An email to Al Mohler regarding penal substitution

Al Mohler recently put up a post on penal substitution in response to the PCUSA brouhaha over the hymn “In Christ Alone,” which they withheld from their hymnal because of the line “The wrath of God was satisfied.” In the past you may recall, I shared a study on here of all the ways in which Christ’s blood is described in the New Testament, finding only one possible, tenuous reference to the satisfaction of God’s wrath. In any case, Mohler doesn’t allow comments on his blog so I sent him an email. Since he probably won’t respond, I decided to post it. Keep in mind that I’m deliberately framing how I speak in a way that might be persuasive to an arch-fundamentalist Southern Baptist.

Since you don’t have an option to comment on your recent blog on penal substitution, I figured I’d write you an email. It was interesting to me to see how you narrate the history of Christian atonement theory as though there were a continual consensus on penal substitution from the beginning until Schleiermacher came along and took everything in a different direction. Surely you’re not ignorant of the significant differences in the way that the patristic fathers talked about atonement from the way that the Spurgeonites talk about it today.

My own contention is that Anselm’s satisfaction theory which is what shaped the Reformation and everything that followed involves a major innovation that isn’t really Biblically justified. Specifically there’s no Biblical basis for introducing an infinite scale into the equation (the honor offense against God is infinite, therefore Jesus had to be both an infinite God and a human representative of humanity to pay the price). Nothing in the Bible says what my fundamentalist brothers say all the time, “You think you’re a decent person, but that’s because you’re not measuring things according to God’s standards which are infinite.”

God’s ways are indeed higher than our ways and the verse which says that in Isaiah is talking about the way God is more merciful than we are, which is why it’s ghastly to proof-text that verse as evidence of God’s nihilistically rigorous expectations for human behavior. The scandal of the Bible is the opposite: that God allows His name to dwell among a people who constantly humiliate and betray Him with their apostasy and idolatry. The problem is not that God is infinitely sanctimonious and wants to torture people forever because He hates imperfection; the problem is that we try to justify what is unjustifiable and that keeps us in the hopelessly corrupted delusional prison that Augustine and Luther called homo curvatus en se.

Isaiah 53 is the only text that can be taken to explicitly affirm satisfaction of God’s wrath as the purpose of atonement: “It was his will to crush him.” This requires of course making the suffering servant passage only about Jesus and not about Israel’s exile. That’s the best that you’ve got. All the other texts seem to support an abstract wrath satisfaction purpose only if it is presupposed and eisegeted onto the text. To die for our sins does not mean to die because God needed to spew his anger onto something.

Regarding Romans 3, which you referenced, everything that Paul cites about the wickedness of humanity from the psalms is an answer to his rhetorical question in verse 9: “What then? Are we any better off?” The psalms Paul excerpts provide evidence that the Jews are not any better off (because of the testimony of Jewish poets against their own people) and the Torah is not the panacea that Paul’s polemical opponents make it out to be.

So rather than affirming that all of humanity is utterly, infinitely, nihilistically wicked, Romans 3:11-18 shuts down any claim that the Judaizers are immune to sin. When we see that Romans 3:11-18 is meant to shut down the delusion that the law can produce perfection, then Romans 3:23 is not a statement of humanity’s utter depravity but rather the fact that nobody has the basis for getting on their high horse and judging others since all of us fall short of the glory of God. There’s a world of difference between falling short and being utterly depraved.

I believe in penal substitution in the sense that I believe the juridical/punitive element of the cross is critical to our healing and transformation into people who can live in communion with God and each other. The purpose is to break us of our innate tendency to self-justify/glory in ourselves (Romans 3:20, Ephesians 2:9, 1 Corinthians 1:30) which is the Luciferian impulse that is the basis for all sin and the reason why we need the foundation of Jesus’ cross in order to live in an authentic community where the truth is spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15).

To say that atonement is all a Father/Son transaction that has only to do with an abstract violation of honor is an Anselmian innovation. Why is God wrathful? Because God loves His creation and hates it when we abuse ourselves and each other. God’s glory is not akin to the “glory” of the will to power that Hitler put on display at the 1936 Berlin Games. God’s glory is the beauty that He never stops filling the world with. He hates the ugliness with which we pollute His beauty; and I suspect He has a special unique hatred for those who create ugliness with the ugly Nietzschean fuehrer-God they have created in their own image.

So God’s solution is to offer only mercy and accept only those who accept it. Those who are unwilling to submit to God’s mercy and instead try to justify themselves with doctrinal correctness (which is the Pelagianism of our time) or other means are not safe to the body of people who have put their trust in God’s mercy, which is why they will not be allowed into eternal communion. God’s justice is not impersonal like the modern nation-state, which is the impression given in many presentations of heaven and hell among the penal substitution enthusiasts. God rather defends His people against their oppressors because of His covenantal commitment to them. It is because of God’s mercy for the people who depend on Him for their safety that heaven cannot be universalist, but as Jesus says, the most ardent self-appointed gatekeepers of heaven may find themselves on the outside of the gate (Matthew 23:13).

So what I’m saying is I certainly believe in the Biblically supportable elements of penal substitution, but the caricatures of it that are rampant throughout the Southern Baptist Church (that I left behind along with a growing exodus of others who grew up in the Reagan era of American Christianity) are creating a monstrous people who have come to believe in the total depravity of everyone else.

I would not be surprised if many of the people in the crowd at this week’s Missouri state fair who screamed wildly for a clown dressed up in blackface as Obama were doing so because they have been taught that everyone outside of their churches is infinitely wicked and especially the Democrats. There is no reason to try to understand those people or negotiate with them because God hates them infinitely even though they seem like they might be decent people; we just don’t have the infinite perspective of God to see how thoroughly reprobate they are.

American evangelicals have perversely managed to invert the purpose of Paul’s polemic in Romans. Instead of being chastened by his words, we are emboldened in our judging. We measure our holiness according to the tenacity with which we stick to our guns in speaking out against the sins of other people when what we should be doing is measuring our own sinfulness with sober judgment (Romans 12:3) and covering others’ sinfulness with our love (1 Peter 4:8).

I imagine you get a lot of emails. I would of course be honored to dialogue with you. I figured that you could handle my south Texas feistiness, but if I have spoken uncharitably, please forgive me.

Yours in God’s mercy,

Morgan Guyton

23 thoughts on “An email to Al Mohler regarding penal substitution

  1. I grew up Southern Baptist in an earlier political atmosphere than Reagan’s, with a gentle, loving dad who was also a Baptist minister. I have no formal theological training, but as a layperson have spent my lifetime “working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.” The verses that refer to “mercy, not sacrifice,” have given me hope that God does, indeed, apply that standard to his own judgement.

    When Jesus allowed himself to be crucified, it was the ultimate sacrifice in service to others. What others? His followers, who would have been persecuted had he not surrendered himself to be tried and executed. It was a willing sacrifice he made with reservations – If it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me. He had Peter put away his sword. He prayed for his executioners. Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friends.

    The Kingdom of Heaven is among you, he taught. It is the way of Truth, Enlightenment, Service, Sacrifice. Food for the hungry. Healing for the sick. Humility for the proud. A simple lifestyle with riches given for the benefit of others. And for those who oppose The Way, forgiveness “for they know not what they do.”

    The harshness of legalism that came along with conservatism’s takeover in the late 70’s and early 80’s of the SBC, drove me and my parents to search out different denominations. My parents went to the Methodist church, my dad even became a full-time Methodist pastor from the age of 65-80, and I went to the Episcopal church. Either way, Dad said, John Wesley was happy.

  2. I’m confused by your view of the atonement.

    From reading your blog, you seem to say that Jesus died on the cross, not because of God’s wrath against sin, but in order to help us live in “communion with God and each other.” The chief sin is that people justify themselves by believing they are right and are judging others, particularly in the area of theology. I’m trying carefully to represent your view accurately here, so please correct if I am off track here.

    1) It seems to me that you are also sitting in judgment of others based on doctrinal correctness. In fact, you call parts of the Southern Baptist church a “monstrous people.” Now, I don’t have a problem with calling someone view’s wrong. But I don’t see how you can reconcile it with attempting to believe that you are doctrinally correct puts you outside the kingdom of God.

    2) You say God is angry with the sin of people (e.g., people who make God into an ubermensch). If God’s anger was not satisfied on the cross, does he overlook sin as a matter of mercy?

    Help me untangle some of these issues.

    • Self-justification is different than believing one thing is true and naming what you think isn’t true about what someone else believes. If you can’t do that, then you can’t have a belief about anything. Self-justification is needing to be right about EVERYTHING because you haven’t trusted Jesus to be the one who is right on your behalf. People who are unable to admit that they are wrong are people who make themselves enemies of God. God will accept all of us if and only if it is under the terms of His mercy to us which means that we renounce any right that we have to be merciless to others (c.f. Matthew 18:23-35). God is certainly angry with sin and He is covenantly committed to protecting all who put themselves under His mercy from their oppressors. We are all oppressors and oppressed in varying degrees. Jesus’ cross gives us a place to put all the pain and guilt and messiness that can never be untangled in the many layers of mitigating circumstances surrounding our sins. God’s love necessarily includes wrath, but His wrath is not impersonal and the scale on which God judges is not nihilistically impossible which is the way that many evangelicals describe the problem the cross resolves. God only accepts people who are perfect. No, the closer to perfect people get without mercy, the more repugnant they are to God because the more they delude themselves into thinking they are self-sufficient and become cruel, selfish, unsympathetic people as a result.

  3. The interesting thing about Isiah 53:3 is that it only reads, “was pleased to crush him,” in the Masoretic text. This is one of the few areas where the Masoretic text differs from the Septuagint. The Septuagint, on the other hand, reads, “The Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow.”

    Additionally, it’s interesting to note the coincidence between crush in Hebrew (daka’) and the word for pure in Aramaic (daka’).

    Some food for thought.

  4. “the Southern Baptist Church (that I left behind along with a growing exodus of others who grew up in the Reagan era of American Christianity)” — yep, I left my Southern Baptist Church on the Sunday after Reagan was elected. :-\

  5. You deny universalism here, which I previously thought you supported. I personally believe that everyone will eventually end up in heaven although some will possibly go to “hell” for a finite amount of time for purification reasons. I believe in God’s mercy for all, but some will not be allowed out until they’ve paid “the last cent.” That is assuming finite punishment for a finite amount of crimes done on earth. In the end, mercy triumphs over judgement, even in those who need to be taught to be merciful.

    • I cannot be a universalist, though I am a hopeful inclusivist. I cannot say whether or not it’s possible to withstand the mercy of God for all of eternity. I’m going to sound more like a Southern Baptist when I’m deliberately framing things in such a way that Al Mohler can’t dismiss as “liberal” than I will when I’m talking in such a way that an agnostic can’t dismiss me as a ‘fundamentalist.” There is definitely unresolved ambiguity within my perspective.

      • Yes. I guess in the end, from my perspective, it is all up to Christ anyways. I just feel I know his heart for everyone. I definitely respect your ambiguity. It makes sense go

      • I hope you will overcome what you call ‘unresolved ambiguity”.
        I noticed you include Luther in your defense.
        Have you read Martin Luthers Sunday after Easter Sermon?

        “In the second place they are the true and real pupils, who keep the law ,who know and are conscious that they do evil, and make naught of themselves, surrender themselves, count all their works unclean in the eyes of God, and despair of themselves and all their own works. They who do this, shall have no trouble, except that they must not deceive themselves with vain fruitless thoughts and defer this matter until death; for if anyone persistently postpones this until death, he will have a sad future.”

        Martin Luther on Romans 6: 1-3
        “He speaks here in figurative language to clearly and forcibly impress this matter upon us; …….., it is not possible that grace should command you to continue in sin, for it is the busisness of grace to destroy sin,,,,,figurative words above quoted, he wishes to vividly remind us what Christ has bestowed upon us.” 
        Sixth Sunday after Trinity Martin Luther

        If Mohler references Luther he will have more than enough to support his position

        • I’m sorry. I’m not seeing the connectivity in your argument here. What stake do you have in defending Mohler? What about my different way of articulating penal substitution is objectionable to you? Have you considered just becoming a Southern Baptist? I really think you would be more comfortable that way. In all of your comments over the past year or so, I have never once heard you take delight in something that wasn’t dour. It makes me sad for you. What are you trying to prove? Severity and gravity isn’t the same thing as holiness.

          • I still hope you get over your hate.
            I hope you come to a place where you can accept Christianity as a body.

          • Perhaps you and I want the same thing for each other and are failing miserably to communicate in such a way that we can be taken seriously by the other. There’s just something very Eeyore-ish about the way your comments sound to me. I know that I’m plenty prickly myself. I just wouldn’t want to be a Christian if all I had to go by was the way you describe it. What brings you joy about it other than talking disapprovingly about people whom you see as more “liberal” than you? Every now and then, just say something that just expresses joy and wonder at God’s beauty. That will help me to see who you really are; I know that our internet “personalities” are false ones.

  6. I’d be happy to hear if he actually responds to you. However, nothing in what I have seen and read of Rev. Mohler would make me think that he would. You’re a Methodist, a part of a denomination that is both Arminian and moderate (or liberal, as he would most likely see it.) I’d be very happy to be wrong, but I sure won’t be holding my breath.

    • Laura, can you help me since I’m uber-nerdy to identify some of the language that is less accessible? Are you talking about some of the historical allusions or am I using vocabulary that could be expressed more simply?

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