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Thursday, June 3, 2010

A. A. Hodge's Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution

Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886) was the son of Charles Hodge and also a Professor of Theology at Princeton Seminary. He wrote a 452 page book entitled, The Atonement (1868). In the book, he defends the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (PST).

He begins by stating the main objections to the PST.

(1) As it respects Christ, it is claimed that the judicial treatment of the innocent as if he were guilty is an outrageous injustice involving the confusion of every moral principle. (2) As it regards his sinful people, in whose stead Christ is said to have died, it is claimed that his punishment in their stead can, as a matter of abstract justice, avail them nothing, for the plain reason that the precise and only thing which justice demands is not the suffering of so much pain, but the judicial infliction of the pain upon the sinner . . . . As to the first side of the objection, we admit that, in the common judgment of all men, to regard and treat a man as responsible for a sin for which he is not truly responsible is beyond question unjust (emphasis added; pp. 198-99).

Note that Hodge admits that it is universally held that it is unjust to punish a person for a crime for which he bears no responsibility. This is the point that I have been making over and over in my posts. The notion that it is wrong to punish an innocent person is a basic intuition that all men possess and it seems to be present in man from infancy. I believe the notion is present in man due to the way our brains have evolved, but Hodge, and other Christians, would say it is there because man was made in the image of God. I have argued that if the Christians are right, that this intuition was implanted by God, then there is a contradiction between this natural revelation and the special revelation contained in the Bible.

Now, while Hodge admits that all men have this inner knowledge of the injustice of punishing a person for what he did not do, he does not believe that the principle applies with regard to Christ. He writes:

But this plain principle does not apply to the case of Christ suffering the just for the unjust; because (a) he, being the equal of God, the fountain of all law, and owing no obedience to the law on his own account, and having an unlimited right to dispose of his services and of his life as he pleased, voluntarily assumed our obligations and made them his own. As far as Christ is concerned, therefore, there is obviously no injustice in the Father's exacting from him all the conditions of a suretyship which he has spontaneously assumed and voluntarily yields. Besides this, it is admitted on all hands that Christ suffered for his people (p. 199).

Hodge does what so many other defenders of the PST do, he claims that because Jesus volunteered to be the substitute, then it is righteous and just for him to suffer in the place of sinners. As I have argued before, this is really a red herring. It diverts attention away from the main issue. The main issue is: how can God justly accept the punishment of a substitute in place of what sinners deserve? The fact that the substitute volunteered is irrelevant. If he had not volunteered, but had been forced to bear the punishment of others, that would be an additional injustice. No opponent of the PST is saying that Jesus did not voluntarily go to the cross.

Hodge then proceeds to say that the two other main theories of the atonement popular in his day, the moral influence and governmental theories, have the same problem--an innocent person suffering because of the sin of others. So, he maintains that advocates of these theories have no basis to criticize the PST. He states:
The advocates of the Moral Influence and Governmental theories of the Atonement maintain that our sins are the occasion of his sufferings. We say that they are the judicial ground of his sufferings. We all agree in maintaining that his sufferings are caused by our sins, and that they are self-assumed by him with the utmost freeness and spontaneity of love. If this be so, it is evident that there is no injustice in the one view of the case anymore than in the other (pp. 199-200).

Hodge is basically correct but there is a difference. The other theories do not use the courtroom as their model around which to build their theory. In other words, these other theories do not utilize legal terminology to explain the atonement. The PST obviously does, therefore, it bears a responsibility to justify from a legal standpoint how an innocent can pay the penalty owed by the guilty.

Hodge then argues, as others including Shedd do, that the arrangement by which the innocent takes the place of the guilty does not cause harm to anyone so therefore no one has a right to complain.

Since the sufferings of Christ satisfy God, and maintain the honour of his law and the interests of his government, even better than the punishment of each sinner in person would have done, there can, of course, be no injustice involved in the arrangement as far as the interests of God and his government are concerned. This vicarious suffering is an infinite benefit to those sinners who are saved, and no disadvantage whatsoever to any who may be left to bear the penal consequences of their own sins. Therefore, if there be no injustice done to any one of the parties concerned, there can be no injustice in the case (p. 200).

This argument misses the mark, however. The issue is not whether any persons have been treated unjustly in this arrangement, the issue is how can the punishment of an innocent satisfy the righteous wrath of God? If justice is accomplished by recompensing the criminal for what he did, which is the essence of retributive justice, then how can recompensing someone who did not commit the crime accomplish justice? That is the question to be answered and Hodge does not do so.

Hodge continues:
As to the second side of the objection above made, we confess that the divine administration, both as to the coming in of the curse through Adam, and as to the redemption from the curse through Christ, rests upon principles higher and grander than those embraced in the ordinary rules of human law. Our doctrine, although never contradicting reason, does not rest upon it, but upon the supernatural revelation given in the Word. But while the complete satisfaction which absolute justice finds in the vicarious sufferings of a substituted victim may transcend reason, it by no means conflicts with it, because  it is no part of the teaching of Scripture that sin can be imputed to any one, or its guilt be expiated by the sufferings of any one to whom it does not truly belong. There must be, of course, in every case such a union as shall in the unerring judgment of God be a firm foundation in justice for this imputation (p. 200).
Hodge admits that penal substitution does not conform to rules of human law but he says it is based on a "higher principle." He is bascially saying that the Bible teaches it and since God ways are higher than man's ways, we should not be surprised that it does not conform to human justice. I believe this argument is problematic because it implies that man cannot understand God's system of justice. If God's ways are so much different than man's ways, then how can man hope to properly understand anything about God? Perhaps what we think we understand, we really don't. In addition, if God's system of justice is contrary to man's system of justice, then the term "justice" has really lost its meaning. If man is supposed to imitate God's ways, then his ways must be comprehensible by man.

Hodge argues that while the PST transcends reason, it does not contradict it. I disagree. It does contradict man's reason and his sense of justice. It is contrary to man's intuition to think that punishing an innocent person can expiate the sin of the guilty.

Hodge maintains that it is just to punish Jesus for the sins of man because of the union that exists between them. He rejects the notion that imputation is a "legal fiction."

It is no mere mental assumption on the part of God of that which is not true in fact. . . . if only there be such a union between the person who sinned and the person who is punished as justifies the imputation (p. 201).

Now we propose to prove (1) that the Scriptures plainly teach that God has established between Christ and his people a union mysteriously transcending all earthly analogies in its intimacy of fellowship and reciprocal co-partnership, both federal and vital, and hence called by theologians "mystical" in the sense of being mysterious, in perfection and completeness transcending all analogy. And (2) that the fact of this union being established, it goes to explain his community with us in the guilt of our sins, and our community with him in the rewards of his righteousness (p. 203).

Hodge then proceeds to say that this "mysterious union" between Christ and sinners is stated but not explained in the Scriptures. While there are various analogies given, these are "partial analogies" and cannot be expected to accurately reflect the union in every detail.

As might be supposed, the Scriptures present this union to us simply as a matter of fact, to be credited solely on the ground of divine testimony. They attempt no rational explanations of its nature. We can understand its essential nature no more than we can the coexistence from eternity of the three divine Persons in the unity of the one essence; or the union of the two natures in the one person of the God-man; or the union of the whole race in the person of Adam. As it transcends all natural analogies, the Scriptures set forth its variety and fullness, element by element, by means of many partial analogies. Thus they liken it to the relation the foundation of a building sustains to the superstructure erected upon it, configured to it, and supported by it (1 Pet. ii. 4-6); to a tree and its branches. John xv. 4, 6. "Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing." It is also likened to the organic union of the different members of one body: "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; so we, being many, are one body in Christ." Rom. xii. 4, 5. "For as the body is one, and hath many members, .... so also is Christ Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." 1 Cor. xii. 12, 27. "We are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and his Church." Eph. v. 30, 32, and iv. 15, 16. Also, to a husband in his relation to his wife. Eph. v. 31, 32; Rom. vii. 4; Rev. xix. 7-9; and xxi. 9. And more particularly to the relation sustained by Adam to his descendants. Rom. v. 12-19; and 1 Cor. xv. 22 and 45-49. He is called "the last Adam" and the "second man." It is a simple matter of fact, as we have seen, whatever philosophical explanation we may give it, that "In Adam's fall we sinned all" (pp. 203-04).

So, Hodge admits that this union between Christ and sinners defies explanation: it is a mystery. He believes it because the Bible teaches it, and if it seems incongruent with human reason, then he will sacrifice human reason on the altar of divine revelation. He says that the Bible offers a number of analogies but that one should not expect these anaologies to be perfect reflections of the union between Christ and sinners.

Hodge is right, these analogies are not perfect, but even more importantly, in their context, they do not seem to have anything to do with the imputation of man's sin to Jesus. They may illustrate the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the elect since they all describe the union between Christ and his people which was accomplished by the death and resurrection. The relationship of a building to its foundation, branches to the vine, a head to the body, and a husband to a wife are illustrations of the union that exists between Jesus and his followers as a result of their salvation. The relationship begins at the moment of their salvation and is caused by their salvation. These analogies are not used in Scripture to illustrate how man's sin could be transferred to Christ. Hodge is using them in a way not intended by the Scripture writers. Believers are never said to be "in Christ" or "united to Christ" prior to their conversion. Only after having their sins forgiven through the blood of Christ, are they said to be "members of his body," or "the bride of Christ." This union is accomplished because Jesus already paid for their sins not as an attempt to explain how Jesus could bear their sins.

Hodge basically admits that he has no good answer as to how Jesus can legitimately be substituted for the sinner. He says that the Bible teaches it and therefore he believes it.
We here, of course, attempt no philosophical explanation of the essential basis of that union. We can know it only so far as its nature and its consequences are made known to us by direct revelation (p. 207).

He agrees with his father, Charles Hodge, against the position of A. H. Strong and other "realists" who believe that there is an organic connection between Jesus and the rest of humanity due to Jesus being genuinely human. He writes:

The disciples of Schliermacher, and Realists in general, maintain that this union essentially consists in the fact that the eternal joy in his incarnation, assumed the entire substance of human nature, and thus becomes, ipso facto, in the most literal sense, responsible for all the sin of that nature. This view we have rejected for reasons assigned in a preceding chapter [because it makes the oneness to be physical and not moral], and, whether true or false, it is no part of Christian doctrine, because no part of revealed truth, but at best a human attempt at the rational explanation of the truth revealed. All that is clearly taught in the Scriptures, and, therefore, all that ought to be received as Christian doctrine as to the nature of this union, is, that it is a real union, such as in the infallible judgment of God lays the foundation in right for his being punished for our sins, and for our being credited with his righteousness — that is, so far as to answer all the federal demands of the law upon us (p. 208).

Hodge concludes his discussion by admitting that it is "absurd" to punish an innocent in place of the guilty. In order to remove the absurdity and make it reasonable, the innocent must somehow have the legal penalty justly applied to him.

By far the most plausible objection that is brought to our doctrine is that the demands of justice for penal satisfaction are essentially personal.. . . It is asserted, that in the view of the moral sense of all men there is and can be no connection between the punishment of the sin of one man and the sufferings of a different person. That vicarious punishment, in the strict judicial sense of those terms, is a simple absurdity (emphasis mine). How can the demands of the divine wrath be satisfied by pains inflicted upon a person arbitrarily substituted in the place of the criminal by the divine will. There is force in this objection, and, I think, it must be conceded by all that justice cannot demand and execute the punishment of a sin upon any party that is not truly and really responsible for it, and that the sin of one person cannot be really expiated by means of the sufferings of another, unless they be in such a sense legally one, that in the judgment of the law the suffering of the one is the suffering of the other (pp. 308-09).

So, when it is all said and done, Hodge goes back to the "legal fiction" argument. God considers the guilt of man to be imputed to Christ, even though Christ was sinless. While he cannot explain how God is able to justly do this, he accepts it by faith because it is what he believes the Bible teaches.


  1. A.A. Hodge's book "Evangelical Theology" was a doorway for me into the world of Calvinism. Thanks a whole lot, A.A.

  2. Wow, these posts of yours completely destroy the PST and with it evangelicalism.

    Add to it critiques of other theories and this is the making of a killer book which I would heartily recommend.

  3. Thanks. I want to write the definitive refutation of the PST but I don't know who would publish it, certainly no Christian organization and secular publishers think it is too theological and technical for non-Christian readers.

  4. Ken, you write it post after post and I will do my very best to recommend it. It would be worthy of Oxford University Press, Chicago U, Yale U, or Harvard U.

    You'll need to interact with Richard Swinburne and the philosophers too.

    One thought is that if you stick to just the PST then liberal presses like John Knox Press, Adingdon and Fortress Press would probably publish it.

  5. Atonement aint theory its liturgy.

  6. Chaz,

    That's a great line. (But, you need apostrophes!) You can replace that first word with a whole bunch of other religious concepts, too.


    This is superb work yet again.

  7. Ken,

    Your blog badly needs one of those heirarchical blogger archive things in the sidebar!

  8. It seem to me that this old dude is splitting up the Trinity and having God take out his wrath aginst sinners on innocent Jesus. Gods wrath is based in His love and wisdom, like a parent to a child, so you got the Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together to bring atonement in a way that is just and loving to sinners through Christs work on earth. And what happen at the cross a important aspect of this, the finishing point, but not the only thing. But everything else that you could say Christ accomplished could have been done without Him die on the cross. Except for punishment in our place.
    Would you say that punishment was the right thing for people to do to someone who did something wrong on purpose back in Jesus time? Could it have been a good thing to do to punish those people who did wrong on purpose back then? Would it have been mercifuI to not put the punishment on them? Would you say that punishment is the right thing for God to do to humans who do something wrong on purpose? Could it be a good thing for God to punish these humans? Would it still be good for God to take the punishment on Himself? Would it be merciful for God to not put punishment on these humans?
    Justice demand that if you do wrong on purpose you get punished. It also a good thing in most cases to punish those people who do wrong on purpose. It is also merciful to save someone from that punishment.
    If you are Gene Hackman in the Posiden Adventere, you turn that steam valve and fall to your death to save the other survivors. If you are that mom in Wisconsin last week you dive in the water and drown to save your nine year old child. Is there a greater love than laying your life down for a friend?
    Christ taking on mans punishment wasn't His only purpose and wasnt just a way for people to get out of punishment they deserve. It helps us see how important it is to God for reconsile the people to Him, it shows how serious He is about our sin and justice, and shows how merciful He is by laying on that hand grenade to save us.

  9. “If God's ways are so much different than man's ways, then how can man hope to properly understand anything about God? Perhaps what we think we understand, we really don't... If man is supposed to imitate God's ways, then his ways must be comprehensible by man.”

    Isaiah 55:8-9 – “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

    Eternity is a long time to be tripped up by the wisdom or questioning of man. You'd better be absolutely sure you're right. The Scripture is all we have as well as need to know God’s ways. As it says, it is sufficient. Therefore, everything must satisfy this criterion. Speculation does not save, it can only damn – and to apostatize over something as such, as I trust you have read, is foolishness. If we have a problem with something God does or has done, it is our problem, not God’s.

    Perhaps we could pray that God lead us to an understanding of His justice instead of taking it upon ourselves to feel good or even uncomfortable that we think such questions and statements as to “disprove” Him. We are called to trust Him. The Way is Christ Jesus, and this is the only Way we know to understand through faith. We are called by Him to understand and know the perfect sacrifice – the Way, the propitiation, Jesus. To understand what God wants us to understand about Him, He reveals to us in the reading of Scripture (being filled with the Holy Spirit). Christlikeness is to that which we strive. Simply read and obedience, trust, and faith we will know, cherish, and understand.

    Psalm 19:7-14
    “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
    The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
    The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
    The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
    The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
    The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
    They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
    Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
    Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;
    In keeping them there is great reward.
    Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults.
    Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins;
    Let them not rule over me;
    Then I will be blameless,
    And I shall be acquitted of great transgression.
    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    Be acceptable in Your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.”