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Penal Substitution as Trinitarian Love: A Response to Frederick W. Schmidt

Rublev’s famous icon depicts the other-oriented love of the God who is triune.

Is God a violent monster? If you think Jesus embraced the penalty of your sin on your behalf, then the Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. believes you must “believe in a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds the Christian tradition.” At least that what he claims in a recent article called “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution.” Schmidt is no insignificant critic. He is the author or editor of numerous books and holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, all of which are reasons we might expect him to levy an argument that is not marked by fallacy. But, alas, we expect too much.

Steel Man, not a Straw Man

The chief fallacy Schmidt commits is that of arguing against a straw man. That is to say, he marshals an argument against the weakest form of penal substitution and fails to even acknowledge that there might be more robust articulations of the doctrine. Schmidt paints penal substitution as a fundamentalist doctrine that pits an angry God the Father against the “innocent victim” of God the Son. In this way of thinking, substitution is branded as a dangerous teaching characterized by what might be considered divine child abuse. How could anyone love a God like that? How could such a monster be worthy of our worship? Well, I’ve got good news for Schmidt and any who share his concerns. Serious proponents of penal substitution don’t actually believe in that sort of God either.

In the classes I teach, I always encourage my students to represent their opponents as well and as accurately as possible. I remind them that misrepresenting those whith whom they disagree undermines their credibility and makes their arguments easily refutable. The opponent can simply note that the critique is offered against a view they don’t hold. Some put it this way: be sure to argue against a steel man, not a straw man. That is to say, argue against the best version of whatever you are criticizing. It’s easy to knock over a scarecrow. A statue forged of metal takes a bit more work and, when it is toppled, is cause for rather more respect.

A Trinitarian Approach

So, what is the more robust version of penal substitution that critics of the doctrine need to take seriously? It is a version that accounts for the trinitarian nature of God. The problem with the “Monster-God” construal of substitution is that it emphasizes the personal distinction between God the Father and God the Son and neglects the unity of being between God the Father and God the Son. The trinitarian doctrine of God says both that God is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that Father, Son, and Spirit are one in deity, glory, power, eternity, and being. (If it helps, remember that “persons” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian distinction, and “being” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian oneness or unity.) We run into trouble (1) when we emphasize the distinction between persons to the neglect of their union and (2) when we emphasize the union of the Godhead to the neglect of their distinction. Balance must be maintained.

What happens to penal substitution when we approach it with the essential unity between God the Father and God the Son in mind? Consider this. In the person of Jesus, 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. In Jesus, God takes the penalty of human sin on God’s self. It’s worth noting also that Jesus is no passive victim. To the contrary, he is the judge who doles out the penalty. Consider that in the canonical gospels it’s not God the Father who is portrayed as the judge before whom all must one day stand. Jesus insists that role belongs to him (Matt 7:21-24). It is the Son of Man who separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-40). Jesus is the Lawgiver and the Judge who steps down from the bench to take upon himself the penalty he himself requires. And when the triune God, in his eternal counsel, determined that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), the one God knew the day would come when he would take on flesh and feel the horrible weight of those wages for the sake of the rebel creatures he loves. In this way, Jesus embodies and reveals the perfect, self-giving love that characterizes the eternal unity of the Trinitarian persons. If we want a robust account of penal substitution, it requires a balanced account of trinitarian love. This is what Schmidt fails to offer. That is why his argument is flawed and unconvincing.

Resist the Caricature

Let me add before concluding that I would offer the same argument against any who might actually hold the view Schmidt critiques. Against those who promote a caricature of penal substitution as an angry or unhinged monster-God furiously abusing an innocent victim, I would say they’ve failed to reckon with the trinitarian love of the one God, and they need to rethink their account of substitution.

What then shall we say? Is penal substitution the only way to talk about what God has done in Christ to redeem us? Certainly not. Dr. Schmidt helpfully reminds us of other ways to talk about the atonement (e.g., recapitulation). But is penal substitution one of the central ways that God reveals his trinitarian love? It certainly is. And when we miss that, we miss out an expression of God’s perfect love that is not only good and true but beautiful as well.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

For more from Matt on understanding the Trinity, watch this video. Then subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel.

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