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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Critique of Glenn Miller's Defense of PST

Glenn Miller is an IT business executive with a Th.M. in Theology who has a website, called The Christian Think Tank, which is hailed by many internet apologists. He has produced arguably the most complete attempt to answer the objection that PST is not legal or just. The full article can be found here.

Glenn acknowledges that Penal Substitution would be and should be illegal in any human court of law. He also acknowledges that God himself would forbid it in human courts (Deut 24.16; Ezek 18.20; Jer 31.30). However, he says that one cannot draw implications about how the divine court might work from how human courts work. He writes: Similarly, the derivative/restrictive character of the human legal system cannot be used to draw implications about a higher court, with any confidence.

He cites R. L. Dabney:
But the sophism of the first is contained in the false assumption that because a given moral prerogative is improper for men, it must, therefore, be improper for God. I shall not take the harsh position that because God is sovereign and omnipotent, therefore his will is not regulated by, or responsible to, those fundamental principles of morality which he has enjoined on his creatures. I shall never argue that God's "might makes his right," as our opponents charge strict Calvinists with arguing. But it is a very different thing, and a perfectly plain and reasonable thing, to say that the infinite sovereignty, wisdom, and holiness of God may condition, and may limit his moral rights in a manner very different from what is proper for us men. The principles of righteousness for the two rulers, God and a human magistrate, are the same; the details of prerogative for the two may differ greatly, while directed by the same holy principles (Christ Our Penal Substitute, Chapter 3, available online here).

Here is where I take issue with Miller and Dabney. First, they both believe that man is created in the image of God. Now part of being in the image of God entails our basic concept of justice. Man intuitively knows that its wrong to punish an innocent party in the place of a guilty one. Where does man get that intuitive knowledge? They would say that it comes from God.

Second, Dabney admits: The principles of righteousness for the two rulers, God and a human magistrate, are the same. So there are not two types of righteousness--one for God and one for man. Therefore, if it is unrighteous for man to punish the innocent in place of the guilty, it would seem to me that it would be unrighteous for God.

Miller’s next point is:
The biblical statements indicate that Penal Substitution is used to preclude us even getting to the courtroom situation, so the situations seem totally unparallel. He explains further: We noted in the discussion above that the 'forgiveness initiatives' (of Points 1,2,3) were used to AVOID anything ever reaching the courtroom, much less ever 'requiring' such a transaction supposed in our objection. In other words, God's initiatives made sure that it was never a JUDGE who had to consider this legal issue. I never have to ask to have my sentence transferred to a substitute--because the salvation process works BEFORE any legal arguments have to occur. This means that it is never a JUDGE in a COURT who has to make the judgment about the legality/illegality of Jesus dying on the Cross in my place. That process is pre-legal in a real sense, and precludes the legal objection ever coming up. It was, in a meaningful way, a pre-emptive strike against this legal dilemma.

Miller is referring to an extended parable or analogy he has dreamed up in which He appears before Christ and the Father and they explain how all of this works. I have to give him credit for his imagination. It’s a valiant attempt to try to understand how penal substitution can be justified (with a touch of a Star Trek motif).

He says:
God's initiatives made sure that it was never a JUDGE who had to consider this legal issue. I never have to ask to have my sentence transferred to a substitute--because the salvation process works BEFORE any legal arguments have to occur. This means that it is never a JUDGE in a COURT who has to make the judgment about the legality/illegality of Jesus dying on the Cross in my place.
Wait a minute? Isn’t God the Judge of the Universe? He is the one who “decided” that this penal substitution would be righteous. I fail to see how Miller’s parable, as ingenious as it is, solves the dilemma. You still have to explain how it’s a righteous thing for the judge of the universe to allow the innocent to pay the penalty for the guilty.

Next, Miller says:
Also, I am increasingly uneasy about seeing the parallel here. Theologians are quick to point out that this 'transaction' is a God-to-God contract/covenant (almost a civil law deal, in which substitution is common [e.g., assignability, co-signers, successors, power of attorney, etc.]). It's almost like the sinner human is not even there. There's enough 'oddness' about the structure of God/Jesus/sinner/sin relationships that I can't really grant much weight to arguments from analogy in this case.
Maybe I misunderstand him here but he seems to be saying that the plan of redemption (including penal substitution) should not be understood in any kind of legal sense anyway. Although, he does state that some theologians see the agreement between the members of the Trinity to provide redemption as more of a civil contract.

I really don’t see how that helps his argument. A civil contract still is subject to the law and ultimately a judge would have to decide if its legal. While a judge might allow people to be substitutes for other people in a civil contract, this has nothing whatsoever to do with an innocent person becoming a substitute for a guilty person in a criminal matter.

Miller’s next point is:
This God-to-God, or 'within God' nature of this HUGELY transcendental act, reminds us that Forgiveness (NOT a function of law, and NOT in view in the objection) does involve some forms of 'substitution' in the act. Consider for moment Thomas' statement (The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, p58): "The Foundation of Divine Pardon.-It is sometimes urged that as human forgiveness does not need an atonement, God's pardon should be regarded as equally independent of any such sacrifice as is now being considered. But this is to overlook the essential feature of all forgiveness, which means that the one who pardons really accepts the results of the wrong done to him in order that he may exempt the other from any punishment. Thus, as it has been well illustrated, when a man cancels a debt, he, of necessity, loses the amount, and if he pardons an insult or a blow, he accepts in his own person the injury done in either case. So that human pardon may be said to cancel at its own expense any wrong done, and this principle of the innocent suffering for the guilty is the fundamental truth of the Atonement. It is, therefore, urged with great force that every act of forgiveness is really an Act of Atonement, and thus human forgiveness, so far from obviating the necessity of Divine Atonement, really illuminates, vindicates and necessitates the Divine pardon, for " forgiveness is mercy which has first satisfied the principle of justice." It is on this ground we hold that Christ's Death made it possible for God to forgive sin.”

Miller summarizes his argument:

Now, in our case, we have something that runs like this:
1. I created a justice-imbalance by my unpunished sins (separate, btw, from the damage caused by my sins--past consequences are not part of this) ;

2. God can punish me fully for those sins (clearing out the moral imbalance)--with no cost to Himself in the process (mostly).

3. Or, God can forgive me--and not punish me for those sins--and 'absorb' the imbalance [since He cannot let it stand forever, due to the Justice issue of the moral imbalance]

4. Once 'absorbed' into God's private sphere, He must somehow "punish" Himself, to clear out the now-'internal' justice imbalance and release the justice.

5. This "necessitates" an act of justice/punishment 'inside God' (since He took the imbalance 'into Himself', and 'out of the universe/human sphere', in the act of forgiveness).

6. This 'inside' act of punishment was done at the Cross, intra-God, and moral-balance within God is restored too.

7. Forgiveness, then, created the God-within-God 'cost' of the Cross.

I give Miller credit for seriously thinking about this problem. I have not found that many Christians, even theologians, have really given due consideration to this issue. However, I still don't find his arguments convincing. How can God justly punish himself in place of sinners? This seems to create all types of other problems. For example:

1. God is said to be entirely holy. How could he ever have man’s sin “attached” (to use Miller’s term) to himself. Would he not cease to be holy at that very moment?

2. Why is it just the Father, presumably, who has to be “propitiated” and not the Son nor the Spirit? If this "propitiation" is necessitated by the holiness of God, then it would seem that the Son and the Spirit would also need to be propitiated.

3. In the human sphere, when one forgives another person, yes, they are in a sense “absorbing” the loss within themselves but are they “punishing” themselves? And the pain they are experiencing, is it self-inflicted or inflicted by an outside party? Its from an outside party. I don’t think Miller’s attempt to parallel the human and divine in his scenario works.

Miller’s next point is:
All in all, I think there are too many discontinuities between the two 'parallel situations'[Miller is referring to the divine court vs. the human court] in the objection to let it stand. It's mixing apples and oranges. There are plenty of things illegal for my local municipal court to do, that the county, state, or federal courts could do. And those are "linear" functions (smile). But even the case of International Law is so complex, that to reason from a national legal situation to an international legal situation in such a straightforward manner as embodied in the objection would meet with very little acceptance by those familiar with the differences between those bodies of law.

I would respond that just because there are differences in jurisdiction and authority with respect to county courts, state courts, federal courts and international courts does NOT change the fact that they all should operate on the same basic principles of justice. If its not just for an innocent to suffer in the place of a guilty in state court because of the basic inequity of it, then it should also not be just in a federal court or an international court, if they are all based on the same principles of justice.

Miller’s conclusion is:
The net effect of my Responses 1-7 is to shift the burden of proof to the objector, for them to show that the hidden middle term is true. The objection is, of course, an argument from analogy, from a human courtroom to the Divine courtroom. As such, the logical structure of the argument runs thus:

1. Modern human legal systems cannot morally/legally allow penal substitution.

2. (The divine legal system is identical to modern human legal systems, in ALL the details relevant to penal substitution, and ALL differences between them are irrelevant to such cases.)

3. Therefore, the divine legal system cannot morally/legally allow penal substitution.
For this argument to stand, the middle term, obviously, has to be rock-solid. And this places the burden of proof on the one making the affirmation.

I would not accept his middle term as he has written it. I would rewrite it this way: The human legal system is based on principles of justice which a Christian sees as ultimately based on divine principles of justice. Christians make a big deal out of the idea that our Western system of justice is based on Judeo-Christian principles. They believe that the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong is their God. They would maintain that human systems of justice are in fact really just ONLY in as much as they reflect the divine principles of justice.

Based on the rewording of the middle term in Miller’s syllogism, the objection against PST stands. It is, in my not so humble opinion, a miscarriage of justice to punish the innocent in place of the guilty.


  1. Your argument falsely assumes that God did an unjust thing in killing Christ; however this is wrong, God did not kill Christ. Christ was offered by mankind to God.

    God sent His Son and mankind killed him which is a clear teaching in Scripture. Your argument implies that the Father killed Christ which clearly is not the case.

    You stated, "Man intuitively knows that it’s wrong to punish an innocent party in the place of a guilty one"

    God knows this is an injustice too which resulted in God raising Christ from the dead. The resurrected Lord having overcome the curse becomes our source of the love of God for eternity that is only found in Christ.

    Mankind offered Jesus up to God in order to atone for their sins. Jesus being the Son of God allowed Himself to suffer death on the cross in order to provide atonement. Jesus was the sacrifice; however, mankind had to put Him on the cross.

    As a result, God through the sacrifice of Christ has the ability to forgive sins due to a shared humanity. This is why God has forgiven you through Christ. It also explains why you have to be in Christ to enjoy the love of God for eternity.

    I don't think you really see the brilliance of the plan of God. It is truly awesome and a rational person who recognized the brilliance of it would immediately fall on His knees before the Maker of the Universe.

    The fact that Christ was sinless means that He atoned for the sins of the world and this also allowed God who was in Christ to right the wrong done by man by raising Jesus from the dead.

    Romans 3 affirms this: Notice the word "presented"

    God presented him (Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

    I still think your issue with PST is clearly an imaginary one.

  2. What I find humorous is how apologists draw conclusions from unverifiable premises. How do they know what a celestial court would be like when they are only operating with human knowledge? Their argument is refuted by their argument. They dismiss human reasoning as a viable method for assessing godly justice then use human reasoning to endorse godly justice. And no, the bible is not an insight into the logistical operations of Heaven.

  3. Chuck said, "How do they know what a celestial court would be like when they are only operating with human knowledge"

    Who said anything about a celestrial court? We are talking about the nature of God which is clearly shown in both the Scripture and in nature.

  4. I have to admit, I really like Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." Makes me want to get up and swing dance (except I don't know how).

    On the negative side, these seven points of Miller's remind me of the elaborate "epicycles" that people concocted to support a geocentric universe. How contrived is all this! Is God really so "lawyered up" with this host of legalities and wherefores and technicalities?? (There's so much wisdom in Occam's Razor.)

    Also, he said:

    "This means that is is never a JUDGE in a COURT who has to make the judgment about the legality/illegality of Jesus dying on the cross in the first place."

    I've heard this line of reasoning a lot in the evangelical community. The moment you trust Jesus, it's like your case is thrown out before your court date. There's no judgment ... you no longer have to answer for anything. It's as if you never committed a crime to begin with.

    Not so, said Jesus. He told his hearers they would have to give an account of "every idle word" they ever utter!! That sounds like court is in session to me.

    Moreover, Jesus never seemed to think the judgment was a legal matter decided by the cross. His Sheep and Goats parable presents works of charity as the basis of either passing or failing the judgment -- an idea that sends evangelicals into theological rebuke mode.

  5. Steve: Works of charity are an expression of the love of God in our life. Without the love of God found in Christ you are lost.

    The gospels are consistent with all the New Testament writtings on this issue.

    You are correct though that if you are in Christ, you will escape the coming Judgement. This is the purpose of being in Christ.

    We are obviously in a judgement right now as we suffer disease, sickness and death. We are currently under the curse of sin.

    You have an opportunity to accept Christ right now before the final judgment. Mankind has a bridge to accept the love of God so don't reject it my friend.

  6. Z,

    Are you suggesting that your faith is predicated on ensuring your eternal self-survival?

  7. While I do agree with the critiques of Miller's defense of PST here, the problem I see with this overall rejection of PST is that it assumes a technicality. What I mean is this: in court you obviously cannot use someone else to pay for your crimes. However, the main purpose of the (human) justice system is not to punish, but to correct. This is why the origin of the word penitentiary is penitence. Since a human court is limited by non-omniscience, it can only make reasonable guesses as to what should be done. A truly penitent person would obviously not get as much punishment, hence why some prisoners are released early for good behavior. At God's Court, you are either excused or not: either you personally repented or not. Christ's payment isn't something that someone did for you in the sense that you should have done it yourself: what you should have done yourself is repent. The technicality of appeasing an infinite God is removed by the symbol of how offensive sins are to God: as if we have crucified his only begotten Son, a physical symbol of the kind that is consistently seen in the Bible (and ancient world at large).

    Having this in mind, one then wonders two things about the Sacrifice of Christ: 1) Isn't the technicality of appeasing an infinitely holy God the same thing anyway? and 2) Why is there a technicality to remove in the first place?
    1) If we follow this from a legalistic point of view, where the legalism exists for legalism's own sake (not so either in the NT, nor even the OT), then yes. However, if one looks at it from the important point of view of intent, then no.
    2) Why was Jesus' sacrifice necessary? I won't answer "because the OT demanded so," which only begs the question. However, there are two very important reasons that show a unity between the OT and NT in a way that the seeming duality have made some call it inconsistent. If you offend a friend, you can usually apologize with little or no consequences. If you offend a coworker, you might be suspended or fired. Imagine what punishment you'd deserve or what magnitude of works for justification and reconciliation you'd have to make to correct an offense against God! This is where Jesus' sacrifice comes in and you aren't hellbound based on a technicality if you're repentant. Hence why Jesus says that he came so that others wouldn't have to remain in darkness. But the second reason is even more important because one could speculate, like Islamic theology, that God can simply forgive - this is the symbol that the death of Jesus had as I mentioned above: the magnitude of the offense of sin with respect to God, put in terms that we can understand - the ultimate parable or story of instruction, just as God does throughout the Old Testament (2 Tim 3:15-17), making the New Testament the culmination of all of it, the purpose being as both Jesus and Hillel put it: to love God and your neighbor.

  8. I don't know you personally but I want you to know that I am very sorry to hear that you have turned from the faith to mere human logic and understanding.

    The Jesus Christ of the Bible is no less real now than he was when he walked the earth. I have seen his hand in many answered prayers of mine that only God and I knew about. I have seen his hand in casting out demons, praying for those who were healed instantly, and being prayed for and healed instantly in addition to many other things.

    I have been privileged to preach and evangelize with very powerful anointing from the Holy Spirit and have seen other miracles such as food multiplying all in the name of Jesus Christ who you have forsaken but who has not forsaken you.

    I cannot urge you strongly enough to put aside arguing with mere human intellect and go into the presence of God and ask him to restore you before eternity comes for you. We do not know when we will die and the scriptures warn us against not being ready when we do.

    I hope you understand that this is a letter of deep concern and not intended to be an imposition on you. The love of Christ constrains me to reach out to you, and I cannot with clear conscience refuse to be obedient.

    In Christ's Service;

    Rick Shaffer aka C. R. Lord, Author

  9. This is just a question or is it a comment.

    Agreed that PST is illegal, is a Judge legitimately allowed to pay the fine for an accused person he has just sentenced? Is a MD doing something wrong if he donate blood to a person who tried to commit suicide by cutting himself? Since those are obviously not a problem, why do we think that it is a problem or inappropriate of Christ to die for the sin of mankind?

    Yes we are created in His image but we are not the same as Him. He created us, we are limited, He is not, among all the many differences you can come up with. Didn't Hebrew 10:5 talk of "a body you prepared for me"? Didn't the Son came in the Flesh in order to identify with us? So since He is the Judge and we are the accused, I do not see how Christ is not the adequate fine for us.

    In my earlier illustration the Judge paying the fine is not breaking any law but it cost him his resources. In the same way how can Jesus not be the fine without us accusing God of PST.