Does Karl Barth Hold to a Version of Penal Substitution?

It’s a sort of tricky question. How does Barth understand Penal Substitution? I was once told that Barth definitely saw PSA in Isaiah, but that he believed that it is not taught in the New Testament. The debate sort of rages on – does Barth have some version of Penal Substitution? And if he does how does it differ from typical evangelical versions of PSA? And if he doesn’t – can Barth be a resource for formulating a version of PSA? These are all important questions.

In his recent book Faith, Freedom, and the Sprit, Paul Molnar addresses a passage which I believe hints at some sort of version of PSA in Barth. But I will let you decide for yourself:

Barth always stresses that Jesus acts both divinely and humanly so that we never have simply a human or divine being in Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice for us “is of course, a human action –but in and with the human action it is also a divine action, in which… the true and effective sacrifice is made” (IV/1, p.280)

Up until this point there is nothing that would hint at PSA. All that is being explicated is that atonement happens in both directions – it comes from God and Man. Molnar goes on to say:

In Jesus we see the true meaning of suffering and death. While there was suffering and death in Israel, in Jesus these become “the work of God himself” (IV, p.175)

At this point there is nothing surprising here. Atonement is being explained as the death of death. Sin and guilt and death themselves are put to death on the cross. Nothing (yet) about Jesus being punished. All that we know at this point is that the Son exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel in its suffering.

Now here stuff gets tricky:

“The Son of God in his unity with man exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel suffering under the mighty hand of God” (IV/1, p.175)

Molnar says that “As such he suffers Israel’s suffering as “children chastised by their Father”; in him God entered the vicious circle of human suffering allowing the divine sentence to fall on himself… “He, the electing eternal God, willed himself to be rejected and therefore perishing man” (IV/1, p.177).

Molnar seems to think that the suffering of Christ is in solidarity (some form of substitution) with humanity under the hand of God. This constitutes the act of sacrifice. If Molnar is right (which I think he might be), then we have an interesting take on Barth’s PSA.

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2 thoughts on “Does Karl Barth Hold to a Version of Penal Substitution?”

  1. For what it’s worth, I understood Barth as teaching PSA when I read IV.1 two years ago. I don’t have my notes, so I can’t give any references. The Barthian twist, of course, is that Barth rigorously interprets God’s wrath (and, therefore, his chastisement or punishment) as expressive of God’s love.

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