‘A debate belonging more to grammar than theology…’

Posted on November 20, 2008


…such was the judgement of Sergius of Constantinople on the monoenergist controversy. I don’t want to argue the rightness or wrongness of Sergius’ case here, but reflect on a more recent discussion.

There is little doubt that Stuart Townend is one of our more gifted writers of worship music at present. His masterpiece thus far is probably ‘In Christ Alone’, which succeeds in offering a full and striking re-telling of the narrative of salvation in four stanzas (I also like his ‘From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable’, in a similar vein, and unjustly unknown, in my opinion). One phrase in the lyric, however, has achieved a certain level of controversy, and become something of a touchstone in popular-level debates over penal substitution. As almost always in these debates, I end up convinced that both sides are equally wrong.

‘And on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied’. Now, it seems to me that theology needs some concept of divine wrath, whatever that might look like – it’s a rather too common biblical motif to be merely swept under the carpet. ‘Satisfaction’ is a less immediately biblical term (the underlying Lt terms satisfactio, &c. occur about three times in the Vulgate, but never in a sense to do with the atonement, as far as I can see), and of course a little controversial just now. And so a debate arose, was this line appropriate, or not, and the battle-lines seemed to be clear: if you supported penal substitution, this was a clear and lucid expression of the gospel, if you didn’t, this was a dangerous distortion.

But … surely the primary problem with this line is not theology, but grammar? If I had any idea what it meant, I could come to a theological judgement about it, but as written, it verges on nonsense. I can see no meaning of the two words ‘wrath’ and ‘satisfy’ that allows them to be combined like this – and that is not a theological judgement, it is a grammatical one, informed by nothing more (and nothing less) than the OED.

To ‘satisfy,’ I discover there, has several meanings. They cluster around the sense of an obligation being fulfilled. Thus, in atonement theology, we speak of Christ making satisfaction in terms of paying a debt, or suffering a required penalty, and so justice is satisfied. ‘Wrath,’ however, cannot be construed as an obligation; it is an attitude. As such, wrath might be appeased or averted or mollified or changed – the former pair being more theologically interesting than the latter pair – it cannot be satisfied in any meaningful sense of that term.

Of course, we might claim with sense ‘At the cross, God’s justice was satisfied, and so God’s wrath was averted.’ That may or may not be good theology, but it at least means something. But ‘wrath’ cannot be ‘satisfied,’ if the two words retain any recongisable meaning.

This does not make ‘In Christ Alone’ a bad song – it remains quite excellent in my view, with a problem in one line. (Compare ‘Rock of Ages’: Toplady wrote ‘When my eye-strings break in death’ in the third staza; various editors have tried to find a better version, recognising that the high standard of poetry exhibited elsewhere in the hymn dips on this line; it remains a truly great hymn.) As with ‘Rock of Ages’, the various attempts to rewrite the hymn have found no happy solution (I hear that Tom Wright suggested ‘The love of God is satisfied,’ which is a concept I can just about make sense of, and am completely horrified by: somewhere near the heart of the gospel is the conviction that God’s love is never satisfied!) However, I think the debate, and the misconstrual of the line, on both sides of it, is indicative of a common and unhelpful entanglement in recent evangelical discussions over the atonement.

It seems to me clear that belief in God’s wrath, and belief in penal substitution, are logically distinct ideas, with no mutual entailment. This simple point has been missed on both sides of the debate, and much confusion has arisen as a result. God may be full of wrath towards sinners until atonement is made, but that atonement be made in a hundred non-penal ways. More strikingly, attitudes of wrath have no place in a law-court. Judges are not called to be angry with offenders, but to dispense impartial justice. If we narrate the atonement in penal terms, it is actually rather important to bracket or exclude God’s wrath for the story to make sense – but I’ve written about this elsewhere, in a couple of published defences of penal substitution.

Of course, it happens that most people who choose to narrate the atonement in penal substitutionary terms also choose to emphasise an account of God’s wrath; there is, however, no logical entailment here: the two ideas are seperable, and arguably push in different directions.

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