwing all of His fury and wrath upon His own Son, then not only do we have to worry about God abandoning us, but also kicking us while we’re down, so to speak. Not only was it a sham trial through which Jesus was falsely killed, but the whole thing was ultimately God’s doing. Yikes.

One can nitpick about Sumpter’s understanding of the Torah and his definition of wrath and justice and hell, but at the base of it he just seems to think that only PSA can make sense of these ideas. As if deniers of PSA have never heard of wrath before. But those who deny penal substitution have not only heard of wrath, they also make sense of it within their paradigm. No one denies that God has wrath, or that He has the right to destroy anyone for committing sin. The question is really about whether God must destroy anyone. That God has the right to do so does not mean that He must exercise this right (Belousek discusses this at length in the second half of his excellent book, Atonement, Justice, and Peace). We see God as having the right to penal punishment but as choosing in His grace and mercy to employ restorative justice, justice that does not destroy but restores our humanity through love and peace rather than destroying us through retribution and wrath.

All this leads us to ask some fundamental questions about PSA.

Why does every single summary of the cross and what it accomplished always speak of it as the defeat of the devil and as an exodus, rather than God’s punishment for sin?

Why does the New Testament always speak of the Father and the Son working in concert through the cross to accomplish peace for humanity, rather than the Father’s penal action upon the Son?

Why does the New Testament never speak of God’s wrath coming upon Jesus, or Jesus bearing the wrath of the Father as a substitute?