Friday, May 5, 2017

How not to defend penal substitution

Consider the standard problem for penal substitution views:
  • How is it that an innocent person's suffering harsh treatment removes the guilt of this guilty?
This is just a quick remark. Here is how not to solve the problem: Don't invoke God's sovereignty or power to claim that God can transfer guilt and punishment at will. For if God can transfer guilt and punishment at will, then God could transfer the guilt and punishment to a tree. But wouldn't it be better that a tree should be harshly punished for eternity (say, constantly have its bark ripped off as it grows back) than that Christ suffer?


Christopher Michael said...

Maybe God can transfer punishment only to other proper subjects of punishment, i.e. persons? "Only persons can be punished" sounds like an analytic truth to me, whereas "only X can be punished for the misdeeds of X" sounds like it might not be, so that would explain why God can produce counterexamples to the latter but not the former.

Of course, I don't defend penal substitution at all.

Unknown said...

The primary defense of penal substitution is a biblical one, based on scriptural authority. That is, if God has revealed that penal substitution is true, then imputation of the guilt of the elect to Christ is possible.

Angra Mainyu said...


I'm not sure why "Only persons can be punished" would be more likely to be analytic than, say, "Only a punishment that is deserved by the person who is punished, is just", or "Only a punishment that is deserved by the person who is punished, is proper", and so on.

Moreover, it seems to me that to say that (for example) "Bob committed murder, and he incurred moral guilt for his behavior." is necessarily equivalent to "Bob committed an act of murder, and his behavior was morally blameworthy." That equivalence is probably analytical, but even if it's not, it's still a metaphysical necessity. So, I think that guilt is not transferable: Bob's act of murder was morally blameworthy, and that remains so regardless of what God chooses to do.
But if it were possible that inflicting harm on an innocent person - say, Joe - makes Bob no longer deserving of punishment for his blameworthy act, then why would it not be possible that inflicting harm on a tree makes Bob no longer deserving punishment?
Even if it's analytical that trees cannot be punished, they can be harmed, and regardless of analyticity, there seems to be no good reason to suspect that punishment of the innocent is any better away of making Bob no longer deserve to be punished than harming a tree.


On the other hand, I'd be inclined to say that if the Bible embraces penal substitution, that provides further evidence that the Bible is not the word of God, since penal substitution would be clearly unjust (as assessed by my own sense of right and wrong, of course. But how else would I assess a claim of that sort?).

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Bible embraces *something* in the vicinity of penal substitution. But it is far from clear that it embraces exactly penal substitution. And ethical evidence against the possibility of penal substitution together with evidence for the inspiration of the Bible would be evidence against penal substitution being the exactly right interpretation of the Bible.

(That said, I think something pretty close to penal substitution is true. But it's not a transfer of guilt.)

Angra Mainyu said...


I agree that evidence for the inspiration of the Bible would be some evidence against penal substitution and in support of whatever the Bible endorses (though as you probably know, I think the overall evidence against inspiration is conclusive even leaving aside substitution), even though I don't think that that would be good evidence.
But I realize now that I may have missed the intention of the post. Are you talking about arguments for or against penal substitution under the assumption that the Bible is inspired? (i.e., is this argument meant to be part of a debate within Christianity?).

Other than that, it seems clear to me that anything close to penal substitution is also strongly in conflict with my moral assessments (under the assumption of biblical inspiration, I would reckon we shouldn't trust God's moral claims in the Bible, but I'm pretty sure *that* is not what the post was about; what I didn't realize (I'm not sure now) is that it was an argument under the assumption of inspiration).

Unknown said...


But it's not a transfer of guilt.

Curious how you read Isaiah 53:5 (and the rest of that chapter) as well as Romans 5:11 - 13.

Christopher & Alex,

since penal substitution would be clearly unjust & And ethical evidence against the possibility of penal substitution

It seems the ethical evidence is often based on bringing God down to the level of a moral agent like us. Thomists, like Brian Davies, reject that idea that God is a moral agent. This may point away from the ethical evidence against PSub or at least mitigate the force of such considerations.

Curious to hear your thoughts.

Alexander R Pruss said...

John: I see nothing in either text about a transfer of guilt. I do see a transfer of the harsh treatment that we deserved.

Unknown said...


With the Romans 5 passage, the inference comes from the fact that "sin is not counted where there is no law" yet "death passed to all men because all sinned." So, how could all men "sin" when there was no law? One answer is that the guilt of Adam's sin was imputed to them. However, this is not the only reading, so you're right that there's no explicit "guilt transfer."

But if you recognize a transfer of the harsh treatment we deserved , then aren't you stuck with a dilemma (a) God transferred punishment (but not guilt) and punished Christ unjustly or (b) God transferred punishment and guilt?

I suppose we can escape the dilemma by arguing that God himself did not carry out the punishment.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Not all harsh treatment is punishment.

Heath White said...

The normal penal substitution thinking operates on something like a moral law of conservation of punishment: _somebody_ has to get punished for this wrongdoing. Luckily its not the guilty party, it's Jesus instead.

But if what is transferred is not punishment but merely harsh treatment, then we are stuck with a moral law of conservation of harsh treatment: _somebody_ has to get harshly treated because of this wrongdoing, although it won't necessarily be punishment.

I'm not having any moral intuitions in favor of this moral conservation law.

Angra Mainyu said...

But why not transfer harsh treatment to a tree?

At any rate, in my assessment it's clearly false that person A - who is guilty and deserves punishment X - no longer deserves any punishment because B (person or not), who did nothing immoral, receives harsh treatment Z instead, for the guilty behavior of A.
The harsh treatment inflicted on B for the guilty behavior of A is clearly unjust in my view. But moreover, regardless of the justice of treating B harshly, it's pretty clear to me that A still deserves punishment X (if we remove the condition that B did nothing immoral, it remains the case that A still deserves punishment X).

Alexander R Pruss said...

A potentially relevant issue is that (a) B voluntarily undergoes the harsh treatment and (b) B is the primary victim of A's guilty behavior.

Alexander R Pruss said...

And that there is a mysterious and intimate union between B and A...

Angra Mainyu said...

I'm afraid that is seems just as clear to me that if B is the primary victim of A's guilty behavior for which A deserves punishment X, no amount of harsh treatment against his victim B would make A no longer deserve X.
Now, if B is willing to undergo harsh treatment in order to make the perpetrator A no longer deserving of punishment, then B is very mistaken about morality (I would further say part of B's brain is malfunctioning if B is a human being, but if B is some non-human agent with a psychology alien to us, I don't have a claim about B's brain).

That aside, I also reckon that inflicting harsh treatment on the victim B in order to make the perpetrator A no longer deserve punishment X is also a case of a big mistake about morality, as well as immoral behavior on the part of the agent inflicting the harsh treatment, unless perhaps it's self-inflicted - in which case it's probably just a confusion on their part - or the agent is not a moral agent at all, so that nothing they do is either immoral or morally praiseworthy.

Regarding the mysterious and intimate union, I think one may almost always posit that there is some mystery that makes a claim true, but that does not look like a defense of the claim to me, at least in a relevant sense.

Of course, a defender of the doctrine might simply say that my moral assessments are simply wrong, my moral sense is damaged, and so on. But I don't see that as a significant defense, either: they'd have to argue in support of that too, etc.

On the other hand, if the issue is defending the doctrine to someone who already makes intuitive moral assessments that are radically different from mine on the matter, defending it might not (or it might; it depends) be difficult. In fact, the doctrine might not need defending at all - maybe they already agree.
But that raises the issue of who the intended audience of the defense of the biblical doctrine is.