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Defending Penal Substitution (or not)

Ken Pulliam, a former fundamentalist, has possibly a bigger beef with the notion of penal substitutionary theory of atonement than I do. His latest is a response to another effort to defend the theory from the charges that this theory turns the notion of “justice” on its head: distorts it into something wicked, then attributes that wicked parody of justice to God.

As with many attempts to defend the penal substitution theory, this one “skates around the issue” as Pulliam puts it. Rather than defending penal substitution, it proposes a new theory: one that could be humorously described as the “law of conversion of Glory”. In other words, under John Piper’s theory, Jesus’ death isn’t meant as punishment that was due to us and which is taken in our place. It is a way of restoring God’s glory, something which our dying eternal torment might otherwise have accomplished.

As Pulliam points out, this is a peculiar notion, and one that you would be hard pressed to find in the Bible. And it does require some strange thinking about what Glory is and how it can be “magnified”: issues which are implicit in Piper’s argument but which he doesn’t directly address.

On the positive side, Piper’s theory lacks the underpinning of retributive justice that normally underlies the theory of penal substitution. This is worth pointing out. When it comes right down to it, I think most believers in penal substitution balk at notions of retributive justice when forced to contemplate them seriously.

In fact, I think Piper’s argument – like many arguments in favor of penal substitution shows that most believers in it don’t really accept the justice of it, and don’t want to impute that kind of perverted justice to God. I think this is why their defenses of it are often crafted in terms that (pardon the pun) substitute some other theory in its place.

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