One doctrine that is under attack in liberal circles is the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). What PSA teaches is that Christ was punished in our place. That is, upon the cross, Christ actually received our due punishment. PSA, fully developed during the Reformation, doesn't replace but rather incorporates older views that Christ was victorious on the cross—victorious over sin and Satan—by adding the concept of how God's wrath against the elect was fully satisfied. The clarification was that this satisfaction was not as a reward, if you will, for Christ's victory over sin and Satan—but God's satisfaction actually required the suffering Christ endured for the sins of the world.
This view of the Atonement forms a pleasing symmetry with the Reformed view of justification—namely that we are justified before God by an alien righteousness, that of Jesus. So we have a two-way imputation. Our sins are imputed to Christ, while his righteousness is imputed to us. That's a pretty good deal, and if you haven't yet taken advantage of it, I suggest you do.
The scriptural support for PSA is impressive. From Isaiah's Messianic prophecy:
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed. (Is. 53:5)
to Paul's letter to the Romans
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:23-25)
to many other passages. The message seems clear that Christ received actual punishment on the cross. Since he didn't deserve it, it follows that it was punishment due to someone else (us.) And since he paid it, we won't, lest we accuse God of double billing.
The liberal attacks against PSA, at least the more ridiculous ones, follow the formula that most liberal attacks take, the if I were God, I wouldn't do that, therefore God wouldn't do that line of reasoning.† The expression of this formula is typically found in liberal insistency that conservatives spend way too much time on the ideas of sin and wrath and not enough time on the nice passages about love and forgiveness. The most notorious recent "in the family" criticism of the PSA is from Steve Chalke, who, in his book The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan 2003) famously characterized it as "Cosmic Child Abuse."
Recently I read a reasoned discussion against PSA from Henry Neufeld.
Neufeld argues that God's love and forgiveness, not the PSA, are central to the gospel. I really have nothing to say about that, because I don't have a clear understanding of what is meant by "central." God has love. God forgives. The Atonement happened. It is not that there is something central to the gospel, but instead the gospel in central to all.
But let's examine some specific criticisms. Neufeld, in arguing how PSA proponents address the greatest commandment, writes:
Well, we have at the foundation of PSA God's essential
revulsion at human sin, and even his inability to look at it.
Actually, we have no such thing. This is taken from a very bad Sunday school lesson. There is nothing quite so easy to demonstrate in scripture as God's ability to look at sin with ease. In the garden, after the fall, it was Adam and Eve in apparent distress, not God. In Job, we have Satan involved in a heavenly conference with God, and God doesn't seem to be covering his eyes or in any obvious pain, even in the presence of the very Prince of Lies. If anything, we can demonstrate that it is human sin that abhors and runs from God, not the other way around. For example, recall the famous unclean-lips reaction of Isaiah.
Neufeld then applies this mistake concerning God's supposed weakness in the face of sin:
So how does this evoke my love for God? I am to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, even while he loathes me, a sinner, with everything in his being.
Friends, there is not any lesson from the PSA that would even remotely imply that God loathes Neufeld, who is a believer. On the contrary the lesson is that Neufeld is a believer because God loves him (He first loved you), he doesn't loathe him. We are not taught Jacob I loathed, but Esau I loathed even more, but Jacob I loved. Is there any indication that God loathed David, or Abraham, or Paul? Of course there is none whatsoever. The fact that it is so obvious from scripture that God loves believers should alert the reader that Neufeld is misrepresenting the PSA—because there could never be a doctrine that could achieve any traction at all if it was based on God loathing believers.
Neufeld's entire post, in my opinion, can be summarized by saying the PSA is bad because if focuses on God's loathsomeness for man. But that is simply wrong—the PSA focuses on God's love for believers. Even if the PSA is wrong, it seems a little foolish to deny that as a doctrine it in fact emphasizes God's love—otherwise you are left with no motivation for the suffering it supposes Christ endured. Did he endure suffering the punishment the PSA claims because he loathed mankind? It makes no sense whatsoever. Neufeld is not accurately representing the PSA.
He goes on to argue that another problem with the PSA is that it is too man centered. I suppose that's in the eyes of the beholder. It is man centered in Neufeld's view because it allows man to escape punishment. But the punishment escaped is hell—and here I presume that Neufeld also accepts that believers escape hell—so how "avoiding punishment implies man centeredness" is especially a problem for the PSA is not clear.
PSA proponents argue, correctly I would say, just the opposite. It is God centered in that it affirms that the only thing man can successfully contribute to his own salvation is his sins. Man is not good enough to bring anything meritorious; all must be supplied by God.
Reading between the lines, it seems to me that Neufeld is not so much against the PSA but against a different Reformed doctrine: Total Depravity. There is where we indeed find the language of loathsomeness and wrath that Neufeld so dislikes (and who can blame him.) But Total Depravity reflects God's view of the unregenerate, not his view of believers. And the Atonement reflects God's plan for those he loves, not those he hates. The two doctrines do not overlap much, but Neufeld, it seems to me, conflates them.
As for love and forgiveness, wonderful things to be sure, the plain truth is the only group that can self-consistently claim the centrality, to use Neufeld's language, of God's love and forgiveness are the Universalists. Because if you allow that some are lost—some are not forgiven, and clearly you must unless you just want to toss out the whole bible, then you certainly must conclude God's love and his forgiveness cannot be ultimate. They don't trump other attributes of God. If they did then all would be saved. That would be fine by me, but it doesn't reflect scriptural teaching.
However, of those attributes of God that might trump his love and forgiveness, God's justice isn't one of them. God's love and forgiveness do take precedence over his justice—because some receive mercy rather than justice.
It seems to me that the confusion of PSA arises because both sides accept that the pro-PSA side should be argued in terms to God's Justice. And once the pro-PSA side argues that the PSA is true because God demands justice, the anti-PSA side argues, rather convincingly, that the PSA represents a rather perverse form of justice.
Perhaps the problem is we focus on the wrong attribute of God. It is not God's justice—which we know he routinely sets aside in the form of mercy—that is relevant. It is a more mysterious attribute: God's holiness.
It is God's holiness that trumps all. It is God's holiness that is ultimate. And it is his most mysterious attribute.
One can, perhaps by this "trick," sweep the mysteries of the Atonement into a deeper mystery, God's holiness. It may be sleight of hand, but it succeeds in removing from the Atonement the tension that develops when you claim that it is all about the fact that God's justice demands punishment.
Why, for example, does the bible tell us that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood, and that the blood of animals or fallen man will not suffice? I really cannot comprehend why God cannot simply forgive everyone (he clearly relaxes justice by giving mercy to some—why not all?) And why must blood be shed? Why not some other form of punishment?
The answer, I believe, is found in God's incomprehensible holiness. The reconciliation that must be made is not because God demands justice, and not because God cannot bear the presence of sin, but rather because in his holiness it pleases God to spend eternity in the presence of a people whom he has cleansed. This cleansing, for some reason we cannot hope to fathom, requires the shedding of perfect blood. It is no use to characterize it as barbaric—-it is simply the way it is, and on this side of eternity believers might as well just accept the fact.
†Another form of liberalism, fundamentalism, takes its "liberties" with the bible this way: Well God didn't actually get around to putting that—typically some prohibition—in the bible, but I'm sure he would have if he had thought about it a little more, so we'll add it for him.