Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is the Doctrine of Penal Substitution Unjust and Immoral? (Part 1)

Christ, I repeat, is to us just what his cross is. You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross ... It is only by understanding it that it becomes anything else than a martyrdom, that it becomes the saving act of God. It is only by understanding it that we escape from religion which is all mind, from pietism with its lack of critical judgement, and from rationalism with its lack of everything else.
So wrote British theologian P. T. Forsyth in 1909, in his work The Cruciality of the Cross, and it as as true today as it was more than a century ago.  Paradoxically, it is the ignominious death of Jesus of Nazareth on Calvary hill, executed by the Romans as a Messianic pretender, that his followers have considered both his defining Messianic act and the means of their reconciliation with God. The extent to which this is true is symbolized most obviously in the cruciform shape of historic church architecture (unfortunately, in my view, abandoned in Puritan preaching boxes and, even worse, the consumerist- and/or entertainment-derived horrors of the shopping mall- and theater-style auditoriums of American mega-churches). But the centrality of the cross for Christian self-definition is matched by confusion as to what the cross actually accomplished, and how it did so.

Protestants such as myself who were raised in evangelical and/or confessional churches sometimes take for granted the interpretation of Jesus' death, articulated forcefully and with great precision by Martin Luther and John Calvin, known as penal substitution. According to this theory, Christ took humanity's (or, alternatively, the elect's) place and bore the penal consequences of their sins, thereby satisfying God's justice, expiating their sins, and appeasing God's wrath against sinners (for my money, the best explanation of this theory is still provided by J. I. Packer, "What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution," Tyndale Bulletin 25 [1974] 3-45). Indeed, the extent to which the doctrine of penal substitution has fallen on hard times in recent decades, even among self-professed evangelicals (e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross), would no doubt shock the average church-goer.

Most strident, of course, are the so-called "feminist theologians" who decry the theory's putative "violence" and deconstruct it by polemically caricaturing its central teaching as "divine child abuse" (for an example, see here). More commonly, critics judge the theory too "crude" for their apparently developed and refined sensibilities. Most common of all, however, is the claim that the theory's primary tenet, to wit, that the guilty party gets off scot-free while the innocent party is condemned, is unjust if not monstrous. Earlier this week, New Testament scholar James McGrath drew attention to a post by P.Z. Myers over at freethought blogs entitled "Odious Christianity," in which this accusation is leveled in no uncertain terms:

Whoa, hang on there. How is justice served by punishing an innocent? So, with this judge, if I get a parking ticket I could get out of it by bringing in a baby and chopping off a finger, and announcing that there, I’ve more than paid off my crime now? Or do I need to get someone who loves me very much to selflessly volunteer to mutilate themselves in order to get me off?
It seems to me that if I were to accept such an offer, it would make me even more of a disgusting monster than just someone who let a parking meter expire. I don’t think justice is served by allowing others to take responsibility for my crimes — yet somehow a fundamental precept of Christianity is the doctrine of the scapegoat.
So, sorry, I reject the core belief, so I must reject the whole of Christianity. Joshua, get down off that tree! You’re doing me no favors!

For his part, McGrath agrees with Myers's assessment, calling it "absolutely correct." He adds:
And it is unfortunate that it has become so widespread in certain (particularly Evangelical) circles that it seems to some that to reject this model of the atonement is to reject Christianity. But of course, that isn’t the case, and this way of interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death – and its relation to human forgiveness – is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Christianity.
Atonement theories are, historically speaking, a result of Christians trying to make sense of the crucifixion of  Jesus. Since there has never been a single creed stating a particular view of the cross as orthodox, on this topic more than any other, Christians should feel they have a lot of freedom to reflect and rethink. And I would hope that all would agree that any view which says that God is just, and yet simultaneously claims that God behaves unjustly, is a self-contradictory and irreverent mess which ought to be rethought.
Later, in response to one of the comments to his post, McGrath makes another claim: the doctrine of penal substitution is unbiblical:
In the NT, Jesus does not substitute for Christians. Paul says it well in 2 Corinthians. He doesn't write, "One died for all, because all should have died, but one took their place..." He writes, "One died for all, and therefore all died..." His model is participatory, not substitionary.
A model which does justice to that, which suggests that Jesus came to invite us to participate with him in seeking to conquer through love and self-sacrifice rather than power and an attempt to defeat our enemies, would potentially do justice to both Biblical and contemporary theological considerations.

How would you respond? Does the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement  rest on a fundamentally immoral premise? If not, how would you defend it from the Bible?

McGrath is certainly correct that the doctrine of penal substitution has not been the universal belief of the church throughout its history. The theory is especially associated with the theologies of Luther and Calvin  "relatively recent" is thus a subjective viewpoint  (would he prefer the "ransom to Satan" theory upheld by Hippolytus and Origen because of its greater antiquity and former hegemony?)  but it has clear antecedents, not only in St. Anselm of Canterbury's (d. 1109 CE) "satisfaction" theory but in undeveloped language in the early Church Fathers. And I, though an "evangelical" theologian, would certainly not deny salvation to those who articulate the import of the atonement differently. Indeed, as Scot McKnight has correctly argued, both at the scholarly and popular levels, the Bible itself explains the import of Jesus' death in varying, mutually compatible ways. Indeed, if Scripture is the so-called "norming norm" of all Christian theology, what Luther, Calvin, or any other theologian says is ultimately of only secondary importance. The question is, as it always must be, what does Scripture teach on this matter? Does the Bible, even if only in a few places, teach the fundamental tenets of penal substitution? And, if so, how should we answer the more philosophical objections to the theory so often articulated today? It is these questions I hope to answer in subsequent posts.


  1. Thanks doc for the time and energy you've placed into this series. I look forward to reading up on the remaining installments. Its the prince BTW...not in a prank call sorta way though.

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