Friday, January 11, 2013

Penal Substitution, Part 9: Is Penal Substitution Unjust and Immoral?



Peter Paul Rubens, Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves
(1619-20, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp)

[Note: for previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehereherehere, and here].


And so, like St. Paul arriving at last in Rome (Acts 28:15), we come to the goal of our months-long investigation of New Testament teaching on the death of Christ. Back in November we began by citing both a non-Christian (P. Z. Myers) and a Christian (New Testament scholar James McGrath), both of whom argue that the theory of penal substitution, associated primarily with Confessional and Evangelical Protestantism, is unjust if not positively immoral. As a Protestant and a New Testament scholar, my subsequent posts have been directed at establishing what the New Testament—the Christian's final authority for faith and practice—says on the subject. It is hoped that my primary objective, to demonstrate that what has subsequently been labeled as the penal substitutionary model of the atonement is at least an element of what multiple New Testament authors teach about the significance of Christ's death, has been established beyond reasonable doubt. Nonetheless, the oft-cited moral objections to the theory must be addressed. The first objection deals with the logic of penal substitution per se. The second set of objections concern the picture of God that the theory presumes. Ultimately, however, the various objections are necessarily intertwined.


The first objection is nicely summarized by Myers in quite colorful language:
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!
Such an objection manifests a prior commitment—fine so far as it goes—to "justice" as defined in the Aristotelian-Ciceronian sense: virtus reddens unicuique quod suum est (“a virtue which renders to each man what is his [i.e., what is his due]”). But one wonders whether Myers really wants what is his due and whether he really would want to "take responsibility" for his actions (and failures to act when appropriate). 

For anyone schooled in the New Testament and conversant with medieval theology, the words of St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), penned at the end of the 11th century, resonate: "You have not yet considered the seriousness of sin" (Cur Deus Homo, i.xxi). Nor, one might add, have they considered the absolute holiness of God, the "consuming fire" (Heb 12:29) whose "eyes are too pure to look on evil" (Hab 1:13). Paul, in one of his most penetrating passages, portrays the sacrificial, propitiatory death of Christ as the designed means by which the entire world—both lawless Gentiles and Torah-possessing Jews, who alike stand guilty in the dock of the divine lawcourt—can be acquitted ("justified"), and be so justly (Rom 3:25-26). Critics like Myers might prefer to stand on their own merits. But the God of the Bible doesn't grade on a curve. The late Australian New Testament scholar Leon Morris said it well:

To put it bluntly and plainly, if Christ is not my Substitute, I still occupy the place of a condemned sinner. If my sins and my guilt are not transferred to Him, if He did not take them upon Himself, then surely they remain with me. If He did not deal with my sins, I must face the consequences. If my penalty was not borne by Him, it still hangs over me. There is no other possibility. To say substitution is immoral is to say that redemption is impossible (The Cross in the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965] 410).
The message of Paul is one of justice, to be sure (more on this anon), but it is one in which strict justice is wedded to the incomparable message of grace (cf. Rom 3:24). Grace, in the Pauline conception, isn't merely the extension of favor. It is, in the words of my father that have since been seared into my memory, favor extended where wrath is deserved (Rom 3:24 with 1:18 and 3:25). Such a message of grace is, to be sure, offensive to what Paul refers to as the psychikos anthrōpos, the "natural man" (1 Cor 2:14). It offends precisely because it undercuts the pride that the Book of Genesis clearly indicates has characterized humanity from its origins in the mists of time. By placing everyone equally in the dock, it "democratizes" the evil we so prefer to pin on "others" who, we believe, sin more egregiously than we do. And in making grace available to all, we are offended that favor could be extended to those others we deem beyond the pale [as an aside, for any Christians who may be tempted to self-righteousness at this point, ask yourself how you would feel if Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or Osama bin Laden had repented and acknowledged Jesus' Lordship on their deathbed, a la the brigand crucified at Jesus' side]. But, for those of us acutely aware of the depths of our sinfulness, the message of grace in the substitutionary shed blood of Jesus is a lifeline of hope and joy that alone sustains us through the inevitable vicissitudes of life.

The second set of objections to the doctrine of penal substitution revolve around the picture of God the theory presupposes. The first of these is that it portrays a God who is "unjust" (McGrath) or a "disgusting monster" (Myers), not simply accepting a substitutionary payment for sin, but actively sending the Son to die and punishing him on the cross (e.g., Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross [Downers Grove: IVP, 2000] 147). In extreme versions of this scenario, the gracious Christ is presented as having to plead with the niggardly, bloodthirsty Father to intervene on humanity's behalf.


Frankly, such an "objection" is a tired caricature, a straw man to which no intelligent or informed Christian theologian has ever subscribed. And one can be certain that no scholar, be it Joel Green or James McGrath, who has articulated a version of it, believes any scholarly advocate of penal substitution actually believes the doctrine in the way they have presented it. Simply put, this objection is based on faulty views of both God and Christology. As St. Paul wrote, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself by not counting their trespasses against them in Christ's act of "becoming sin" on their behalf (2 Cor 5:19). In other words, we must never forget that the one who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins was no mere third party to the dispute between God and humankind, but was the obedient Son of God or, as Christian orthodoxy says, God the Son. The Jesus hanging on that Roman cross in my stead was, in a very real sense, "the crucified God" (Luther; Moltmann). Consequently, as the late John Stott so memorably put it, we should view the cross as "the self-substitution of God" in judgment for sin (The Cross of Christ [Downers Grove: IVP, 1986] 133-63).


Even more fundamental is the objection that says that penal substitution impugns God by portraying him as unable to forgive sinners otherwise. For example, McGrath states:

[T]he Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. ... [F]or God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive. 
Green and Baker likewise point to the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) in this regard (p. 148).

Is this not simply a Christian articulation of the cynical viewpoint expressed by German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who famously said, "Gott wird mir verzeihen, das ist sein Beruf” ("God will forgive me; that's his job;" often attributed in the French version, "Le bon Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier")? Such is easy to say, but is it true? Stott responds, rightly in my view:
For us to argue 'we forgive unconditionally, let God do the same to us' betrays not sophistication but shallowness, since it overlooks the elementary fact that we are not God. ... The crucial question we should ask, therefore, is adifferent one. It is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all (The Cross of Christ, 88).
Stott hits the nail right on the head. The issue revolves around the character of the God to whom we must give account. God created human beings to have fellowship with him. But human beings are, without exception, sinful beings, and God is holy. Some of us might prefer a situation in which God simply acts nice and forgives us, no questions asked. But such is not the God we meet on the pages of the Bible. God is, to be sure, a merciful, loving God. But—and this is fundamental to classic Christian theology—God's love cannot be played off against his holiness, his mercy against his justice. His love is holy love. His mercy is justly extended. The glory of the Christian message is that God has undertaken what human beings were incapable of—the rescue and deliverance of sinful humanity from the plight for which they alone are responsible—at infinite cost to himself in the death of his Son. And for that I stand in awe at his sovereign mercy and bow in humble submission to the Lord who bought me with the price of his own blood.

I can do no better than close with the immortal words of the Anglican cleric Augustus Montague Toplady, who wrote his famous hymn "Rock of Ages" in 1776. I dare say what he wrote is more profound than anything penned by Thomas Jefferson that same year:
  1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    Let me hide myself in Thee;
    Let the water and the blood,
    From Thy wounded side which flowed,
    Be of sin the double cure,
    Cleanse me from its guilt and pow'r.
  2. Not the labor of my hands
    Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
    Could my zeal no respite know,
    Could my tears forever flow,
    All for sin could not atone;
    Thou must save, and Thou alone.
  3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
    Simply to Thy cross I cling;
    Naked, come to Thee for dress;
    Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
    Foul, I to the fountain fly;
    Wash me, Savior, or I die.
  4. While I draw this fleeting breath,
    When my eyes shall close in death,
    When I rise to worlds unknown,
    And behold Thee on Thy throne,
    Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    Let me hide myself in Thee.

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