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“The Monster-God of Penal Substitution”: A Response to Dr. Matt O’Reilly | Righting America

by Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Satan in the Middle Ages: Image via Paul Williams/Getty Images

In a response to my recent article on “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution,” United Methodist pastor, Dr. Matt O’Reilly, takes exception to my characterization of penal substitution and the God it presupposes.  As I understand it, Dr. O’Reilly has two central objections to my article: 

  1. He feels that I failed to critique the best version of penal substitution, preferring a “straw man” to a “steel man”
  2. As a result, I failed to grapple with the loving God of a “robust” theology of penal substitution in which “the second person of the Trinity took upon himself the penalty that the one triune God requires for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued.”

Dr. O’Reilly does not, as far as I can tell, grapple with my assessment that the basic failure of penal substitutionary atonement is that it fabricates theories out of metaphors, and then moves without justification from a single point of comparison to a narrated description of atonement that tries to make the case for multiple points of comparison.  Nor does he seem to recognize that my primary concern is with the meme-like character of that theory and the way in which it has wormed its way into popular consciousness.

I have no apology to make for the last and central concern.  Frankly, I am rather more troubled by the devastating pastoral impact that penal substitution has had on laypeople, than I am with the refinements that might be offered in its defense.  Dr. O’Reilly’s refinements aside for a moment, the fact of the matter is that the Monster-God meme is exactly what people in the pews hear. I know this from my own pastoral work and my efforts as a spiritual director, but it has also been a problem for the church’s theology for quite some time.  

In 1949 Dorothy Sayers noted that penal substitution had so distorted our theology of atonement that people were given “all the wrong answers” to the questions one might ask in a catechetical examination.  Fingering the problem in her characteristically acerbic style she described the probable results:

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Father?

A.: He is omnipotent and holy.  He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfillment: He is very angry if these are not carried out.  He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favoritism. He…is always ready to pound on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun.  He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Son?

A.: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth.  It is not His fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did His best to reconcile man to God (see Atonement).  He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to him.

[…]

Q.: What was Jesus Christ like in real life?

A.: He was a good man – so good as to be called the Son of God.  He is to be identified in some way with God the Son (see above). He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism….If we try to live like Him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.

Q.: What is meant by the Atonement?

A.: God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim.  He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or who never heard of Him.

So, straw man or not, there is good reason to be concerned.

That said, Dr. O’Reilly’s “steel man” seems to be decorative sheathing for the “straw man” meme he accuses me of skewering.  He rightly insists that what any person of the Trinity wills, the whole of the Trinity wills. But his defense, then, for penal substitution is that Jesus, no less than the Father, “requires” and pays a “penalty…for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued.”

This refinement is necessary if one supposes that God requires a penalty to be paid.  But this way of describing atonement places a very strange priority at the center of God’s redemptive work that depended upon feudal motifs, and did not play a significant role in the church’s theology of atonement until the Protestant Reformation.  It is also at odds with the larger biblical narrative.  

Neither the Old nor the New Testaments describe a God who is preoccupied with having a penalty paid.  Rather, the dominant theme through both Testaments is the longing of God to restore the intimacy between God and his children that existed from the beginning.  It is also out of that longing that God risks himself in the person of the Son, not out of a desire for satisfaction, but out of a love that finds its expression in the one who enters the burning houses that are our lives and emerges with us in his embrace.  

To recast this drama in terms of required penalties may have a certain kind of sense to those who lived with feudal lords. But the way in which this account distorts the focus of the redemptive narrative of Scripture is as clear in Dr. O’Reilly’s refinement as it is in the version I outlined at the outset.

Why, then, the language in Scripture about the anger or wrath of God, particularly if the only absolute affirmation there is that God is love?  As I noted in my earlier article, this – it seems to me – is the language that the writers of the Old and New Testaments use to describe the distance from God that we experience when we prefer to be our own gods.  One does not need to believe in a God who requires a penalty in order to believe that we are in need of God, that our sins are the thing that puts us at peril, or that we need to be saved.  

The writers of Scripture are moral consequentialists. They are clear that we, not a God who is waiting for satisfaction, have placed ourselves in the spiritual predicament that we face.  The fact that we experience those choices as alienating is akin to the experience of the choices that the prodigal makes. He is certain that his behavior has placed him beyond the loving care of his father, but he discovers that his father is loving, ever ready to forgive. So it is with the theology of the church that affirms that its perfect expression is found in the One who is with us, in it, all the way.