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Sunday, May 9, 2010

A. H. Strong's Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution

Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921), through his Systematic Theology - A Compendium Designed for the Use of Theological Students (first published 1886; revised 1907), has taught several generations of evangelical students the doctrines of the Christian faith. His textbook was used for my Master's level classes at Bob Jones University. Strong taught Theology for 40 years at Rochester Theological Seminary, a Baptist seminary.

Strong recognizes the problem of punishing an innocent in the place of the guilty. He quotes from J. J. Lias who refers to the objection of the Unitarians to the doctrine of penal substitution. The Unitarians call it "the strangely inconsistent doctrine that God is so just that he could not let sin go unpunished, yet so unjust that could punish it in the person of the innocent. " It is for orthodox dialectics to explain how the divine justice can be impugned by pardoning the guilty, and yet vindicated by punishing the innocent" (The Atonement, p. 16 cited in Strong, p. 759). Strong has a somewhat novel way to resolve the dilemma. He writes:
We have seen how God can justly demand satisfaction; we now show how Christ can justly make it; or, in other words, how the innocent can justly suffer for the guilty. The solution of the problem lies in Christ's union with humanity. The first result of that union is obligation to suffer for men; since, being one with the race, Christ had a share in the responsibility of the race to the law and the justice of God. (p. 755)
Strong maintains that Jesus, as a result of taking a human nature in the incarnation, shares responsibility for the sin of the human race. This, he argues, is true even though Jesus himself did not inherit depravity from Adam nor did Jesus himself ever commit sin. He states:
Christ's share in the responsibility of the race to the law and justice of God was not destroyed by his incarnation, nor by his purification in the womb of the virgin. In virtue of the organic unity of the race, each member of the race since Adam has been born into the same state into which Adam fell. The consequences of Adam's sin, both to himself and to his posterity, are: (1) depravity, or the corruption of human nature; (2) guilt, or obligation to make satisfaction for sin to the divine holiness; (3) penalty, or actual endurance of loss or suffering visited by that holiness upon the guilty (p. 756).
Strong holds that Jesus through the incarnation experiences consequences numbers 2 and 3 but not consequence number 1. He elaborates:
If Christ had been born into the world by ordinary generation, he too would have had depravity, guilt, penalty. But he was not so born. In the womb of the Virgin, the human nature which he took was purged from its depravity. But this purging away of depravity did not take away guilt, or penalty. There was still left the just exposure to the penalty of violated law. Although Christ's nature was purified, his obligation to suffer yet remained. He might have declined to join himself to humanity, and then he need not have suffered. He might have sundered his connection with the race, and then he need not have suffered. But once born of the Virgin, once possessed of the human nature that was under the curse, he was bound to suffer. The whole mass and weight of God's displeasure against the race fell on him, when once he became a member of the race (p. 757).
So, Strong sees Jesus as somehow being protected from inheriting depravity as a result of the Virgin Birth but he does not see this protection as extending to the guilt or penalty that man's sin entails. He says:

Notice, however, that this guilt which Christ took upon himself by his union with humanity was: (1) not the guilt of personal sin--such guilt as belongs to every adult member of the race; (2) not even the guilt of inherited depravity--such guilt belongs to infants, and to those who have not come to moral consciousness; but (3) solely the guilt of Adam's sin, which belongs, prior to personal transgression, and apart from inherited depravity, to every member of the race who has derived life from Adam. This original sin and inherited guilt, but without the depravity that ordinarily accompanies them, Christ takes, and so takes away. He can justly bear penalty, because he inherits guilt. And since this guilt is not his personal guilt, but the guilt of that one sin in which "all sinned"--the guilt of the common transgression of the race in Adam, the guilt of the root-sin from which all other sins have sprung--he who is personally pure can vicariously bear the penalty due to the sin of all (pp. 757-58).
Strong rejects the traditional Reformed view that the sin of Adam was imputed to Jesus. He writes:
Arbitrary imputation and legal fiction do not help us here. We need such an actual union of Christ with humanity, and such a derivation for the substance of his being, by natural generation from Adam, as will make him not simply the constructive heir, but the natural heir, of the guilt of the race (p. 759).
Strong also rejects the notion that because a monetary (pecuniary) debt can be transferred, then a moral debt or criminal penalty can as well. He argues:
A transference of pecuniary obligation is easier to understand that a transference of criminal liability. I cannot bear another's penalty, unless I can in some way share his guilt. The theory we advocate shows such a sharing of our guilt on the part of Christ was possible. All believers in substitution hold that Christ bore our guilt. . . . But we claim that, by virtue of Christ's union with humanity, that guilt was not only an imputed, but also an imparted , guilt (p. 759).
Strong says that the subjection to the common guilt of the race was intimated in Jesus' circumcision (Luke 2:21); in his ritual purification (Luke 2:22); in his legal redemption (Luke 2:23, 24) and in his baptism (Mat. 3:15) (p. 761).

So, according to Strong, it was just for Jesus to die as the penalty bearer for mankind's sin because he was part of the race and although not a sinner himself was somehow justly culpable for the sin of the race. I have to commend Strong for recognizing the problem of punishing an innocent instead of the guilty and for admitting that the traditional Reformed doctrine of imputation does not resolve the moral dilemma. The question remains, however: Does Strong's solution really solve the problem? I don't think it does for the following reasons.

(1) Guilt is only incurred by actual wrongdoing.

Strong maintains that Jesus did no wrong but yet he still bore the guilt of the human race. That strips the word "guilt" of it's legitimate meaning. Merriam-Webster defines guilt as:
1 : the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct
2 a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : SELF-REPROACH
3 : a feeling of culpability for offenses
According to this definition, "true guilt" is what one feels when one has violated the law or committed an offense; "false guilt" is when one feels culpable for imagined offenses or a sense of inadequacy. Unless, Jesus was himself guilty of doing wrong, then he was not in any true sense "guilty."

2. Actual wrongdoing demands its own penalty.

Strong attempts to illustrate his point by saying that just as believers are presently still sinning due to their depravity yet they are without guilt because of the atonement; in the same way, Jesus although never sinning still retained guilt. In other words, believers currently have depravity without guilt and Jesus had guilt without depravity (p. 762).

While this is a nice game of semantics, I don't find it at all convincing. The reasons believers currently have no guilt before God, according to the Bible, is because Jesus has already paid the penalty for those sins (past, present, and future) and in God's eyes, they no longer exist. If God did still see them, then guilt would necessarily follow. Therefore, it does not follow to say that Jesus could be guilty without depravity (sin) because guilt only makes sense when there is something for which to be guilty. If Jesus is in any real sense "guilty" for the sin of the race, then there must be by necessity some wrong-doing on his part. If there is any wrong-doing on his part (which Strong denies), then Jesus must suffer the penalty for his own wrong-doing.

3. If Jesus is guilty for the sin of the race, then Jesus is guilty of personal sin.

While Strong would like to somehow disconnect guilt from personal sin; it just can't be done. His use of an illustration of a missionary to a leper colony shows his fallacy.
(p. 757.
Father Damien gave his life in ministry to the leper's colony of the Hawaiian Islands. Though free from the disease when he entered, he was at last himself stricken with the leprosy, and then wrote: "I must now stay with my own people." Once a leper, there was no release. When Christ joined himself to humanity, all the exposures and liabilities of humanity fell upon him. Though himself personally without sin, he was made sin for us. Christ inherited guilt and penalty
If this is supposed to be a true analogy to the incarnation of Jesus, then it proves too much. Father Damien actually became a leper. Unless, Strong wants to concede that Jesus actually became a sinner, then this illustration fails.

Strong also tries to argue that one can be held responsible or culpable for the acts of others, even though not directly involved in those acts. He writes:
We answer that the idea of representation and suretyship is common in human society and government; and that such representation and suretyship are inevitable, whenever there is community of life between the innocent and the guilty. When Christ took our nature, he could not do otherwise than take our responsibilities also (p. 769).
He uses more analogies:
The justice of Christ's sufferings has been imperfectly illustrated by the obligation of the silent partner of a business firm to pay debts of the firm which he did not personally contract; or by the obligation of the husband to pay the debts of his wife; or by the obligation of a purchasing country to assume the debts of the province which it purchases. There have been men who have spent the strength of a lifetime in clearing the indebtedness of an insolvent father, long since deceased. They recognized an organic unity of the family, which morally, if not legally, made their father's liabilities their own. So, it is said, that Christ recognized the organic unity of the race, and was that, having become one of that sinning race, he had involved himself in all its liabilities, even to the suffering of death, the great penalty of sin (p. 759).
The problem with these "imperfect" analogies (as Strong admits they are) is that they are monetary (pecuniary) debts. He has already admitted and everyone agrees that monetary debts can be transferred. One might even feel an obligation to pay the debts as in the above scenarios, however, that is not the same as paying a criminal penalty, such as execution. We would all recoil in horror if the silent business partner was put to death for the crimes of his partner or if the son was put to death for the debts of his father. It is this personal liability which is demanded for the payment for a personal penalty.

So, in my opinion, Strong's solution to the moral injustice of an innocent dying in the place of the guilty does not succeed. Because his view seems to impugn the purity of the sinless Son of God, his view has been rejected by virtually all evangelical theologians (My theology professor at Bob Jones, using a clever pun, said that this view was one of the "weaknesses" of Strong). It is a novel and a gallant attempt to solve the problem but, at the end of the day, it also fails.


  1. It's amazing, the lengths people will go to make a dogma consistent with logic. Robert Price used the analogy of Rube Goldberg. He'd draw those whacky machines where a shoe kicks a can, which trips a switch, which rolls a ball, which ... etc., etc. All these crazy actions just to accomplish a simple task. Theologians do the same thing with their elaborate argumentation.

  2. Steve,

    Tney have to justify their existence.

  3. But couldn't be argued that couter theologians, do the same thing in their argumentation? I mean wouldn't this thinking defeat both sides of the argument?

  4. The theologian's reasonings are usually far more strained and contrived than the opposing voices. Occam's Razor rarely favors the evangelical.

  5. Hi Ken,

    Good comments! I have nothing to add.