Penal Substitution and Divine Child Abuse

Penal Substitution and Divine Child Abuse


Illustration by Casey Dayton

Certain doctrines are more liable to critique and controversy than others. Doctrines like the love of God are generally accepted and affirmed by virtually every theologian, albeit with variations. Other doctrines engender more complexity and a variegated range of views, perspectives, or are sometimes outright rejected. The reason for such controversy can be explained by reference to at least six types of criticisms. A doctrine or theological concept might be rejected because of a lack of

  1. biblical correspondence
  2. ecclesiastical pedigree
  3. logical coherence
  4. ethical/moral consistency
  5. emotional/experiential resonance
  6. and relevance.

The doctrine of the atonement (or at least certain versions of it) is one such doctrine that is notoriously inundated with such difficulties. While many models or theories of atonement have been argued for, one has attracted particular attention, both because of its popularity and because it generates, arguably, all six of the difficulties mentioned above. As some have already guessed, the model of atonement I have in mind is generally referred to as penal substitution.

A Modest Goal

Space precludes a full treatment concerning each objection to penal substitution, however, there is one that I have found to be ubiquitous in discourse on the atonement. We might categorize this critique mainly under the ethical and emotional objections mentioned above. Before articulating this argument, it would be beneficial to provide my account of what penal substitution entails and then describe the contours of one particular argument against it. The goal, then, is not to state a positive case for penal substitution nor to confront every objection to it. Instead, I hope to articulate one objection to penal substitution and show that this objection is both misused by many and altogether ineffective as a critique of penal substitution.

What is Penal Substitution?

A definition of penal substitution will benefit this discussion: Penal substitution argues that on the cross Christ died as a substitute for sinners and bore the punishment they deserved, thereby satisfying the wrath of God. J.I. Packer summarizes penal substitution writing “Jesus Christ, our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won for us forgiveness, adoption and glory” (The Logic of Penal Substitution, 25).

With this definition in mind, one might already detect a number of difficulties that beset such a doctrine. One particular objection to penal substitution can be summarized as the accusation that penal substitution presents an account of atonement in which the Father punishes the Son in an act of “divine child abuse.” This, in the view of many, is an unacceptable idea that is both morally and emotionally objectionable.

Analysis of the Divine Child Abuse Argument (Part 1)

The force of the divine child abuse argument carries great affective and rhetorical force. Indeed, it has been employed by many pastors and theologians as the key reason for rejecting the doctrine of penal substitution. There is, however, a problem with many appropriations of this argument. First, the origin of this argument goes back to feminist critiques made by Rita Nakashima Brock, Joanna Carlson Brown, and Rebecca Parker (to name a few) of every traditional doctrine of atonement—not just penal substitution! In short, the divine child abuse argument was originally leveled at any doctrine of atonement that made the death and sufferings of Christ redemptive or a part of God’s plan of reconciliation. This, according to the feminist critique, propagates abusive forms of paternalism and the glorification of victimization.

The reason this is problematic is that once one rejects penal substitution on the basis of the divine child abuse argument, they often resort to another model of atonement, say, for example, Christus Victor which also engenders the same problem. If one wants to adhere to a doctrine of atonement that is not vulnerable to the divine child abuse critique, then one necessarily must reject any model of atonement that makes Christ’s sufferings and death redemptive and atoning. Such models do exist but lack correspondence with the biblical idea of the work of Christ. Indeed, the necessity of Christ’s death is affirmed in numerous scriptural texts. The cross of Christ is, in fact, redemptive, a crucial part of God’s plan of reconciliation, and not an accidental part of Christ’s life and work (Matt 16:21; Acts 2:22–23; 4:27–28; 26:23). Granted this assessment is correct, anyone who employs the divine child abuse argument against the doctrine of penal substitution and still maintains that Christ’s sufferings and death are redemptive have failed to critically assess their position in light of their own objection. 

Analysis of the Divine Child Abuse Argument (Part 2)

Some at this point might grant my argument and still maintain with Brock, Brown, and Parker that all traditional doctrines of the atonement are vulnerable to the divine child abuse argument. In this case I would say that emotional and experiential criteria have been given priority over biblical correspondence. Theologians are free to approach theology this way, however, as I will show the divine child abuse argument still does not obtain since it ignores the doctrine of the Trinity.

Most Christians who affirm any or all traditional models of atonement understand the atonement within the matrix of Christian theology which includes the doctrine of the Trinity. If God is triune, then the cross is not a case of child abuse since the Father and Son are one in a very strong and real sense. While child abuse involves one in a position of power imposing violence on another individual, the cross involves the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working harmoniously to accomplish reconciliation and redemption. For one essential tenant of Trinitarian theology is the idea that the divine operations are indivisible (opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). Theologian Louis Berkhof seems to anticipate an objection of this sort when he writes “It was not the Father but the triune God that conceived the plan of redemption. There was a solemn agreement between the three persons in the Godhead” (Systematic Theology, 379). It is odd, then, that so many assert that a doctrine of atonement in which Christ suffers vicariously for others can be characterized as a demonstration of something akin to child abuse.

One Amateur’s Opinion

In sum, then, the divine child abuse argument against penal substitution proves to be the least of the problems that beset the doctrine. In my opinion, other objections—many of which originate with the Socinians—are more difficult to tackle. Still, I remain optimistic about the doctrine of penal substitution and see no reason to reject it in light of the divine child abuse argument. If anything might be accomplished here, it is that objections to penal substitution like the divine child abuse argument might be seen for what they are—merely affective and rhetorical.

Written by Dan Marino

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