Friday, May 20, 2005

Is the atonement child abuse?

I’ve been reading D. A. Carson’s new book on Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan 2005). Among other things, he quotes some statements from the two premier leaders of the emergent church moment.

On the doctrine of penal substitution, Brian McLaren puts these words into the mouth of a fictitious character: “That sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?” (Ibid. 166).

According to Carson, McLaren simply leaves that objection hanging in the air. Then he quotes a longer passage from Steve Chalke:


The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is love.” If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to reply evil with evil (ibid. 185).


Now, I have not, admittedly, read these passages in the original. And I must say that statements like these do not inspire me to invest any money in the originals. Since, however, McLaren has endorsed Chalke’s book (as has N. T. Wright, take note), and since Chalke’s has since defended his denial of vicarious atonement, this seems to be representative of what they truly believe.

That said, some comments are sorely in order:

1.There is an extensive exegetical literature in defense of penal substitution. Do Chalke and McLaren ever interact with this literature?

Do they care what the Bible has to say on the subject? Let us remember that Christianity presents itself to the world a revealed religion. Theology must be based on God’s self-revelation, and not some preconception of what God ought to be like.

Nor will it do for Chalke or McLaren to retreat into exegetical uncertainties or sectarian diversities, for they themselves have come down very firmly on one side of the issue.

2.Likewise, the “injustice” of vicarious atonement is an old canard, repeatedly posed and repeated answered. Chalke and McLaren act as though this objection had never been raised before, much less answered before—time and again.

Are they ignorant? Or are they both too dishonest to acknowledge the answers and tell us what is wrong with the answers? And if they cannot find fault with the answers, they should withdraw their objection.

3.The Bible never says that Christ is God’s “child.” In Scriptural usage, sonship and childhood have very different connotations. “Childhood” conjures up an image of immaturity and vulnerability.

But, in Scripture, sonship in general, and with special reference to Christ, in particular, conveys at least two ideas.
i) The Son of God is consubstantial with the Father. For the sonship of Christ is a divine title.
ii) A son, especially an only-son or firstborn son (both applied to Christ) is his father’s heir. This, in Scripture, points us to the kingship of Christ.

4. The Bible does depict God as a vengeful God. God is the Judge of mankind. The fact that “vengeance” has acquired odious connotations in liberal discourse is no argument against the presence of this divine role in Scripture, or its moral rectitude.

“ Vengeance” is just another word for justice. Justice is not immoral. Justice is the very essence of morality.

5.In orthodox Christology, Christ is not an unwilling or defenseless little child. Rather, he is true God and true man. He is a divine person—the omnipotent Son of God--as well as a mature man. His mission and submission are voluntary (e.g., Jn 10).

6.This is, indeed, a barrier to faith for many unbelievers. But that’s the scandal of the cross. That’s the offense of the gospel.

7.To characterize penal substitution as “a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son” is self-contradictory gibberish. The whole point of “vicarious” atonement is that the wrath of God is not “perpetrated”—note the loaded language--towards humanity in general, but is concentrated in the person of the Redeemer for the sake of the redeemed.

8.To set this in opposition to the love of God is a perverse misrepresentation. It is out of God’s gracious love for the elect that the Son of God dies in their stead. God has show his utter love for the elect by exacting his justice on the person of his Son rather than mankind as a whole.

The love of God does not negate the justice of God. Indeed, the reprobate will face the judgment of God. But perhaps Chalke is a universalist.

9. To allude to the Sermon on the Mount in this context takes the text out of context and begs the question entirely. Penal substitution is not an “evil” (cf. Mt 20:28). Rather, redemption is the expression of God’s unmerited mercy towards the enemies of God (Rom 5:6-11).

Admittedly, not all of God’s enemies are redeemed, but redemption itself is an act of love towards the redeemed

McLaren and Chalke are driving a stake into the very heart of the Gospel. If this is at all representative of the emergent church movement, then that's all you need to know.


  1. Steve, you said "McLaren and Chalke are driving a stake into the very heart of the Gospel. If this is at all representative of the emergent church movement, then that's all you need to know."

    Here's an interesting tidbit. Before McLaren appeared on Larry King, before he appeared on Time Magazine's list of 25 most influential evangelical leaders of our time - you would be hard pressed to find a pro-emerging church website or blog that was not quoting him constantly, and advertising any one of his books. After that, however, there are many in the emerging church "conversation" that will come out and say "well McLaren doesn't speak for us". Granted, I'm sure he doesn't speak for all who call themselves 'emerging', but I found the timing, in the shift in allegiance rather interesting.

    Whether they like it or not, McLaren (and Chalke, to some degree in the UK) do speak for the 'emerging church' - since they're the ones in the spotlight, talking so much about it.


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