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Friday, July 23, 2010

Eleonore Stump's Problems with the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement

Eleonore Stump is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University, a Roman Catholic Jesuit school. She is one of the leading authorities on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. She wrote a book detailing his theological system entitled simply Aquinas (Routledge, 2003).

In the book she details some of her problems with the PST as it is popularly preached. She describes the popular version:

Human beings by their evil actions have offended God. This sin or offense against God generates a kind of debt, a debt so enormous that human beings by themselves can never repay it. God has the power, of course, to cancel this debt, but God is perfectly just, and it would be a violation of perfect justice to cancel a debt without extracting the payment owed. Therefore, God cannot simply forgive a person’s sin; as a just judge he must sentence all people to everlasting torment as the just punishment for their sin. God is also infinitely merciful, however; and so he brings it about that he himself pays their debt in full, by assuming human nature as the incarnate Christ and in that nature enduring the penalty which would otherwise have been imposed on human beings. In consequence, the sins of ordinary human beings are forgiven; and, by God’s mercy exercised through Christ’s passion, human beings are saved from sin and hell and brought to heaven (pp. 427-28).

She gives the following problems with this concept of the atonement.

1. It does not present God as forgiving sin.

[C]ontrary to what it intends, this version of the doctrine does not, in fact, present God as forgiving human sin. To forgive a debtor is to fail to exact all that is in justice due. But, according to (P) [PST], God does exact every bit of the debt owed him by human beings; he allows none of it to go unpaid. As (P) [PST] tells the story, God himself fully pays the debt owed him. This part of the story is perplexing; but what it shows is only that God himself has arranged for the debt to be paid in full, not that he has agreed to overlook any part of the debt (p. 428).

2. It is a denial of justice.

[I]t seems not to emphasize God’s justice but to rest on a denial of it. For all the talk of debt is really a metaphor. What (P)[PST] is in fact telling us is that any human being’s sins are so great that it is a violation of justice not to punish that person with damnation. What God does in response, however, is to punish not the sinner but a perfectly innocent person instead (a person who, even on the doctrine of the Trinity, is not the same person as God the Father, who does the punishing). But how is this just? Suppose that a mother with two sons, one innocent and one disobedient, inflicted all her disobedient son’s justly deserved punishment on her innocent son, on the grounds that the disobedient one was too little to bear his punishment and her justice required her to punish someone. We would not praise her justice, but rather condemn her as barbaric, even if the innocent son had assented to this procedure. If the mother could after all forego punishing the disobedient son, why did she not just do so without inflicting suffering on the other child? And how is justice served by punishing a completely innocent person (p. 428)?

3. It does not represent a full payment for the penalty of sin.

[PST] claims that in his suffering and death on the cross Christ paid the full penalty for all human sin so that human beings would not have to pay it; and yet it also claims that the penalty for sin is everlasting damnation. But no matter what sort of agony Christ experienced in his crucifixion, it certainly was not (and was not equivalent to) everlasting punishment, if for no other reason than that Christ’s suffering came to an end (p. 429).

One might escape this by saying the the penalty for sin is merely physical death but as Stump shows:
On Christian doctrine, the punishment for sin is not just death but hell, so that this alteration of (P)[PST] has the infelicitous result that what Christ undergoes in his substitutionary suffering is not the traditionally assigned penalty for sin. But even if it were, Christ’s suffering would not remove the penalty from human beings since they all suffer death anyway (p. 429).

4. It demands universal salvation.

[PST] maintains that Christ pays the penalty for all sin in full so that human beings do not have to do so. But it is a fundamental Christian doctrine that God justly condemns some people to everlasting punishment in hell. If Christ has paid the penalty for sin completely, how is God just in demanding that some people pay the penalty again (p. 429)?

Actually one could hold to a limited atonement (as Calvin and the Reformed) and thus escape this problem. However, it is impossible to reject limited atonement and still escape it (See PST Demands either a Limited Atonement or Universalism).

5. It does not offer a full solution to the sin problem.

Finally, it is not clear what the atonement accomplishes, on the account given in (P)[PST]. According to Christian doctrine, the main problem with human evil is that it leaves human beings alienated from God. Human beings tend to will what they ought not to will, and so their wills are not in conformity with God’s will. Consequently, they do not live in peace with God now, and in that state they cannot be united to God in heaven. Now, according to (P)[PST], the atonement consists in Christ’s paying the penalty for sin. But nothing in (P){PST] suggests in any way that the atonement alters human nature and proclivities which are responsible for sin. In (P)[PST]'s version of the doctrine, the atonement is efficacious to remove not sinful nature or proclivities for moral evil, but only the penalty for sin. In that case, however, the atonement is not really an at-one-ment; for, as (P)[PST] tells it, the atonement leaves human beings with just the same tendencies to will what is contrary to God’s will, so that their wills are no more conformable to God’s will, they are no more tending toward unity with God, than they were before the atonement (p. 429).

In fairness, most adherents of the PST would maintain that the atonement does much more than just pay the penalty for sin. They would acknowledge that it purchases everything needed for man's salvation including sanctification (which involves a change of heart and practical holiness).


  1. Hi, great blog. The problems with PST are very interesting. I'm an exmormon agnostic atheist but I never really considered the problems with the atonement. I left for different reasons. Anyway, have you studied the Mormon doctrine of atonement? It's a little bit different than the Christian view. There actually isn't an endless hell. Those who do go to hell, will only be there during the millenium and then they will finally be rewarded with the lowest degree of glory, called the Telestial Glory. This sounds a little like the limited atonement theory. D&C 76 (which talks about the rewards of heaven) was supposedly a revelation to both Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith. I wonder if Rigdon influenced the Mormon doctrine of the atonement and afterlife. And I wonder who were all of Rigdon's influences as well.

  2. KEN

    We have orders to EXTERMINATE you and your entire family if continue to talk about GOD and RELIGION the way *you do*

    do you got the msg, you stupid little babbling fucker?

  3. DM said: "We have orders to EXTERMINATE you and your entire family ..."

    A death threat, huh? Maybe it's time the authorities knock on DM's front door and pay that disturbed little cretin a visit.

  4. Damn. The post was quite good. The spam was epic.

  5. DM, you're a real tough guy making death threats behind a keyboard. As Steve said, this could easily become a legal matter. I doubt you would make such threats to people to their faces. You are a pussy.

  6. Ken,

    Another valuable post. I was reminded in reading Stump's summary of a point pertinent here, and an additional major "hurdle" for acceptance of orthodoxy:

    Since this understanding is supposedly revealed in Scripture, where IS it?

    (Answer: One can only derive it by complicated logic and picking/choosing certain concepts which clearly did not exist in any one of the NT author's minds, though Paul comes closest.) But other Jesus-following groups obviously did NOT have such a complex, convoluted understanding. "Revelation" is apparently only gradual and only to the theologically sophisticated, not the common reader of Scripture, as Evangelicals like to have it. (BTW, Paul's claims to divine authority rest basically just on him... the supposed connection to the authority of "the twelve" is concocted by Luke.)