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Woopsie, that’s looking pretty violent there…

Last week, I got to attend the Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity conference at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Not only did I get to eat at that nifty Chinatown Five Guys with the fancy soda fountain, but I also heard some of the latest concerns and developments within the emergent church. I hope to blog quite a bit on my reflections from this speaker-rich event, but now I’ll start with the Panel on Violence. I highly recommend reading my report before going further on this post.

The panel itself really didn’t address how to teach violent, near-genocidal portions of the Old Testament to their children. They mentioned it was a problem, but didn’t try to tackle the actual interpretations necessary to pass these on and answer questions youth will invariably raise regarding the Bible. Instead, the panel prudently zeroed in on the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. This is a core issue on which they should take a stand (regardless of whether I or anyone else would agree with them). The penal substitutionary view, which asserts that God punishes his Son for the sins of the world/elect (depending on your soteriology), grants that violence is legitimate when exerted by a proper authority under the right conditions. The cosmology of this view paints Hell as punitive. God the Father has suffered high cosmic treason and His wrath is set against the perpetrators. Jesus steps in to pay the necessary fine for the wrong.

Pretty much everyone on the panel seemed squeamish about the concept of redemptive suffering. Brian McLaren and John H. Westerhoff called out penal substitution by name. Westerhoff espoused the moral influence theory of atonement. After I wrote my article, I saw people comment that the moral influence view was bunk and that anything less than the penal substitution approach is heresy.

I think such judgments are an overreaction. Penal substitution was developed primarily by John Calvin about 1500 years after the church began, although he took some ideas from St. Thomas Aquinas regarding legal theory. Peter Abelard had set the foundation for the moral influence view about 200 years earlier. St. Anselm of Canterbury gleaned the satisfaction theory (which is broader than penal substitution in referring not to punishment, but honor and merit) in the 1000s. Penal substitution is much like a subset of satisfaction theory. Finally, the earliest view of atonement was the ransom theory or the Christus Victor approach. All are worth study and Westerhoff was correct when he asserted that the church (at least in its universal form) never established the one view in exclusion of others.

We recoil from anything besides penal substitution because of our history. If I may brush with some incredibly broad strokes, American religion for the most part flows from the Puritans and the later revivalists. Thus, Calvinism and its wayward offspring Arminianism (both share similar vocabulary and take polar opposite sides on a particular set of issues) loom large on the American Christian landscape (not exhaustive, but large). Both of these schools traditionally espouse penal substitution. Thus, anything outside this norm seems heterodox, but a look at the universal church’s teaching should chasten our response.

For example, C. S. Lewis espoused the ransom theory, expressed especially in his Planet Trilogy—this also fails McLaren et al.’s test since it is quite a violent picture of crushing the serpent’s head. Lewis (thanks to George MacDonald, whom “baptized my imagination”) saw discipline and suffering not as punitive, but as didactic. I don’t have time for talking about the doctrine of Hell right now, but the Great Divorce and Dante’s Inferno (both of which reject a penal view) are definitely worth a read. I for one am not going to be revoking Lewis or Dante’s orthodoxy cards anytime soon.

But what of the moral influence view that Westerhoff espoused? Well, it certainly is part of Christ’s work in the cross and resurrection. Thus, it is somewhat legitimate. Nevertheless, you need insights from others schools if you are going to have a full-orbed understanding of redemption. Because it cuts out so much of the “inconvenient” (read: un-modern and unenlightened) teachings of the Bible, moral influence remains the reliable standby for liberal Protestants everywhere. However, if you reject “redemptive suffering,” then you run the risk of ignoring the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, Paul’s epistles, the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament, and a massive corpus of Christological Psalms. So, why adopt such little-encompassing (dare I say anemic and sterile?) understanding of salvation? I will hazard a guess: forcing theology to conform to an ideology of pacifism. In the context of youth, this stance is inhibiting emergent Krustians from teaching the historic truths of the faith to their children.