What is a child?

A lot of theological ink has been spilt on the following sentence from a book called “The Lost Message of Jesus” by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann:

“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.”

A lot of ink. So I really shouldn’t dip my toe in this water, especially as I haven’t read the book in question.

But I do a lot of things I shouldn’t do.

Chalke and Mann are criticising the doctrine of penal substitution, but their provocative expression “cosmic child abuse” has attracted particular attention and wrath. And doubtless the point I’m about to make has been made a million times by other writers who disagree with them.

Is it “child abuse” for God the Father to send Jesus the Son to the cross?

Well, of course it isn’t, because we’re talking about two different meanings of the word “child”.

Child abuse is bad treatment by an adult of someone who is too young to be an adult, ie a child or person-under-16.

If I had (for example) gone on holiday and left my children at home without a carer when they were aged 10 and 8, that would have been child abuse.

If I did this now that they are 23 and 21, it wouldn’t be, because they are perfectly capable of looking after themselves.

The word “child” in English means “person under the age of 16” and also means “person in a certain relationship to someone else, by birth or adoption.

Jesus is the Son of God in this second meaning. In Christian trinitarian theology (I think; no qualifications, remember!) He is both the (adult) volunteer for a task that His father needs someone to do; and also He is the father who sends, because He is God.

You can dislike the doctrine of penal substitution if you like, and many do, but it’s got nothing to do with child abuse.

There’s something else about the two meanings of the word “child” (and the easy confusion between them) that annoys me in the Christian world.

Christians believe we are children, sons and daughters, of God. In which sense?

Are God’s children children, or are we adults?

So many meditations, so many songs, present the believer as a small child needing a cuddle from God.

That’s very nice, and often appropriate.  Probably all of us feel that way sometimes. Psalm 131 has often comforted me.

And for those who were hurt as children, it is healing and powerful.

But do we always want to be four years old? Is this our ideal state?

The Bible pictures believers as God’s children, but also as heirs who’ve come into their inheritance, as wedding guests, as good (or bad) servants, as soldiers, and collectively as a bride.

These are all adult pictures.

Shouldn’t we want to be adults in God’s presence? Isn’t that basically a more fulfilling idea, most of the time?

It’s further complicated by the fact that we all know that fathers in Biblical times had rather more status and authority than they do today. Children obeyed their fathers for very practical reasons to do with self-protection, as well as love.

(Incidentally the thought that God is also Mother is pretty old. I’m reading Julian of Norwich, who makes great use of this thought.)

But surely even in Biblical times, a father or mother wouldn’t expect a son who was forty years old to regard him in the same way that was appropriate when the son was five?

When we’re told to trust and obey, and when it’s occasionally implied that we shouldn’t question or need reasons… is this because God is a parent? Adult children do, and should, question. There aren’t many Biblical examples, but there’s maybe Abraham and Terah, Naomi and Ruth, Gideon and his father, Samson and his parents (dubious example).

We should trust and obey, but this, I think, is for other reasons.

I don’t think God wants His/Her children to be infants forever.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS My apologies for the late delivery of this post. Computer issues, now fixed!

  • Judith Leader

    23rd October 2017 at 4:41 pm Reply

    I may not like penal substitution and have problems that a person or God should die for me without my wanting him/her to, even though I realise the reason why, but it (in the Christian faith) is a fact. I have much greater problem with the fact that the Jews (never the Romans who did condemn Jesus to death) are often accused of killing Jesus.
    However it does raise the question, as Jesus agreed to go on earth and die for our sins, is it God who was responsible for Jesus’s death, or Jesus or the whole of the Trinity which for my brain is too difficult to get my head round. This is something I have wondered for a long time.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    23rd October 2017 at 6:33 pm Reply

    I think Judith raises a good point. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus hung around for much longer than he should. All the disciples had fallen asleep (although possibly not John Mark who I think was a child by the English although not Jewish definition). I think the city gates had been locked for the night and yet Jesus still insisted on waiting for Judas to come with the high Priest’s guards to arrest him. This wasn’t Jesus just passively accepting his arrest and wanting to avoid confrontation, he deliberately stayed there waiting for Judas to find him. He didn’t quite march up to the High Priest’s residence and hand himself in but he did actively insist on staying at the location where he knew Judas and the guards could find him. To me this seems almost suicidal as there can’t have been much doubt in his mind what would happen after his arrest. He interpreted the scriptures as saying that he had to be put to death so that he could rise again and his actions right from the beginning of his ministry were directed towards this ultimate goal. I don’t think there is any doubt that Jesus felt that he had to be arrested and crucified and that it was his job to facilitate the process. He saw it as part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity and just part of his task here on earth.

  • Clint Redwood

    23rd October 2017 at 6:59 pm Reply

    Tom Wright has a lot to say about this in The Day The Revolution Began, and really condemns the conventional reading of penal substitution, that of Jesus sacrifice appeasing a wrathful God, as being a pagan image and having virtually nothing to do with the Jewish Levitical atonement. While the “cosmic child abuse” language may seem harsh to Christians who have been brought up with penal substitution, this is exactly how the non-churched world sees this “doctrine”, which Wright argues is a gross misunderstanding of the Gospel.

    This is a really great book, if rather hard work.

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