Search This Blog


Thursday, May 20, 2010

William G. T. Shedd's Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution

William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894), although not as well known today as some other 19th century Reformed theologians, was nevertheless one of Calvinism's ablest defenders. His 3 volume Dogmatic Theology, published shortly before his death, is considered by some as one of the top systematic theologies ever written by an American theologian. In a review of the work in 1895, Thornton Whaling wrote: The three greatest theologians which the American Church has yet produced are Jonathan Edwards, W.G.T. Shedd, and R. L. Dabney (Presbyterian Quarterly Review 9: 323). In the introduction to the latest edition of Dogmatic Theology (2003), the editor, Alan W. Gomes, writes: It is certainly reasonable to rank Dogmatic Theology as one of the finest works of systematic theology ever produced by an American theologian. Any unbiased reader studying the writings of Shedd in general and Dogmatic Theology in particular senses that he or she is in the presence of a commanding theological, philosophical, and historical intellect, graced with an ease of literary expression and lucidity rarely found in writers of this genre (p. 16). I remember reading Shedd as an undergraduate and I appreciated the fact that he was much more comprehensible than many other theologians.

In volume 2, of his epic work, Shedd has one of the most thorough discussions of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement in any systematic theology (pp. 378-489). He devotes 12 pages (pp. 451-63) to the objection that the innocent cannot justly suffer in place of the guilty.
Respecting the possibility of the substitution of penalty, it is to be observed: 1. In the first place, that the punishment inflicted by justice is aimed, strictly speaking, not at the "person" of the transgressor, but his "sin." The wrath of God falls upon the human soul considered as an "agent," not a "substance." The spiritual essence or nature of man is God's own work, and he is not angry at his own work, and does not hate anything which he has created from nothing. Man's substance is not sin. Sin is the activity of this substance; and this is man's work. God is displeased with this activity, and visits it with retribution. Consequently, justice punishes the sin rather than the sinner, the agency rather than the agent, the act rather than the person. It does not fix its eye upon the transgressor as this particular "entity," and insist that this very entity shall suffer, and prohibit any other entity from suffering for him. Justice, it is true, is not obliged to allow substitution, but neither is it obliged to forbid it. If it were true that the penalty must be inflicted upon the transgressor's very substance and person itself, as well as upon the sin in his person, then there could be no substitution (emphasis mine). . . (p. 451).
Shedd maintains that the punishment is not directed at the "person," but at his "sin." He admits that if it must be directed at the person, then substitution is not possible. I think it must be directed at the person. First, how do you punish "sin," except by punishing the person guilty of the sin? Sin is not a separate entity. It is not a substance. It has no existence except as the action of a person. Can one punish crime without punishing a criminal? I don't see how. Second, the Bible itself makes it clear that God's wrath is focused against sinners as persons not against sin in the abstract. For example, when God set out to punish the sin of Sodom, who or what did he punish? He punished the people of Sodom. When Jesus returns, according to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, he will punish those who "do not obey the gospel." The cliché that is sometimes used in modern evangelicalism, God hates the sin but loves the sinner, is somewhat misguided. Sin is what a sinner does and it is the sinner who deserves, according to the Bible, punishment for his sin. Third, later in his discussion, Shedd speaks of the theanthropic person of Christ suffering the penalty for man's sin (p. 460). So, it seems to me that, Shedd has unwittingly undercut his whole defense of the PST with his admission that substitution is not possible if punishment must be directed against the person.

Shedd goes on to argue that
the substitution of penalty is implied in the Divine sovereignty in administering government. If God from his very nature could not permit a proper person to take the place of a criminal, but were necessitated in every single instance to inflict the penalty upon the actual transgressor, his government would be just, but not sovereign. He could make no changes in the mode of its administration--which is what is meant by a sovereign government. But God may vary the mode of administering justice, provided the mode adopted really satisfies justice (emphasis mine), and there be no special reason in his own mind why in a particular instance the variation may not be permitted. There were such special reason, apparently, in the case of the fallen angels, but not in the case of fallen men. This exercise of sovereignty in permitting substitution of penalty is by some Calvinistic theologians called a "relaxation" of justice; not in respect to the "penalty" demanded, but to the person enduring it. Justice relaxes its demands to the degree of permitting a vicar to suffer for the actual criminal, but not to the degree of abating the amount of the suffering. The vicar must pay the debt to the uttermost farthing (p. 452).
Shedd maintains that God would not be sovereign if he could not allow a substitute to suffer the penalty for sin, with the caveat, provided the mode adopted really satisfies justice. But that is the very point to be demonstrated, namely, that punishing a substitute really satisfies justice. Shedd seems to let his Calvinistic exuberance for the sovereignty of God overshadow the justice of God. Shedd would admit that God's sovereignty is not curtailed by the fact that he cannot do anything which would violate his nature. For example, the fact that "God cannot lie" (Tit. 1:2) does not make God any less sovereign. Nor would the fact that he cannot punish the innocent in place of the guilty.

Shedd holds that if certain conditions are met by a substitute, then it is just for that substitute to take the punishment of the guilty. He writes:
The penalty substituted must be endured by a person who is not himself already indebted to justice, and who is not a subject of the government under which the substitution took place. If he himself be a criminal, he cannot of course be a substitute for a criminal. And if he be an innocent person, yet owes all his own service to the government, he cannot do a work of supererogation such as is implied in vicarious satisfaction. An earthly state could not righteously allow an innocent citizen to die for another, even if he were willing so to die, because there are claims upon the person and life of every citizen which must go undischarged if his life should be taken. These are the claims of family, of society, of the commonwealth, and of God (p. 456).

This is an interesting point and one I have not encountered in any other defense of the PST. Shedd is saying that in human jurisprudence we do not allow a penal substitution because there are claims upon the person and life of every citizen which must go undischarged if his life should be taken. He is saying that to incarcerate or execute a substitute would be wrong because then the substitute would not be able to fulfill his duties to his family, society, state, and God. The non-fulfillment of these duties would constitute an injustice. In the case of Jesus, Shedd believes this not to be a problem, though he never explains why. It would seem that from a human standpoint, that to execute Jesus at his young age would deprive his family, society, and government from the contributions that he would make if he lived a full life. I suppose one could argue that since Jesus was raised a couple of days after his death, then he is still able to fulfill those needs but, if so, he certainly does not fulfill them in the normal way. For example, someone else had to take care of his mother due to his death (see John 19:26-27).

Shedd quotes from two authors who claim that it is not appropriate to use the terms "punishment" or "penalty" with regard to the sufferings of Jesus. William Magee (Discourses and Dissertations on the Scriptural Doctrine of Atonement and Sacrifice [1832], vol. 1, pp. 445-46):
The idea of punishment cannot be abstracted from [personal] guilt. Christ's sufferings are a judicial infliction, and may perhaps be figuratively denominated punishment, if thereby be implied a reference to the actual transgressor, and be understood that suffering which was due to the offender himself; and which if inflicted upon him would then take the name of punishment. In no other sense, can the suffering inflicted on account of the transgressions of another be called a punishment (cited in Shedd, p. 457).

Johannes H. A. Ebrard (quoted by J. J. Van Oosterzee, Christian Dogmatics II, p. 603): If I endure the infliction due to another instead of him, this suffering which for him would have had the moral quality of a punishment has not the moral quality of a punishment for me, because I am an innocent person. For the idea of a punishment contains, besides the objective element of suffering inflicted by the judge, also in addition the subjective element of the sense of guilt, or an evil conscience possessed by the guilty (cited in Shedd, pp. 457-58).
Shedd disagrees with these two men quoted above and maintains that it is proper to call what Christ suffered punishment or penalty. He gives three reasons:
(a) There is no other term but this, by which to designate a suffering that is endured for the sole purpose of satisfying justice. It cannot be denominated either calamity or chastisement. (b) When a commercial debt is vicariously paid by a friend of the debtor, it is as truly a "payment" as if paid personally, and the term "payment" is applied to it in the strict sense of the word. But if there is no valid objection to denominating the vicarious satisfaction of a pecuniary claim a "payment," there is none to denominating the vicarious satisfaction of a moral claim a "punishment." (c) At third reason for the use of the term punishment, or penalty, in this connection, is found in the use of the corresponding term "atonement." No objection is made to calling Christ's suffering an "atonement." But atonement and punishment are kindred in meaning. Both alike denote judicial suffering. There is consequently, no more reason for insisting that the term "punishment" be restricted to personal endurance of suffering for personal transgression, than there would be in insisting that the term "atonement" be restricted to personal satisfaction for personal sin. (p. 458).
These three points are easily answered. (a) While chastisement or calamity are not proper terms to refer to Jesus' suffering, that does not necessitate calling it punishment. (b)Shedd has already stated that a pecuniary debt and a criminal debt are not the same, so his argument here is misguided. (c)The use of the word "atonement" does not involve the necessity of one's personal guilt as the word "punishment" does. "Atonement" refers to reparation for an offense or injury, i.e., satisfaction; whereas punishment refers to a penalty inflicted on an offender. Anselm marked the distinction hundreds of years prior by applying the word poena (penalty or punishment) to the suffering inflicted upon a sinner for his crime but the word satisfactio for the suffering inflicted upon Jesus(Cur Deus Homo, I, p. 15).

Shedd's final argument for the justice of the PST is that no one can question God and no one's rights have been violated by the substitution. He writes:
The above-mentioned grounds and reasons for the substitution of penalty abundantly demonstrate its harmony with the principles of law and justice; but should they still be disputed, the whole question may be quickly disposed by asking, Who objects? Objections to any method of administering a government can be urged only by some party whose rights and claims have been disregarded, or trampled upon. In the instance of the vicarious atonement of the Son of God, no objection is raised by God the Father, for he officially proposed and planned the method. No objection is raised by God the Son, for he not only consents to be a party in the transaction, but to be the sacrificial victim required by it. And no objection is raised by God the Spirit, for he likewise is a party in the transaction, and co-operates in its execution and application. . . .

And when we pass from the Divine Being to angels and men, and ask for objections from one having real grounds of complaint, there must be of course a dead silence. No angelic or human rights have been interfered with. Objections to the method of vicarious atonement from the world of mankind especially, would be merely unthankful but absurd. That the criminal, who has no claims at all before the law which he has transgressed, and under whose eternal condemnation he lies in utter helplessness; that the criminal in whose behalf Eternal Pity has laid down its own life should object to the method, would deserve not only no reply, but everlasting shame and contempt
(p. 463).
I think Shedd misses the point here. The question is whether God retains his justice and righteousness in punishing an innocent not whether anyone's rights have been violated. The whole purpose of the atonement was to satisfy God's righteous anger against sin. How that can be satisfied by punishing someone who is not guilty of that sin is the appropriate question. In my opinion, Shedd never answers that question.


  1. "Shedd maintains that God would not be sovereign if he could not allow a substitute to suffer the penalty for sin ..."

    But why doesn't the inability to simply discharge sin and let it go without punishment also compromise the sovereignty of God?

  2. Nice post. This is just my confirmation bias barking here, but it seems to me that theology in general is, still, castles in air. Flowery, lofty, impressive, maybe even internally coherent - and entirely bereft of grounding in the real world.

    Mercy and justice are incompatible at their cores; one cannot meaningfully be both at the same time.

  3. It is amazing to read these creative attempts to defend penal substitution. That part about God punishing sin in the abstract sounds like it should be a heresy---not that I know enough about heresies to identify which one!

  4. SteveJ: But why doesn't the inability to simply discharge sin and let it go without punishment also compromise the sovereignty of God?

    Because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18, Romans 3:4). God keeping His own promises is not seen as a compromise of his sovereignty.

  5. @Ken - The discussion on p 456 is, indeed, interesting. I was going to ask about this on the other thread.

    Context: It seems that people often allow their wrath to be satisfied by "taking it out" on a substitute, rather than on the offender. Parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters will periodically volunteer to catch wrath in another's stead. This is a pretty primitive thing, but is still quite common. We have all seen this happen before, and maybe even done it ourselves.

    Question: However, people don't accept just any substitute. What are the reasons that a person will accept a certain substitute? You suggested that one reason would be that the substitute is considered personally culpable. While I admit that this could be true in some cases, it doesn't seem to ring true in the majority of cases. In these other cases, what was the calculation that the offended party made before accepting the substitute? I can think of some possible reasons, and Shedd offers up another possible explanation at p 456.

    But conjecture and anecdote isn't the best way to do science. Has anyone done any surveys, anthropological research, or better yet, controlled experiments? It seems like it would be relatively easy to empirically figure out how humans innately process substitutionary expiation, and this data would be useful in analyzing the good/bad about PST. I'm aware of behavioral psychology experiments about tit-for-tat, PSAP comes close, and so on; as well as empirical evidence about conditions where people will voluntarily make sacrifices for others. But I'm not aware of anyone having tested the specific scenario of an aggressor directing wrath at a substitute. Have you investigated this angle?

  6. Clarification: And by PSAP, I mean "Point Subtraction Aggression Paradigm" -- apparently that would be ambiguous if you just Googled the acronym. PSAP doesn't test anything about substitution, but could easily be modified to do so.

  7. That's,because we find theologians to be comedians and their jokes on the poor blokes who follow their silly sophisticated sophistry.
    The joke of jokes is that God is love but the pointless evils deny that. Now, if God is Allah or Yahweh, then their particular evils add to the evils. The latter has a couple sentenced for what He supposedly requires for soul-making - the knowledge of that tree! Not content with that, the fool condemns their posterity by original sin. Not content with that comes the divine protection plan that those misanthropic verses of John 3: 16-18 that theologians call the love verses in effect. So then comes up this notion of the ridiculous Atonement with its requirement for blood sacrifice of His son, one of His two other selves, to keep Himself from sending sinners to Hell. That the fool has two other selves is senseless unless He's a disordered individual. No, such as that comedian- theologian John Hick marshals all the comedic effects he can about universalism- that all will go to Heaven, as he can read the verses contrary to what the literalists writers meant just as Christians can make the prophecies of the Tanakh apply to that jerk Yeshua! William Kaufmann states that people read onto the scripture and Yeshua their own ideas: eisegesis is exegesis!
    Rather than making a compelling case for God, they in effect affirm ignosticism- the supernatural has no function as being vacuous!
    Spong and other theologians unwittingly are our Trojan horses!
    Remember it's Christiansanity, Moses's Folly [but no Moses!], Mohammad's Fits, Smith's Fraud, the Church of Nescientology, Mary's Christian Nescience, Ellen's Black Magic, the Hindu Illusion,the Dao No Way and the Buddhist?.
    nescience = ignorance
    Educated folk can ensconce themselves further into superstition so the rationalist fallacy is to assume that with more education, less superstition.

  8. Joshua,

    You asked: what was the calculation that the offended party made before accepting the substitute?

    That is an excellent question. It seems to me that the ONLY legitimate basis for punishing someone else is that the someone else shares culpability somehow. If he/she doesn't, then you are punishing the wrong person and committing an act of injustice. I think that is why you don't see substitutionary punishment in legal settings. Now I am not saying tha some human beings might not do it, i.e., punish a substitute, but it seems that they are acting out of haste or rage or some other non-rational basis when they do it.

  9. Thus the Christian Testament objurgates itself as misanthropic!Misanthropes wrote it. The divine protection racket is one of the scams of the ages! John 3:16-18 ranks amongst the hate lines of the ages!


  10. Now I am not saying tha some human beings might not do it, i.e., punish a substitute, but it seems that they are acting out of haste or rage or some other non-rational basis when they do it.

    Right, they are, by definition, acting out of wrath. That's what retribution is. Retributive justice isn't about rational, utilitarian considerations.

    It seems to me that the ONLY legitimate basis for punishing someone else is that the someone else shares culpability somehow. If he/she doesn't, then you are punishing the wrong person and committing an act of injustice.

    In a utilitarian context, perhaps. In a retributive context, not at all. There are cases where most people would find substitutionary expiation unjust (for example, if the substitute was unwilling, or was not of the appropriate kind). But there are other common cases where people find substitutionary expiation to be acceptable.

    To explain these common cases away, we have only three choices:

    A) Argue that our innate sense of justice is flawed in these cases, and that these substitutions are wrong despite people's instincts. To do this, we must appeal to a higher authority than empirically observable fact or the Bible, since both teach that substitutes can sometimes satisfy retribution.

    B) Argue that the substitute in all cases is actually the one culpable. As we've seen, this argument can be reduced to an absurdity. There is no evidence that the people who commonly accept substitutes in daily life are operating under this mindset.

    C) Claim that retribution is barbaric and wrong, because it cannot be defended on utilitarian grounds. That's a fine approach, but then the discussion is no longer about PST, it's about retributive justice.

    I think that is why you don't see substitutionary punishment in legal settings.

    Do we even see retributive justice in modern jurisprudence? Most modern adults find it barbaric, and even things like the death penalty are defended primarily in terms of deterrence or prevention.

  11. Joshua,

    You say: Retributive justice isn't about rational, utilitarian considerations. But is supposed to be justice not just the venting of wrath. What I meant is that sometimes someone might inflict harm on a substitute but that is because they are not acting rationally. This could not be said about the God of the Bible, could it?

    You indicate in alternative (a) that punishing a substitute is innately just. That precisely the opposite of what I am arguing. Can you provide analogies of where the punishing of an innocent substitute is innately just?

    I think (b) is the only possible way to defend punishing a substitute but in that case the person would not be innocent but sharing somehow in the culpability of the crime. I think that is what Hare tries to do with his "merger-identity" scenarios.

    I believe (c) to be correct but it is not the teaching of the Bible and it is not the foundation of the PST. I am trying to show that the PST is internally inconsistent with biblical theology.

  12. As I see it, to support the claim that PST is inconsistent, you must defend at least one of the two following positions:

    1) That the Biblical definition of "justice" forbids wrath to be disspated on a substitute. I don't think you've even tried to do this. Scriptures clearly teach that God's wrath can sometimes be disspated on specific substitutes.

    2) That for the many daily cases where someone accepts wrath in the stead of another, the person accepting the wrath is actually culpable in the sense of having committed a related crime. You have asserted as much, but haven't offered any evidence beyond assertion. I believe that there are several ways to falsify this thesis, so I don't find it convincing.

    If you fail to defend either of these points, then I believe you are left condemning PST on the grounds that it is repulsive to modern jurisprudence, or that it is not utilitarian. These are strong points, but fall short of demosntrating PST to be "inconsistent".


    the person would not be innocent but sharing somehow in the culpability of the crime. I think that is what Hare tries to do with his "merger-identity" scenarios.

    You know, I've read the lecture several times, and I just don't see how you could get this from Hare. He never uses the word culpability, and I believe he uses the first example specifically because the baby's throw-up is an amoral event (as you say). If any event could be squarely blamed on God, this would be one. I don't believe that Hare, or indeed any typical person, would arrive at your conclusion that the mother is culpable because "if she had not handed the baby over, this would not have happened".

    Hare is describing how people who are united, typically by love, tend to take on one another's pride and shame, without being actually culpable. Coincidentally, it is these same scenarios where an offended part is most likely to accept substitution.

    What I meant is that sometimes someone might inflict harm on a substitute but that is because they are not acting rationally. This could not be said about the God of the Bible, could it?

    Rational is contrasted against "instinctual". When a man throws himself in front of a train to save his brother's life, no rational calculation is made. When a woman exacts terrible vengeance on someone who is abusing her son, no rational calculation is made. Both reactions are instinctual and necessary.

    Reason is servant of justice, it is not lord. When someone passes a wounded and naked stranger at the side of the road on the way to give a speech about the dangers of religion, this person could excuse himself by reasoning that the delay would cause him to miss the speech. He believes that the speech might save thousands of people from death by religion, so the stranger's life, in balance, is worthless.

    In contrast, instinct screams out, "Do not pass the stranger!".