Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rustin Umstattd on Penal Substitution and the Trinity

Rustin J. Umstattd is Assistant Professor of Theology at Midwestern Baptist Seminary (SBC) in Kansas City, Missouri. He presented a paper in 2008 at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, "A Trinitarian Crucifixion: The Holy Spirit and Substitutionary Atonement." In the paper he deals with the Holy Spirit's role in the Atonement, an often neglected topic. My interest in his paper relates to how he deals with the theological problem of one member of the Trinity (the Son) being punished by another member of the Trinity (the Father). The punishment endured by Jesus, according to defenders of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement, is spiritual death which entails separation from God. The difficult question which all defenders of the PST must attempt to answer is how can one member of the Trinity be separated from another member without causing a breach in the supposed eternal unity of the Godhead. According to A.T.B. McGowan this is the most difficult problem posed by the PST of the atonement. He says:
Let me say that I fully understand the difficulty that attaches to this subject of the Son bearing the wrath of the Father, and I fully respect the theological complexity involved in maintaining penal substitution in the light of the need for a careful delineating of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In my view, this is the strongest theological argument to be faced by any doctrine of penal substitution (Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology [2006], p. 199).

The moment that appears to demonstrate the separation between the Father and Son is when Jesus crys from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). While some have argued that Jesus only felt abandoned by the Father, defenders of the PST, who understand the logic behind the theory, must maintain that there was an actual abandonement. As Umstattd argues:
Jesus’ cry of dereliction in which he quotes Ps 22:1 should not be viewed as a cry of victory in which the entirety of the Psalm is in focus, as a cry of unbelief or despair, or a cry of abandonment in which Jesus only felt forsaken, but was not in actuality.

He, however, adds an important caveat: One must be able to both maintain the abandonment of the Son with the unity of the Trinity that remains unbroken. He believes that it is the Holy Spirit who maintains this unity between the Father and the Son.

Can one say that Jesus was actually abandoned by the Father, though, without breaking the unity of the Trinity? It doesn't seem possible to me. Being abandoned, forsaken, or separated is incongruent with the notion of unity. The unity envisioned in the classic doctrine of the Trinity is not merely a unity of purpose but a unity of being. Each person is said to indwell the other persons. The theological term sometimes used to refer to this is perichoresis. This is a Greek term used to describe the triune relationship between each person of the Godhead. It can be defined as co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration (Theopedia). Jürgen Moltmann says regarding perichoresis:
{T]his concept grasps the circulatory character of the eternal divine life. An eternal life process takes place in the triune God through the exchange of energies. The Father exists in the Son, the Son in the Father, and both of them in the Spirit, just as the Spirit exists in both the Father and the Son. By virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one. . . . The unity of the triunity lies in the eternal perichoresis of the trinitarian persons (The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God,  pp. 174-75).
Umstattd recognizes the problem when he says:
[W]hen Jesus experienced the Father’s wrath upon the cross and he cried out from the depths of his being the lament of dereliction, the Son was not separated from the Father and the Spirit ontologically, but experientially.
I am not sure how one can be united ontologically and perichoretically and yet experientially be separated. It seems the only way this could happen is if one only felt as if one was separated, but Umstattd maintains the separation was actual and not merely "felt."

Another problem that Umstattd and defenders of the PST face is that if the separation was actual, then not only would there a breach in the unity of the Trinity but there would be a breach in the unity of the person of Christ. Chalcedonian Christology maintains that the two natures, divinity and humanity, dwell together in one single person--Jesus Christ--who is both God and man and yet one person. Is the divine nature in Christ estranged from his human nature on the cross or is it estranged from the Father and the Spirit? It seems that it would have to be one or the other.

Umstattd apparently holds that in one sense the Father and Son were separated on the cross but in another sense they were united by the Spirit. It is almost as if the Spirit is some kind of personal conduit who keeps the two connected even though they are actually separated. He writes:

[I]n the event in which God the Father pours out his wrath upon God the Son, the Spirit is both the bond of love that unites the two even in the separation, and conversely, the Spirit also applies to the Son the Father’s wrath, which is nothing other than the wrath of all three persons together.

He explains further:

[T]he abandonment of the Father was a far deeper suffering. From the depths of his being, he cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” In popular terms, the Father turned his back upon the Son because he could not look upon the sin laid upon him. In this forsakenness, Jesus was left alone on the cross to bear the full weight of judgment. At this point, the Spirit is the bond that holds the Trinity together. While that is assuredly correct, it fails to capture another element of the Spirit’s work, his actualizing of the Father’s judgment given to the Son, in which the Son comes under his own judgment. When Jesus experienced the abandonment of the Father, it was executed by and in the Spirit as the one who actualizes God’s interaction with humanity. The abandonment of the Father was experienced by Jesus in the Spirit, while at the same time, underneath and in concert with the abandonment the Spirit held the Father and Son together in unity.

I don't see how Umstattd's position avoids contradiction. If two persons are separated, another person may serve as an intermediary between the two, but if the third person is actually a personal conduit through which the connection is ontologically maintained, then there is no actual separation between the persons. If  the God-man is not actually separated from the Trinity on the cross, then he does not endure spiritual death. And since spiritual death is the penalty for sin, he does not endure the penalty for sin thus negating the PST of the atonement.


  1. I'm starting to think you should start a second blog just for this topic.

  2. Maybe the doctrine of the Trinity is incorrect.

  3. Maybe the doctrine of the Trinity is incorrect.

    It was a rather late addition that wasn't finalized, if I recall, until the First Council of Constantinople.

  4. Ugghh. Don't remind me of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Back in the fall of 2002, I spent half a semester there, when I thought I was "called to the ministry", as they say. Even as a hard-core fundy, I hated the place. I don't think I ever saw anyone laugh there. I also had a guy there tell me that by listening to 80s pop music I was participating in Satanic activity. If there is hell on earth, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is it.

  5. Dear Ken,

    Paul, John, the author of Hebrews, and other NT writers who probably taught a version of the PST also had no explicit doctrine of the Trinity. The former was already problematic without the latter.

    The early church fathers who advanced the mature doctrine of the Trinity by and large did not have a clearly-articulated PST. In fact, did any of them even hold to an incipient PST? I don't know of any. The Trinity doctrine was already problematic without the PST. To my mind, Chalcedon drove a stake right through the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The whole 2-natures controversy displayed the bad consequences of trying to hold to an incoherent idea.

    So now orthodox evangelicals try to find a way to hold together two already incoherent doctrines. Well, from their perspective they are merely beyond human comprehension. For us to call them incoherent is an expression of our ungodly intellectual pride :). In any case, they have multiplied the bad consequences. By doing so they have virtually guaranteed instability, anxiety, and disaffection among their constituencies.

    Keep up the good work! It was simple, straightforward thinking of doubters like you that helped me finally break out of the orthodox boondoggle.

  6. Ken,

    Off topic, but I see that you've been banging your head against the Pyro wall. Good luck with that. I got myself banned over these just this morning. They don't take kindly to dissent.

    I have found that the arguments about YEC with YECers always end the same way. "We have God's word and you only have man's word, so there". I don't know if they simply lack the capacity to consider the possibility that all they have is just another badly flawed version of "man's word" or if they simply refuse to consider this out of fear that their entire belief system will collapse.

    Recently, I've started asking the questions like "what if it happens that you are wrong" and "if you're wrong, how could you tell". All I get in response is "we not wrong, and there's no possible way to show that we're wrong". As a science geek, I find their way of thinking to be utterly baffling, but what can you do?

    Apologies for going off topic, but when I saw your comments over there, I wanted to express my sympathies.

  7. Some see the incoherence as a necessary mechanism. I'm reading an article right now by G. Lease, on "religious" consciousness and the dissolution of the self in which he posits this incoherence as a prime gear in the machinery. "The consequences of this strategy are clear: in the very attempt to preserve identity by sustaining paradox in the tension of dissonance, self-consciousness is broken down and destroyed." Breaking people down with incoherence seems like such a far cry from do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

  8. David,

    "banging my head against the wall" is an apt metaphor. Those guys do not like dissent and they are very insecure. Their motto is: "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts." What they don't seem to realize is that they are marginalizing themselves and Christianity more and more by their obscurantism.

  9. Deb,

    I agree. Tertullian said that he believed because it is absurd. Some maintain that the mystery and incoherence is what makes it attractive.

  10. Interesting, if I did still believe in PSA, this would give me pause. I'll have to take a look around and see what else you have here.

    Personally, I don't believe Jesus was forsaken, or even felt forsaken on the cross. He looked forsaken to those watching: "...we esteemed him stricken ...", but to those with 'ears to hear' He was saying: "Today, Psalm 22 is fulfilled in your sight."

  11. Tertullian was employing exaggeration with irony, a la Aristotle.

  12. This problem (as in your post) seems like one of the strongest logical problems that makes substitutionary atonement untenable. As you've amply shown, there are many others! But then, as is being discussed above, one can always retreat into the "mysterious ways" of God.

    Also, in discussing things like Jesus' statement on the cross about being abandoned, let's not forget that the entire "passion" narrative is just that... powerful literary narrative and not likely to have much, if any basis in fact. That is, beyond the likelihood that Jesus was indeed crucified, as a suspected or actual insurrectionist. But I see no real evidence that we have any accounts of it by supposed "eyewitnesses." (That after hundreds of hours, at least, of probing into that and related issues.)

  13. Hi Ken,

    This is seriously off-topic but it's linked to a comment regarding Tertullian (that he believed because it is absurd) that you made.

    A lot of people have defended Tertullian by stating that his comment was taken out of "context." The types of arguments defending him run along the lines stated in this thread: ""

    What's your thought on this? Yet again, apologies for straying off-topic.


  14. Regarding Tertullian's statement see this prior post