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Friday, July 30, 2010

Wilhelmus à Brakel's Attempt to Defend Penal Substitution

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) was a Reformed minister in the Netherlands. He is arguably the most esteemed representative of Middle Period of the Dutch Further Reformation (1600-1750) (also known as the Dutch Second Reformation)....His importance is largely due to the great influence of his magnum opus De Redelijke Godsdienst, available in English as The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols.; available on-line here). He is sometimes called the "Dutch Calvin" and of course defends the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement.

He writes:

Question: Is it possible and just that a Surety makes satisfaction on behalf of the sinner?
Answer: Socinians deny this, but we answer affirmatively. Such satisfaction is possible, just, and also necessary.

This is first of all evident from the fact that among both the heathens and the godly it is customary, as recorded in Scripture, that a surety makes payment for someone else. It is just that he who has obligated himself to be surety also makes payment and that the government may also justly demand satisfaction from him. Heathens are known to have killed those who had obligated themselves for the debt of others when such a person either fled the scene or was not true to his word. They are also known to have killed animals and even persons in the place of others to make satisfaction for their sins before God. There was thus some degree of knowledge that someone else could bring about reconciliation with God on their behalf
(I, 477).
I see at least three problems here:

1. The term "surety" conjures up the notion of a monetary debt. The word means: "a promise by one party (the guarantor) to assume responsibility for the debt obligation of a borrower if that borrower defaults. The person or company that provides this promise, is also known as a surety or guarantor." Everyone agrees that a monetary debt can be paid by a substitute. There is no controversy there. The problem with the PST is that the debt that man owes is not a monetary debt but a moral debt. Moral debts cannot be paid by someone else but must be paid by the one who incurred the debt.

2. à Brakel is right that heathens have been known to kill a surety who could not pay the debt for which he was obligated. However, in that case, the surety himself is in violation of the contract and is dying for his own sin (i.e., the failure to live up to his part of the contract).

3. à Brakel says that heathens have also been known to have killed animals or persons in the place of others to make satisfaction to God. That is true of not only heathens but also of the Israelites. However, the animal or person is being offered up to the god(s) as a gift to placate the wrath of the deity, not being slain as a legal substitute suffering the penalty owed by the offerer. Actually, I think this is how the original Christians understood the death of Jesus, i.e., the ultimate sacrifice (most valuable) that propitiates the wrath of God forever. Later Christians, interpreted the atonement in a more legal sense making Jesus the penal substitute bearing the precise penalty owed by sinful man.

à Brakel continues:
In Scripture we have the example of Paul: “Put that on mine account ... I will repay it” (Phil 4:18-19). Judah offered himself to be surety and was willing to be a slave the remainder of his life on behalf of his brother Benjamin: “For thy servant became surety for the lad. ... Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord” (Gen 44:32-33) (I, 477).

1. Paul is referring to Onesimus a runaway slave. A slave was property and and could be bought and sold. Thus, Philemon's loss of Onesimus was a monetary debt which Paul could assume.

2. Judah is offering to become a slave in place of his brother, however, once again a slave is property. The slaveholders did not necessarily care which brother became a slave. What Judah is not doing is paying the penalty for a crime committed by his brother. That is what he would have to do in order to illustrate the PST.

à Brakel attempts to deal with the objection that suretyship only refers to a monetary debt:

Objection #1: Relative to monetary debt, one person may become surety for another simply because it is permissible to share one's resources with someone else. This, however, is not permissible relative to life itself; much less is it permissible that someone should become surety for another by bearing the punishment of eternal condemnation and by fulfilling the law, and thus merit a right to eternal life.

Answer: Relative to monetary debt, one is authorized to become a surety for someone else only because God has authorized man to do so. Man, however, may not become a surety in cases relative to human life on behalf of someone who is worthy of death. Under such circumstances governments are not permitted to accept a suretyship. (1) This is expressly forbidden by God. “Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer” (Num 35:31). (2) God has not authorized man to dispose of life at his own discretion. Man is not permitted to give his life as a ransom, and therefore it cannot be accepted as a ransom. (3) In giving his life as a ransom, man would act beyond his ability. For he cannot make full payment while simultaneously preserving himself, but rather he remains indebted since he cannot quicken himself. (4) If God had not forbidden this, and if man were capable of quickening himself and remaining alive, there would be no reason why one would not be able to deliver another person from death by dying on his behalf, as well as to deliver another person out of monetary straits. God is the supreme and sovereign Lord who gives His laws to man. He Himself is above the law, however, and is not bound by the law He has given. God knows what is appropriate and what is able to satisfy His justice. He Himself has appointed a Surety and is satisfied with His Suretyship
(I, 477-78).

à Brakel argues that a man cannot give his life for another man for two reasons: 1) A man is not able to raise himself from the dead; and 2) God has forbidden it. It is not clear to me why one would need to be able to raise himself from the dead in order to give his life for another. If a man could justly assume the moral debt of another, then it seems that the man could pay the moral debt by dying and whether he was raised from the dead or not would be immaterial. à Brakel maintains that God has forbidden one man to die in the place of another but when it comes to God's own actions, he is not bound by that law and can do whatever he pleases. I think this fails to recognize that God's law is supposed to be a reflection of his character. His law is grounded in his nature (according to most Christian theologians). So, to say that God is above his law, as à Brakel does, would be to say that God is above his nature and his free to work in contradiction to it. That is a serious theological problem for à Brakel.

Next, à Brakel deals with the objection that it is a contradiction of Scripture to maintain that one can die for the sin of another.
Objection #2: In Deut 24:16 we read, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers,” and in Ezek 18:4, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

Answer: (1) In these texts there is no reference to a surety or a dying on behalf of someone else in order to deliver this person (this being the issue at hand), but rather to dying due to the sins of someone else, thus relating their sins to this individual's punishment. These texts are therefore not applicable here.

(2) God forbids man to kill a person for the sake of someone else's sin. He, however, remains sovereign and thus punishes parents in their children, which results in much more grief than if one had to bear this punishment himself—“visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exod 20:5).

(3) Children are as sinful as all other men, and therefore are worthy of temporal and eternal punishment. Thus, no injustice is done by God when He pours out His wrath upon them at the occasion of someone else's sin (emphasis mine)—whether they be fathers, governments, or whoever else they may be related to. God does declare, however, that in specific cases and at certain occasions He will not do so, especially if the children do not follow in the footsteps of their fathers. When the godly are subject to general judgments upon a nation due to the sins of its inhabitants, such judgments are but fatherly chastisements upon them.
(I, 479).

I think that à Brakel has interpreted these verses correctly and his interpretation shows the concept of "collective culpability" which was prevalent among ancient peoples. They saw whole families guilty of the sin of one member of the family (e.g., Achan, Josh. 5) or a whole tribe guilty due to the sin of part of the tribe. Thus, in this mindset it was not unjust to punish the children for what their fathers had done (precisely what God orders relative to the Amalekites, I Sam. 15). However, à Brakel maintains that while God is just in doing this, he sometimes shows mercy and not does not punish the whole family or tribe. The justice claimed by à Brakel for his God is a primitive form of justice that made sense to ancient peoples but is repugnant to those who don't accept the concept of collective culpability as valid. By the way, because of à Brakel's view of original sin, children, even infants are "worthy of both temporal and eternal punishment." What a loving God!

Finally, à Brakel attempts to skate around the problem of how one member of the Trinity could suffer spiritual separation, which is the penalty for sin, from another member of the Trinity.

He writes:
The magnitude of His soul's suffering is also evident from His complaint upon the cross. “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me” (Matt 27:46). He was not forsaken by His divine nature, for the hypostatic union could not be dissolve. (emphasis mine). He was also not forsaken by the love of His Father, which remained immutable. Neither was He forsaken by the Holy Spirit, with whom He had been anointed in abundant measure; nor did He complain of being forsaken into the hands of men. Rather, He complained about the withdrawal of all light, love, help, and comfort during the specific moment when His distress was at its highest and when He needed them to the utmost. When Christ uttered the word “Why,” He was not asking to know the cause, but it was instead an emotional expression of sorrow. It was not an expression of despair, for He said, “My God,” “Father.” It was rather indicative of a most comfortless, helpless, and distressful condition.

. . .the true cause of all His soul's suffering was first of all that He felt the full extent of what sin is, as well as what it means to be a sinner. He Himself had neither committed sin nor had known sin, for He was holy, undefiled and separate from sinners. But He had removed all sins from the elect by taking their sins upon Himself as if He Himself had committed them, thus standing [580] in their place. He now felt what it meant to break the relationship and the covenant with God, to forsake God, to be disobedient to God, to oppose God, to sin against His law and will, and to be conscious of being a partaker of sin. To behold sin as sin, and to feel it to be such, is unbearable, even if there were no punishment upon sin. This caused David to exclaim, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight” (Ps 51:4). The Lord Jesus, who was made to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), experienced sin as sin. This was an unbearable condition in Him who loved God perfectly
(I, 579-80).

Note à Brakel states that Jesus "was not forsaken by His divine nature, for the hypostatic union could not be dissolved." Yet, later à Brakel states that "Christ felt the full force of being separated from God due to sin." He can't have it both ways. If Jesus suffered the true penalty for man's sin, i.e., spiritual death or separation from God, as à Brakel claims, then he must explain how it is that the human nature and the divine nature in the person of Christ remained in union. It seems to be an impossible task.

à Brakel also maintains that Jesus was not forsaken by his Father or by the Holy Spirit even though he "felt" like he was. Yet, he seems to contradict himself in the paragraph below:
Secondly, Christ felt the full force of being separated from God due to sin. It is neither imaginable, nor can it be expressed what terror, unrest, darkness, and misery are experienced, and what a sorrowful condition it is when God in indignation fully separates Himself from a sinner, withdrawing all favor, grace, and light; forsaking, rejecting, and casting him out; leaving him over to himself—man not being able to live without finding relief for his soul somewhere. For a man to have a soul—a soul which cannot satisfy itself and can only be satisfied by something external to itself—and then to have nothing and be unable to find anything for fulfilment; to miss God, who alone is the satisfaction of a rational creature; and to be empty within while weeping in total separation from God, is both unbearable and intolerable. Such will be the eternal punishment of the ungodly, “who will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess 1:9). The elect were deserving of all this, but the Lord Jesus bore this in their place. Such sorrow of soul exceeds our comprehension (I, 580).

The only way that I can see for à Brakel to avoid a direct contradiction with himself would be to say that while Jesus "felt" what it would feel like to be separated from God, he did not actually experience such. But if that is the case, then he did not fully experience the penalty for sin. I think à Brakel realizes that he is on the horns of a dilemma here. If Christ paid the penalty for man's sin, then Christ had to suffer spiritual separation from his own divine nature as well as from the Father and the Holy Spirit. But to do this would be to dissolve the unity of the person of Christ as well as to dissolve the unity of the Trinity. Thus, à Brakel says that Christ just "felt" what such separation feels like. It is not clear how one can feel what something feels like without experiencing that something.

à Brakel admits that Christ experienced the wrath of his Father but in order to try to lessen the problem of how the Father could be angry with the Son, he says that the Father was not angry with the Son but with the sin that the Son had taken upon himself. He writes:

Thirdly, Christ experienced the full force of the curse, the execution of what it is to be cursed (Gal 3:10, 13), the just manifestation of divine wrath, the Lord‟s anger towards the sinner (Nah 1:2), the terribleness of falling into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31), and the experience of God being a terror (Jer 17:17). As this cannot be understood by anyone who has not experienced it, so it can only be understood in a small measure by someone who has felt this in principle or by approximation, and cannot be fully understood and expressed by anyone. Let us take the most extreme conception of it as deduced from all the expressions of Scripture, and then consider our perception to be almost nil in comparison to what the Lord Jesus experienced in this respect. Christ was the Son of love, and as such God was not angry with Him. God was wrathful towards sin, however, and in righteously executing justice as Judge, caused Him who had taken sin upon Himself to feel this wrath (I, 580).

Once again, it seems to me that à Brakel is attempting to skate around the problem of the PST without really dealing with the issue. The issue is how could the Father ever be angry with another member of the Trinity and pour out his wrath upon that member? à Brakel attempts to divide the sin from the sinner and make the sin some type of abstract object which is the source of the Father's anger while the Father is not angry with his Son. Yet, à Brakel admits that the Son feels the wrath of the Father. I don't think these semantical games played by à Brakel solve the serious theological issues which plague the PST of the atonement.


  1. Ken,

    Two questions-If you are wrong about the PST, would you then reconsider Christianity? To me, Calvinism boils down to God can do anything he wants because he's God. Plus we're all horrible sinners and should be thankful that he's shown mercy to us even letting us live another day on earth. To me, it's a very sick thing, but it does hang together well if you accept their viewpoint.

    Anyway, my other question-have you noticed, as I have, that some Christians have a hard time accepting God's forgiveness, because they can't forgive themselves? And I don't think that problem is even related to how awful their sin was. It's related to their personality. Some people can forgive themselves for quite awful things, and other people torture themselves over minor things-like stealing a pen from the office or something.

    I guess I harp on this point, but many Christians couldn't care less about understanding how Christ's sacrifice works exactly. They have no need to understand it. They just accept it as presented.

    I'm probably not making sense here, but the point is personality has huge effects on all this.

    I love your posts and am gradually learning a lot.

  2. Lynn,

    Thanks for your questions. 1) I would never re-consider Evangelical Christianity. There are many more problems than just the PST. 2) Yes I do agree with you that some people are harder on themselves than others. I don't know all the reasons for this, it may just be their personality type. I think that the PST has a certain psychological appeal (see here). If we are convinced that someone else has paid the price that our sin deserves, then we are more likely to forgive ourselves.

    Thanks for your comments and I am glad that this study is benefitting more people than just myself. I would continue with it if no one was reading because it helps me to get all of these ideas "on paper" to evaluate. Hopefully, a book will come out of all of this one day.

  3. Ken,

    If all of the "problems" with Christianity were resolved, would you re-consider Christianity?

  4. Boyd,

    To me that is like asking if all the problems associated with Mormonism could be resolved or all the problems associated with Islam could be resolved. I just don't think they can.

  5. Lynn,

    You are onto some real important points about the difference personality makes in spiritual dynamics (or other things like life experiences, esp. in the family, etc.) Evangelicals tend to look past the "unstable" folk who are tortured over self-forgiveness or lack of "assurance of salvation," etc. Or they take a mainly rational/apologetics approach... missing the point, but powerless to get to the root because of problems like Ken is pointing out.

    As to the "reconsidering" issue: I think Ken would say similarly, that I only left after the mountain of problems made it real clear that the foundation itself was flawed, irreparably... and that there ARE solid ways to explain everything in the Bible without resorting to unique revelation from God... spiritual inspiration within the Bible no doubt, but not "The Word of God" containing a "plan of salvation." But also not needing to deny the mystical entirely.

    Ken, you are right, from my extensive reading and analysis, that the earliest followers of Jesus did NOT have a concept of PST, or perhaps atonement at all... despite it appearing in at least John's Gospel. A LOT developed quickly in the first century, after Jesus' death. The loss of the temple-state and "capital" of Jerusalem in 70 CE was a massive upheaval in every way, including social and religious.

    The earliest concept of Jesus's death was probably as a martyr, who dies "for the people" in the sense of for the cause. And vindication is involved, in the Jewish sense particularly... but it was no doubt a mix of Greek and Jewish martrydom, like most elements of the multi-sect emerging Christianity.

    Like with many Christian origins issues, it is the work of Burton Mack that has brought me the most insights and understanding in this area.

  6. "To me, Calvinism boils down to God can do anything he wants because he's God." (Lynn)

    Which is what it boils down to, and is exactly why its wrong. Somewhere in his The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine says something to the effect that to the Calvinists, God has only one attribute, i.e. Power, which could be termed the physical attribute--But the Deist acknowledges also his moral attributes, Justice and Goodness.

    The Calvinist will do anything to save his hair-brained system of predestination. If he has to make God out to be as foul as the devil in order to defend predestination of faith onlyism, he will do it, because his God is not really a personal being but is simply that set of dogmas called TULIP. That acronym and every sophistry which he uses to protect it is his real God. God is not his God and he will slander God to advance his agenda whenever and wherever he has to.

    Lynn, You need to read The Age of Reason. The first two parts are available online. The basic gist of Paine's theology is that anything that contradicts the goodness and justice of God is clearly false, and besides that anything claiming to be revelation isn't, because revelation is only the direct communication of God to man and the word can never be rightly applied to men writing in books that God said this or that or men claiming that God told them such and such. Once it is no longer God speaking directly to man but men claiming that God said this or that, then it is no longer revelation but hearsay.

    In truth, it is on this basis that you reject Islam, Mormonism, and every other religion. On this same basis you would see that Calvinism is false if you would open your eyes. Calvinism, after all, is based entirely on mangling and twisting the story of Adam and Eve which is not about a "fall of man" at all. You should see my two posts on this at my blog.

    Again to paraphrase Paine, the concept of redemption from the fall is based on the theory that there was a fall in the Garden. Therefore, when it is shown that the story of the Garden teaches no fall of man, the theory of redemption from a fall that never occurred falls automatically with it.