The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable. Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.
One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147). Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death. Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship. The Father loses his fatherhood as well. The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80). Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation. The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.
Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way. First of all, he confesses divine simplicity and does not espouse a social trinitarianism, which means that the Father and Son do not possess two wills, much less two wills that might be at odds at the time of the crucifixion (see Institutes, 1.13.19). (How the human will of the Son factors in I will leave aside for now.) They share the one divine will, which purposes to save men and women from sin by way of the cross. Indeed, the Son doesn’t intervene in redemptive history in order to counter the Father and persuade the Father to start loving human beings. On the contrary, the love and mercy of God ground the Father’s sending of the Son: “For how could he have given us in his only-begotten Son a singular pledge of his love to us if he had not already embraced us with his free favor” (Institutes, 2.16.2)? Moreover, for Calvin, every moment of Christ’s life is characterized by the theme of obedience to the Father, not least the moment of crucifixion, which would be void of redemptive value if it were involuntary (Institutes, 2.16.5).
A few questions, then. Might explicitly situating Christ’s experience of divine retribution within his ongoing obedience to the Father clarify the tenor of penal substitution so that we need not suspect an intra-trinitarian schism? Do some of the other dimensions of Calvin’s trinitarianism truly provide substantial help to those of us who retain a place for penal substitution in our thinking about Jesus’ death? Thoughts on this?