Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross

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.  John CalvinFirst 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?


19 thoughts on “Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross

  1. Jesus had agreed on his own free will, to drink from this cup; to go to his crucifixion, if that was the will of God; obediently subordinating his will.

    At the same time, though, he was accused of disobeying lots of God’s laws; like the law of Moses, that did not allow us to work or pick crops, food, on a Sabbath.

    Jesus objects; but he submits to arrest; and possibly to his punishment. Though on the cross he asks “why” God has abandoned him.

    Was Jesus wrong? Had God not abandoned him at all? Logically, either Jesus was right: and God had abandoned Jesus. Or Jesus was wrong; in which case Jesus couild not be God. In either case it seems to some, that Jesus’ ideas were not one with God, in the end.

    In this case, Jesus actually sinned; and could be simply penalized. Though not being entirely innocent, his would not be the spotless sacrifice that the most accepted theologies currently demand. So that, just taking these considerations, along with Moltman’s single statatement above, (out of context?), we see the partial breakdown not only of the Trinity, but also of the many theories about how Jesus’ death might have saved us all.

    A sort of forbidden common-sense defence of Jesus, might say that,in spite of an occasional separation from God, Jesus taught us to ultimately, submit to the will of the Lord. An idea which teaches us to submit somewhat to authority; the root idea of civilization. Which saves us.

  2. Or Jesus was wrong; in which case Jesus couild not be God.

    Why does Jesus being wrong exclude him from being divine? It’s fairly obvious throughout the gospels that he not only does not know things, but he also is wrong on certain issues (e.g. apocalyptic predictions ‘this generation shall not ‘pass’, saying Moses wrote the Torah). I just don’t see how that challenges the incarnation at all.

    Bonhoeffer said this,

    “If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, then we may not speak of this divine essence, of his omnipotence and his omniscience, but we must speak of this weak man among sinners, of his cradle and cross. When we consider the Godhead of Jesus, then above all we must speak of his weakness. In christology one looks at the whole historical man Jesus and says of him, ‘He is God.’ One does not look at a human nature, and then beyond it to a divine nature; one meets the one man Jesus Christ, who is fully god.” (Christ the Center, 108)

  3. I think that Calvin is very helpful here. Calvin’s emphasis on God’s one will and the obedience of the Son proves to be a great asset for the support of substitutionary atonement.

    I have a major issue with the argument that, “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).” Are we forgetting that Jesus Christ is God? Christ is obedient to the Father and therefore to His own will. It’s not as if God is punishing an unwilling and unsuspected innocent subject; He is punishing himself. To say that the Father is in opposition to Christ is to say that the Father no longer loves the Son. We cannot speak as if the Spirit for one moment ceases to be the communicator of love between the Father and the Son. God has chosen to become lowly and to be judged in our stead; there is no coercion or force, only obedience.

    If Christ did not die for us, if He did not suffer for us; then, where shall we posit the outpouring of God’s wrath (Mt. 3:7)? Did Christ not conquer death by the resurrection? As an open question, if Christ did not suffer the judgment and wrath of God for us, then, how do we account for God’s wrath?

    I see God as being in even more opposition to himself if Christ died and suffered only in order to conquer the principalities and powers, or to be a moral exemplar. This sounds much more unjust then to say that Christ suffered out of His own will. If Christ’s death isn’t punishment in our stead, then how exactly does Christ dying conquer the principalities and powers? How then are we reconciled to God?

    Just some thoughts and questions? Would love to hear feedback. Thanks


  4. If Jesus and God both voluntarily collaborated on the “death” of Jesus, then the whole notion of substitutionary attonement falls apart.

    First, 1a) Jesus is not punished; he is doing something he wants to do. And indeed, there is some more evidence of lack of punishment; he 1b)is crucified to be sure, but he doesn’t even really die. He presumably did not even die, but went to heaven, to live forever. If Jesus did not really die, if his death was a mere temporary illusion, then therefore, he did not die for our sins among other things. Because he did not die.

    For these and other reasons, we might say that there was not much punishment at all, really, for Jesus; not much of a price paid: Jesus did something he wanted to do; and he did not even really die.

    Next, Jesus not having suffered much at all (even less than the average crucifixion victim; even less than those tortured for years, not a few hours), therefore, there is nothing very special he has done, to stand as sacrifice or payment or attonement, for all the sins of humanity. He has not paid much of a price. He merely did something that was temporarily painful, but that he wanted to do; and he did not pay any very real price at all for it. He did not really die; he went up to heaven.

    There are many problems with the whole idea of substitutionary atonement. Among others briefly mentioned here:

    Then too 2) it still seems strange that God would punish himself. First because a) Surely part of God could not be guilty? Or if Jesus is not guilty, then b) punish someone that is innocent.

    3) When Jesus was executed, early apologists and defenders attempted to come up with many explanations, for much evidence their religion was false. They needed to explain why it was that their God would appear – and then suddenly, instead of fixing everything perfectly, soon died. Amazingly, God was executed by mere human beings. This posed many problems. How and why does God die? One of the many apologetic theories, was that part of him was dying for our sins. But on closer inspection, these theories are not entirely convincing.

    For future commentary: 4) who proposed these theories? Paul? Or? Was this really what was meant, when it was said that Jesus died for our sins?

    More random problems: if 5) as Calvin suggested, God already loved man enough to send Jesus to him, then after all, why would any additional sacrifice be necessary?

    Ultimately 6) the whole idea of substitionary penal atonement – and many related ideas – seems illogical; it raises far, far more questions than it resolves.

    While Calvin’s theology doesn’t seem to resolve much.

    7) We might try next to explain some of this, by describing Jesus as an ordinary person in some respects; having a human nature as well as a Godlike one. But ultimately there will be still more problems, with that theory as well.

  5. Some thoughts on some of the atonement issues raised here:

    Richard Bauckham (who is among other things is a Moltmann scholar) has noted that the standard criticism of penal substitution as articulated by Socinus was without reference to the Reformer’s theologies, and neglects two significant aspects of the Reformers’ views of the atonement, (a) that the work of Christ is not the activity of a third party, but rather the divine Son of God become man, who has come into the world to do the Father’s will for human salvation, and (b) that the purpose of the atonement was not merely to save sinners, but to reconcile them to God.

    And Gerard Rosse’s little book on the cry of derelicition makes the point that Jesus’ cry is part of his solidarity with the whole human race in their separation from God, and thus a part of his human nature.


  6. Brettongarcia – With respect to point one above, I’m not sure how voluntarily bearing a penalty means not really bearing a penalty at all. It certainly reframes the act, but I’m not sure why it should contradict it altogether.

    With respect to point two above, God in Christian thought is perfectly righteous and morally innocent, but God in Christ identifies with humanity with regard to the human nature and the guilt of sin. God ordains that, having assumed a human nature, God the Son will serve as the new Adam who represents sinful men and women in bearing their guilt on the cross and in obtaining for them a righteous status before God.

    With respect to point three above, your comments are fairly vague. It would be difficult to claim that the apologists of the second century and beyond cooked up the novelty that Jesus died for the sins of his people.

    With respect to point four above, you said in point three that Jesus dying for persons’ sins was an innovation of the apologists, but here you ask if penal substitution was really implicit in the notion of Jesus dying for persons’ sins and seem to assume that the notion was in circulation in an earlier stage of church history. Do you mean to say that Jesus dying for persons’ sins was concocted by the apologists or that they may have misconstrued this theme which existed at an earlier time?

    With respect to point five, for Calvin, God’s love does indeed provide the impetus for the incarnation and the atonement, but not at the expense of God upholding righteousness in the universe. One of the important implications of divine simplicity (which, as I said in the post, Calvin does affirm) is that it won’t allow us to consider one divine attribute as if it were unrelated or contrary to another.

    With respect to point six, I’m not sure penal substitution is illogical, though popular statements of it may be lacking in various ways. In his essay in The Atonement Debate (edited by Derek Tidball et al.), Oliver Crisp explores the logic of penal substitution and concludes that the way forward for the doctrine will require a sturdy account of Christ’s solidarity with human persons. Unfortunately, Crisp leaves that task for another day, though he does hint that an Augustinian realist anthropology may do the trick. I’m inclined to agree that a treatment of Christ’s work in identifying with and representing humanity would go a long way in clarifying the logic of penal substitution. I think Calvin does have some significant insights here. Have you read his christology and atonement theology in the Institutes?

    With respect to point seven, I wonder if you’re a bit pessimistic. I’ll leave it there for now…


  7. Well, there are some criticisms above, not addressed. What about say, the idea that Jesus could not have died for our sins – because, after all, he did not really die? He “went to heaven.”

    By the way, regarding Calvin: if Jesus is God, simply, monotheistically, then the whole appearance of his death would have to be false; a sham. Inconsistent with a God who after all, is eternal and cannot die.

  8. Assuming that Jesus “going to heaven” is meant to indicate his ascension, I don’t see why we have to choose between this and Jesus dying a real death. He can undergo death (the cessation of the life of and in the body, which obtains until the bodily resurrection in Christian theology) and then afterward have additional experiences, even positive experiences such as resurrection and ascension to heaven. In short, what happens after the fact doesn’t necessarily nullify the reality of the death itself.

    Regarding the comment about God being eternal and immortal, it’s important to remember that it is not God the Son dying with respect to his divinity; rather, God the Son, having assumed a human nature, dies with respect to that human nature. Interestingly, your point about the immortality of the divine nature is an important one that is sometimes missed in contemporary discussions about the divine attributes and the person and work of Christ.

  9. Problems with your answers in turn though: 1) if Jesus is really alive in heaven (which I think is a fair typification of common theological belief), then that really does make his “death” a little less impressive, a less major sacrifice. Since he didn’t really die at all, but is still alive.

    Then too, recall other’s similar objections, in classic scholarship, that Jesus’ sacrifice is therefore not so great, considering the short term of his torture, his single death and so forth. So that, the sacrifice not being so great, any real “atonement” is not likely here.

    Then too 2) if you try to solve these and related problems, by the classic method of claiming both a divine vs. a human nature to Jesus, then … aren’t you also attacking Calvin’s or anyone else’s insistence, that Jesus and God are entirely at one? Since Jesus now has a divided nature; one that must necessarily divide him in at least SOME way, from God. Though this would take much discussion to prove.

    To be sure 3) though, if Jesus is now somewhat more at odds with God, that would make the God-vs-Jesus scenario of Penal Substitutionary Atonement more plausible. While at the same time, the doctrine of the Trinity begins to break down too; a plus for the nontrinitarians who are a current interest of my own.

    And that would strenghten the case for a more human Jesus. One not quite so entirely certain and Godlike as many have thought.

    Maybe I would reformulate my statement, or present it in reverse order, of the above. And say that if Jesus is too firmly identified with God, to the point of being immortal like God, then that would render his death and sacrifice, meaningless and void. Since as God, as an immortal, Jesus never actually sacrificed his life at all. And therefore could not have died for the sins of humanity.

    Jesus’ sacrifice makes sense, is a real sacrifice,real atonement, only if we think of him more as a human being, and less as an immortal God.

  10. “Oh death, where is thy sting”? Traditionally a positive statement; but in this context not so much. If death had no real sting, then the death of Jesus would not be a notable event; with no real ability to atone for anything.

  11. I guess my major point here would be this: the (even Biblical) doctrine that Jesus died for our sins, is incompatible with the doctrine that Jesus is God. For this reason: if Jesus is God, then he cannot die; he is still alive in heaven. Therefore, Jesus’ appearance of dying on the cross, was a mere illusion. And therefore, not having died at all, Jesus could not have died for our sins.

    Many theologians have tried to get around this kind of apparent contradiction in the Bible. By suggesting that Jesus has “two natures”: one partially divine, and the other human. But I would further suggest that there have always been problems in turn, with the two-natures thesis. The fact is that making Jesus even “fully God and fully man,” does not quite work. The two natures thesis really does mean, making Jesus partially man, partially mortal; and separating Jesus a bit from an immortal God. Suggesting problems in the very concept of the Trinity, or the authority of God or Jesus.

    In any case though, if the unity of the Trinity begins to break down a bit under closer analysis, if Jesus comes to seem more like a man, rather than just another implacable avatar of God, there might be some advantages to this.

    On the positive side, with regard to Duby’s concerns, the whole idea of Punitive Atonement becomes more plausible.

    While then too, with regard to the larger concerns of this blog, Jesus begins to seem more human; a figure we can relate to.

    While also, finally, some biblical contradictions are resolved.

  12. brettongarcia

    Respectfully, your arguments are difficult to follow as you seem to be alleging a form of adoptionism ( if Jesus comes to seem more like a man), a form of docetism (Jesus’ appearance of dying on the cross, was a mere illusion) with a mix of some variation on arianism tossed in (just another implacable avatar of God). With all of those in the mix, I cannot see how you can have a sense of the Trinity in the first place. If the tensions are not maintained, Jesus was both/and fully human fully God as opposed to either human or God, the Cross and any theories of the purpose of the cross, such as penal substitution, become meaningless.


    I did not read Green and Baker as suggesting a discord within the Trinity. Rather I read them as making a push back to the critiques of the penal substitutionary theory and at best argue for a discord in the sense of the fuller Moltmann treatment. I had understood the critiques of the penal substitution theory to be along the lines of the theory emphasizing freedom and ultimate destination rather than emphasizing a fuller Gospel treatment – Richard speaks it well – the Cross was more about reconciliation and restoration though without question the element of atonement is critical, but only as a factor in allowing a fuller understanding of the Gospel- not simply freed from sin but restored to the possibility and growth into right relationship.

  13. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for weighing in here. Green and Baker themselves don’t wish to posit discord in the Trinity but do allege that at least Charles Hodge’s treatment of penal substitution has this effect. For the comment, see p. 147 of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross and compare Green’s response to Thomas Schreiner in The Atonement Debate, p. 114.


    p.s. Please do feel free to address me with my first name.

  14. Steve

    Thanks for that reference. I’m not sure Hodge would have articulated the atonement in quite those terms though I do see the argument being made by Green, and despite Green’s discussion of the discord concept, I never quite had the impression it was one of much currency (though I do recall the Chalke claims which caused somewhat of a stir a while ago). Thanks for the post as I agree that the view of penal substitution has taken some hits to shake it from the pedestal but the concept nevertheless must remain a vital component for understanding God’s activity.

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