Thursday, September 20, 2012
The review was written by Peter Gurry, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. Peter begins by correctly identifying a central thesis of my book:
"That thesis, in brief, is 'restoration triumphs over retribution'—purportedly 'the central narrative of the New Testament'"(58). In other words, Flood doesn’t just argue that penal substitution is wrong, misguided, or unbiblical (though he claims all that); he argues that it’s antithetical to the true gospel because it promotes the very thing God saves us from—retributive justice"
He continues, correctly describing the harm that comes from our embracing retribution, which I outline in the book,
"Retributive justice, as Flood sees it, is deeply harmful. It leads to a battery of heinous ills such as “beating children, torturing prisoners and heretics, etc.” and culminates in even more destructive views of God and ourselves (8). Believers and unbelievers alike are affected. Unbelievers wonder how being saved by a vindictive God could be good news, and believers suffer a crippling sense of self-loathing. The result is a “faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness” (3)"
His critique begins by making a number of unsubstantiated assertions: Peter claims for example that there is no problem in simultaneously claiming that we die with Christ, and that Christ dies instead of us. He offers no explanation however of how that would be logically possible. Nor does he mention that while the NT frequently says Christ died “for us” and also frequently says that we die “with Christ,” it never once says Christ died instead of us. This is why many Pauline scholars have suggested that the language of "participation" is more reflective of what Paul was expressing than the traditional Reform language of "substitution" is.
Similarly, Peter rejects several readings of Scripture that I outline in the book, but offers no arguments as to why they should be rejected other than to simply declare them "untenable." Considering that the arguments I make in the book are based on work done by some pretty major biblical scholars (James Dunn, Michael Gorman, Morna Hooker, to name a few), I hardly think that one can simply dismiss them out of hand as "untenable."
I make the case in my book that viewing sin strictly from a legal lens has led to a profoundly deficient understanding of sin that in fact trivializes the problem and offers no real cure, and in fact adds to the hurt. It is a view of sin that is out of step with everything we have learned over the last century about mental health, and out of step with the NT.
Peter completely ignores all that his review, and simply makes the unsubstantiated claim that there is no problem with viewing sin as crime. But there is in fact a huge problem. If I get a speeding ticket, that works pretty well at deterring me from speeding. So in cases like this, it seems to work fine. But our prison system has an enormously high rate of repeat offenders, and an alarming amount of people in prison are mentally ill or addicts. What we are increasingly finding is that punitive measures do not lead to their reform, they make them worse. In contrast, restorative programs have had great success at reducing violence in prison and bringing about actual rehabilitation (no repeat offenses). In addition to that, restorative programs also help the victims of crime to heal. Punitive programs do nothing to restore victims.
It’s important to also make clear that Peter does not think that retributive justice should have the function of restoring (or deterring for that matter). He thinks that the purpose should be to inflict hurt for hurt. When he says retribution, he really means it. We need to keep that in mind when he speaks about the "vertical aspect" that is allegedly missing in my book. What is missing is the idea that God must punish sin, and that God cannot simply heal it. In other words, in his view, even if God could heal us and make us loving, good, and holy in Christ, Peter thinks that would not be enough. Even if God could mend the hurt done by our sin to ourselves and others, that would not be enough. God (according to Peter) demands blood, demands hurt. I think that is a view of God that is completely out of step with the New Testament, and deeply troubling.
This brings us to Peter’s biggest objection which is that he feels I focus too much on the "horizontal" impact of sin—how it harms us—and not enough on the "vertical" aspect of how it offends God:
"[N]ot once does he angle his definition of sin vertically. He does not mention that the first commandment is always the first to be broken. He does not follow Joseph's or David’s concern that sin is fundamentally against God ... Because Flood provides no antidote to our idolatry, his cure turns out to be worse than his diagnosis. Much better to know that in Christ God has not only cured our idol-loving hearts, but he has publicly punished them, too."
In response I would say that this is simply not true. I do focus on the vertical aspect of sin, but the focus is God-down-to-us rather than us-up-to-God. In other words: God is not the one with the problem, we are. That's why God comes to us, while we were yet sinners, while we were God's enemies, and first loved us. Jesus continually draws our attention to how we treat others as a reflection of how we love God. "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me" Jesus tells us. When David says in Psalm 51 "Against you only, Lord, have I sinned" he is saying the same thing as Jesus. As the king he had thought that he could do whatever he wanted, and so he raped Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed. But now David has realized that in sinning against these powerless subjects of his, he had in fact sinned against the king of kings. The point here is not to say that God doesn't care about what David has done to that poor couple, and instead wanted to have all the attention. The whole point is that God wants us to care about the least, to care about each other. Vertical sin is inseparably connected to horizontal sin.
So if by a vertical focus we mean the notion that God is somehow “offended,” and needs to be mollified by us—that God can't love us until “satisfied” by violent punishment, then yes I do reject that idea. God is not some insecure monarch demanding his pound of flesh. God is the one who comes to us in Jesus, seeking reconciliation. God is not the one with the problem, we are. God does not need to be changed, we do. God does not need to be turned around (=repenting), we do.
If however a vertical focus means that we need to center our lives around God revealed in Christ, then this is in fact something I discuss at great length in the book. I see it as absolutely essential because it is through living with Jesus as our bottom line, as our Lord, and indeed as our friend in an intimate and growing relationship that we learn to love others just as Christ did. This is the "antidote to idolatry" Peter is looking for, found in a loving and transformative relationship with God. That vertical relationship with God naturally flows into our horizontal relationships with others because when we have truly experienced what it is like to be unconditionally loved by God, not based on our goodness, but based on God’s goodness, how can we help but want to treat others with that same grace and mercy we have known? This is not a heaven-ward focus, because a focus on God in Christ calls us not to look up, but to look down to the least. That's where we find Christ.
So the claim made here that I do not have a vertical focus is simply not true. On the contrary, I have a clear "vertical focus" in the book, but it is one focused on a loving and good God showing us enemy love and grace, rather than on an angry God demanding punishment in order to be mollified. That latter view sounds more like a primitive volcano god, and not like God revealed in Jesus Christ.