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Monday, August 30, 2010

Junius Remensnyder's Attempt to Defend Penal Substitution

Junius Benjamin Remensnyder was a Lutheran theologian and influential Pastor of the St. James's Evangelical Lutheran Church in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. He wrote a book defending the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement entitled: The Atonement and Modern Thought (1905). The book had a lengthy introduction by B. B. Warfield, the well known Reformed theologian and Professor at Princeton.

In the book, he addresses the question of how the innocent can justly suffer the penalty that the sinner deserves. He writes:
Yet plausible and weighty as these reasonings appear [i.e., that the innocent cannot pay the penalty owed by the guilty], they arise from a hasty and superficial view. For they fail to reflect upon and look into the deeper ethical facts that lie at the heart of things. They overlook the fact that the unity of the human race is moral as well as natural. Hence it is often a most difficult thing to draw precisely the lines which define our personal responsibility for guilt. Individual moral action is a resultant of many influences. In any particular sin the guilt is often not so much our own as that of an ancestor, who, yielding to the temptation, acquired an habitual bent or strain which was bequeathed to us. Original sin is wholly not our own, and yet it is the primal source of all our sins. The sins of the fathers visit themselves upon the children through the door of heredity. Not alone is this a Biblical truth, but it had a profound illustration in that doctrine of fate among the Greeks, portrayed with so much dramatic power in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, the finest tragedy of antiquity. This conception was that the sin of some ancestor, of which the descendant was entirely ignorant, followed him like an inevitable Nemesis, involving him and his family, despite every effort, in a labyrinth of helpless disasters. Thus Sophocles makes the unhappy king say: "For thus it pleased the gods, incensed perhaps Against my father's house, for guilt of old. For as regards my life thou couldst not find One spot of guilt, in recompense for which I sinned these sins against myself and mine" (pp. 99-100).

Remensnyder seems to be saying that we are so entangled and interwined with other human beings, especially those that we are related to, that we all sort of share in one another's sins. While it is true that no man is an island and we are all influenced by our heridity and our envrionment, this does not make us all equally guilty of specific crimes or evil actions. His theory sounds much like some today who "blame it on society." In other words, a young person growing up in the ghetto cannot be held responsible for his or her actions. It is really society's fault that these young people do not have a proper education and an equal opportunity for advancement. The reality is, however, that each person is responsible for his or her choices and actions regardless of the situation. It is understandable why some make bad choices but that does not eliminate their responsibility. In addition, it is a huge jump in logic to go from the idea that societal influences or genetic predispositions can produce bad behavior to saying that a single innocent individual can bear the penalty that the guilty person owes for his or her crime.

Remensnyder continues:
If, then, the personal and racial elements composing the temper which precipitates into sin are often so hard to separate, and if thereby the guilt of others becomes practically transferred to us, may it not, instead of being unjust, be the profoundest principle of equity, that someone else bear the responsibility and consequences of our guilt? That as we have innocently been made to suffer for the sins of others, and that as their guilty natures and deeds have been transferred to us, so One should be found, who, innocent of our sins, yet should have our guilty natures and all their baleful consequences transferred to him? Or that, as Paul puts it, as "through one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one shall many be made righteous?" It is worthy of note here that "the apostle does not raise the question whether it is possible for one to assume the responsibilities of others in this way; he assumes (and the assumption is common to all the New Testament writers) that the responsibilities of sinful men have been taken on Himself by the sinless Lamb of God. This is not a theorem he is prepared to defend, it is the Gospel he has been given to preach" [James Denney, The Death of Christ, p. 99 cited by Remensnyder, pp. 100-01).

In a sense, Remensnyder is correct. If man is held accountable for something that he did not do [i.e., "Original Sin," the sin of Adam], then it seems only fair that someone else, an innocent person, could  pay the penalty for man's sin. This is a case, however, of "two wrongs making a right." It is not right or just for man to be held accountable for Adam's sin and the resulting moral corruption that leads man to commit more sins. And neither would it be right for someone completely innocent to bear the penalty for sins he did not commit. This would be a strange kind of "justice."

Remensnyder quotes James Denney to the effect that since the Scripture writers never questioned the justice of an innocent bearing the penalty of the guilty, then neither whould we. Of course, Remensnyder is assuming what he needs to prove here. First, if the Bible is a divine revelation from God and it teaches that an innocent can pay the penalty owed by the guilty, then one needs to explain why this notion is contrary to man's sense of justice, which sense of justice is supposed to be implanted in him as a result of being made in God's image. Second, the reason that this notion of an innocent suffering the penalty for the guilt may have not been problematic for the ancients is due to the concept of "collective culpability." This concept is all but rejected today as a primitive ethic.

Remensnyder concludes:
That there is involved here a deep insoluble mystery it were irrational to deny, but that is no reason why it may not be true. Mysteries are the hull of the most significant and precious truths. This is constantly verified in life and science, and naturally is an important characteristic of divine revelation. All that we wish to show is the superficiality of that reasoning which would summarily dismiss the idea of the transferability of guilt as unnatural, immoral, and inconceivable (pp. 101-02).

So, in spite of his arguments, Remensnyder admits that the problem is "insoluble." He doesn't think that should keep us from believing it, however, because much of life is a "mystery," and we should expect that "mystery" would be "important characteristic of divine revelation." If Remensnyder means that there are many things that we don't understand fully, then he is correct. However, it is one thing for something to be beyond comprehension and it is another for something to be contrary to reason. At the end of the day, Remensnyder's argument for believing in the PST is simple. The Bible teaches it (in his opinion). It is not much different than the bumper sticker that says: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it."

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