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A Great Deal about Penal Substition and other Theories of Atonement

PST – Penal Substitution theory… When I was coming up, I don’t think I ever heard the term. Not that it wasn’t a current theory. Just that it was called by a different name: “God’s plan of Salvation”. At least PST was supposed to be an element within God’s plan. It was usually phrased in terms of Jesus having “died in our place” or “paid the price of our sins”. I oversimplify. Oftentimes a number of theories of atonement are conflated together, somewhat willy-nilly, all in support of the idea that Jesus died “for” us. Sometimes the ambiguity in that preposition “for” leaves us with a supporter of PST arguing in favor of it using reasoning that supports a different theory of atonement (I will discuss some of these other theories at the end of the post. Hang around, that’s an interesting topic). As such, it is not always clear that God’s Plan is indeed Penal Substitution. But if push comes to shove, around here, you define penal substitution and ask if that’s what God’s plan is and you’ll get a “yes” without hesitation*.

I don’t really remember how I related to this idea as a child. In one sense, I “knew” it. I was taught it, and I was pretty good at learning the things that I was taught. So, I knew it. But I don’t remember whether it made any sense to me at the time or not.

It doesn’t now. Hasn’t for a long time. As with most doctines about “God’s Will,” there is room for debate on whether this one is “Biblical” or not. (James McGrath says it is not, while Ken Pulliam thinks that, on balance, it is). Why is that important? Well, for some, whether it is “Biblical” or not determines whether it is “God’s Will” or not. For some, whether PST (assuming it is “the Biblical view”) is morally defensible or not determines whether Biblical fundamentalism is morally defensible. For others, it’s just an interesting question.

My view is that this is like any other doctrine. PST is both Biblical and un-Biblical, depending on which texts you focus on.

Furthermore, my view is that PST is non-sensical and morally indefensible.

Ken Pulliam, whose individual post is linke above on the issue of whether PST is “Biblical”, has written no less than fifty three detailed posts expositing his view that PST is morally indefensible. He argues against numerous modern and historical theologians who attempt to defend PST. To argue this forcefully against so many well-credentialed theologians, Ken Pulliam must be extremely clever, or he must be correct in his view. I am quite convinced that it is the latter (though I don’t doubt that he is clever). The articles he has archived under the PST category are spread over several pages (navigation is at the bottom), here. I believe this archive is likely among the most comprehensive (and persuasive) set of arguments against PST in existence. If you are interested in the Penal Substitution Theory, you could do worse than to spend a few days reading through it.

I offer the failings of the Penal Substitution Theory of atonement as an indictment of fundamentalism and as an invitation to consider healthier modes of thought about how humans can relate to what they hold sacred.

I have deliberately avoided defining PST. It is often difficult to distinguish from its cousin, “Satisfaction”, and its parent general “Substitution”. Virtually every criticism of PST applies to the broader spectrum of “punishment” and “substitution” theories.

An exception is the “ritual” subset of satisfaction/substitution models. These effectively take the ancient notion of sacrifice, strip them of the context (God’s wrath mollified by an obsequious gift), and leave only the ritual itself as the mode by which God is satisfied. (It is not always the case that the context is removed – sometimes the ancient concept of sacrifice is kept relatively intact). While most adherents of a satisfaction/substitution theory of punishment do not accept the “ritual” view, they sometimes will use its language, even in defense of the views they do espouse (citing, for instance, the necessity that Jesus be “perfect” in order for the sacrifice to be adequate).

Other orthodox or neo-orthodox ideas of atonement often come into the mix during discussions of atonement. Especially prevalent is the participation theory, that all who identify with Jesus participated mystically in his death and restoration, and have therefore have already been punished and restored. Arguments against PST have little force against the participatory model – one which (as McGrath points out is also Biblical). This model does less violence to ideals of justice and mercy but I personally still find it unsatisfying.

It seems odd to mention the Classic theory of atonement so late in a list, but it simply lacks clout these days. It often comes up, but rarely from anyone who accepts its primary efficacy. Under the Classic model, Jesus’ death and resurrection defeated Satan and Evil once and for all. As a theory unto itself, it has a feel of the mystical – this willing death of God, and his subsequent resurrection – for the very reason of their having happened – was the vehicle of atonement. They mystically about the defeat of Satan, evil, and death, and therefore wrought atonement. As a footstool to substitutionary theories, this view is merely a metaphor – it is because Jesus was punished as a substitute for us that Satan, evil, and death were robbed of their power. This is one area where some conservatives agree with some liberals – in symbologizing the Classic theory (though liberals are apt to do it sans the substitutionary doctrine).

Under the moral-influence model (which is rarely invoked by conservatives as a model of primary efficacy), upon understanding the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, people are moved to relinquish their sinful nature in favor of a Godly one. This, rather than a vicarious punishment, brings about atonement.

Under other Christian theories of atonement, the crucifixion is not directly responsible for the atonement at all. These are generally the most liberal theories, and include some Christian Humanist viewpoints. The most prevalent of these (and the only one I will mention) is that it is Jesus’ message that brings salvation. Under this view, crucifixion was the price Jesus had to pay for bringing his salvific message to humanity. I certainly understand the appeal of this view to liberals and to humanists. There are among the teachings imputed to Jesus some edifying lessons. And, the notion that Jesus would preach the message boldly even knowing it would mean his death is an edifying lesson in selflessness.

There was a stage during which I considered adopting a Christian-humanist viewpoint centered around the “saving message” and this view of atonement. The reason I didn’t is the same reason I don’t accept most other Christian doctrines – I don’t believe it is true. It is an admirable fiction, but a fiction none-the-less. First, I don’t especially believe that Jesus had any special foreknowledge of his death. It’s possible that he knew he was painting himself into a corner that would end in death – even crucifixion. But it’s just as likely that he was teaching what he thought was right without much appreciation for the danger in which it may have placed him. Second, I don’t think that it was his strong ethical teachings that got him crucified. I think it was his more likely his opposition to the practices current in the administration of the Jerusalem temple that did him in. Third, it’s hard to say what Jesus’ teachings really were. They likely didn’t include everything attributed to him in the New Testament. They likely did include things we don’t get to read about in the New Testament. Fourth, even among those attributed to him in the New Testament, only a few were especially strong ethical messages. Fifth, of those attributed to him which were strong ethical messages, most echoed ethical teachings already present in the Hebrew scriptures or elucidated by other teachers of his era – teachings which didn’t get anybody crucified. A person could do worse than to adopt the salvific message model of redemption and a humanistic Christianity, but it isn’t for me.

*These days more atonement-related ink is spilled on another controversy than on the general model of atonement. Unfortunate in my view, since the model itself needs some serious revision if it is to be held to a high standard of sense and sensibility. But I don’t get to decide what folks argue about, and the bigger discussion is over whether our sins were *infused* into Christ such that he somehow “became” guilty, or they were merely *imputed* to him, such that God was willing to act as though he were guilty of them. While Pulliam doesn’t often employ the language of imputation and infusion in his posts, he deals with both possibilities exhaustively.

1 comment to A Great Deal about Penal Substition and other Theories of Atonement

  • You wrote: “Furthermore, my view is that PST is non-sensical and morally indefensible.

    Third, it’s hard to say what Jesus’ teachings really were. They likely didn’t include everything attributed to him in the New Testament. They likely did include things we don’t get to read about in the New Testament. Fourth, even among those attributed to him in the New Testament, only a few were especially strong ethical messages. Fifth, of those attributed to him which were strong ethical messages, most echoed ethical teachings already present in the Hebrew scriptures or elucidated by other teachers of his era – teachings which didn’t get anybody crucified.”

    Amen!

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