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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Charles Hodge vs. A. H. Strong on Penal Substitution

In a previous post, I discussed A. H. Strong's attempt to justify the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement. Strong's solution, which was that Jesus assumed the guilt of humanity without assuming the depravity of human nature, was based on theology developed in Germany beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher. This German theology had influenced American theologians such as Strong as well as a group called the "Mercersburg School" made up of German Reformed Scholars such as Church Historian, Philip Schaff and Theologian, John Nevin. Charles Hodge, in vol. 2 of his Systematic Theology, addresses the German Reformed school of thought and rejects it.

He writes:
. . . most of these writers admit the sinlessness of Christ, and yet maintain that only sinners can be treated as sinners, and only the personally righteous treated as righteous; and as they hold that imputation implies the real possession of the quality, act, or relation which is imputed, they are forced to teach that Christ in assuming our nature as guilty and fallen, ipso facto, assumed all the responsibilities of men, and was bound to answer to the justice of God for all the sins which humanity had committed. The doctrine of one class of these writers is, that the Logos in assuming our nature did not become an individual, but the universal man; He did not take to Himself “a true body and a reasonable soul,” but the whole of humanity, or humanity as an organic whole or law of life; the individual dying for the sins of other individuals, does not satisfy justice. When He was nailed to the cross, not an individual merely, but humanity itself, was crucified; and, therefore, his sufferings were the sufferings not of an individual man, but of that which underlies all human individualities, and consequently avails for all in whom humanity is individualized. As Christ becomes personally responsible for the guilt which attaches to the humanity which He assumed, so we become personally righteous and entitled, on the ground of what we are or become, to eternal life because of our union with Him. . . (p. 534)
Hodge rejects this teaching for metaphysical and moral reasons:

1. Metaphysical--It is based on particular philosophical presuppositions which he does not share, namely a type of Platonic realism.

Hodge argues:
. . .it is a mere speculative, or philosophical, anthropological theory. It has no more authority than the thousands of speculations which the teeming mind of man has produced. . . . The theory itself is unintelligible. The phrases “universal man,” and “the whole of humanity,” as here used, have no meaning. To say that “humanity itself was nailed to the cross,” conveys no rational idea (p. 535).
2. Moral--Only persons are moral agents.

Hodge writes:
The doctrine is, that in assuming human nature Christ assumed the guilt attaching to the sins humanity had committed. He became responsible for those sins; and was bound to bear the penalty they had incurred. Nevertheless human nature as it existed in his person was guiltless and absolutely pure. This, to our apprehensions, is an impossibility. Guilt and sin can be predicated only of a person (emphasis mine). This if not a self-evident, is, at least, a universally admitted truth. Only a person is a rational agent. It is only to persons that responsibility, guilt, or moral character can attach. Human nature apart from human persons cannot act, and therefore cannot contract guilt, or be responsible. Christ assumed a rational soul which had never existed as a person, and could not be responsible on the ground of its nature for the sins of other men. Unless guilt and sin be essential attributes or properties of human nature, Christ did not assume guilt by assuming that nature. If guilt and sin cannot be predicated of Christ’s person, they cannot by possibility be predicated of his human nature. (p. 536).

...These theologians admit that, as a person, He was without sin. But if without sin, He was without guilt. It was according to the Scriptures by the imputation to Him of sins not his own, that He bore our guilt, or assumed the responsibility of satisfying justice on our account. It is only by admitting that by being born of a woman, or becoming flesh, Christ placed Himself in the category of sinful men, and became personally a sinner, and guilty in the sight of God, as all other men are, that it can be maintained that the assumption of our nature in itself involved the assumption of guilt, or that He thereby became responsible for all the sins which men possessing that nature had committed (p. 537).
So, according to Hodge, the proper way to understand how Jesus could be punished in man's place is the doctrine of imputation. The sins of mankind (or actually the elect in Hodge's opinion) were imputed, that is charged or reckoned, to Jesus and these sins were considered by God as legally belonging to Jesus. The problem with this, as already shown, is that it based on a "legal fiction." It involves God considering something that is not true to be true. How can a God of truth, who cannot tell a lie (Tit. 1:2) and whose very nature is light and in whom is no darkness at all (I John 1:5) base man's salvation on a "legal fiction"? That would mean the atonement, if the PST is true, is based on a lie.


  1. Hi Ken. I was thinking of something last night. Did the doctrine of penal substitution ever repulse you, or anger you, or make you sad---like the doctrine of eternal hell, or God allowing suffering, or prededestination does for many people? Or were your problems with it just intellectual?

    I wonder this because, while there are Christian doctrines that disgust me, penal substitution was never one of them. It was probably because Jesus voluntarily gave up his own life, and I saw that as an act of love, so I was cool with that, plus it got me off the hook.

    But I have met people who are revolted by penal substitution. They think it presents God as bloodthirsty or vengeful.

  2. James,

    Thanks for the question. Actually, it was purely intellectual. I did not have a moral revulsion against it per se, I just couldn't figure out how an innocent person dying could pay for my sins.

  3. "I just couldn't figure out how an innocent person dying could pay for my sins."

    That's a perfect one-sentence summary of why I'm not a Christian.