Stephen N. Williams

Antonement: the Penal View?

Toward a trinitarian theology of atonement

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Secondly, the relationship of wrath to anger needs further thought. It is certainly true that biblical talk of divine wrath cannot be reduced to the claim that it is an impersonal process, for the language speaks of the reaction of God in his own personal being. And certainly, on the other hand, it is difficult to purify the notion of divine anger from all that is amiss in human angercaprice, resentment, lack of patience, lack of controlthough it is not conclusive simply to note the difficulty. But anger is surely not the component in "wrath" that is particularly pertinent to the atonement. The idea of the Father being angry with the Son indeed remains lodged in much popular evangelical consciousness. In relation to propitiation and the cross, it is the element of divine judgment that comes to the fore in relation to wrath. Cranfield, in a formulation considered by John Stott to be the most careful of them all, wrote that "God … proposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of the Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they [sinners] deserved.10 It is judgment rather than anger that is expressed; act, and not emotion, that is self-directed.

In this connection, Henri Blocher, expounding Calvin in The Glory of the Atonement, does not leave us with a Calvin which convinces. Having earlier quoted Calvin on the "misdeeds that rendered sinners hateful to God," Blocher remarks that "Calvin is not embarrassed to take up the Augustinian paradox: 'He loved us and he hated us at the same time.' " Calvin seems to consider the difficulty in the paradoxical formulation cleared up in the Augustinian gloss: "He hated in each of us what we had done, and loved what He had done." But there are serious difficulties here. To use the language of God loving us and hating us at the same time, even if Calvin's explanation shows how it is coherent, is surely to step outside the world of Scripture and the revelation of God in Christ. In the passage that Blocher quotes from Calvin's Institutes, Calvin is dealing with our justification. His problem concerns time and history: how can the elect be elect, and so loved, from eternity, yet regarded as objects of a wrath that is temporally expressed on the cross that achieves our reconciliation? If we consult the relevant portion of the Institutes, we find it studded with references to divine "accommodation," the way biblical language is accommodated to our human capacity.11 So we must all be careful. Still, the problem in Calvin's account seems to lie in the way that he thinks of God's enmity towards us.12 If the sacrifice of Christ is inexplicable without reference to wrath and enmity, it is yet not a display of anything which suggests a dialectic of love and hatred in God, a paradox generated by theological perplexity over election and justification. It is judgment that is to the fore. Does the Augustinian formulation not jar and grate, even carefully interpreted as Augustine and Calvin do?13 Henri Blocher deserves our very highest respect as a theologian and scholar, but, in his apparent complicity with Calvin at this point, he will either confirm or create afresh many of the difficulties that people have with penal substitution.

Thirdly and finally, in any advocacy of penal substitution, we need to connect our theology with human experience. Hosea insisted on enduring an unfaithful wife. We can imagine the outcry. She is not paying the penalty for her sin, by being cast off. Who, then, pays it? Does it go unpaid? If "payment" sounds like legalistic moralism, is the alternative a forgiveness which evacuates the moral order of much significance? To which we might respond: the burden of the wife's sin has fallen on Hosea and, in suffering what he has suffered and restoring her into communionfully appreciating, not light-heartedly waiving, what she has donehe pays the price for sin. A Protestant evangelical of another day, James Orr, could approvingly pull in Bushnell here: "The world is full of the suffering of the innocent for the sins of others. More than this, the world is full of substitutionary, of vicarious, forcesof the voluntary enduring of suffering for the sake of others." Yet Orr rightly insisted that this does not cover what is distinctive about the substitutionary office of Christ.14 Indeed, read on its own, the statement points to an "exemplarist" approach to atonement, whether or not Bushnell should be read in that way. At any rate, talk of the peculiar penal substitution of the cross will surely gain credibility if it is connected with examples of forms of vicarious sin-bearing in human experience. Indeed, preachers, more or less felicitously, often use such examples illustratively.

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