Friday, January 12, 2007

Penal Substitution (PS)

My good friend and fellow blogger Steve Tilley has blogged here on this subject, so I'm feeling inspired to go do likewise.

As Steve notes, this is a theory of the atonement - an explanation as to why Jesus Christ died on the cross and how it makes a difference for human's relationship with God. It assumes that a judicial punishment has to be administered somewhere in order for it to be possible for God to forgive us, or to have any relationship with us. In this theory, all human beings are guilty of sin, this means they are faced with the penalty of death. The only way God in his love can rescue human beings from this fate is to provide a perfect substitute - Jesus Christ - whose death is acceptable replacement for ours.

Two obvious problems:
  1. If God is omnipotent, why is he bound to follow a set of rules. Surely the rulemaker isn't subject to a law outside him, or he wouldn't be God? If his love is the overriding power (and the PS theory acknowledges this) then why is all this trouble necessary. Who's telling God He has to follow this procedure?
  2. We die. Genesis 3 teaches that mortality is the consequence of human sin. This is taken up by the PS theory and Jesus' death rescues us from death. But wait a minute, we remain mortal even having received the benefit of the cross. And if the death Gen 3 and Rom 6:23 refer to is spiritual death and not just biological, then that provides two more problems. a) did Jesus die spiritually, because if he didn't, he hasn't gone through everything condemned humanity must face and b) spiritual death sounds more like annihilation than any kind of ongoing existence in hell.
Moreover, Trinitarian theology means that the cross in PS theory logically ends in the scenario of God hitting himself and then telling humans it's OK.
The problem is that all theories of what the cross means fall short of the reality. They can only be metaphors which cast light on the cross but cannot convey the whole meaning. Any theory fails if it is extrapolated to its logical conclusion.


St said...

Maybe our motto for the next few months should be, 'Let the metaphors be metaphors.'

Mike Peatman said...

Amen to that. Perhaps we should start a campaign.

peterdray said...

Hi Mike,

Interesting stuff. I've read both Steve's and your blog articles, and I guess you'll not be too surprised to find that I on the whole (and hopefully graciously) disagree.

Penal Substituion can never be used as an excuse for violence. In fact, far from it, PS shows how sinful sin really is and should drive us towards greater standards of holiness.

Of course our understanding of the cross is imperfect: there's a whole lot going on at the cross, and the New Testament uses loads of different words to describe just this: reconciliation, redemption, justification, and however you choose to translate 'hilasmos' in Romans 3 and 1 John 2 (I am led to believe 'propitiation' is the best translation). However, I am convinced that all of this can only take place if Jesus was a wrath-bearing sacrifice. I guess you've probably read it, but the key text here would be Packer's 'What did the Cross achieve' - online at I'd be really interested to know what you make of it.

On the points you explicitly made, I'd say this:

(1) Of course God is not bound to follow a set of rules. However, he is fair to his chararacter which, primarily, is 'holy, holy, holy'. A key question of the Bible is 'how can a holy God dwell amongst sinful people?' and this points to sacrifice. Love and wrath are not opposites; rather, they are wonderfully interwined at the cross so that God can remain both holy and yet forgive guilty people at the same time.

(2) We do indeed die! Adam died spiritually immediately (thus keeping God's word in Genesis 2) and died physically later (as we read in Genesis 5). But even then this is only because of blood sacrifice (as clothing was made of animal skins). A key part of Romans 6-7 and 1 Corinthians 15 asks why we still die physically if spiritually we have already been resurrected.

I think Romans 6:23 really is about death in both its physical and spiritual sense. Jesus did die spirtually. I guess we could talk about the nature of spiritual punishment - I think I'd leave the door to annihilation open as the Bible isn't exactly clear on that. But the only hope of life comes because Jesus has taken exactly the punishment that we deserve.

I don't think the cross in PS theory means 'God hitting himself and then telling humans its alright' - I think that's would probably be true if sin was just bad stuff. The fact that it's rebellion against God changes everything (e.g. Psalm 51v4). God is the offended party and yet, in his love, willingly takes the punishment upon himself. That is amazing love.

Looking forward to chatting further. Would love to do it face to face if you have an hour sometime! :)

Peter D

Mike Peatman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Peatman said...

(Second go due to too many typos in the original. Why can't you edit your own comments?)

Hi Peter. Welcome to the blogosphere or however one is meant to spell it. (Can you use 'one' like that in a blog?)

Glad you came and debated - it's far too boring if one or two people just agree all the time. You make some fair points, and it would be good to talk in person, but I think it's also good to put a bit of text here for the sake of readers.

I don't at all dispute that propitiation is one Biblical term for the atonement. Some theologians get very squeamish and try to eradicate it altogether. That obviously isn't sustainable if we do justice to the Bible. My problem is that a lot of people see it as the only legitimate way of explaining the cross.

The Bible, on the other hand, contains several understandings of what is taking place. Jesus himself uses ransom (Mk 10:45), comparing his death to the payment that frees a slave, and healing (Jn 3:14), comparing himself on the cross with the bronze serpent that protected Israelites from snake bites in the wilderness.

Likewise we could also reference sacrifice, demonstration of love, defeat of death and evil, and so on. I suppose I see the death of Christ like a multi-faceted jewel, and only looking at one face gives a distorted view. None of these 'theories' is completely water-tight, and as I tried to say, a reductio ad absurdum argument on any of them can throw up some strange results.

Steve and I were brought up on Packer & Stott, but as I get older, I think I am beginning to appreciate that the whole of Jesus' story - life, death, resurrection and ascension - as the atonement. Our appreciation of what the Bible is telling us can be impoverished unless we understand the whole narrative as how 'he became what we are that we might become what he is', as some early church writers put it.

St said...

I agree Mike. I don't particularly disagree with Peter either. As I said it's the whole defensive thing about atonement theories that got me to write.

Without necessarily wanting to ditch substitutionary atonement I always find it very difficult to have a 'what if' discussion on this topic because the hackles seem to rise. Thankfully it's not happened so far.

One of the reasons I find it a better discussion to have on-line rather than face-to-face is that taking the emotive response out of it (on-line I can stop, think and go for a coffee before commenting) makes me a better debater.

When I'm in a live debate I often tend to agree with the last person who spoke.

peterdray said...

Hi Mike (and Steve),

Thanks for the reply - appreciate that! I genuinely am all for people thinking more about this doctrine, and apologise for those who seem to demonise those who publicly want to talk about what the cross achieved.

I agree that it's very easy to over-simplify the cross, and I think Christians are sometimes guilty of emphasising one Biblical model over others. I liked John Piper's book 'The Passion of Jesus Christ' - see - which gave fifty explanations of what happened at the cross.

However, I find Packer's article especially helpful in saying that these explanations of the cross are only true because of the legal and subsitutionary death of Christ. For example, does Jesus' death bring victory over evil? Yes - of course - but only because his death was substitutionary. It's wrong to say that Jesus' death is only satisfaction for the wrath of God against sinners, but it's also wrong to say that we can do away with penal subsitution in saying the cross achieves much more than just this (which is what Chalke argues).

Be good to catch up over a coffee sometime - not just this stuff but several CU issues as well - I'll pop by the chaplaincy centre in the next few days and we'll get some a date in the diary.

Enjoying the blog!