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Monday, May 24, 2010

John Hare's Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution

This post appeared yesterday on

John Hare is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University Divinity School. Prior to that, he was the Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. He is the son of the famous Oxford philosopher R. M. Hare. He has defended the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement in his book, The Moral Gap (pp. 243-58) and in a lecture presented at the 1996 Wheaton Philosophy Conference, entitled, "Moral Faith and Atonement". In this post, I will focus on his lecture in which he attempts to defend the PST against what he calls the "Kantian objection." He writes:
Kant supposed that morality does not allow transferred liability for wrong-doing. Guilt is not, he said, like a financial indebtedness, which can be transferred from one person to another. With a financial debt, we can see how one person could take over the debt from another. But if I have been guilty of some wrong-doing, then it is my responsibility to make up for it; and this responsibility he thought could not be transferred to another person. In the traditional doctrine of penal substitution, however, it is held that Christ takes over our sins, and pays the penalty for them. This doctrine seemed to Kant to be at odds with morality, as he understood it.
Hare believes that the Kantian objection--that the innocent cannot be punished in place of the guilty--can be answered by an appeal to the NT concept of "union with Christ." He argues:
The New Testament is full of images for our union with Christ. We are members of his body, the church is his bride, we are grafted into the vine. Jesus compares his relation to us to that between a mother hen and her chicks. He calls us his friends. We are adopted into his family.
Hare sees this union as a partial merger of identity, which is analogous to a number of human relationships in which culpability may be shared. He maintains: that our union with Christ effects one of these partial mergers, and that in the context of these partial mergers the transfer of liability makes sense.

Hare gives a number of examples of this "partial merger of identity" in human relationships. The first is the union between an infant child and its mother. He writes:
Suppose I offer to hold a baby, and its mother hands him over. I take him on my shoulder and make a few soothing noises, and the child is then sick all over my shirt. What does the mother do? She apologizes, takes her baby back, tries to wipe off the mess, and offers to wash the shirt. She behaves, in other words, just as if she had been sick all over my shirt herself.
But is this example analogous to Jesus bearing the penalty for man's sin? Even Hare recognizes that there are problems with the illustration. First is the fact that since the child is an infant, it does not bear responsibility for its actions. The mother assumes responsibility because she shares culpability for her baby's actions. This event would not have happened if the mother had not handed over the child. Thus, she rightly bears responsibility. In addition, as Hare notes, the mother does not bear guilt for the baby's actions because it was not an intentional misdeed on the part of the baby. What she bears is shame and embarrassment.

The second example that Hare provides is that of an adolescent with a younger sibling.
The adolescent has a friend home for a meal, and his younger sister does something unspeakable. Perhaps, to keep on with the sequence of liquid examples I have been using, she is sitting next to the friend, and she clumsily knocks over her mug of soup, so that it drenches the front of his pants. Her brother is mortified. He feels he has to apologize, and he offers a pair of his own trousers as a temporary substitute.
Does this example provide a suitable analogy for the PST of the atonement? I think not. First, while the younger sibling is not an infant (Hare doesn't say how old she is), she is still a child which mitigates her responsibility. Second, the brother is shamed by the actions of his young sister but he is not personally guilty of the action. He could not legitimately be punished for the action even though he does feel some responsibility, because of the family tie, to correct the wrong done by his sister. So, this illustration fails as well. According to the PST, man is a sinner and guilty before God for his actions and his responsibility is not mitigated in any way. In addition, Jesus bears not just the shame, but the guilt of the sinner's actions, and personally pays the penalty that they deserve as a result of those actions.

The third example provided by Hare is that of a married couple or an employee--employer relationship. In some sense there is a shared responsibility in these partnerships due to the nature of the union. While Hare does not actually provide an illustration here of how this shared responsibility might work, allow me to offer one. Let's say that an employee of a company commits a faux pas at work by insulting one of the clients. The CEO calls the client and apologizes on behalf of the company. The client does not accept the apology and cancels the CEO's invitation to speak at a major conference that is to be hosted by the client. In this scenario, the company is being punished in the person of the CEO who represents the company. It is both a corporate punishment (the company loses a client and loses the potential new business that might have come through the exposure at the conference) and a personal punishment of the CEO (he loses the honorarium he would have earned as well as the potential career advancement that might have been possible through his exposure at the conference).

Is this illustration of mine properly analogous to what takes place in the PST of the atonement? I don't think so for the following reasons: First, the CEO shares culpability for the action of his employee. He should have trained the employee better or not hired such a "loose cannon" to begin with. Second, the punishment inflicted by the client does not "atone" for the misdeed. The misdeed is not forgiven nor forgotten. Third, the company, including all of its employees and shareholders, are punished for what the one employee did, but this punishment is more of a side effect rather than a direct punishment. In other words, they are not being singled out or held personally liable for what the employee did but they are suffering the "fall-out" from the employee's action. Again, according to the PST, (1) Jesus shares no culpability with sinners; (2) Jesus' suffering removes the sin and allows complete forgiveness; and (3) Jesus' suffering is not merely a side-effect or "fall-out" from his connection with sinners. He is the direct object of God's wrath which has been refocused away from sinners onto him personally.

The fourth example is that of one person being granted the power of attorney for another person. Hare writes:
If I appoint you as my representative in some negotiation, two things become true. First, you act instead of me. Second, when you act, I act as well. I act through you. To put this in terms of the relevant inference, you act instead of me, and therefore I act as well. . . . Because Christ has chosen to incorporate us, two things are true about his death. First, he dies instead of us, and therefore, second, when he dies, we die with him.
This analogy comes much closer to picturing the PST because it is really no different than the Federal Headship Theory which most adherents of the PST hold. Under the theory, Adam served as the representative of the human race and when he sinned, the consequences were passed down to all of his posterity because he was the official representative. In addition the theory holds that Jesus, as the second Adam, serves as the official representative of a new race (elect believers) and thereby is able to pay the penalty owed by the race (passive obedience) as well as do what the first Adam could not do--live a sinless life (active obedience). The consequences of both his passive and active obedience are passed down to those for whom he served as the representative.

The problem with this analogy is twofold. First, a person must appoint someone else as his or her representative. For a legal power of attorney, a formal document has to be completed and signed by both parties. This definitely did not take place with regard to Adam. One might argue that it does with regard to Jesus because when one chooses to trust Jesus for salvation, one is voluntarily allowing him to serve as his or her official representative. However, if Adam was never granted the power of attorney, then there is no sin nor guilt inherited from him and nothing for which Jesus to suffer. Second, while a person can do various things as a legal representative of another individual, one thing he cannot do is to suffer punishment for a crime in place of the one he represents. While the actions of the representative could legally be applied to the one represented; the actions of the one represented could not be applied to the representative. Thus, there still would be no way for the sins of mankind to be transferred to Jesus even if he is their official representative. The representation flows in only one direction (from "representor" to "representee" ) not both ways.

While Hare's discussion is interesting, and one of the better attempts to justify the PST, at the end of the day, it fails. Hare admits as much when he says: To conclude, I am not claiming to have found human analogies for the doctrine of the atonement in all its parts. It remains a mystery of the faith.


  1. What about the Almighty? We're allowed to think of him as a father and a king. What is the Almighty's responsibility in all of this? Do you really place a desirable gift in the middle of the room and then tell your children not to play with it? Isn't the real question - What is the Almighty's culpability in all of this mess?

  2. the child is then sick all over my shirt

    I think the child was responding to his theology.

    You get people like this at Yale occasionally. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything like it coming out of Harvard Divinity; it still retains its affiliation with Unitarian Universalism. In fact, they just hosted a conference on Liberal Christianity.

  3. @Ken - You made a few mistakes again:

    This event would not have happened if the mother had not handed over the child. Thus, she rightly bears responsibility.

    Did Hare say that? I didn't see that anywhere in his lecture, and it makes no sense at all. The idea that the mother is culpable because "it wouldn't have happened if the mother had not handed over the child" is morally repugnant. Does anyone really believe things like that?

    Besides, reasoning like that is a slippery slope to nonsense. "It wouldn't have happened if she didn't have the baby", or "it wouldn't have happened if God hadn't caused her to be born". With this little logic trick, you've erased culpability entirely, and your quest to topple PST is redundant.

    First, the CEO shares culpability for the action of his employee. He should have trained the employee better or not hired such a "loose cannon" to begin with.

    You are making the same mistake again. By your logic, the only blameless CEO would be one whose employees are also blameless, and the only blameless God would be a God whose creatures are also blameless. Can't you see what a huge problem this is for your argument? Nobody actually acts or believes this way, since it would render the concept of "blame" meaningless. But more importantly, if you really believed this, your whole case against PST would be unnecessary.

  4. Also, I believe that you are not being honest about this:

    While Hare's discussion is interesting, and one of the better attempts to justify the PST, at the end of the day, it fails. Hare admits as much when he says

    In this paragraph, you make it sound as if Hare would agree with your objections (which are not very logical), and you also make it seem that Hare set out to fully defend PST and admitted that he failed.

    To the contrary, in the passage cited, Hare is making clear that he was dealing with only one portion of PST, and that he finds his arguments for the limited scope covered to be sound. It is not very irenic of you to twist his transparency about limited scope into a claim that he knowingly failed to prove even the limited scope he set out to address.

  5. Joshua,

    Regarding the mother and baby, the particular act under consideration is the baby spitting up on the man. The act itself is an amoral act because the baby did not do it intentionally with malice (as far as we know). So we are not talking about moral guilt in this case, as Hare himself acknowledges. We are talking about the sense of shame that the mother feels and her sense that she needs to do something "to make it right." Now the question is: "Why does she feel this way?" Because at this point in the baby's life, she is responsible for everything that it does. Since she is the rational agent, anything negative that the baby does, she is the one who will be held responsible. Another example, where malice might be involved would be an older child breaking something at a store. The parent would be responsible to pay for what is broken. In that case, the child is still culpable (not before the law) but the parent shares culpability. There is a sort of "identity-merger" as Hare maintains in these cases but they don't in anyway illustrate what is going on in the PST.

    Regading the CEO, by the very nature of the case, anything that an employee does while at work, can result in the whole company, and the CEO, as its representative, being effected. Again why? Because there is a sort of "identity-merger" here as Hare maintains. What the employee does is seen by others as what the company does. If the employee "messes up," the company "messes up." The CEO, as the head of the company, has responsiblity (not necessarily legal culpability but sometimes he has this too)for what every employee does as an employee.
    While all of this is true, it is not analogous to what is happening under the PST.

  6. Joshua,

    Hare admits all through the lecture that his anaologies are imperfect. He offers them as "food for thought" as potential ways of thinking that might make the PST more palatable but at the very end he admits that the way the PST works is still a mystery. I don't think I was unfair at all.

  7. With this little logic trick, you've erased culpability entirely, and your quest to topple PST is redundant.

    The concept of a God who creates the vast majority of humanity for the sole purpose of damning them eternally does a much better job of "erasing culpability" than Ken could do on his best day.

    The idea that the mother is culpable because "it wouldn't have happened if the mother had not handed over the child" is morally repugnant.

    Right - and Calvinism isn't.

  8. @cipher - That's exactly the point. If Ken is going to assume your position, then his tens of thousands of words about PST would be superfluous, since he would've toppled the whole system.

    If it were true that the mother is guilty because "it wouldn't have happened if the mother had not handed over the child", then it would be redundant to even talk about PST. It would lead inexorably to your point about Calvinism. Yet Ken often turns to this as a last resort when he's having trouble addressing a specific argument of the PST supporters. It's a cop-out.

    I just find it disappointing, since he does such a good job of pointing out the legitimate flaws almost everywhere else. I've only seen him use one cop-out in all of his argumentation, which shows good intellectual rigor. But he's used this cop-out at least 4 times. If one is going base one's case on an all-encompassing cop-out like this, why even go through the motions of pretending to address the opponents point-by point. Why not just start with this argument and get the whole thing done at once?

  9. Really, you just aren't getting it.

    By the way, Buddhism isn't idolatry, nor are its philosophers any more guilty of sophistry than are their Christian counterparts (in fact, often much less so). You may want to learn about something before you shoot off your mouth.

    But, that's right - they aren't Christians, which proves that God has preordained them for damnation, so they're "idolaters" by definition.

  10. @Ken - I'm not sure that anyone who reads Hare would agree with you. People may think he failed to address the link between union and imputation, but Hare certainly doesn't think that. He is quite clear that he is talking only about the relationship between union and imputation.

    Instead (and this is where he would be open to criticism from you), he seems to be wanting to have his cake and eat it too. He admits that there are parts of PST his comments don't address (to appear humble), but then offers up a number of easily toppled straw men as "hard problems for a future talk". It's questionable whether any atheist would ever ask these questions:

    I have concentrated on the link between incorporation and the imputation of sin. But that leaves the question of how God could incorporate human beings into a life together with God. And it leaves the question of how the sin, taken on by Christ, could then be defeated or overcome by him.

    And even this one seems slightly disingenuous to me:

    here are features of the doctrine which my picture of incorporation does not help with, and may even make harder to understand. For example, return to the picture of the mother with her infant child. Does not this picture give comfort to the enemies of Christianity. It is, after all, one of the standard objections to Christianity that it is an infantile religion, one that reduces us to babies in our relation to God.

    He appears humble by admitting that his theory may make atonement "harder to understand" in a specific case, but we find that his "hard to understand" case is really a softball that he lobbed to himself.

  11. @cipher - Can you provide additional context? You don't appear to be addressing anything that anyone has said on this thread. Did you accidentally reply to the wrong thread?

  12. Joshua,

    I think you are failing to note that it is Hare himself who links the baby and the mother through what he calls "merger-identity." He is saying that there seems to be some cause why the mother feels responsiblity. I maintain that the mother feels it because she is in fact responsible for what her baby does. The baby did not leap out of her arms into the other man's arms. She placed it there. She didn't do it with the intent that the baby would spit up on the man (at least I guess not) but the fact is she still did it.

  13. Joshua,

    I imagine that Hare did not at the time of his lecture recognize all the problems associated with his analogies but he did admit that they were not perfect. I am simply explaining some of the imperfections.

  14. Joshua Allen - "You said, ",,,I've read plenty of Jewish Midrashim and the Talmud."

    Although this was on a previous thread - Theories of Punishment - I'm still waiting for what the Talmud or Midrashim says about the quotes for Exodus 21:22-25, Leviticus 24:17-21, and Deuteronomy 19:15-21 so you can show me where I am incorrect.

  15. @Emet - I replied on that thread, you can respond over there if you like. You can load up your software and look for מידה כנגד מידה yourself. Jewish scholars, including modern Jewish scholars, believe that the Bible teaches retributive justice.

    @cipher - You should be able to reply on my blog for stuff that is off-topic here. I've had trouble with the blog service provider in the past, though -- was it not working?

  16. My only comment is about this: 'While Hare's discussion is interesting, and one of the better attempts to justify the PST, at the end of the day, it fails.'

    I did not find anything of substance in any of the quotations given above. I was surprised by your generosity of appraisal. I must assume the complete work that he presents has more to offer. On the supposed justification of PST through union with Christ, I have already written elsewhere, as you are aware. As an evangelical Christian, it may surprise your readers to know that I agree with your objections.

    Kind regards.