Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Penal Substitution: Cutting and Judgment

A piece on Penal Substitution (hereafter PSA) is here.  The good thing about the piece is it is a) almost vitriolically anti-Western and b) shallow in analysis.   The guys at OB like it, but I think most honest seekers will come away disappointed.   

I do want to address a potential weakness in Reformed treatments of PSA, however.  Reformed theology on one level has always assumed a substance-metaphysics.  That was their received heritage from the medieval church.  I don't fault them for that.  However, Reformed thinkers also developed a robust idea of the covenant.   Throughout the centuries Covenant Theology was continually honed.  While I don't endorse his ethical system, Meredith Kline's work on Ancient Near Eastern treaties is the coup-etat.

It's not surprising that you don't really see a full PSA in the Fathers, given their commitment to a form of impassibility and substance-metaphysics.  If God is completely impassible and the divine essence is stasis, then there can't be any perturbations whatsoever.  This is why you really don't ever see the Orthodox talk about God's wrath as anything more than an anthropomorphism.  If God's substance is utterly impassible and beyond being, then it can't feel anything like wrath.  

Similarly, if the Son is of the same substance with the Father (and I believe he is), then how can the Father "cut" off the Son?  How can the Son experience God's wrath?  Some Reformed writers have opted for the Nestorian route. I don't think that is necessary.  Instead of a substance-ontology, we need a Covenantal Ontology.

A Covenantal Ontology

A covenantal ontology isn't worried about things like essences, beings, enses, however important they may be in their own rights.   Rather, a covenantal ontology sees speech-acts, cuttings, judgments, presence, and promise.  In other words, what you see in the Bible.  

A Covenantal Ontology also means an Eschatological Ontology

  1. Words and signs create a covenant.  They do not “fuse” essences (101).
  2. There is no nature-grace problem but a sin-grace problem.
  3. Eschatology creates a tension:  we have a foretaste of the future feast now, which creates in us a painful longing for the Age to Come.   Eschatological presence intensifies Jesus’s ascended absence.  This actually helps us on the doctrine of assurance.  Assurance is mercilessly attacked by Anchoretic traditions (Trent even condemns to hell any who speak of it), since how can we, as finite humans, “infallibly” know something in the future?   Eschatology and a covenantal ontology can help.  Who are we to ridicule assurance when the King of heaven feeds us from his banquet and promises to strengthen our faith?  Any questioning of assurance is merely treason against the King.  Because of eschatology, assurance will remain in tension–but it is still real assurance because God says it is! (Speech-Act theory).

I am leaning on Michael Horton's discussion of a Covenantal Ontology in Covenant and Salvation (Westminster/John Knox)

The following are key points of a covenantal (or federal) ontology, taken from Horton:
  1. Mediation is not a principle or process, but a person, Jesus (183).  This explicitly denies participationist ontologies, ladders, chain-of-being, etc.
  2. The relationship which God guarantees to his people by means of Covenant is seen in the term echo, “having” (184).
  3. For example, we have “eternal life” (John 5:24), the Spirit of Christ as the deposit of the consummation.
  4. Our union with Christ is by the Spirit and not a fusion of essences.
  5. Eschatology is the locus of a federal ontology.  It is an announcement of the good news from afar off (Isaiah 52:7ff).   Participation (realist?) ontologies, by contrast, struggle with the concept of good news. Horton writes, “It is unclear how the gospel as good news would figure into his [John Milbank, but also any Dionysian construction] account of redemption, since ‘news’ implies an extrinsic annoucnement of something new, something that does not simply derive from the nature of things (169).  What he means is that those who who hold to participationist ontologies–chain of being–see a continuum between God and man.  Any saving that happens to man happens within that continuum.   The announcement of good news, by contrast, comes from without.   To borrow Horton’s delightful phrase, a federal ontology is meeting a stranger, whereas a participationist ontology is overcoming estrangement.

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