Wednesday, April 25, 2007

penal substitution and 'evangelical' confusion

N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham and theologian, seems very confused. First of all he rightly rejected out of hand the recent remarks by Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans (a notorious homosexual) which in the following critique. Jeffrey John simply repeats the old threadbare idea that penal substitution makes God out to be a torturer and murderer of His own son. “In other words, Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him,” he says. “This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we’d say that they were a monster.” He prefers to suggest that Christ was crucified so he could “share in the worst of grief and suffering that life can throw at us.”
Bishop N. T. Wright “accused Mr John of attacking the fundamental message of the Gospel.” “He is denying the way in which we understand Christ’s sacrifice. It is right to stress that he is a God of love but he is ignoring that this means he must also be angry at everything that distorts human life".

So far, so good but then the bishop goes on in the same article to protect Steve Chalke, the 'evangelical' who has been pushing exactly the same views in The Lost Message of Jesus and sharply censure those defending penal substitution. Of Chalke he says, “the reality that I and others refer to when we use the phrase ‘penal substitution’ is not in doubt”. A plain reading of Chalke's statements shows that he rejects penal substitution as such, however. His article explaining the book makes everything quite clear. "Those who criticise me for The Lost Message of Jesus hold a particular view of what happened on the cross (or ‘model of the atonement’) commonly known as ‘penal substitution’ – penal referring to punishment, substitution to Christ acting in our place. Initially based upon the writings of Anselm of Canterbury (1033- 1109), penal substitution was substantially formed by John Calvin’s legal mind in the reformation. The model as it is understood and taught today, however, rests largely on the work of the 19th century American scholar Charles Hodge." He also states: "In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed."

Wright, who wrote a commendation of Chalke's book on its cover, conveniently ignores this and instead takes to task a new book by some conservative Anglicans Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffrey and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, 2007). According to Wright "it is deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical" indeed "hopelessly sub-biblical". He makes his own position clearer: "I regard the 'Christus Victor' theme as the overarching one within which substitution makes its proper point." This is the model which Chalke prefers to penal substitution.

We are living in dangerous times.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why do ordinary people commit evil deeds?

Various people have begun to comment on the dreadful massacre at Virginia Tech University. A particularly insightful one is here. The BBC website has also published an article entitled "Why do ordinary people commit evil deeds?" It's author is Prof Phil Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment - where a mock prison was run by psychologists. In this experiment "good, young men" became as prison guards involved in "chilling abuse and torture". The conclusion is that "given certain conditions, ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable". Another conclusion is that "Prejudiced beliefs lead to discrimination, and in turn to abuse." Zimbardo maintains that "rather than dismissing [evil] as a bad deed done by a bad person" we should seek "to identify corrosive social forces" that create the situation that fosters such actions.

This doesn't take us very near to understanding the Virginia Tech massacre - although we should admit that a culture which glorifies sin also encourages it. Our society is at a loss to understand evil because it has persisted in calling evil good and good evil. No doubt, there are certain external restraints (social and otherwise) upon the evil of our own hearts and when these are absent the evil becomes much more likely, but the removal of the restraints certainly doesn't create the evil.

Towards the end of the article, the conclusion is drawn rather starkly that "Anything that any human being has ever done - anything imaginable - is potentially doable by any of us in the same situation." Although this depends on the idea of situational forces practically compelling us to evil, it is still a remarkable observation from a psychologist.

Few have been as eminently holy in their life as Robert Murray M’Cheyne. His frequent prayer was "Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made". Yet he wrote in his Diary, published after his death: "I have begun to realize that the seeds of every known sin still linger in my heart." We should acknowledge that for ourselves with all sincerity: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desparately wicked" - Jeremiah 17:9.