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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Trinity

This post ran on Luke's CommonSenseAtheism blog on June 21. I am re-posting it here for those who may not have seen it.

In prior posts I have discussed one of the problems of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement, namely, the injustice of punishing an innocent person. Today, I want to look at another problem that the PST faces: it's inconsistency with the classical doctrine of the Trinity.

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty of sin. This understanding of the cross of Christ stands at the very heart of the gospel. . . . That the Lord Jesus Christ died for us—a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place—has been the wellspring of the hope of countless Christians throughout the ages (Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, [2007], p. 21.)

The key elements in the PST are: 1) Man has sinned against God; 2) God is holy and cannot excuse sin(ners); 3) God’s holiness results in his anger and wrath focused against sin(ners); 4) Jesus Christ, the Son of God, bore the full wrath of God against sin(ners) on the cross and completely propitiated God; 5) This propitiation enables God to righteously forgive sinners, declare them righteous and thereby reconcile them to himself (I have used sin[ners] because as I understand the Bible, God's wrath is not focused against sin in the abstract but against sin as it manifests itself in human beings, i.e. sinners).

PST advocates believe that this teaching is clearly seen in Romans 3:21-26:

But now apart from the Law {the} righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even {the} righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. {This was} to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, {I say,} of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Evangelicals believe that Paul here is explaining how God can remain just (i.e., righteous) and yet still be able to justify (i.e., declare righteous) sinners. He is able to do this because of the propitiation made by his Son, Jesus Christ on the cross. A key word here is obviously, propitiation. The Greek word, ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), can mean either to “placate or appease” or “to expiate.” (C.H. Dodd has argued for "expiation" but most scholars have sided with Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, in translating it, propitiation.) The Greek word occurs 4 times in the New Testament (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; Hebrews 2:17). In classical Greek, the word is used to refer to sacrifices which appeased the gods. So, the PST holds that through the death of Christ on the cross, God’s wrath against sin(ners) has been “propitiated,” i.e., placated, satisfied, turned away (they don't like to use the word "appease" because of its pagan connotations). This is because Christ bore in his own body the punishment that was due to sin(ners). See also 1 Peter 2:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 and I John 2:2. Now that God’s holy wrath has been quenched, He can reconcile sinners to himself and declare them righteous.

What are the problems with this view?

1. Is it only the Father that needs to be propitiated or is it the Trinity, including the Son and Holy Spirit? 

The NT speaks of the Father sending the Son to die (John 3:16, etc.) and of the Father being the one whose wrath is turned away (Romans 3:25, etc). The NT never speaks of the Son nor the Spirit being propitiated. It appears that it is only the Father who needs to be propitiated.

2. If it is only the Father, then how can the Son and the Spirit be said to be fully God? 

It seems that if they were equally holy as the Father, their nature would also demand that they be propitiated.
Holding that only the Father needs to be propitiated actually undercuts the divinity of the Son, yet that is how the NT portrays it.

3. If the need for propitiation does include the Son and the Spirit, then how does the Son propitiate himself?

First, it seems to be a contradiction for the same person to be both the subject and the object of the verb, “propitiate.” (notwithstanding the arguments to the contrary in Pierced, pp. 282ff.) How does one quench his own wrath by punishing himself?

Second, even if it is not a contradiction, how exactly does the Son accomplish the propitiation? The penalty for sin is death and God cannot die (by definition). Thus when Jesus died on the cross bearing the penalty for man’s sin, it was not his divinity that suffered and died but rather his humanity. If it was just his humanity, then why was the incarnation necessary? Could God not have just created another perfect Adam and had him pay for the sins of the world? Most theologians would say that the death of Christ is infinitely valuable precisely because he was God. But as I have already pointed out, God cannot die so it was not his deity that died.

Third, I do not believe that the hypostatic union of the Person of Christ answers this problem. The hypostatic union states that there are two complete natures, human and divine, in the one person of Jesus Christ. These two natures communicate their attributes to the single person, thus making the person both divine and human at the same time. However, it also states that these natures are not confused or mixed or inter-mingled but rather retain their distinctions. The early Church hotly debated these matters in the so-called Christological controversies but the final conclusion was stated in the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

If the divine nature cannot die, then it cannot pay the penalty for sin. If only the human nature died, then it did not have the inherent value sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world. To say the person who was both God and Man (theanthropic person) died would not solve the problem, in my opinion, because it remains true that the divine nature in the person of Christ could not and did not die, so at best only part of the person of Christ died.

Fourth, if one holds that the person of Christ (which was both human and divine) did in fact die a spiritual death (which is the penalty for sin, Rom. 6:23), then you have the untenable position that there was at least for a time a split in the Trinity. If the God-man Jesus Christ suffered the penalty for sin as our substitute then he must have suffered "spiritual death." What is spiritual death? It is being cut-off from the presence and blessing of God. Is this what happened when Jesus cried from the cross: My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me (Matt. 27:45; Mk. 15:33)? Listen to what the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin had to say on this subject:.

We do not by all these observations say that Christ did not suffer in a different way from us, and that he was not tortured and dismayed in soul differently from us, or different from what the damned feel in their dread of, and a fleeing from, God. For Christ even in his own eyes was like unto one forsaken, cursed, a sinner, a blasphemer, and one damned, though, without sin. Because it was not a matter of play, or jest, or hypocrisy, when he said: “Thou hast forsaken me:” for then he felt himself really forsaken in all things even as a sinner is forsaken after he has sinned (Martin Luther, Select Works of Martin Luther, trans. Henry Cole, [1826], vol. 4, p. 365).

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God's anger, and satisfy his righteous judgement, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the "chastisement of our peace was laid upon him" that he "was bruised for our iniquities" that he "bore our infirmities;" expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. . . . not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price - that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:16:10).

Modern advocates of PST have basically followed Luther's and Calvin's lead on this matter. For example, J. I. Packer in his article entitled, The Logic of Penal Substitution, writes: Calvin explained Christ’s descent into hell: hell means Godforsakenness, and the descent took place during the hours on the cross.

Yet, neither Packer nor any of the other PST advocates attempt to explain how the second Person of the Trinity can be separated even for a few hours from the other two members. This seems like a logical dilemma for the adherents of the PST. Either there was a break in the unity of the Trinity (which would be impossible) or Jesus Christ did not die spiritually (and thus did not pay the penalty for sins).

For these and other reasons, therefore, it is my opinion that the PST is actually inconsistent with evangelical Christian theology and the classical orthodox teaching on the Trinity. If the core doctrine (the nature of the atonement) of evangelical Christianity is false, then perhaps the whole system is false. I have concluded that it is and have left the faith.


  1. This was one of the major reasons I abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity and deity of Jesus decades ago.

  2. Your posts are very informative, and I'm learning a lot here. I wish I had time to go through your archives. I also graduated from BJU in the 80's.
    Since my major wasn't Bible related, I have often wondered if they teach anything other than their presuppositional truth. Do they go near textual criticism, for example, with their seminary students? How are they taught to respond to honest questions? I had questions, but while there I was trying so hard to be a good Christian and fit. There was no way I would have been brave enough to broach any of this with anyone there.

    On another thread one of your friends stated that he's a former Christian.I think I am as well, because many of my foundations seem to be crumbling based on common sense examination of other sides of the issues. That was strongly discouraged, as you know. This is a weird and uncomfortable place to be, though.

    Since I haven't had time to read all of your posts, I hope you don't mind a question you may have answered elsewhere. Under the huge umbrella of Christianity, is there any branch that holds to a different atonement theory? Ugh. I so don't want to let go, but my heart and my mind seem to be in two different places.

    Your honesty was very admirable. It must have taken a huge amount of courage to admit your change of mind/heart. I really respect that. Even for someone like me, with much less to lose than you did, I cringe at the possible outcomes of admitting where I am.

  3. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, they teach textual criticism and actually are pretty good at it but they take a lot of heat from the even more extreme fundamentalist groups like Pensacola Christian College and Hyles-Anderson affiliate colleges for doing so. Textual criticism really doesn't disprove the Bible, it only disproves the inspiration of the KJV.

    Honest questions? Um. Well, it just seems to be assumed by everyone that the Bible is the Word of God and so no serious questioning of it takes place. When we studied liberals and other critics of the Bible it was only to see how and why they "strayed from the truth."

    I obviously sympathize with your struggles but now with the internet it is clear that many, many people are struggling. Back in 1994 before the internet, I felt like the "lone ranger," although I was aware of Charles Templeton and his departure from the faith but not many others.

    I would just encourage you to be honest with yourself and follow the evidence wherever it leads. That is what I did and I am glad I did.

    As for other theories of the atonement, yes there are others but for conservatives its almost exclusively the PST. The other theories have problems though too and eventually I will get around to discussing all of them.

  4. Anonymous,

    My friend Luke Muehlhauser is a former believer. His father is a Pastor. Check out his post about losing his faith.

  5. Ken,

    Thanks for your reply, and for recommending Luke's blog. I just read his story. The internet is changing the world, and I am so glad to be living in this era!

    I'm going to read through your archives, and I look forward to your new posts!

  6. @ Anonymous - "Under the huge umbrella of Christianity, is there any branch that holds to a different atonement theory?"

    I think you might be amazed at what can fit under the umbrella of "Christianity". The New Church, for example, holds that Jesus saved us by living among us and setting a holy example, not through his death.

    I'm not advocating their view, but it's a striking example of just how much variety there is in Christian beliefs.

  7. Ken:

    1. In your 20 years or so of being a christian, didn't it ever bother you that your religion was based on punishing an innocent? I mean, in our worldly views, this is not something we tolerate even for a day. Yet you did for many years.

    2. Since you don't like the basis of PST now, I ask you, how else would you suggest for a Holy God to save a lost people? You mention creating a perfect man (in lieu of Jesus His Son). Could there be some other way than the one God used?

    3. Finally, I noticed you write A LOT about your history with fundamentalism. What I have not seen a lot of is your history with Jesus. I would be very interested in hearing how Jesus helped you in those years. Maybe there was a belief in fundamentalism more than Jesus and christianity? It seems there is that tendency especially with the fundamentalists.

    Thank you much.

  8. John Sfifer,

    Your questions betray a deep suspicion about Ken's motives and his religious experience. In question 3, you appear to suggest that Ken had religion but not Jesus.

    You guys just can't accept that some people have real faith, study it and ultimately find it untenable. No, you've always got probing questions to uncover the "real reason" someone leaves the faith.

  9. Hi Steve,

    Go back and read the many posts by Ken, and you will notice that this is consistent with what he has written.

    I am actually mostly interested in answers to #1 (and then #2). Ken has talked a lot about the so-called injustice of punishing an innocent.