Putting Down Some Thoughts About Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA). Part 1.

I’ve been reading Swinburne’s Responsibility and Atonement. Below are some thoughts, not so much about his book, but about atonement in general.. using one or two things he points out. This post is largely a warm up. In Part 2 I’ll get into an understanding of the atonement that I am working on (i.e. a way to read scripture that seems faithful to them rather than to a goal of fitting into a particular view).

1. For those who take the Penal Substitutionary View as gospel. I have grown up, and continue to fellowship among, a network of churches that take the Penal Substitutionary View (PSA) to be the gospel. I would venture to say that most of the believers in our network of churches, and perhaps many of the teachers in these churches may not even realize there were other views historically. That aside, the point I want to make here is as follows. It is important that we make sure that our views align with the scriptures and careful theology rather than that they keep in line with a historic view or title.  I don’t want to be found making the following cart-before-the-horse mistake: (a) The community of believers I belong to teaches PSA, (b) However, the Bible seems to teach X, (c) but X isn’t PSA, (d) therefore X must be rejected.  swinburne-responsibility-atonement

2. What must an account of the atonement include to still qualify as a Penal Substitution Account (hereafter PSA)?  Presumably it must include an A (i.e. what mechanism acomplishes the atonement so that reconciliation can follow), an S (i.e. Christ somehow being a substitute for humans in the acomplishment of the “A”) and a P (i.e. something penal, legal, justice) realted. If  one insists that Penal must include someone being punished, then it makes it nearly impossible for any account of PSA that doesn’t include the Father punishing/hurting Jesus in order to be able to fogrive sinners.

2. What are the common worries today about PSA? Various worries have been expressed about PSA by the likse of Anselm (in the mouth of Boso), Socinius, and modern Christians. Two main worries are…

  1. Can guilt transfer? Can A’s guilt be transferred to B and they be punished in A’s place?  How is it not an abouse of justice for B to be punished for A’s sin? (Let me say at this point that many Christians, by virtue of their hymns and culture, just assume that this quite appropriate – and perhaps have never questioned this idea).
  2. Must God hurt Jesus in order to forgive us? I use hurt instead of “punish” to bring out the worry that many have here. God tells us to forgive those that sin against us – and we do… full stop. No one is harmed in the process. Why can’t God forgive sin like this, provided sinners own their guilt? God may not undo the consequences of sin but God can certainly just forgive?

The common line I heard growing up (and read in various places) in response to the last line of question #2 went something like this. ” God can’t forgive without punishing. No judge who allows a criminal to go unpunished would be a good judge. Sin must be punished.”  What do we say to this?

Richard Swinburne has some helpful thoughts in Responsibility and Atonement. They get us beyond blunt assertions about what God must do in regards to being just. [1] These include the victims wishes, and reparations. 

  •  Victim’s wishes. Swinburne   aruges that the justice system really stands in the place of the victim. The victim has the ultimate right to get justice in primitive societies. In the west, the government carries out that role for the victim. When it comes to victims, it is really up to the victim to decide what the perpetrator must do before being forgiven. In the west we have given that decision (in many cases) over the judicial system but at base the original principle is still there. It’s up to the victim to decide what to do before they feel the wrongdoer has taken their fault seriously and can be forgiven. Swinburne says much more. We alreayd have something to work with in response to question #2. If we establish that God is the victim, (i.e. Psa 51:4, against you and you alone have I sinned) it seems that it really is up to God as to whether he wants to punish before forgiving. This is no different than whether you  need to punish your neighbor before fogiving them for crashing into your fence.
  • Reparations. Swinburne also makes the helpful point that in a sense punishment is standing in place of some sort of reparation. If a man crashes into a womans fence, he can pay $5000 to repair it. While we can talk of punishment, this is really a reparation that sets things back to the way they were. This is why its so easy for someone to pay our pecuniary penalities for us. Our guilt has not be transferred, but our rich uncle can at least help us make reparations by paying our fines/fees. It’s just money. Enough money can buy almost any type of repair.

    However, if a man rapes a woman, he cannot make reparations that would undo, repair, or bring back to normal the state of affairs that existed before. He cannot give her $5,000 to undo the trauma. The next closest thing to reparation is that something approximatily  equivalent be taken from him. Perhaps it is his freedom, or his dignity with jail time.

The above comments help us to be more cautious before we speak about what God must do if God is to be considered just.

3. God is a victim. As already noted above, it seems that according to verses like Psalm 51:4, our sins have two victims: God and neighbor. James 3:9 reminds us that when we curse others, we hurt them but also insult God in whose image they were made. However some sins (e.g. my private lusts) are not directly against anyone else – but they are against God.

If this is right then it seems to justify the point above about the victim getting to choose what they take to be an appropriate response to sins by the wrongdoer – before forgiviness is extended.

4. Is death and/or separation from God a conseuquence of sin or a penalty for sin? How do the consequences of sin figure into our account of the atonement?  Guilt, consequences, and reparations come apart and can be treated differently. Highschool students Cedric and Marissa may be guilty for getting Marissa pregnant. Perhaps both repent and apologize.  Marissa’s family and Cedric’s family may have extended forgiveness. There are still conseuqences however; a child has been concieved.  Some conseuqences are far more grave. If I kill a person on accident, this consequence continues whether or not I have been fogiven. It persists even if I have done all my “jaoin time.”  I may have gotten into a fight at school and damaged a students sight with a punch. Perhaps we become friends later. (My best friend in 5th grade bullied me before we became freinds!) Still, his damaged vision remains as a consequence. 

The wages of sin is death. The soul that sins will die. Is death a punishment or a conseuqnece?  Strickly speaking conseuquences may include both punishment and other fallout from our sins that aren’t punishment. If I drive wrecklessly with my parent’s car, and crash the car – the consequences are at least a wrecked car, and a tarnished reputation. Trust is also lost. These just come with the territory; they aren’t punishments. If my parents also take away my driving priviledges for two months, this is a punishment.

In the garden it seems that death was a consequence of sin. In the day you eat of it you will surely die! Before God showed up and said a word, some deep change had taken place in Adam and Eve. They knew they were naked. Punishment in the garden seemed to include being expelled from the garden and having to work by the sweat of Adam’s brow. Later we read that death, reigned even over those who had not sinned like Adam.  If death was a punishment it seems unjust to force everyone to suffer a punishment even if they did not sin as Adam sinned.

5. Guilt. Guilt seems to be that attribute/property that I acquire as the one who does the wrong thing. Swinburne points out that there is someting like a moral uncleaness that comes to one who has guilt. It seems difficult to show how guilt can be transffered to someone else? How can someone else become the doer of a crime when I did it? Swinburne suggests that others (ie. parents)  can share guilt. Perhaps they didn’t stop their children from doing certain things. But this seems to just be additional guilt – guilt for how they failed to train/supervise/raise a child. The children then went and did some misdeed which brought guilt on the child. Even if the child had not done anything wrong, they would still be guilty for how they insufficiently trained/supervized/raised their child.

Only if we extend guilt beyond individuals and apply it to a family (i.e your family harmed our family) can we perhaps shift guilt among individuals. Perhaps by becoming a family member of humanity, guilt can be shifted to Christ. 

In post #2 I want to share some thoughtsabout a model of atonement that seems to me to be close to many of the Biblical passages (read without needing to employ metaphoric/apolocalyptic/narrative style adjustments) that may not require us to understand Jesus dying and suffering punishment for guilt.

[1] By blunt assertions I am imagening someone in a discussion, attempting to giving an account of justice or punishment. I imagine them, without realizing they are dong this,  reverse-engineered an analysis of justice without realizing they’ved wandered into the field of jursiprudence, legal theory, the philosophy of law … wherein things are not nearly so clear cut as they might take them to be. For example, what is it about punishment that makes for justice? What is “justice”? Must God hold to Western standards of justice? Merely saying “justice must require punishment” ignores the fact that this field and these questions exist.


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