Thursday, August 30, 2012

Penal substitution theories of the atonement

According to the penal substitution theory of the atonement, Christ's sufferings satisfy justice in place of our being punished. That is, basically, the theory as found in Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.

Some contemporary Christians, mainly Protestant, add the claim that Christ was punished by the Father, and his punishment substitutes for our punishment. We can call the resulting theory punishment by punishment substitution (PBPS). PBPS isn't Anselm's theory, and as Mark Murphy has pointed out it may even be incoherent, since a part of punishing is the showing of disapproval at the person being punished, while God cannot show disapproval at an innocent person.

The Heidelberg Catechism explicitly only says that Christ satisfies for us. But it says in the answer to Question 14 that no mere creature can satisfy for us because "God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man has committed", which may implicate that satisfaction involves being punished. Still, it does not say that it does so in the case of Christ.

In any case, it seems to me that the biblical theory is not that the punishment of Christ substitutes for our punishment, but that the sacrifice of Christ substitutes for our punishment. Old Testament sacrifices for our sins were not punishments of the animals, except in the extended sense of the word as when we speak of "the punishing heat of Texas summer." It is central to the idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament that it is the best that is sacrificed. To sacrifice something is to treat it as the best that is available. But when someone is being punished, then he is far from being treated as the best—he is being treated as one of the worst. Thus, the biblical picture of Christ as sacrificed is in serious tension with PBPS.

That the sacrifice of Christ substitutes for our punishment isn't yet a theory of the atonement. To make it a theory of the atonement one would have to say how it does so.


Dan Johnson said...

Hi Alex,

The fact that you can't find the theory you find objectionable in the Heidelberg Catechism peaked my interest. When I first heard your (and Murphy's) criticism of what I believe you then called "penal substitution theories" of the atonement, but now call PBPS, I thought that maybe you weren't really reading the folks you were criticizing fairly. Or perhaps you are just expecting a level of sophistication they don't have. Would most of the folks who say that "Christ was punished on our behalf" even understand the difference between that and saying that "Christ suffered in our place, satisfying God's justice that demands that he punish sin"? I wonder how many people say the first but really mean the second.

I looked at the Westminster Confession on this -- which has been more important in Britain and the U.S. than the Heidelberg catechism, and is the guide for most Reformed folks -- and it interestingly never says the PBPS theory you mention. It talks of "satisfying" divine justice rather than of being punished. Here are the relevant passages:

Chapter 8:

IV. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that He might discharge, He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfil it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which He suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.

V. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.

Chapter 11:

III. Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father's justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for any thing in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice, and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks, Dan, for your response.

Yesterday I was at a talk by Keith DeRose, and he equated penal substitution theories of the atonement with PBPS in the talk, where he was criticizing penal substitution or PBPS. He was also drawing on Heidelberg in the talk (though not directly as stating PBPS), which is why I mentioned it. (I challenged this equation in the discussion.)

You may well be right that when some ordinary folks say "Christ was punished on our behalf" what they mean is compatible with a more sophisticated theory not subject to the obvious objection that one either can't or shouldn't punish those one knows to be innocent.

Some but not all, I am afraid.

"I thought that maybe you weren't really reading the folks you were criticizing fairly."

Well, there is a question of whom were were criticizing. I was criticizing those who hold that Christ was punished on our behalf, and doing so only under that description.

There are surely some who hold PBPS, so there is a target to the criticism. It is perhaps not a serious scholarly target, but it is a view that does need to be addressed since (a) it is found to some degree in the Christian community and (b) even if some who say things that sound like it don't believe PBPS, our atheist critics take PBPS literally and attack Christianity for holding to it. So it's important not only that people not hold to PBPS, but that they not talk as if they did.

Heath White said...

This is helpful as far as it goes. I have long been troubled by the moral implications of penal PBPS, and it is good to see serious people thinking about it.

I would still like to have a positive theory, though. :-)

A quibble: it seems to me that a sacrifice is "one of the best" not in a moral sense but in some other, quality sense. Sheep have no moral qualities. So the sense in which Christ has to be the "best" as a sacrifice is different from, or doesn't immediately contrast with, the sense in which one who is punished is treated as the "worst".

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, Christ was probably not the best sacrifice by the sorts of physical standards that are employed for sheep. Certainly by the time he was being killed, he wasn't the best looking of people--quite the opposite according to Isaiah. Thus insofar as he meets the bestness criterion for sacrifice, he seems to do so by his moral qualities or maybe by his human nature's being united in one person with the divine nature.

Dan Johnson said...

Good point about the atheist critics (and believers worried about those criticisms) -- that warrants demanding extremely careful formulations here and pushing those who perhaps aren't really advocating PBPS over traditional penal substitution theories. (If, of course, the objections against PBPS are good.)

Dan Johnson said...

A slightly different line of discussion. Why think that punishment requires condemnation of the person being punished? Why not say instead that punishment requires that the harsh treatment express condemnation of sin (as opposed to condemnation of the person who sins)?

In pretty much all ordinary situations, these two wouldn't come apart -- because you won't be able to appropriately express condemnation of a sin by harsh treatment except when that harsh treatment is directed at the sinner. The case of Christ is the wonderful exception that doubles as the divinely ingenious problem of our sin: the harsh treatment of Christ can express condemnation of our sin by virtue of the identification of Christ with us (through faith, etc.). Then it would be appropriate to say that Christ received punishment, though the condemnation was not directed at Christ but at our sin.

I'm sure I'm not saying anything new, and I'm sure Murphy has considered this. But why wouldn't this work?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, even if it's possible to punish without that expressing disapprobation of the punishee, it still seems unjust.

Bracket that worry.

Suppose I say: "I am sentencing you to ten years' punishment for what your brother did." Then you could say: "You are holding me responsible for my brother's actions." But you shouldn't hold anyone responsible for A if you don't take him to be responsible for A. So if God holds x responsible for y's actions, then God takes x to be responsible for y's actions. But by omniscience it follows that x is responsible for y's actions. But the Calvinist, like every other Christian, denies that Christ is responsible for our sins.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I often find people who endorse penal substitution who say things like, "Christ took our punishment." Unless I'm just not remembering well, I don't remember a lot of people saying things like, "the Father punished the Son" unless they are opponents of penal substitution trying to criticize it.

Principium Unitatis said...

The video in comment #41 at the link below provides a rather clear example of a theologian claiming that the Father damned Christ on the cross.

Keith DeRose said...

v interesting & helpful post, Alex.

I think the argument being given at & around 14 of the Heidelberg is hard to make sense of w/o supposing they're going in for PBPS.

As for going against moral intuition (at least of most), I don't think sacrificing the innocent for the sake of the guilty is going to do that much better than punishing the innocent for the sake of the guilty. (Though in both cases, I think the application of the usual moral intuitions to the very special case in question is quite problematic, for the reason I was talking about [wrt the latter] on Wed.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think there is a difference in the moral intuitions between punishment and sacrifice of the innocent. One difference lies in the fact that consent is much more relevant in the sacrifice case than in the punishment case.

1. Martha punishes herself, on behalf of her bad brother, for her brother's wrongdoing which she herself is not responsible for.
2. Mary sacrifices herself, for the sake of her bad brother, though she herself is not responsible for his wrongdoing.

The two seem very different morally. Martha is being unjust to herself by punishing herself for what she is not responsible for, despite the fact that she is consenting to being so treated by herself. (This case is a counterexample to the thesis that one can't act unjustly with respect to oneself.) Depending on circumstances, Mary may be imprudent, but she isn't doing herself an injustice in the same blatant way.

It is a paradigm of injustice to punish the innocent, and that remains unjust even with the consent of the innocent. But it need not be unjust for an innocent person to sacrifice herself for the guilty, or for someone to accept such a willing sacrifice from another.

The argument around question 14 in Heidelberg requires some implicit premise like:
(*) If a creature makes satisfaction for sin, that creature is being punished.

The question then is going to be whether the authors thought (*) applied narrowly only in the case of creatures or was a consequence of something like:
(**) If a person makes satisfaction for sin, that person is being punished.

Nick said...

You might be interested in This Article I wrote that shows the Biblical term "Atonement" NEVER entails transferring a punishment. That alone is enough to refute Penal-Substitution.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That looks very thorough and good.

There is this fallacious argument for PBPS, I guess:
1. Christ bears our stripes. (Isaiah)
2. Our stripes are a punishment.
3. So Christ bears a punishment.
4. Anyone who bears a punishment is being punished.
5. So Christ is punished.

I am guessing that this argument is a good deal of the evidence for PBPS.

There are at least big problems. Premise 2 should be more precisely stated:
2'. If our stripes were borne by us, they would be our punishment.
And then the argument is invalid.

Moreover, 4 is false. It should be replaced by:
4'. Anyone who bears his own punishment is being punished.

Of course, trivially, Christ was being punished, namely by the Romans. But that's not what PBPS is talking about, I assume.

Nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick said...

I would add that another problem is that Premise 2 fails to distinguish between Chastisement and Punishment, as I demonstrate in this article: "Is Job the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?"

De Maria said...

The assumption here seems to be that God the Father punished the Son or sacrificed the Son. But that is not what Scripture says.

The Son offered Himself to the Father.
Hebrews 10:12
But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;

And it is the Jews and Romans who punished Jesus in place of the criminal.
John 11:50
Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.


De Maria

Alexander R Pruss said...

Christ is indeed both priest and victim.