An article I wrote defending a version of penal substitutionary atonement just came out in “Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie.” It’s a constructive model I call the “penal-consequence view.” It’s not necessarily the view I hold to but it’s a view that I think might be helpful to some who want to defend Penal Substitution. You can check it out here:
(P.S. I say it’s not my personal view because even though I develop it in this paper I’m currently working on another defense which comes closer to affirming all the things I want to affirm.)
Below is an abstract of the essay:
Summary: Among recent assessments of penal substitutionary accounts of atonement
one significant critique is Mark Murphy’s “incoherence objection.” In this
essay I express general agreement with Murphy’s critique of penal substitution,
yet I suggest that there is a way to reconceive the doctrine of atonement such that
it is conceptually coherent, is commensurate with scripture, and is a version of
penal substitution. I call this view: The Penal-Consequence View of Atonement.
This is a view of atonement that makes use of a distinction between what I call
“penal consequences” and “mere consequences.” The view is defended with
special reference to the topics of corporate moral responsibility and union with
Keywords: Atonement, Consequences, Penal Substitution, Punishment, Union
The following is a summary/notes of Mark Murphy’s article, “Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment.” (Faith and Philosophy, 26.3, 2009)
Summary: PSA fails for conceptual reasons. Punishment is an expressive action so it is not transferable. A relative of PSA, VP, is conceptually coherent. Under VP, the guilty person’s punishment consists in the suffering of an innocent to whom he or she bears a special relationship. Sinful humanity is punished through the death of Jesus.
Human beings on account of their sins deserve to be punished, but that JC was punished in our place so that we no longer bear ill-desert. (253-4)
Ill desert is removed by punishment. Christ is punished for our sins, and thus a necessary condition for unity with God is realized.
There is a conceptual problem w/PSA
Punishment = an authoritative imposition of hard treatment upon one for the failure to adhere to some binding standard.
This definition is not sufficient for punishment. A fourth condition is necessary, namely that punishment expresses condemnation of the wrongdoer.
If this is right then punishment will be non-transferable. Then PSA doesn’t work.
What happens in PSA: A deserves to be punished; but B is punished in A’s place; so A no longer deserves to be punished. A’s ill-desert is removed by B’s personally substituting for A.
What happens in VP: A deserves to be punished; B undergoes hard treatment, which constitutes A’s being punished; and so A no longer deserves to be punished. (260)
Example: A criminal has his spouse killed. This deprives him of a significant good, namely having a wife. The hard treatment condition is met, except it is not in propria persona.
Is VP morally objectionable? After all it has an innocent party suffering.
Reason why it is not morally objectionable: The suffering is willing.
Obj: It is still cruel to do this.
Resp: Yes, cruel, but not unjust.
Obj: There is injustice b/w the wrongdoer and the innocent sufferer.
Resp: This isn’t a criticism of the view itself, rather, the fact that the wrongdoer committed a bad action.
Retribution= depriving the wrongdoer of a significant human good.
This also deters further wrongdoing.
Summary: “We human beings have sinned, having violated the divine law, in egregious ways. We thus merit punishment; and until this ill-desert is requited, there is an obstacle to proper union with God. In order to exact retribution and requite this ill desert, God chose to punish vicariously. Because Christ accepted this scheme freely, and with awareness that he would indeed be called upon to undergo the suffering constitutive of the punishment, it does Jesus neither injustice nor cruelty that he was to suffer in the carrying out the punishment of sinful humanity. So on this view the way that each of us is punished for our transgressions of divine law is that his or her Lord is killed. Each of us, for his or her sins, is subjected to hard treatment of having his or her Lord made to suffer and die. What makes this hard treatment imposed on us sinners is that the relationship of being Lord of is a special relationship that makes the misfortunes of the Lord constitutive of bad for the subject. This is a very hard treatment indeed. (265)
It makes sense of biblical language & addresses other puzzles.
Is punishment compatible with forgiveness? Yes.
One might compensate for one’s failures but still be at odds with the wronged. Forgiveness brings unity.
The atonement is the subject of intense interest among not only theologians, but Christians in general. This may be due to the fact that for most of Christianity atonement stands at the center. In some stands of Christianity, atonement itself is the gospel. However some people want to argue that the atonement is not only not the gospel, but atonement itself is not good news at all. Atonement theories, according to this group of people, perpetuate fear and anxiety which dominate ancient outdated religion. This is the position that Stephen Finlan takes in his new book Sacrifice and Atonement: Psychological Motives and Biblical Patterns. In it he argues that in Christianity we find a mix of this ancient fear/anxiety legacy of religion along with real revelation from God. But this is not a new claim, others have argued similarly. The new contribution that he makes to discussions about atonement is that Finlan purports to show how atonement doctrines correspond closely with strategies for handling emotional trauma and managing family dynamics. Finlan says:
The idea of God as a punishing presence reflects dynamics learned in childhood. We tend to think about God in the ways we learned to think about our parents. A major thesis of this book is that atonement theology is largely based on childhood strategies for satisfying moody and explosive parents by “paying for” infractions (or have someone else pay for them). (xvi)
Finlan believes that this model accurately represents the source of our atonement theories, and that the problem is that this allows a mixture of anxiety, while embodying some form of love, but love that is conditional. This in turn presents a picture of a God who is both violent and loving. This is a picture of a dysfunctional home. What we need is a theory of atonement that reflects the psychology of a healthy family.
Finlan begins to uncover the psychological dynamics of atonement with two chapters on atonement in Scripture. These chapters unpack the concept of atonement in terms of purification and compensation towards God. He sees both of these biblical concepts as embodying false notions about how to relate to God. The Old Testament, emphasizes disgust and seeks purity through exclusion. The New Testament, specifically the teachings of Jesus, essentially do away with purity laws in favor of inclusion. The Old Testament view of atonement is based on propitiation or appeasement, Jesus however teaches that love characterizes our relationship with God, it is available for free.
In chapter 3 Finlan begins to explain what lies behind the false understandings of atonement that we explored in the first two chapters. He says that the source of these false, misguided, and ultimately harmful theories of atonement are “the product of uncertainty about parental love.” (60) Finlan goes on to explore Paul’s theology of atonement and concludes that Paul experienced ambivalent attachment as a child, and that it persisted into adulthood. He also explores the author of Hebrews theology of atonement, and concludes that his views of God probably reveal an avoidant attachment pattern as a child. He even goes on to say that “it seems likely that Hebrews had a strict religious upbringing with hypercritical parents, contributing to a nervous perfectionism.” (142)
So what is the solution to this mixed theology of atonement, in which we see hints of God’s free love and harmful human view for the need for atonement? The solution is to abandon atonement concepts, for atonement, despite the best intentions of thoughtful theologians will always carry problems. According to Finlan “salvation needs to be detached from the crucifixion.” (189)
Finlan concludes by saying,
We need to be saved from cruel doctrine. God saves us in spite of the crucifixion, not because of it.
Some Thoughts About the Book….
As you can probably guess, I am not on board whatsoever with the view that Finlan presents in this book. I have a lot to say in terms of critique, but first let me say what I appreciate about his work.
First, I appreciate his willingness not to cover or sugarcoat what the Bible actually says. Where as some people want to cover or hide the fact that propitiation is a concept within Scripture, Finlan gladly admits that it is there. While some want to deny that substitution, or even penal substitution, doesn’t exist in New Testament theology, Finlan says that it certainly is there and that the seeds of penal substitution can even be found.
Second I appreciate Finlan’s pastoral heart which rightly exposes that so many of our views about God are highly influenced by views about our parents and other authority figures. Finlan, quite pastorally wants to free Christians from harmful views about God rooted in our own dysfunctional relationships. More pastors need to be attentive to this pattern of projection upon God.
However there are some places in Finlan’s work where I simply cannot go. While he does acknowledge propitiation and substitutionary atonement can indeed be found in scripture, he sees these parts of scripture as being false, speaking untruthfully about God. Rather he decides that the only “true” revelation is found in the works and words of Jesus. The rest of scripture seems to be human beings grasping for an understanding of God. As someone rooted in the historic teachings of the church, I affirm that all of scripture is revelation. Some parts aren’t less of revelation that other parts.
Second, I can’t follow Finlan in the type of psychological biography writing he engages in. He attempts to psychoanalyze Paul and Hebrews. He pins them both down with suffering from psychological problems, with the author of Hebrews being especially disturbed. I honestly don’t think you can engage in this sort of project, getting at the psychology of authors from such little material.
Finally, I can’t follow Finlan in his comments about removing the cross from the center of the gospel. Throughout the New Testament the cross seems to be central. Even the gospel stories seem to be passion stories with extended introductions! Now I know that Finlan would agree that the cross is at the center of New Testament teachings, however he would respond by saying that those teachings are the tainted portions, and do not constitute revelation. I guess we presupposed different things, and thus end up in a different place. However the burden is on Finlan to show that over the last 2000 years the Church has misunderstood the centrality of the cross to the gospel.
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.
Atonement is both penal and substitutionary – here is John Webster on what is happening on the cross:
He becomes, that is, the bearer of our sins. “Surely,” Isaiah tells us, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4); and again: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6); and again: “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). It’s easy to misunderstand this. If we’re not careful, we can think that what’s happening in the passion is that God is simply punishing an innocent victim for our wrongdoings—as if God simply requires that the punishment for our crimes should be enacted, and it doesn’t matter who is punished. But Jesus is not just a mute sacrificial animal. If he is like a lamb led to the slaughter, it’s not because God is victimizing him; it is because he is God himself fulfilling his own purpose; it is because he is God the Son, freely and lovingly acting out the will of the Father. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (53:10). That does not mean that God just vented his anger at sin on Jesus. It means that he, Jesus, the Son of God, is God himself bearing the wounds of our wickedness. God does not save us by sacrificing someone other than himself. God sacrifices himself. In his Son, God himself bears our sins. He makes himself an offering for sin (Hebrews 7:27). Or as Colossians puts it “in him”—Jesus—“all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (1:19).
Webster, J. (2014). Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian.
This past Thursday and Friday I attended The 3rd annual Los Angeles Theology Conference – the topic was “Locating Atonement.” I especially enjoyed Ben Myers’ Atonement & the Image of God and Michael Horton’s Atonement and Ascension. Ben’s lecture was really stimulating, especially in light of the research I’m doing on T.F. Torrance’s view on universals. Matthew Levering was a lot wittier than I expected. Eleanore Stump’s lecture stumped me (how many times has that been said!), mainly because no body responded to her synergistic account of salvation. But Bruce McCormack’s lecture (by the way Bruce is gigantic, and not just compared to me…) elicited a concerned response from me. At one point in his lecture Bruce said that atonement is located in the crucifixion, and not in the resurrection. Initially that doesn’t seem so bothersome – of course atonement happens on the cross! Duh! But then I got to thinking (in a rather Torrencian fashion), “Doesn’t atonement happen over Christ’s the whole life lived? Isn’t the incarnation a part of atonement? Isn’t his life a part of atonement? Isn’t his resurrection and ascension a part of atonement?” I know I am making some rather Torrencian presuppositions (namely that atonement occurs involves union + recapitulation and can be cashed out in something like the vicarious humanity of Christ); but even for people who don’t follow T.F. Torrance’s logic it would seem to me that Atonement can’t be exclusively located on the cross!
Let me make my self clear – I’m not denying what P.T. Forsyth called the “cruciality of the cross” – I follow Paul in declaring that we are to preach Christ crucified. I too have chosen to know nothing but Christ crucified. But, that does not me that I believe atonement is located exclusively at the cross as Bruce McCormack wants to suggest.
Let me break this down….
Necessary and Sufficient Conditions
Necessary Condition: A necessary condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that must be satisfied in order for S to obtain.
Sufficient Condition: A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains.
Here are a couple of examples.
Having gasoline in the gas tank is a necessary condition for me to drive to work.
Being 18 years old is a necessary condition for a person to serve in the military.
Being 18 years old is not a necessary and sufficient condition to serve in the military, one would need to meet certain health requirements too.
Having gasoline in the gas tank is not a necessary and sufficientcondition to drive to work, one needs to have tires as well.
Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Atonement
Lets assume for a second that atonement literally means “at-one-ment.” It signifies something like the reconciliation between God and man. (I’m not going to explain the mechanism by which this happens, you can fill this out with your own mechanism/theory.) We might want to ask whether or not the crucifixion of Christ is a necessary condition for atonement to occur. I think the answer is a simple yes. I can’t think of a single (orthodox) atonement theory which would say that atonement can happen without the cross. Penal substitution, satisfaction, christus victor, moral exemplar, recapitulation, governmental theory, and vicarious humanity theories all make clear that the cross is crucial to atonement in some way. Alright, so we might now ask – is the crucifixion of Christ a sufficient condition for atonement? This is a crucial question, because if we answer in the negative, then we have to say that some other condition or event is necessary for atonement and then we can’t say that atonement is located solely on the cross. Well lets start with this question: If Christ was not tempted by Satan, and came out victorious would atonement have happened? Some theories would say no. Allright, now another question: If Christ had not undergone an unjust trial, would atonement have happened? Again, some theories would say no. If the ascension would not have happened would atonement have been made complete? Again, some theories want to say no! Now, one final important question: If Christ had been crucified and not resurrected would atonement have been made? Paul is clear in saying: No! If Christ is not raised then our faith is in vain. Why is it in vain? Because atonement has not been made! The resurrection is a necessary condition for atonement!
What does this all mean? It means that the crucifixion is not a necessary and sufficient condition for atonement (you at least need to add resurrection to it). Thus we can’t say that Atonement is strictly located on the cross. You cannot separate the cross from the resurrection when speaking of atonement. Sorry Bruce.
Penal substitution takes a lot of flack these days. Many of the objections that come up against PSA have focused on this theories assumptions about what justice is. However, many of these objections are based upon what we tend to think justice is. But as Donald Macleod has said,
It would be certainly perilous to judge the cross by the wisdome of a prevailing culture. From the standpoint of divine revelation the logic must go in the exact opposite direction, allowing the cross to be itself the judge of the culture. This is what Luther meant when he declared, cruz probat omnia (the cross is the test of everything)…
Some object that PSA portrays God as bound to some abstract notion of justice. As if he were ruled by some universal law of justice…
But this gets God and justice all mixed up. God’s righteousness, his justice is not external to who he is. It is not something that exists outside of God. Righteousness is what God is. To say that God acts justly or that God requires penal subsitution (or satsifaction) is to say that God is simply acting out his nature. God acts justly, not because he is required to, God acts justly simply because God just is just….
Some object that PSA operates outside of a biblical understanding of justice. The classical idea of justice is that people get what they deserve – reward if they are good, punishment if they are bad. Biblical justice is about protection, salvation, and solidarity – its about God’s covenental commitment to his people’s well-being.
Again this is simply wrong. This objection is grounded in a modern aversion to justice as retribution (justice certainly is much bigger in scope than mere retribution, but retribution can certainly be a part of what justice is). This objection also splits God’s covenental commitment into two categories that are non-existent in scripture. God’s covenental commitment to his people is not only about God overseeing the well-being of his people its also about his own righteousness. These two things cannot be separated. Because of God’s righteousness God is justified in punishing when the covenant with him is broken. There is no split between God’s righteousness and his covenant.
Now Penal Substitution has been objected for various reasons, justice only being one of them. As we can see, these two simple objections miss the mark when it comes to atonement and justice.