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Friday, September 3, 2010

Gregory the Great on the Injustice of Punishing an Innocent

Pope Gregory I (540-604), also known as Gregory the Great, was perhaps the first theologian to take note of the injustice of punishing an innocent person (Jesus) in place of the guilty. He writes:

But we must consider how He can be just, and can dispose all things justly, if He condemns Him who ought not to be punished. For our Mediator owed no punishment for Himself, since He wrought nothing that could infect Him with guilt. But if He had not undergone a death that was not His due, He would never have freed us from the death due to us. Therefore, though the Father is just, yet when He punishes the Just He orders all things justly; because through Him He justifies all things, in that on behalf of sinners He condemns Him who is without sin, so that all the elect might rise up to the height of righteousness in Him in whom He who is above all endures the penalties of our unrighteousness. . . . For the rust of vice can only be purged by the fire of torment. And so He came, without fault, freely to submit Himself to the torment, that the punishments due to our iniquity might lose their rightful victims, in that they unjustly held Him who was free from their power (Magna Moralia, iii. 14, quoted in L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement , p. 98).

Grensted comments:
In Gregory, indeed, the discussion is not carried very far. He is content with the assertion, unexplained and undefended, that the punishment of the innocent sets free those who are guilty. There is no discussion of the exact equivalence of Christ's punishment with that due to us. Nor does Gregory attempt to make it clear how one injustice can make just a lapse of justice, save to point out that it was by His own choice, and not involuntarily, that Christ underwent suffering and death (p. 99).

As Grensted notes, Gregory does not make much of an effort to explain how the obviously unjust act of punishing an innocent can be performed by the Father without undermining his justice. He simply states that it happened, and since "God orders all things justly,"  therefore, it must have been just for God to do so. This position assumes a priori that whatever God does is just and therefore if he does something that appears to be unjust to man, it must be only apparent and not real.

Then Gregory mentions the red-herring that virtually every defender of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement mentions--that Jesus died voluntarily. I say this is a red-herring because that is not the issue. The issue is how could a God of justice and truth accept the punishment of an innocent as an act of justice. Obviously if the innocent was punished unwillingly that would just add to the injustice but it does not solve it.


  1. He had not undergone a death that was not His due, He would never have freed us from the death due to us.

    Like this guy says, there is no other way to do it if you want to have a salvation for a sinful people.

  2. Dear Ken,
    First of all I just want to say how much I have enjoyed reading your articulate writings on your blog. Your own deconversion story is also very inspiring: I am an ex-Christian myself, so know what you have gone through.

    Reason for email is that I am writing a book on ex-Christians and their testimonies. I am a researcher in an English University in public policy normally but I am doing this in my spare time. You can find more details of the book here:

    I would be very interested in using your own story in the book I am writing. If you were to agree to this, I would use a pseudonym in the book as I will with all the testimonies I am collecting. Please get back to me regarding your reaction to this and if you have any questions concerning the project. My email is

    Many thanks,

  3. John,

    The problem is that it is unjust to punish an innocent person (and God is supposed to be just in all that he does. If he does an injustice, then he has sinned).

    Also it does not make sense how punishing an innocent is able to justly substitute for what the guilty deserves. How do you make the transfer? If I commit a crime and deserve to go to jail, how would sending my brother to jail satisfy the penalty that I owe? It doesn't make sense. I could see how I could just be pardoned but to have someone else serve my sentence seems pointless unless God just needs to punish somebody before he can forgive.

  4. Isn't all this stuff negated by the fact that God is punishing himself to fulfill his own covenant, which was designed to pay a price he determined in order to lift a curse on our souls he put on us? But wait! It's still not done! He's coming back on a donkey to make everything better!


  5. Ken,

    I am really enjoying your series on PST. However, I am struck by the fact that the Old Testament seems to foreshadow PST, the innocent taking the place of the guilty. It does not seem to be a creation of Paul.

  6. JohnD,

    Thanks for your comments. I think what you see in the OT and also in Paul is the concept of "Collective Culpability." The idea that a family, a tribe, or even a country is somehow held culpable for what one or more within the group had done. This seemed to be a prevalent concept among the ancients who were less individualistic as we. I think this is how Paul was able to come up with the idea that the whole human race is culpable for Adam's sin.

  7. Ken,

    I was thinking of specific passages that speak of individual cleansing, which appear to be foreshadowing substitution. Leviticus 14 comes to mind. As a Christian, I realize that I am somewhat inclined to see substitution everywhere, but isn't this a good example that substitution was part of "the plan" from the beginning? I know you probably don't have time to answers this for me in detail, but could you recommend a good book that would explain to me why this isn't foreshadowing the substitutionary work of Christ? Will these types of passages be addressed in your forthcoming book?

  8. JohnD,

    My posts today and tomorrow may help. Yes, the Israelites saw purification as one of the effects of a blood sacrifice. However, it is a big jump in logic to say that they saw the sacrifice as bearing a penalty in their place. This article by John Goldingay may be helpful in explaining the concepts involved.