Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Succinct Article Showing Problems with PST

I read an article yesterday entitled: The Participatory Model of the Atonement. It was written by two philosophers of religion: Dr. Timothy Bayne, Lecturer at the University of Oxford and Dr. Greg Restall, Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. They have given one of the best summaries of the problems with the various models of the atonement that I have ever read. While, I don't intend to deal with their alternative model--The Participatory Model at this time, I will deal with it in a future blog.

They begin their investigation of the current models of the Atonement by citing Peter Abelard's famous constraint. Abelard maintained that any true model of the Atonement must be neither unintelligible, arbitrary, illogical nor immoral. Abelard (1079-1142) was perhaps the preeminent philosopher and theologian of the 12th century. He is most famous for his Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement which he formulated in response to Anselm's Satisfaction Theory of the 11th century.

Abelard was one of the first to develop a subjective view of the atonement, the theories proposed prior to him, the Ransom Theory, the Satisfaction Theory, etc were objective views of the Atonement. Objective views deal with how the atonement affected God, whereas, subjective views deal with how it affected man. Abelard maintained that the atonement provided the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love and obedience which believers should emulate. His view is widely held today by liberal Christian theologians.

Bayne and Restall (p. 13) have a serious issue with Abelard's view. They write:

One problem concerns what exactly it is that we are meant to emulate. For the emulation to have any purpose, we need to be able to characterize Christ’s death as having an objective, intrinsic point. D. Campbell captures the problem here well: "A meaningless or trivial death cannot reveal love: it reveals nothing – except perhaps foolishness. If I drive my car at high speed into a brick wall, loudly proclaiming my love for all humanity, my surviving family would probably wonder how I had left my senses,not how extraordinarily loving my gesture was" (Natural Theology in Paul? Reading Romans I.19-20, International Journal of Systematic Theology, 1/3:239).

Bayne and Restall next examine how the various atonement theories understand the concept of sin, as this is foundational to any atonement model. How one views sin will influence what one thinks was accomplished relative to sin on the cross. They delineate three views of sin, the ontological, the deontic, and the relational.

An ontological conception of sin conceives of it as a feature or element of human nature; it is something from which we suffer. One might also call it “pathological” conception of sin, for it conceives of sin as a sickness.(p. 2).

A deontic conception of sin conceives of sin in terms of a failure to fulfil our moral obligations. Sin, on this view, is immoral behaviour, and it results in a moral debt; it involves a debit in our moral ledger. (p. 2)

A relational conception of sin conceives of it in terms
of broken or alienated relationships; sin, on this view, consists in the fact that our relationship with God and each other is not what it ought to be
(p. 2).

The position held by all adherents of PST and most evangelical theologians is the deontic view of sin. Bayne and Restall write: By far the dominant approach to the atonement in philosophical theology is deontic. Penal, satisfaction, merit and sacrificial models of the atonement are all deontic models in that they conceive of the atonement as dealing with a problem of moral debt. (p. 3)

Anselm was the first to systematize such a view. According to Anselm’s satisfaction model in "Cur Deus Homo", the debt is paid when Christ gives God the honour that the human race owes him. The debt is dealt with by payment: the death of Christ qualifies as payment for the sin of humanity. (p. 4).

Craig and Restall find this position to be immoral, they argue:

There seems something morally problematic about this claim. To conceive of this as the centre of our obligations is morally dangerous. If the obligation to honour God is the ground of our obligations, then God's relation to us is morally no different to a petty bureaucrat, whose relations with his inferiors are controlled by whether or not those inferiors show respect. This is not to deny that respect may be appropriate in a right relationship, but to analyse the rightness of the relationship in terms of respect is to conceive of God’s desires for his creatures in terms of their compliance and deference. This does grave injustice to the Gospel imperatives for the believer to love God and love neigbour. (p. 4).

The Reformers, especially Calvin and his followers, modified Anselm's satisfaction view into the Penal Substitutionary View. To them, it was not primarliy God's honor that had been offended but his holiness. Man had broken God's law and punishment was the only proper response. Bayne and Restall agree with with Richard Swinburne's criticism of PST: talk of law courts and punishment makes the whole process too "mechanical" for a means of reconciliation that ought to be intimate and personal” (Responsibility and Atonement, 1989, p. 152).

The authors of our article find PST to be inadequate. They write: What does God’s forgiveness cost God? Does God have to struggle to overcome feelings of anger and resentment towards us? That doesn’t sound like the God of the New Testament – a God whose very essence is love and whose nature it is to always show mercy. Why can’t God simply decide to forgive us? What exactly is the price that God must pay, and to whom must it be paid? (p. 10).

Bayne and Restall have a basic problem with the deontological view of sin held by both Anselm and the PST proponents. They write:

The deontological model of sin is also in tension with an ontological understanding of sin. If sin is something under which we (together with the rest of creation) labour, then it is not clear that we are morally responsible for it. An inability to do something is normally thought of as excusatory. As the slogan has it, ‘ought implies can’. The sick need a doctor not a judge or jailor. Even if deontic models of the atonement are able to deal with sin as a deontological problem, they fail to deal with it as a problem of human nature. (p. 8).

Here is yet another problem that PST adherents (most evangelicals) must address in order to defend their theory of the atonement. Why does God hold man accountable for that which he cannot help doing?

Next, Bayne and Restall point out the intra-Trinitarian problems associated with the satisfaction theory and the penal theory of the atonement. They argue:

Consider, for instance, the penal model. The idea that God might punish God for a debt owed to God is a strange one. Is God punishing Godself? That seems pathological. Is God the Father punishing God the Son? That seems sadistic. It also seems to posit a kind of disunity in the being of God that is foreign to Christian thought. (pp. 11-12).

Finally, consider the Anselmian line, according to which Christ pays God the honour that we owe him. There are two ways to understand this position. On one view, Christ honours God the Father and not God as such. If this is Anselm’s view it is a strange one, for surely God as such ought to be honoured, and not solely God the Father. So perhaps Christ honours God. This view too is strange, for Christ as a member of the Trinity is God. Is Christ honouring himself? (p. 12)

So, Bayne and Restall find at least four problems with the Penal Substiutionary Theory of the Atonement.

1. It makes God out to be a petty tyrant. He is so offended by man's sin that he demands someone die in order to assuage his anger.

2. It is too mechanical. It is almost like a mathematical equation, so much punishment is deserved due to sin and Jesus bears that amount in order to "even the scales."

3. It fails to deal with why man is held accountable for that which he cannot help doing. It posits man as being guilty even though he could not avoid committing sin.

4. It creates disunity and inequalities within the Trinity. For example, if the Son is being punished by the Father, it implies that the Father is angry with the Son (the objection that this anger is a result of man's sin being imputed to the Son does not lessen the fact of the anger) or at a minimum there is some division within the Trinity. If the Father only has to be propitated by atonement, that implies that there is something in the Father's nature that is not present in the Son's (and the Spirit's too), thus making them less than full equals.

In addition, they do not even mention my major objection to substitutionary theories, namely, the fact that it is unjust to punish an innocent person in the place of a guilty one.


  1. In addition to the theological and philosophical problems layed out in this article, there has always been another sticky point with me since my own de-conversion; the behavior of many Christians.

    I fully realize that many people of faith try their best to live out Christ's teaching to love their neighbor as themselves. I have personally known too many, however, who are terrible people in spite of being "born-again."

    I have seen some of the run around on their spouse, cheat in business and molest their own children. I also know of some sects that claim to be free from sin after their conversion, and have biblical texts to back up this idea.

    My point: if there was a reality behind the "atonement" that really made people "new creatures in Christ," I would be more prone to believe in it.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The delineation of the three views of sin is helpful. I would suggest that the biblical conception of sin is much more relational and ontological than deontological. Thus, PST addresses the wrong problem. It treats sin as an abstraction rather than in terms of relationship and bondage; something that must be accounted for in the ledger, rather than something that needs reconciliation and healing.

    Modern conservative Wesleyan theologians reject PST. But from my experience, most pastors and laypeople in this tradition haven't received that memo, and join with fundamentalist evangelicalism in proclaiming PST as equivalent with the gospel.

    The scholarly article "A Covenant Concept of Atonement" by Larry Shelton addresses the nature of sin and atonement, beginning with an understanding of OT sacrifice that differs from the standard evangelical "no forgiveness without blood."

    As for the godward mediation of Christ (from man to God), Wesleyan scholars tend to focus on vicarious obedience of Christ rather than vicarious suffering. I don't know if this is a completely acceptable framework, but it definitely surpasses PST. In this view God does not require punishment, and the dubious morality of punishing an innocent in place of the guilty does not occur. God requires obedience, and Jesus, God incarnate, vicariously fulfills that obedience since man is incapable. Those who are “in Christ” are “caught up” in this obedience, and (bring in a little Christus Victor motif here) the bondage of sin (ontological) is broken (eschatologically – in the meantime, there is gradual healing), and reconciliation occurs. There is more to it than this as far as dealing with sin as relational and ontological, but the vicarious obedience aspect is the most direct corrective of PST.

  4. Kyle,

    Thanks for your comments and the journal article by Shelton. I just read it and found it very interesting. His view seems very close to Richard Swinburne's Responsiblity and Atonement which is somewhat strange in that Swinburne is Greek Orthodox. There are also some emphases in N. T. Wright which sound similar to Shelton.

    I want to do a full review of Shelton's view as soon as time permits. I also want to do one of Bayne and Restall's Participatory Model.

    While I don't think either of these two views have the same level of problems as PST, I don't think they are problem free either.

    Thanks again.

  5. Hi Ken. I just found out about your blog from James McGrath's site. I'll be adding you to my blogroll so I can keep you on my radar and read more of your thoughts.

    My impression of conservative Christianity is that it still uses the "court model" to explain penal substitution, but it also uses a relationship model. For example, I've heard Tim Keller and Joyce Meyer say that, when we do something against another person, there's a debt that exists in the relationship, which needs to be somehow deal with.