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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jonathan Edwards on Penal Substitution

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was a preacher, a philosopher, a theologian, and the President of Princeton University. Edwards is widely acknowledged to be America's most important and original philosophical theologian, and one of America's greatest intellectuals. He was a staunch Calvinist (famous for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God)" and a defender of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement.

Edwards discussed the theological problem of the Son of God experiencing the wrath of God on the cross in an essay entitled: "Concerning The Necessity And Reasonableness Of The Christian Doctrine Of Satisfaction For Sin," (in The Works of President Edwards in 4 volumes [1844], vol. I, 582-611). Those who have thought carefully about the PST of the atonement have realized that there is real problem with saying that one member of the Trinity experienced the wrath of another member of the Trinity. This would result in a breach of unity between the members which is impossible according to the classic doctrine of the Trinity.

Edwards writes:
Christ suffered the wrath of God for men's sins in such a way as he was capable of [emphasis mine], being an infinitely holy person, who knew that God was not angry with him personally, knew that God did not hate him, but infinitely loved him- The wicked in hell will suffer the wrath of God, as they will have the sense and knowledge, and sight of God's infinite displeasure towards them and hatred of them. But this was impossible in Jesus Christ (p. 603).

Edwards says that Christ could only "bear" the wrath of God in two senses:

1. In having a great and clear sight [emphasis mine] of the infinite wrath of God against the sins of men, and the punishment they had deserved. . . . It was requisite that at that time he should have a clear sight of two things, viz., of the dreadful evil and odiousness of that sin that he suffered for, that he might know how much it deserved the punishment . . . . [and] Secondly, it was requisite he should have a clear sight of the dreadfulness of the punishment that he suffered to deliver them from, otherwise he would not know how great a benefit he vouchsafed them in redeeming them from this punishment . . (p. 603).

2. Another way in which it was possible that Christ should endure the wrath of God was, to eudure the effects of that wrath. All that he suffered was by the special ordering of God. There was a very visible hand of God in letting men and devils loose upon him at such a rate, and in separating from him his own disciples. Thus it pleased the Father to bruise him and put him to grief. God dealt with him as if [emphasis mine] he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though [emphasis mine] he had been the object of his dreadful wrath (p. 606).

The PST of the atonement, however, demands that the substitute suffer the penalty (i.e., the wrath of God) that the sinner himself would have suffered. If the substitute suffers something less or something different than what the sinner would have suffered, then it becomes questionable as to how the suffering can legitmately be considered substitutionary in a penal sense.

This point is recognized by one of Edward's greatest admirers, Edwards A. Parks (1808-1900) [who also married his great-granddaughter]. Parks wrote an article entitled, "The Rise of the Edwardean Theory of the Atonement: An Introductory Essay" (in The Atonement: Discourses and Treatises [1859]). He wrote:
First, he [i.e., Edwards] represents our Redeemer as having borne the divine anger, in the fact that Christ had "a great and clear" sight of the infinite wrath of God against the sins of men; and also "a great and clear" sight of the punishment men had deserved. Christ felt what he saw. He agonized under, and so he suffered not his own, but our punishment; the wrath of God not against himself but against our sins. He bore our punishment, in distinction from his being punished; he endured the divine anger, in distinction from his being the moral agent, the real person toward whom God was angry (p. xxv).

Secondly, President Edwards represents Christ as having borne the wrath of God in the fact that he endured the effect of that wrath, all that he suffered having been by the special ordering of God. The Father dealt with the Son "as if" the Father had been exceedingly angry with the Son, and "as though" Christ had been the object of Jehovah's dreadful wrath. It was the wrath of God "against our sins," that induced the Father to subject his beloved Son to the influence of evil spirits. "The prince of this world" "was let loose to torment the soul of Christ with gloomy and dismal ideas." Therefore these ideas were the effects of divine wrath. Satan probably did his utmost to contribute to " raise " Christ's " idea of the torment of hell." These ideas of the torments of hell were substituted for the actual torments of hell [emphasis mine], but were still the effects of divine wrath against our sins (p. xxvii).

Edwards teaches that the misery of the wicked in hell will be immensely more dreadful, in nature and degree, than those sufferings with the fears of which Christ's soul was so much overwhelmed ("Christ's Agony," in The works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, II, 872).  He says:  Let such senseless sinners consider, that that misery, of which they are in danger from the wrath of God, is infinitely more terrible than that, the fear of which occasioned in Christ his agony and bloody sweat. It is more terrible, both, as it differs in its nature and degree, and also as it differs in its duration (Ibid., p. 871).

So whatever Jesus experienced on the cross, it was not the same punishment (it was actually far less severe) than the punishment for sins that the lost will endure.

Once again Parks points out:
President Edwards writes on the basis of a distinction between the statement that Christ was punished, and the statement that the sins of the elect are punished. His words imply, not that Christ was damned, precisely as the law had threatened, but that Christ suffered in view of our damnation; not that Christ endured the wrath of God against himself [emphasis mine], but the wrath of God against our sins; not that our Redeemer was conscious of our remorse, but he bore our remorse in the sense of being in anguish on account of it, afflicted in sympathy with it; not that he remembered his own guilt, but he bore our remembrance of our guilt; not that the elect have been literally punished, but their sins have been punished, in the sense that God has expressed his indignation against these sins, and Christ has agonized in view of that indignation, and in view of the sins, and so has borne both it and them. Our blessed Lord so loved his elect friends, that he suffered in the thought of God's distributive justice toward them, as if, as though that justice was armed against Christ himself, for it was against those whom he loved as parts of himself. Now either the elect are punished themselves, precisely as the law threatens them; or Christ was punished, damned, precisely as the law had threatened damnation; or the sins of the elect are punished in the sense of God's expressing toward those sins the feelings manifested in his law. To punish sin, without punishing the sinner, is to punish in a general, but not in the precise sense of that term [emphasis mine]. President Edwards often speaks of sin as being punished, when the sinner is not punished (The Atonement: Discourses and Treatises, pp. xxxii-xxxiii).
Thus, according to Jonathan Edwards, actually it was the sins of the elect that were punished not the substitute himself.  Of course this begs the question of how sin can be separated from the sinner. Sin is an action of a person. It is impossible to punish the act without punishing the person who performed the act. Thus, in the final analysis, in spite of all the "mental gymnastics" employed by Edwards, he cannot really salvage the PST of the atonement. By denying that Christ experienced the wrath of God as the lost will experience, he has denied the reality of penal substitution.

As L. W. Grensted remarks:
These passages well illustrate both the very definite penal view adopted by Edwards, and the great difficulty which he finds in reconciling it with God's treatment of His beloved Son. It may well be asked whether the explanations given do not really destroy the whole force of the Penal theory. They really amount to an admission that the sufferings of Christ, though similar to those due to sinners, were not really the same [emphasis mine], since the relation of Christ to God is unique and such as is impossible to man. But if this is so it is no longer true that the demands of avenging justice are paid in full, and we seem driven back to the Scotist idea that God has freely accepted a satisfaction, valuable, it is true, but not strictly equivalent to the offence (A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 277).

This led many of the followers of Jonathan Edwards, including his son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr. to adopt a position called "Penal Non-Substitution" (also called "the Edwardean View"). They believed that they were accurately reflecting the position of Jonathan Edwards, Sr. (see Oliver Crisp, "Penal Non-Substitution," in A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology [2009], pp. 299-327).


  1. Ken,
    Interesting you wrote here.
    Edwards saw really big problems in the doctrine of atonement.
    And I repeat to ask what I wrote on 11 august (as a comment your article on 4 august):
    is the meaning about sacrifices (as a kind of substitutional payments - PSA) the meaning the Torah of Moses and the prophets teach us?

    I don't think it's right. And now your article of today makes clear that the doctrine of PSA is a source of difficulties in theology.
    As I wrote in my other comment: in my opinion, the biblical doctrine is a better way of thinking about sacrifices than most Christians have in mind.

  2. Ton,

    I understand that you don't think PSA is biblical. However, the great majority of evangelicals do and Jonathan Edwards did as well. These evangelicals even say that PSA is the very heart of the gospel (see here). My purpose in writing these articles is to attempt to prove to evangelicals that the PSA is theologically untenable.

  3. Ah, Jonathan Edwards. People in reformed churches would deny it, but they basically regard this guy as a god.

  4. People in reformed churches would deny it, but they basically regard this guy as a god.

    It says so much about them. Calvin, Edwards - arguably two of the worst people who have ever lived. Yet they're heroes to them.

  5. Here's my take on Edwards, for what it's worth.