A Penal Substitutionary Doctrine of Atonement (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview Pt. 1)

I just picked up the 2nd edition of William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (PFCW) – I immediately flipped over to the chapters dealing with philosophical theology – and in some cases what I would call 5187Analytic Theology. The chapter I gravitated towards first was the chapter on Atonement. I’m currently in a seminar on contemporary theories of atonement and I know Craig has recently been busy working on the topic. So, I wanted to see what they had to say.

Unsurprisingly the chapter on the doctrine of atonement is primarily a defense of penal substitution (PSA). They define PSA as:

The Doctrine that God inflicted on Christ the suffering we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment. (613)

They helpfully nuance this position saying that this definition leaves open the question whether or not Christ was punished for our sins. They say that one option is that Christ was indeed punished on our behalf and another option is that the suffering Christ experienced, had it been experienced by us, would have been a punishment.

In other words, Christ was a not punished, but he endured the suffering that would have been our punishment had it been inflicted upon us.

With this definition in mind they treat two objections:

1)The Incoherence Objection

This objection states that given an expressivist theory of punishment, it is conceptually impossible for God to punish Christ for our sins.

There are several options one could take in light of this objection. First one could deny the expressivist account. Second, one could say that God does not condemn Christ himself, but that God condemns sin. Finally, one could say that God in fact censures Christ, propose that our guilt is imputed onto Christ. The contemporary analogy to this doctrine of imputation would be cases in civil law which involve vicarious liability. For example, a case in which an employer incurs liability for acts committed by her employee.

Craig and Moreland conclude that the advocate of PSA can agree Christ was not punished, deny an expressivist account, or argue for the compatibility between PSA and expressivist accounts.

2) The Injustice Objection

“It is always unjust to punish an innocent person. Christ was an innocent person. God is always just. Therefore, God could not have punished Christ.” Thus goes a standard critique of PSA.

Again, the defender of PSA has several options. First they could adopt a consequentialist account of justice. If so, the act of punishing one innocent person, is justified because it prevents the guaranteed damnation of the human race. Second, they might argue that issues of justice are determined by God himself. Third, they could argue that, given divine command theory, God does not issue commands to himself, so he ha not moral duties to fulfill. Finally one might want to argue that Christ in fact had our guilt imputed onto him, so it actually is just to punish Christ.

Review of the Chapter

I really appreciated the clarity that Craig and Moreland brought to the issues involving PSA. This includes their definition of PSA which allows for a version of PSA to obtain even if Christ is not strictly punished for our sins. However, one critique I have of this chapter is that for some reason (their conservative evangelical background) they decided to focus solely on PSA. Not only that, they state (not argue) that essential, and indeed central to any biblically adequate theory of atonement is PSA. They offer no argument for that claim. While I am inclined to believe in some doctrine of PSA, they offer no reasons for why we should think PSA is the essential or central model of atonement. There may be reasons for why this is true, but they don’t say why.

Finally, I am left wondering, what we should do with biblical passages which mention that we have died with Christ. If punishment for sin is death (2 Cor 5 & Gal. 2), then it seems like in our “dying” with Christ we have experienced some sort of punishment. Are these passages figurative? Or should we take them in some sort of realist fashion? I’m inclined to say that it is the latter. And if in fact, we have died with Christ, experiencing the punishment for sin, would we still be able to call such an account PSA? I’m not sure… That’s just some food for thought.


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