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!