On an internet forum called TheologyWeb, I sometimes discuss theological issues to see how Christians will respond. Many of the "apologists" on that site are young, immature and really know little about theology. They resort to name calling and personal insults as their rebuttal. However, today I responded to an excellent post from a PST defender named Terry. Below is his defense and my response. My responses are in bold.
Thanks for one of the most intelligent posts on this subject. You stand in sharp distinction to most of the TWEB "apologists." I appreciate the kind and thoughtful dialogue.
As I am more sympathetic to Penal Theory than any other model that will be the view I defend here.
It seems to me, FF, that you hold a somewhat slanted view of the atonement in that it fails to take both the voluntary nature of Christ’s death and the oneness of the Godhead into account, or, at least, it deemphasizes these aspects. These comparatively ignored components I believe give penal theory a greater degree of coherence which the model may lack otherwise.
I recognize fully that the NT teaches that Jesus gave his life willingly. I have never disputed that. I also recognize the classical Trinitarian view as described by Nicaea.
If I understand you correctly, your chief objection to penal theory is that it is “a miscarriage of justice to punish the innocent in place of the guilty.” Admittedly, it is the ethical concern that makes penal theory more difficult to swallow than other models such as the Satisfaction Theory. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if the difficulty has been misplaced. While I can certainly see coercing a person, innocent or otherwise, to die vicariously unjust, what about doing so voluntarily?
Whether the victim volunteers or not is not germane to my objection
Why think a vicarious death done voluntarily unjust? What if the vicarious death were to achieve some great good that can best or only be accomplished by doing so? In the minds of many, allowing oneself to be killed is often seen justifiable when it involves saving the life of another. Consider the soldier who jumps on a grenade in order to save one or more of his comrades. We neither judge such acts irrational nor suicidal, but, rather, virtuous, honorable, moral, and praiseworthy. I think what is at issue is more one of purpose, not fairness.
I agree that it is noble to lay down your life for others. But once again that is not germane to my argument. My problem is with an innocent one suffering the penalty of the guilty and being accepted as just by the judge (or in this case--God).
The analogy of a judge allowing someone, other than the perpetrator, to suffer a vicarious death is to a certain extent skewed also because it fails to reflect the oneness of the Godhead. You note, “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.” But on penal substitution, FF, the central claim is that God took on voluntarily the penalty due sinful human beings Himself. In your judge-of-the-universe analogy then, it is the judge himself who volunteers to take on the penalty, as oppose to an innocent, third-party bystander. There is nothing logically inconsistent with this chief assertion.
I agree that it is the judge who pays the price himself in the PST scenario. Or at least one member of the Godhead pays it to another member. That still doesn't explain how that is just. Its like there is some penalty out there that MUST be paid by someone and so the judge just decides to pay it himself. How does the judge paying the penalty that the sinner deserves resolve the issue? So long as someone pays, its okay? This runs cross grain to our innate sense of justice, which according to the Bible is derived from God himself.
Now let’s presume penal substitution is built upon a moral framework that argues that it is appropriate and good in some cases for punishment to be carried out. With that in mind, the question becomes can the goodness of the punishment still be achieved by God taking it on Himself? It seems to me it can. God is the victim of the wrongdoer. Left unpunished, misdeeds both diminish the value of the victim, in our case, the Godhead, and potentially trivialize the wrongdoings of the offender. Christ’s voluntary death on the cross makes it plain that sin against God is not to be trivialized. In that sense it was akin to the OT sacrifices which reminded the people of their sin (Heb 10:3). Furthermore, it reinstates the value of the God head. Thus, the goodness of the punishment, which, again, God took on Himself, is at least twofold. It stresses and affirms the value of the Godhead and shows that sin is to be taken with utmost seriousness.
Okay but what you are now advocating is much closer to the governmental theory of the atonement than to PST. And it still doesn't make sense according to our innate sense of justice. For example, if you break my arm and I press charges. Would it make sense for me to say: Well, you are remorseful and so I will forgive you and drop the charges but in order to show my value as a human being and how serious your crime was--I will ask the judge to send me to jail in your place.
Now, of course, one could argue that humans are the wrongdoers in this case, not God. It is not good for God to extend the privilege of physical and spiritual life to humans on earth because they have sinned repeatedly against Him and, therefore, do not deserve it. Humans have rightly earned the punishment due them. But we must not forget there is a difference between justice and vengeance. Here it could be argued that God’s wise and just plan of redemption is keeping maximally with His love, grace and mercy. Throughout human history, there are numerous examples in Scripture where God either delays punishment, or exacts it in some restricted way, or abstains from it altogether. In fact, this is not all that different from the way humans interact at times.
True but God does ultimately, according to the Bible, unleash his wrath against mankind. Of course he already did it once in Noah's flood. So the fact he delays it is inconsequential.
And God is said to be vengeful in Romans 12 for example.
Secondly, you find it difficult to imagine exactly how the atonement plays out in the oneness of the Godhead. You write, “Why is it just the Father, presumably, who has to be ´propitiated´ and not the Son nor the Spirit?” While the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation cannot be reduced to mere formulas or a concise set of statements, it simply does not follow therefore that these essential Christian doctrines are incoherent. God leaves us with a sense of wonder and mystery. However hard we try, we will never be able to put God in a box. But why should that be required before placing our trust and faith in Him? While at the human level we cannot fully comprehend these truths, we can apprehend them nonetheless.
I think the doctrine of the Trinity does not make sense and the atonement is just one example of it. When pressed on this, Christians resort to saying, well god is beyond our comprehension and its a mystery, etc. To me that is a cop out.
Your view of the Trinity seems to stray somewhat from Christian orthodoxy. By overemphasizing the threeness it borders on tritheism, a form of polytheism. In other words, one cannot separate the Godhead as suggested.
The Bible clearly presents three persons. The Father sends the Son, the Son propitiates the Father, the Father raises the Son from the dead, etc. I am just following the Biblical language. the problem is that the Trinity doctrine is a human attempt to explain why the bible talks about three persons but yet insists there is only one God.
The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity stresses conversely the oneness of God who exists in three distinct persons coeternally—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Fundamental also to the orthodox view is the understanding that the three persons of the Godhead share one divine nature and substance coequally and can therefore be called “God.” None of the three persons of the Trinity is more subordinate to the other.
Correct, but as you say--the three persons share the divine nature coequally. If the atonement is required by something inherent in the nature of God, namely his holiness, then why does the Father alone have to be propitiated. The implication is that somehow the Son and the Spirit are not quite equal, which is a big problem for you and your belief system.
In order to accomplish the mission of restoring humanity to Himself, God takes on human nature without divesting Himself of his divine nature. Although the persons of the Godhead can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. There are not three discrete beings, but, rather, one. None of the three persons of the Trinity can exist without the other any more than, say, a triangle can exist without one of its three sides.
Okay but now you are teetering towards Modalism. In addition, you have the problem that the Son was separated from the Father on the cross while suffering the spiritual death that man deserves.
In the incarnation, Christ’s human nature is not essential to his existence as his divine nature. On the cross, Christ suffers, therefore, in his human nature both physically and consciously. The crucifixion does not diminish the oneness or the divine nature of the Godhead in any way. For example, as you point out, God cannot die. God cannot not exist any more than, say, a round square can exist. His human nature was crucified, not his divine nature. However, the conjoined life of the Trinity, as suggested above, means that Christ did not suffer alone. Each divine person of the Godhead experienced mutually the pain of the crucifixion as God, in Christ, reconciled the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:19).
One of the most clever explanations that I have heard, but not without problems. First, you just said that the divine nature in Christ cannot die or suffer and then you say each member of the Godhead experienced the pain of the crucifixion. Isn't that contradictory? Second, if you say the Father suffered, how do you avoid the charge of Patripassianism?
Scholars often posit penal substitution as the best explanation for Christ’s voluntary death on the cross. Those who object penal substitution theory need to show why the model fails. I remain skeptical that that has been achieved here.
I think I have shown it. See my blog for a more thorough examination of PST. But not only me, I think Greek Orthodox theologians, Socinus, Gustav Aulen, Hugo Grotius and others have shown that it fails.
Moreover, even if one were to demonstrate that Penal Theory is incoherent or somehow fails to square with Scripture, all that would follow is that the model is not the best explanation for Christ’s voluntary death on the cross.
Okay but here is my point. I think the NT clearly teaches PST. So, in my opinion, if PST is wrong, then the Scripture is wrong.
But note that that conclusion is entirely compatible with the belief that God reconciled human beings to Himself through the voluntary death of Christ on our behalf as Scripture declares. Perhaps the Satisfaction Theory makes more sense or some other, yet-to-be-developed model best explains the innerworkings of the atonement. The lack of a coherent, human derived model that details the ins and outs of the atonement does nothing to make our belief in the atonement unwarranted.
I think it does because it shows that the teachings of Scripture are really contradictory. Theologians have had 2000 years to come up with a unified, coherent, doctrine of the atonement and they haven't done so. What does that tell me? Its impossible to do so because the Scriptures are contradictory.
We can believe we have salvation through Christ while remaining agnostic as to how the atonement plays out precisely in God’s economy. Maybe God wants us to believe that Christ atoned for our sins simply by faith. The point is the failure of one or more models does not negate the truth that Christ died in our place so that we can, once again, have fellowship with God.
So in other words, just shut off your brain and have faith? I am sorry, I am not willing to do that.