Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Substitutionary Atonement, the Two Natures of Christ, and the Trinity

I saw someone the other day take a swipe against substitutionary atonement by saying that the cross is not about God pouring out his wrath on an innocent human being. "Cosmic child abuse" someone also has called this theory of atonement. Those who think substitutionary atonement is the best or even the only way to speak about the reconciliation of humanity to God and God to humanity through the cross of Christ have also spoken about the alienation between Jesus and the One who is his Father in such stark terms as to imply if not outright break the union of the Holy Trinity. There is some way in which these thoughts are related, whether they be of a powerless human being who serves as a ransom for humanity before a wrathful God or of an abusive Father who takes out his frustrations against others on his Son, coming from those who find substitutionary atonement disturbing or distasteful, or, from those on the pro-side of substitutionary atonement, thoughts of rage against sin and alienation that divide the Trinity. In some way, they all come from a failure to grasp in fullest terms the unity of essence and intention in the Triune God, and, relatedly, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ.

Let us take this notion of the utter powerlessness of the innocent human being in light of the cross. Humility, being found in the form of a servant, being silent as a lamb before its shearers pictures the weakness in which God is slain of sinful man, but this is a powerful weakness, the weakness of God. No one takes the life of the Son from him. He lays it down of himself and takes it up again. The creature here is one person, the Son, of the very essence of God, the Trinity. This is not a man forced to carry a burden he does not freely choose to carry. He submits in love to the will of the Father to be slain by those he has come to save in propitiating the wrath of the self-same God. God and man are one in this as they are one in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, let us remember that the division of the persons arises out of the One, undivided, and indivisible essence of the Godhead. The Father who wounds is God; the Son who is wounded is God; the Spirit who announces God's revelation that "one hung from a tree is cursed" and then vindicates him before the Father in the resurrection is God.

Thirdly, let us remember that this abandonment of God by God into the hands of sinners for the salvation of humanity is the plan forged before the worlds in the inner council chamber of the Blessed Trinity. In the actual accomplishment of this plan, the Trinity, as God's One indivisible essence, experience as One what it is to be forsaken of God and shatter this horror to pieces. Each person of the Holy Trinity also experiences this tragedy individually. That Jesus is perfectly in submission to the will of his Father and that the Spirit is leading him and vindicates him in the end shows that the transaction of wrath between Father and Son is carried out in perfect concord and peace. In their alienation is perfect unity.


Jason said...

The problem is "penal" substitutionary atonement, not substitutionary atonement.

David and Christina said...

Well said, Jamie. I think you stated our orthodox Christian position well, but I'm not sure that you answered the proponents of the "divine child abuse" language.

It seemed like you harkened back to the ecumenical creeds (not explicitly, but in content) in reference to the Triune nature of God and the hypostatic union in Christ. But I don't think liberal Christians and many mainline (whether liberal or not) evangelicals take the creeds seriously if they've ever even heard of them.

So, I don't know if the issue is that Christians need to be called back to historic Christianity directly, so much as they first need to know that there is a historic Christianity, and that when we remember the blood-stained Cross where our Savior took our place, we see it with the help of the cloud of witnesses that went before us. So in sum I would say that it's not just an issue of calling people back to the creeds, but more fundamentally there's a need for faithful pastors and scholars to build their peoples' foundations for understanding Scripture, authority, and tradition.