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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Faustus Socinus on Penal Substitution--Part Two

Today, I continue my series on Faustus Socinus' (1539-1604) objections to the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement. Socinus was a radical Reformer of the 16th century and the father of the Unitarian movement. He wrote De Jesu Christo Servatore (The Savior Jesus Christ) in 1574 in reply to advocates of the PST (I am using the translation by Alan W. Gomes, "Faustus Socinus’ De Jesu Christo Servatore, Part III: Historical Introduction, Translation and Critical Notes." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 1990).

In Chapter 2, Socinus gives Biblical support to his contention that God was in fact willing to forgive us our sins, without having first received literal satisfaction for them (p. 13). He cites numerous examples from both testaments in which God forgave sin based on man's repentance without any type of blood sacrifice involved. He begins with the case of Abel:

But on what basis shall we say that God forgave Abel's sins? Was it because Jesus Christ would someday make satisfaction to divine justice for them, and that Abel put his faith in this future event? Not at all. The writer to the Hebrews explains the faith which made God consider Abel just, and which also made Enoch pleasing to God. He describes that faith as comprising the elements we have already stated: a belief that God exists, and that he rewards those who follow him diligently (p. 15).

He mentions many other OT examples and then goes to the NT. He writes:
Later, John the Baptist splendidly explained how we were to actually attain the remission of sins, provided for us solely from God's mercy. He explained this when, to encourage them to repent, he told the people that the kingdom of heaven was drawing near (Matt. 3:2) and preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 3:3). Therefore, God himself seeks nothing over and beyond our repentance, through which we obtain the remission of sins offered to us in the new covenant (p. 28)

Socinus concludes that a God that would require an innocent person to suffer a penalty before he would forgive the guilty party is not a gracious or merciful God but a vengeful and heinous deity. He writes:

Consider the following analogy. It is just as if a certain king had many subjects who were deeply indebted to him. If the king were to demand his money from these subjects he would ruin them. So the king devises a plan both to save his subjects and to recoup the money they owe him. The king forces a certain rich man in his kingdom, who owes him nothing, to pay him all the money his subjects owe him. The rich man must come up with the money or be liable for the debt. Everyone would certainly agree that a king who could have freely forgiven the money owed him by his subjects but instead extorts it from someone who owes him nothing is miserly and covetous. He would be all the more stingy and covetous if he were so wealthy that he did not even need the money. And meanwhile, he boasts to the debtors that he has forgiven their entire debt!

The degree of heinousness in God's punishing a substitute for our sins is in direct proportion to the degree to which God holds him dear. Nothing is more disgraceful than needlessly harming with a hideous punishment someone who is precious to you. And nothing is more disgraceful than demanding from that innocent person, as though it were a rightful claim, the penalties for other peoples' transgressions, which God could have justly forgiven outright
(pp. 26-27).

While it is true that in Socinus' analogy the rich man is forced to pay the King a debt he did not owe, the fact that the Bible portrays Jesus as doing this willingly does not really affect the force of the analogy. It would still remain true that someone had paid the debt off, even voluntarily, to a King who would not forgive the debt but demanded to paid. The rich man in this scenario would be noble for doing so voluntarily but the King would be ignoble for accepting it and then wanting praise for "forgiving" the debt.

As Socinus says:
Nothing is remitted to the debtor because of satisfaction that someone makes in his place. There is no need for remission—indeed, remission is an impossibility—where the debt no longer exists. There is certainly no longer any debt where satisfaction already was made fully for it (p. 32).
Nor does it help matters to say that the one who is forgiven is not the same as the one from whom the debt is demanded. The payment of a debt can only be demanded from the one who owes it. Although one person certainly can make satisfaction for another, it is still the original debtor who is responsible for the debt and not the person who is paying it in the debtor's place (p. 33).
It will do you no good to add the qualification that the debt is not simply remitted but is only remitted to the person who previously owed it. In this case the debt is not remitted to the person but is simply transferred to someone else. If the debtor had the debt remitted so that he was freed from the obligation to pay it, the debt neither should be nor could be transferred to someone else.

Remission necessarily has two aspects. One is that the person who owes the debt is forgiven of the obligation. The other aspect is that the creditor willingly forgoes satisfaction of the debt. There is no remission without each of these two aspects
(pp. 33-34).

But what if it is the creditor who actually pays the debt himself? Since Jesus is believed to be God by the adherents of the PST and his death is a propitiation to God, then isn't he in effect making the payment to himself?

Socinus answers:

I have sometimes heard people say that God's greatest generosity is evident in the payment Christ made for us, since God himself provided the payment he wished to receive. According to this argument, one can say that the creditor exercises the greatest generosity if he provides enough money to pay off the debt. He may provide it either to the debtor or to someone else who should make satisfaction for him. On this reckoning, we should declare God to be especially generous, since God provided Christ with the very payment which Christ gave to God on our behalf. . . .

But those who advance the above argument fail to observe its many problems. First of all, they fail to note, as we said above, that the sort of generosity for which they argue could only be employed if no other way of accomplishing the same effect were possible. No one would publicly give the money to the debtor or to anyone else, only to have the very same money returned to him for the satisfaction of the debt, unless there was some necessity for a payment to intervene before forgiving the debt. Otherwise, why would the creditor take such a useless, roundabout way when the creditor could both have absolved the debtor and have shown generosity by a simple remission of the debt? But, as we have already demonstrated, it was absolutely unnecessary for God to be paid what we owed him.

Next, they fail to consider that their creditor is generous because he provided the money by which the debt is discharged, not because this creditor remitted the debt itself. It is quite incorrect to say that the debt has been remitted to the debtor in such a situation, even though it is certainly accurate to say that the person who gave the debtor his own money to pay off the debt was exceedingly gracious toward that debtor. We have already noted that remission of a debt, to be true remission, thoroughly excludes all payment. If this were not so, we would have to praise the creditor for having exercised double generosity. First, we would have to commend him for providing the money. Then we would have to commend the creditor for remitting the debt. But this is plainly false, since the creditor has in reality only employed a single act of generosity in giving his own money to pay the debt
(pp. 39-40).

So, in this chapter (2), Socinus clearly demonstrates that forgiveness or remission of sins is not compatible with the notion of Jesus paying the penalty for sins. If Jesus paid the penalty, then there is nothing to forgive. Since the Bible makes it clear that God does forgive, and in many places he forgives without any penalty being paid, then Socinus concludes that whatever Jesus' death accomplished it was not a payment of a penalty for sin as taught in the PST.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for collecting and sharing this information.

  2. I'm somewhat confused, but this guy seems to make good sense. And I think thinking these things thru is a good thing. Most people just say "Oh, Jesus died for my sins, great!"

    Isn't it this way-Paul told us what it all meant? And he knew because Jesus appeared to him and told him what to write?