Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree

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7 Comments

  1. Nathan
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Hopko can really preach a sermon!

  2. Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Yes. Fr. Thomas certainly never bores. 😉 As I’m cooking tonight, I’m listening to the last of his Names of Jesus podcasts. I’ve listened to or watched everything I can find by him online. The only other person I could say that about is Bishop Tom Wright.

  3. Posted October 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I SO agree with this! I can’t tell you how hard it was to see God as loving when I had this understanding of the Cross. I still find myself so repulsed by it sometimes that I still wonder why I am a Christian.

  4. Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    When I read that one post of yours last week, I had a feeling this post of mine might be one you would appreciate. I’m Christian, but with my complicated and pluralistic formation, that was not an easy or obvious destination. And pictures of a God like the one from the above theory didn’t help. Fortunately that same background possibly made it easier for me to say, “No. That’s not the God who is calling me and who I’m finding ever more attractive and compelling. That’s an image of an ugly and vulgar God.” I knew it couldn’t be true long before I found the “theologians” that presented the God I had encountered.

  5. Theodore A. Jones
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    It is true that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement or any variant of this concept is false. So rejecting this proposal is a good idea, but are you any better off by accepting the proposal of Gregory? Substitutionary atonement and Gregory’s assumption are the same friend, for both assumptions classify Jesus’ crucifixion as a direct benefit, but it is not. On both sides of this fence an element of fact is missing.
    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 A law has been added to the law that has caused the crucifixion of Jesus to become a sin that is unilaterally accountable. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Rom 5:20 No person gets into the church Jesus is head of by not confessing directly to God that he is sorry Jesus’ life was lost by bloodshed when he was crucified and be baptized into this Way for the forgiveness of past sins.
    “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law.” Heb. 7:12 However since it is the law that God must be obeyed this Way and this particular law has been added post of Jesus’ crucifixion a disobedience of this law is the sin that is not forgivable.

  6. Posted December 29, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    As I said at the outset of the post, I wrote it to close some threads of thoughts for some who might read here, not because I have anything personally to work through on the topic. I don’t. I didn’t when I wrote the post. And I don’t believe I will.

    It was not immediately apparent to me from your comment what modern interpretation you were espousing or to which modern sect you belong. I could probably puzzle it out without too much effort, but frankly I lack the interest or inclination.

    Peace.

  7. Theodore A. jones
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I doubt that you would be enable to “puzzle” out which sect I am affiliated with.

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