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 , 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).
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 ).
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.