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Monday, August 16, 2010

Oliver Crisp's Attempt to Defend Penal Substitution

Oliver Crisp is a Professor of Theology at the Univeristy of Bristol. He is a prolific young author who has written extensively on Philosophical Theology (Philosophical theology is the disciplined employment of philosophical methods in developing or analyzing theological concepts). This approach to Theology attempts to "make sense" of Christian doctrines. In other words, it attempts to provide a rational understanding and philosophical explanation of how the doctrines cohere. Alvin Plantinga defines Philosophical Theology as a matter of thinking about central doctrines of the Christian faith from a philosophical perspective; it is a matter of employing the resources of philosophy to deepen our grasp and understanding of them ("Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century," in James F. Sennett, ed. The Analytic Theist, An Alvin Plantinga Reader [1998], p. 340).

There have been a few attempts by contemporary philosophical theologians to explain how the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement works: John Hare, Steven Porter (see here, here, and here), and Oliver Crisp. I have dealt with Hare's explanation in a previous post and I have a paper on Steven Porter's theory which I have submitted for publication in an academic journal. In this post I would like to examine Oliver Crisp's attempt to defend the PST.

In Chapter 19 of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (eds. Thomas Flint and Michael Rea [2009], pp. 430-51), Crisp has an article entitled: "Original Sin and Atonement."

He begins the article by admitting that to this point, no one has really been able to explain how the atonement of Christ works:
The atonement is one of the central and defining doctrines of Christian theology. Yet the nature of the atonement--how it is that Christ's life and death on the cross actually atone for human sin--remains a theological conundrum (p. 430).

He continues:

In the theological literature, the relation between Christ's penal substitution for the sinner and the sinner's sin and/or guilt is usually (though not always) made sense according to what I shall call a "forensic fiction." God treats Christ as if he is guilty of the sin of fallen human beings, and "punishes" him accordingly . . . on this forensic fiction account of penal substitution, the innocent Christ really is treated as if he were the guilty sinner, though he is not. And God really does punish the innocent in the place of the guilty (p. 436).

He admits that this appears to be unjust. He states:

[W]e find no examples of legislation allowing substitution when the crime is a serious felony, such as murder. In such cases, the one guilty must meet the penal consequences of that crime, and we would consider it a terrible miscarriage of justice were a substitute punished in place of the perpetrator (p. 436).

What the defender of the theological application of penal substitution needs is some reason for thinking that it is just for God to punish Christ in place of the sinner. . . For, whatever else the defender of penal substitution says, unlike pecuniary penal substitution, it certainly looks unjust that Christ, an innocent individual, should be punished in place of me, a sinful individual (p. 437)

This injustice Crisp attempts to solve through what he terms: Realist Penal Substitution. He draws the term from the Realist theory of the imputation of sin which goes back to Augustine. Augustine taught that in a real sense every human being was present in Adam when he sinned.  He phrased it this way: In the first man, therefore, there existed the whole human nature, which was to be transmitted by the woman to posterity, when that conjugal union received the divine sentence of its own condemnation; and what man was made, not when created, but when he sinned and was punished, this he propagated, so far as the origin of sin and death are concerned(City of God, 13:3). According to Augustine, we were all present seminally in Adam. Building on this, Crisp states:
We begin with the idea that Adam and his progeny are (somehow) one metaphysical entity such that God may justly pass on the moral consequences of Adam's sin to his heirs because they are all member of one persisting entity, or object, that we might call "Fallen Humanity" (p. 438).

Now applying this realism doctrine to the atonement, Crisp writes:
Consider the possibility that Christ and the elect together compose one metaphysical entity that persists through time, just as, on the Augustinian realist way of thinking, Adam and his progeny do. This object we shall dub "Redeemed Humanity". Christ is in some sense the first member of this entity, and the elect are subsequent members (p. 440).

Because Christ is part of this "metaphysical entity," which Crisp calls "Redeemed Humanity," he shares the guilt (or penal consequences) of the elect's sin (even though he himself is sinless) and thus can justly die for that guilt. Crisp explains:
Although he is not the one who has sinned, or the part of the mass of Redeemed Humanity that has sinned, because he is a member of this larger entity, he may pay the consequences of the sin of other members of the same entity, by which I mean the derivatively elect, like you and me (p. 441).
He maintains that this solution does not involve imputation and thus escapes the charge of being a "legal fiction."
Notice that there is no "imputation" involved in this process, no forensic fiction, whereby God treats Christ as if he were the sinner for the purpose of bringing about atonement, as with many traditional accounts of penal substitution. The transference of the punishment for sin from fallen humanity to Christ, and the union of those self-same humans with Christ are two aspects of Christ's atoning work that involve a real union between Christ and the human beings concerned (pp. 441-42).

He believes that his proposed Realist Penal Substitution Theory avoids
the moral problems besetting other, standard arguments for penal substitution that require only that Christ acts on behalf of sinful humans as their representative ... [which] requires a forensic fiction in order to make good on the act of atonement. It is this that has generated so much of the difficulties facing apologists for penal substitution. This problem is not so much overcome as circumvented by the realist accounts of penal substitution offered here, because Christ's act of atonement is not merely representationalist; he really takes upon himself the penal consequences for human sin. (p. 443)

What are some of the problems with Crisp's Realist Penal Subsitution Theory?

1. Whereas one can imagine how that every human being could be seminally in Adam (assuming he was literally the first man) and thereby have an organic (and genetic) connection with him, the same does not hold true for the "metaphysical entity" which Crisp calls, "Redeemed Humanity." There is no real connection between the parts. At best it is some type of mystical unity which defies any meaningful description.

2. If there were some real connection between the parts in Crisp's metaphysical Redeemed Humanity entity, then it seems that Jesus would share not only in the guilt (and penal consequences) of the other members but in the actual corruption and demerit of the sins of the other members. How can he share in one but not in the other? Moreover, guilt and its penal consequences only have meaning when attached to the sin itself. In other words, a person is only guilty and subject to punishment for a particular sin that he commits. You cannot decouple sin and guilt.

3. It seems at best what Crisp's "solution" does is to make Jesus guilty by association. In other words, since Jesus is the head of the metaphysical entity and since other members of the entity are sinners and subject to the penal consequences of that sin, then Jesus is also guilty and subject to the same consequences by means of his association with them. This "guilt by association" is generally recognized as a fallacy. In reality, what Crisp is arguing for is what I have previously termed "collective culpability." While the concept of collective culpability was prevalent in ancient times, it is generally rejected today (e.g., a major philosophical discussion took place after WW II in which the question was raised: "Are the German people as a whole culpable for what the Nazi's did?" The consensus of scholars was "No." See Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, eds. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman [1992]).

Allow me to offer an illustration. A new CEO takes over for BP. He has no personal responsibility for the oil spill in the gulf as he was not associated with the company at the time of the spill. However, now as the CEO, he is the head of the corporation which is culpable for the spill. Thus, if the whole corporation is punished, he will be punished as well (even though he personally is innocent). That makes sense because he voluntarily attached himself to the corporation knowing that it was going to be subject to punishment (another example would be a football coach who takes over a program that is about to enter NCAA probation). However, to single out the CEO and make him pay personally in place of the corporation would make no sense. It seems that in the PST, this is what is happening when Jesus bears the punishment that the whole entity deserves.


  1. Just stumbled across your blog.

    Can't stop but in brief answer to your points:

    1. The real connection is the Holy Spirit. Who is as objectively real as DNA.

    2. Jesus did share in the corruption and demerit of sin - that is why he died. But the grave could not hold him. He was stronger and more righteous than we are weak and sinful.

    3. Your problem with collective culpability is not based on a stronger argument than that it is an out of date idea. This is just pure chronological snobbery, to borrow CS Lewis' phrase.

    PSA is a wonderful truth which displays the depths of God's love greater than any other 'theory' and actually deals head on with our real problem of guilt before a holy God. Love it! ;-)

  2. I think some of your replies are to Crisp's Realist Penal Substitution Theory (RPST) are actually criticisms of the "original" Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST). For example, in the second half of point 2, you state that a person is only guilty and subject to punishment for a sin he commits. But this doesn't happen under PST either, does it? And in point 3, your issue with guilt by association is also an issue with PST. Crisp has acknowledged some issues with PST and RPST attempts to rectify them. Given, RPST needs a much deeper evaluation and I'm sure your thoughts are only cursory as well. But here it seems your only objections to RPST is that there is no "real" connection with Jesus (point 1) and that Jesus would also be subject to the corruption (first half of point 2). As to the later, it would seem logical to assume that the "connection" should only go one way: from Adam it goes linearly to all his physical proginy, and from Jesus it goes non-linearly to all his spiritual proginy. Adam's mechanism was physical and thus linear. Jesus' mechanism was spiritual and thus non-liner (backwards and forwards in time). We are the "body" of Jesus but that is not merely in a metaphorical sense. We are the body of Adam in a real physical sense. Further Jesus is God, so why would we assume he could be subject to corruption? Lastly, corruption and redemption are solid states: one is either corrupt or redeemed, one cannot be both, even though as redeemed humans we remain imperfect and thus have a process (movement) of sanctification. Once redeemed in Christ, even if that person still sins, he remains redeemed in Christ yet subject to further and further sanctification by the Spirit. So the redeeming action flows from the redeemer, further saturating the redeemed. The corruption could not flow the other direction. Now back to point 1, that the "real" connection does not exist in the metaphysical sense but only the physical sense. I touched on that above, in that with Adam there is more of a physical mechanism and with Jesus the spiritual. But while I think there must be *some* connection to the physical in order to make the mechanism work, I don't think that merely the physical is required. Christ is our body (or we are the body of Christ) in the physical sense that by and through him he created all things (physical creation), and that by his will he holds the physics of the universe together (fine tuning models give us a glimpse of this). Christ is core and central to so many things, at the beginning and at the end. All things point to him. So in a sense our very being and existence owes a debt of gratitude to him. In our salvation we see the full culmination of all that he has in store for us (redemption, ever sanctifying, culminating into fullness at the end of time). So there is a real connection indeed, just as real as theists would say God is even as atheists and skeptics hold to their faith in their inability to prove his existence. And I think I've touched on some very meaningful descriptions indeed, if, that is, you believe in a meaningful spiritual aspect of our reality. And very lastly of all, while I am anxious to read your voluminous and obviously deeply-thought views on PST, and while it's clear that there isn't consensus on an atonement model, PST is only *one* view with known flaws, and given the context of your blog, it might appear your critical review of PST is generally a means to discredit Christianity. However, I'd suggest that if atonement is true, then it is true. How it happened is less important than *that* it happened, otherwise God would have revealed that component to us. God willing, we may get to the bottom of atonement someday, but if sin is real, we need salvation. If Jesus was real and actually resurrected, he would have only done it because sin is real. And as we ponder how atonement actually happens, that may inspire us ever closer to our savior.