Friday, July 11, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 4 (he lacks a grasp of theological basics)

Steve continues:

As a universalist, you fail to appreciate either divine mercy or divine justice. You lack a basic grasp of law or gospel.

Oh? I am not sure how to reply to this one so I thought I would very quickly sketch how I understand those terms currently. Obviously the words have specific nuances in specific biblical contexts but as a starting point here are my broad brush-stroke definitions:

Divine mercy is God giving us what we do not deserve and witholding what we do deserve (i.e., punishment).

Divine justice is quite a wide category in the Bible that covers both God's action to punish sin and to save his people.

Law is (usually) the divine Torah given to Moses. It reflects the character of the holy God who gave it. (I confess not to having yet sorted out my views on the place of the Torah in the Christian life but I incline in the Calvinist direction on that issue. The NT texts are so complex that my little brain gets confused).

Gospel is the message about how God has acted in Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension to redeem Israel and the world. It calls for trust in and allegiance to this Messiah, recognition of his Lordship, and repentance.

Of course, there is far more to all of these categories than the above but this should put you in the right ball park for understanding my views. I imagine that Steve would not disagree with what I have said above (though he may wish to add some more). So whence the disagreement?I think that it is rooted in my understanding of God's unity/integrity. Let me explain:

A doctrine of the unity/integrity of God's attributes: God is a unity in perfect harmony with himself. Consequently God's justice must be compatible with his love. All God's actions are loving and just. His love is a just love. His justice is a loving justice. So I claim that all God's acts of just punishment of sinners - including Hell - must be compatible with his love. And God's merciful treatment of his people - inclusing forgiveness and salvation - must be compatible with his justice.

I suspect that this is where Steve and I disagree. It seems to me that any doctrine of Hell that is incompatible with God's love for the ones punished falls foul of the theology of divine integrity. I imagine that Steve solves that problem by arguing that God does not love those in Hell (except in the weaker sense of having shown them common grace in this life). But my problem with this move is that it is, to my mind, fundamentally problematic (see my post on "Calvinism, the Trinity, and God's Universal Love").

So that's where I am at. If it reflects my faiure to understand these fundamental categories then I apologize.

There ends my self-defence.


Bobby said...

I think your defense is solid, even if you are a Trinitarian (that’s supposed to make you smile)! I’ve never understood how it’s just for God to punish sinners for being sinners when none of us had a choice in the matter. Had I been given the choice, I’d have chosen not to be a sinner. This is another reason why I think demonstration is a better description of this life than test or experiment.

Anonymous said...

It would be very interesting to hear Steve himself answer your argument about God´s unity. To me, this is one of the strongest arguments for universalism. Can´t someone persuade him to comment here?

I once heard the late evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz approach this issue. If I remember rightly, Grenz affirmed roughly what you say about God´s unity, but retained the traditional view of hell. His surprising conclusion was that eternal, conscious torment in hell is how some (most?) people will experience God´s love in the coming ages. Though I wasn´t into universalism back then (but open to annihilationism), I simply found this view horrible...
/Jonas Lundstöm

Gregory MacDonald said...

Thank you gentlemen (and I am smiling Bobby) :-) (see).

Steve does know that I am doing these postings because I told him that I was going to. He's welcome to comment but I am not looking for a fight.



Jason Pratt said...


There's a reasonably good chance that Steve will reply over at Triablogue, or so I expect. (Just as Gregory posted his fuller reply to Steve's initial review here; and just as Steve posted his fuller reply to Gregory's first reply already.)


7cmaxwell said...

I recently discovered your blog and have enjoyed and appreciated the discussion!

I have had a growing interest and embracement of universal reconciliation over the past couple of years. I believe that it is born of honest inquiry and a genuine desire to understand "truth." In the past two months, I have been more open with christian friends about my new found beliefs and these have been met with much consternation and accusations of "bad theology."

I came across an article written by Mark Mattison that helped me in putting these things in perspective. I am offering the link to anyone else who might find it helpful.

7cmaxwell said...

I don't think that the Mark Mattison link copied correctly. If you are interested in reading the article, please feel free to e-mail me and I will send it to you. Cathy

Jason Pratt said...


The link seems to have come through just fine. I thought it was a very respectable (and respectful) essay.


gene said...

In steves response questioning "divine justice" it seems to me to be very problematic on how God punished an innocent man.

The classic view on the atonement plays a role in that most christians (that I know of) hold the view that God took his wrath out on Jesus so we (who approach by faith) might not receive his punishement of sin.

So on divine justice I feel steve owes a clearer definition on "divine justice".

If God's divine justice means it's perfect and always right then when does divine justice act in a way that a just person gets punished, namely Jesus on the cross.

Seems to me that "divine" needs to be defined and defended in order to accuse one of not holding to divine views. If you are guilty of not embracing divine justice and divine mercy (not embracing law of gospel) then how does it fit his paradigm of justice.



Gregory MacDonald said...


This is the classic criticism of the penal substitution model of the atonement. The model, in its less sophisticated versions, says
1. God is just and so has to punish sin (and the punishment is death).
2. God is love so wants to forgive sin.
3. God gets around the conflict created by sending Jesus who is punished instead of us.
3. So
(a) God is true to his justice because our sin is punished (in Jesus)
(b) God is loving because, now sin has been punished, he is free to forgive us.

The problem lies with 3(a) because retributive justice in this case seems to require the punishment of the criminal and not the innocent bystander (even if the bystander volunteers).

Punishing sin is not like a speeding fine (which you mom can pay on your behalf). It is like being executed for murder. Your mom may wish that she could take your place but few people would feel that retributive justice had been satisfied if she did.

But before we write off penal substitution models we need to remember that the Bible does portray Jesus as suffering God's wrath at our sins in our place (I can say more about that if you don't believe me). So something that looks rather like penal substitution (even if not the precise versions we usually encounter) must be close to being part of what the cross is about.

Perhaps there are some helpful things to bear in mind here. Paul and John speak often our our union with Christ and his union with us in our humanity.

Now it depends on how you understand such language (and its metaphyical implications, if any) but if Christ stands before God as our human representative and if we are metaphysically united to Christ by the Spirit then there may be a metaphysically realist sense in which we can say that although Christ did not sin he 'became sin for us'. In which case for God to punish Christ for our sin is not to punish an innocent bystander but to punish the guilty parties. (Oliver Crisp has been developing such an Augustinian Realist model of penal substitution)

To flip things around - we died with Christ. There is a sense in which God did indeed punish me for my sin. When Christ died, IN ONE SENSE he did not die instead of me - I did die IN HIM.

These ideas would need a lot more reflection and development. However, the point is that the idea of union with Christ might serve as the key to start to make sense of an idea that is otherwise utterly preposterous.

That is just a provisional thought. I freely confess that the cross is a mystery to me as is the idea of union with Jesus.


Jason Pratt said...

{{But before we write off penal substitution models we need to remember that the Bible does portray Jesus as suffering God's wrath at our sins in our place (I can say more about that if you don't believe me).}}

Well, I for one am a little fuzzy about the Bible portraying Jesus suffering God's wrath per se (in our place or otherwise). {g} If it does, it doesn't seem to ever use the Greek words for indignation or fury, unless I missed a cognate somewhere in my scan a minute ago. Is this an OT reference perhaps?


Gregory MacDonald said...


On the wrath of God in the NT I think that I agree with Stephen Travis in his book "Jesus and the Judgement of God" (published in the 1980s and coming out again soon from Hendrickson).

But my logic is simply this. On the cross Jesus suffered the covenant curses God laid on Israel for violation of the covenant (climaxing in exile). These are often spoken of in terms of the images of divine wrath.


Jason Pratt said...

And yet, the NT doesn't seem to speak of it in terms of Jesus suffering the wrath of God?

(That's why I was looking for a bit more detail. "And so God, being infinitely angry at Jesus even though He Himself did nothing wrong, sent Jesus to the cross which Jesus voluntarily took upon Himself, thereby convincing God to spare us after all if we choose to believe in Jesus" or that kind of thing. This seems to be missing from NT explications of the sacrifice of the cross.)

I think people have a tendency to conflate the cup of wrath unmixed given to "Babylon" (and the woman who represents it) in RevJohn with the cup of Christ, including metaphorically drunk by Christ to the bitter dregs in the Passion. One of those is certainly the cup of the wrath of God; the other however connects to the wrath of God's people (Jewish and Gentile both) against the Servant. It is that wrath, and that sin, to which God humbly submits, in order to save those who are sinning against Him. Thus the tradition, represented by the Hebraist, that when we sin we are in effect crucifying the Lord. He submits to this in order to reach us, not because we actually have inherent power over Him; but it is our culpability and our transgressions He willingly suffers for, out of love for us.

This would thus connect to the tradition of he who hangs from a tree being cursed by God: God willingly submits to our curses and takes them upon Himself, under His own final authority. It is not the Father cursing and punishing the innocent Son in wrath, though He still holds the final authority and responsibility even in this: that He sends the Son, Who voluntarily goes in unity with the Father, to be cursed by us. (Unless God schizophrenically decides after telling Jesus the day beforehand that He's doing a great job as the loyal Son, that He's going to be angry at Jesus after all for... doing nothing wrong?--for sinning after all somehow?)