Redemption, part 5: Penal Substitution

Penal Substitution is one of the most popular models of atonement in current discussion. In point of fact, I know many conservative Evangelical Christians who would insist that the only proper and biblical understanding of atonement is this one, and J.I. Packer insists that the model is “a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity” (gendered language aside, part of the motivation behind this series was to ‘un-convince’ them of this very thing). I obviously don’t believe with them, but I’ll do my best to give the Penal model the most comprehensive treatment possible.

Penal Substitution, it has been argued, is a doctrine absent from early church teachings (obviously, there is scriptural language about sacrifice and substitution, but many Pauline scholars disagree with a reading of Paul that makes him a proponent of the penal model. What I mean is that penal substitution as a concrete doctrinal expression is largely absent from Patristic writing) . Most people point to the Protestant Reformation as the genesis of this model (though some argue Anselm’s Satisfactory model was the beginning), and, as both Calvin and Luther had legal training, it should come as no surprise that the penal model is heavily based on an understanding of temporal models of court-room proceedings.

The penal theory starts from the same basic place as all other models: human beings are separated from God because of the sin they commit and need a method of becoming reconciled. However, the penal theory goes one step further by explaining that, since God is completely holy, God cannot look upon sin in any form, and thus is incapable of forgiving us because God’s wrath against sin is so exceedingly great.

God then concocts a plan: Jesus is sent to earth, lives a sinless life, and then dies upon a Roman cross where God pours out the fullness of wrath upon the Son. Wrath satisfied, God is now able to love sinners, and Christ is raised from the dead. Humanity is reunited with God, and all one has to do is accept the sacrifice that Christ has made on his or her behalf.

Obviously, the theory is more nuanced than that, but I thought I’d hit you with the basic pattern first. Like Anselm’s satisfaction theory, penal theory points out that God is an infinite being and that any infraction is an infinite infraction. But in the penal model, the infraction is based upon the breaking of God’s law rather than impinging upon God’s honor.

Many people are quick to point out that the penal theory has the most serious view of both sin and God. In this model, sin is so overwhelmingly bad that it shuts the human race off from God completely. The flip side of the same coin is that God cannot engage humanity in any way because of God’s utter righteousness. An infinitely holy God cannot even look upon, let alone love, sinful beings. The human race is a race of lawbreakers, and the righteous judge cannot associate with them in any way.

Appropriately, those who have broken the law are assigned a punishment. In our case, the punishment is eternal death and separation from God. As a just judge, God cannot abrogate our punishment, nor can he contain the Divine wrath. Humanity must be punished. Here, we are left at the same impasse that we found in Satisfaction theory: humanity has incurred a punishment and a wrath they cannot pay, one which only God can pardon, which he cannot, for the sake of justice, do.

This is where Christ enters the model. The Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, of his own volition, or in service to the will of the Father (depending on your understanding of election and will) becomes incarnate in the man Jesus so that he, as God-human, can satisfy the complete wrath of God toward human sin by being punished as a substitute for the entire human race. For some, the outpouring of wrath upon Jesus satisfies the wrath of God and allows the Divine to love the human. For others, it satisfies God’s desire for justice. For many, Christ’s death accomplishes both, and by acknowledging the sacrifice, and understanding that it is through the work of Christ, and not by human means, anyone might be redeemed.

It is a powerful metaphor, and one that has been employed by Protestant theologians for over 500 years. It certainly has the support of biblical language, and some of the greatest Protestant minds have endorsed it. But penal substitution as a model of atonement presents a few unique challenges.

In the first case, a standard penal model is wholly boring. Like other models, penal substitution is simply a divine transaction. Human beings are merely an item line in a contract, and  to access redemption requires only the picking up of said contract from the foot of the cross. Such a model requires no human participation, emphasizes no change or growth. Indeed, it precludes the entire human element, emphasizing that humanity can play absolutely no role in the atoning process.

This connects directly to the second critique: penal substitution appears, on the surface, to be simply an infinite license to sin. If Jesus’ death satisfies God’s justice and wrath once and for all, what concern have human beings to live a righteous life? Where is the transformation? God does not require any kind of change, but simply the acknowledgement of the divine sacrifice. Are human beings even empowered to change, given that penal theory is more concerned with an objective change in God’s self, rather than with humanity?

A third concern revolves around the relationship between members of the Trinity. If the Father requires the Son to offer himself as a substitution and a sacrifice, what does this model amount to besides a form of “cosmic child abuse”? Many argue that the death of Christ on the cross was not a specific punishment to be exacted, but rather simply the result of the divine encountering sin in our world. Christ was driven to the darkest place of alienation and despair, which happened to be at Golgotha. This does not satisfy me, in the same way that Christ’s death in satisfaction theory fails to satisfy: why is God so concerned about wrath? Surely the omnipotent creator of the universe could find a way to redeem humanity that doesn’t revolve around blood sacrifice? I cannot believe that the God of love is so concerned with wrath that Christ must be tortured, alienated, and abandoned for the sake of it.

Moreover, womanist and liberation theologians warn us from the margins about the danger of substitutionary suffering. Certain womanist theologians argue that for centuries, women have been forced to suffer in silence because of this model of atonement. James Cone, who basically invented black theology, argues that the penal model rewards subservience and teaches an inherent inequality. Suffering on behalf of others, especially at the behest of another, seems to reek of oppression and subjugation. Many would argue that the God of freedom could not engage in such actions.

Fifth comes the question of justice. The entirety of this atonement model is based on the proposition that God is completely just and cannot leave sin unpunished, thus necessitating the death of Christ. Yet, I am left to ask the question, how is this justice? How could anyone ever conceive of an innocent person dying in the place of a guilty one as anything approaching justice? Has God’s justice really been satisfied, or has Christ’s death merely bribed God into accepting humanity into the divine life? This a serious question, a serious abrogation of justice, and I have thus far heard no satisfactory answer.

Herein, I believe, exists the major flaw of the penal model: it incorrectly associates the justice of 16th and 17th century Europe with divine justice. In the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in central and western Europe, justice was centered around the punishment of the lawbreaker and the continued stability of the monarch’s power. The biblical understanding of justice is not like this. Biblical justice revolves around the rehabilitation of the lawbreaker and his or her return to the community of faith. Thus I can say that God is just and deny (for the most part) the penal model. God is less concerned with indiscriminant punishment and more concerned with the return of the prodigal to the community.

My final critique of penal theory is this: penal substitution makes human beings morally superior to God. This is subtle, but it’s there. See, God expects human beings to love their enemies, to walk two miles with oppressors, to forgive those who sin against them, and not hate. Humans are not allowed to exact punishment, satisfy wrath, or punish sin before they forgive. Penal theory, however, makes God absolutely dependent upon satisfaction. He is completely incapable of loving humanity until his wrath is satisfied. If I can do something that God cannot (i.e. forgive without satisfying “justice”) how is this God worthy of devotion?

There you have it: penal substitution in a nut shell. My own reflection on this piece leaves me wondering if I was too harsh, but as the dominant Protestant model, I believe that we can speak critically about this model. I must admit that penal theory does have some strengths, though in the end, its understanding of justice leaves me dissatisfied. Still, I must admit that there is more nuance here than I have the time or inclination to pursue, especially as it relates to the understanding of wrath. I’m even told that there are certain theologians (including, I believe, Barth and Pannenberg) who advocate penal models that are more coherent and just than the standard expression I’ve given here. I wish I knew about those models, but for now, I think that explicating the classical expression above not only covers most of those who subscribe to a penal view, but provides me with the most fertile ground for critique and speaks most directly to those without advanced theological training. Thanks for sticking with me this far. Only one more model (Christus victor) and then I’ll share with you my own personal thoughts on this interesting subject. Until then, peace. And remember, questions/comments are welcome and encouraged.

  1. Here’s a sample from Juengel opening up a route to another form of substitutionary atonement while naming and avoiding the shortcomings you point out here. So Juengel:

    “There is one traditional view of the death of Jesus Christ which must be expressly rejected as a misunderstanding. Based upon certain formulations to be found in the New Testament it is the view that the death of Jesus is to be understood as a human sacrifice to the God of wrath, as an offering intended to appease the wrathful God, who “like the raging see seeks out it his victim’. No! If we are to speak of any offering at all in connection with the death of Jesus then it must be the offering of the divine otherness, of the surrender of the divine impassibility and absoluteness; in brief, of the sacrifice and surrender of the sheer distinctiveness of God over against his [sic] sinful creature. This is what is involved when we speak of God’s identification with the dead Jesus. It was not that God let himself be reconciled through the death of Jesus. Enmeshed in its alienation from him, it was he who reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor. 5: 18f.). God is the one who reconciles and it is the world that is reconciled. It is man who is to be addressed concerning the reconcilation which he has effected (2 Cor. 5: 20).

    To speak to man [sic] of the reconciliation which God has brought about means that his eyes should be opened to the fact that man’s godlessness and guilt leave their marks upon God himself. In his concerned involvement with the sinner who must suffer the curse of death, God is also involved with man in his godlessness and guilt. It is by taking this godlessness and guilt upon himself that he opposes and contradicts them” (EJ, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery, 113-4).

    Juengel is laying the groundwork for a reconsideration of substitutionary reconciliation, rejecting traditional (and predominantly forensic) forms of the model and moving beyond their limitations. He does not pursue this explicitly in this text; its not his concern. He opens up the route nonetheless.

    I for one do not understand why a distinction is rarely made between substitutionary and forensic models, especially in critical examinations. It can and has been done for several decades at least. One could even argue that Luther’s “Happy Exchange” model compels us to make this distinction as early as the supposed genesis of said models.

    As von Balthasar has pointed out, Jesus Christ is the one who knows death for us all in our stead. The hell to be saved from — the hell that we live towards and die for — is only known by Jesus Christ. And, as Juengel (et al.) would then follow, the sheer vacuity of death is only known by God in God’s second mode of being. In this light, I think it would be appropriate to sing “in my place condemned he stood,” with conviction. God can be thought of as a substitutionary God without taking on the persona of vengeance, a cosmic bullying, abusiveness, death promotion, and so on.

    What would you say is lacking from this articulation of substitutionary atonement?

    • Martin Australia
    • October 7th, 2012

    Hi Aaron
    I was wondering when you were going to continue your series on Atonement then discovered you had changed the name to Redemption, which I then discovered was the name you first used in your introduction!
    Could be why there have been so few comments on this particular post and the next one???

    Now I am wondering when are you going to finish this series and tell us your personal view as to the process of atonement or redemption? and I hope in that you explain exactly what these words (atonement or redemption) mean in the Greek and Hebrew as they certainly are not how people interpret them.

    I do like this series, not that I have read it all, but find it refreshing that you have confronted these approaches on a fairly objective manner. I feel however that you could have been a bit more objective on this particular topic of penal substitution as I think your bias (although I totally agree with it) could turn people off from listening to your assessment of it.

    I too have been very unsatisfied with penal substitution theory, but particularly because the aim of Anselm was to prove logically, without any reference to scripture, why it was necessary for Christ to die. While it is logical that Anselm wanted to do this to convince the unbelieving (who would perhaps not read the scripture) that they should be convinced of the necessity of the scriptural narrative, it is also presumptuous that he (Anselm) should be able to convince people that Gods word is valid- surely God is capable of doing that for himself? In Anselm’s attempt to prove the validity of the scripture without reference to the scripture all he has done is undermine scripture as his arguments are not as logical as scripture is, and self evidently has not the credibility of revelation either (at least I assume Anselm was not claiming divine imprimatur on his work??)

    Here I come to my criticism of your works so far: you also lack reference to scripture to any extent. God gave us a brain to use, but he gave us his word to guide that brain, without that word we are likely to go anywhere. I find so many theologians study the “study of God” but fail to study God. While your arguments so far are convincing they, due to their lack of scriptural evidence, are not specifically Biblical, and as such lack any weight as far as I am concerned.

    Would like to see your final instalment in this series, with lots of scriptures to back up the logical thoughts please!!

    Cheers for now, Martin

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