Tag Archives: PSA

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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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.

Penal Substitution? Two Objections and Responses

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.

Atonement (Part 4): A Wright Account of the Atonement

Today we continue our journey into a Wrightian (just made that word up) account of the atonement. Once again this is not necessarily Wright’s own view neverthless it takes some of his work and applies it to Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

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N.T. Wright’s Christology and Biblical Narrative

One theologian that gives the Reformed tradition (although I don’t think he would consider himself Reformed) some important tools to work through this non-traditional view of penal substitution is N.T. Wright. His Christology and work on the narrative of scripture provides a good framework to begin articulating an alternative version of penal substitution. The first tool that he provides is his Christology.

Wright’s Christology is best understood in terms of narratives. Jesus lives out two narratives. He fully lives out YHWH’s own narrative as it is revealed in the Old Testament; thus Jesus is fully God. Jesus also lives out Israel’s narrative as it was meant to be lived. In other words Jesus the faithful Israelite represents Israel faithfully. As Israel’s representative Jesus is fully human. Thus Wright presents an orthodox Christology. In order to understand these two narratives we must first understand the meta-narrative of scripture.

For Wright, the narrative of Scripture prior to Jesus is best understood as several key chapters, including: Creation, Fall, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the period of kings, and the exile. We should note two especially important chapters of this story: the call of Abraham and the exile. Wright elevates the call of Abraham because he understands that God has chosen Israel to be the means through which he rescues and restores creation, thus Israel will play a central role in this story. Secondly, according to Wright, Israel still considered itself to be under exile. The Roman occupation was understood as exile because the land was not under their control. Israel was waiting for YHWH brings them back from exile, defeat their enemies, and return to Israel in order to reign.

There are two actors in this framework: YHWH, who because of His covenant faithfulness will deliver Israel from exile and Israel who because of their lack of covenant faithfulness have gone into exile. Thus Wright understands the story of Jesus as the story of Israel and Israel’s God. In Jesus the concept of either God or either human gets deconstructed, and we are faced with a greater understanding of who God is and what humanity is.

The Consequences and the Cross

For Wright, Jesus being the faithful Israelite and the Messiah, represents Israel. Through the Gospels we see that Jesus does what Israel was always meant to do. A key example of this is Jesus’ wilderness temptation and his endurance of suffering at the hands of his oppressors. However, we should not understand Jesus’ representation of Israel in modern terms. Jesus is not like a senator representing or speaking on behalf his state. Rather, Jesus embodies Israel so that whatever is true of Jesus is true of Israel. As Israel’s representative, Jesus willingly bears the consequences of Israel’s sins (its covenant unfaithfulness) and faces exile and death. As Israel’s representative, he throws himself into the hands of the oppressors: Rome, the corrupt Jewish temple establishment, and Satan. Israel rightfully deserved to go into exile, because exile was the consequence of its covenant unfaithfulness. As Israel’s representative, Jesus accepts the consequences.

Since through Jesus Israel, is sent into exile by God to face its consequences at the hands of the powers and principalities, we cannot say that God the Father is pouring out his wrath upon Jesus, destroying him. Rather we should say that God the Father released unfaithful Israel into the hands of its oppressors, as a punishment, and the oppressors destroyed Jesus. Thus upon the cross, Jesus acts as Israel’s substitute, facing the consequences for sin for Israel.