As this article from The Banner — The official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church — points out, the CRC General Synod of this year had an interesting discussion regarding Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which is one of the many theories to understand and interpret the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.
Interesting to me was the question of whether the denial of PSA might constitute a ‘heresy’ or not. The CRC synod, after some deliberation, concluded:
[I]t is a serious deviation from the teachings of the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church to in any way deny that Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection provide a substitutionary work of bearing God’s wrath on our behalf because of the just punishment we deserve for our sin.
Although it did not label the denial of PSA as a ‘heresy,’ the synod recognized it was a “serious deviation” from the Reformed Confessions.
As I reflect on this action, I couldn’t agree more with their conclusion! It is important to recognize when a particular teaching or its denial might be problematic. Denying the penal substitutionary dimension of Christ’s sacrifice not only goes against the testimony of Scriptures, but also against the purpose of Christ’s redemptive work. The PSA claims that Christ suffered on our behalf, since we deserved punishment because of our sins. In this respect, I think the Penal Substitution theory offers a basic framework to understand of the doctrine of atonement.
The PSA has received significant critique, especially from some feminist liberal groups regarding the apparent child abuse of the Father and the Son. This has made many people suspicious about this theory. However, this critique can be discarded when one considers that the relationship between a human father/son is perhaps not univocally but analogous to the relationship God the Father/the Son. These feminist theologians tend to ignore this and its broader implications. Not only the relationship between Father/the Son and the human father/son are not univocally; their power relation is not the same. While there is a clear difference in terms of power and status regarding a human father/mother vs. a human child, it seems there is no such a thing in the divine interrelationships.
In my opinion, in order to claim a child abuse or mistreatment in the atonement, it is needed a clear difference of power between God and Christ when God decides that the Son would die in the cross. Since this divine decision did not happen during the life and ministry of Jesus the incarnated Son but before the foundation of the world, there is not a reason to speak of abuse when both parties shared the same glory and power in the Trinity. In other words, during the life and ministry of Jesus, what happened in the year 30/33 was not a father’s decision to offer his son as sacrifice but instead the realization of what God the Father and God the Son had agreed in the pre-temporal covenant of redemption.
For reformed people, Penal Substitutionary Atonement constitutes an important part of our Confessions and we should be clear about it. But as professor and theologian from Calvin Seminary, Dr. Mary Vanderberg, argues in the referenced article, there are other noteworthy theories to understand the atonement. All of them highlight certain biblical verses, emphasizing different aspects of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.
At the end, labeling the denial of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as a ‘heresy’ might be correct if we understand it broadly. But labeling in the way the CRC Synod wanted will depend on how we define a ‘heresy’ narrowly. What is for sure it is that the denial of PSA departs from the reformed tradition, besides diminishing the powerful significance of Christ’s redemptive work.