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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A. J. Heller on Penal Substitution

A. J. Heller was a minister in the German Reformed Church in the United States in the 19th century and an adherent of what has been called the Mercerburg Theology whose leaders included Philip Schaff, the renowned Church historian, and John Williamson Nevin, once called by Charles Hodge his best student.

The Mercerburg school, however, differed from Charles Hodge and the Princetonians on the theory of the atonement. Heller wrote an article ("Criticism of the Anselmic Theory of the Atonement") in the Reformed Quarterly Review of 1894 in which he argued against the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement. He makes the following points:

1. Guilt cannot be transferred from one person to another.

Substitution is the putting of one person or thing in the place of another for the purpose of rendering an equivalent service for that other. This is possible where no exchange of mental or moral qualities is involved. An iron pillar, for instance, may be substituted for a wooden one; a horse may be substituted for an ox in the team, and one man may take the place of another in the ranks of an army, or in any other position in which he is capable of rendering an equivalent service. But in the sphere of the ethical substitution is impossible. Men cannot exchange consciences and states of mind. The moral consciousness of one person cannot become the possession of another. God, in the act of creating man, here set bounds to the individuals of the race. Indeed we cannot conceive of man being so constituted that he may go out of himself and enter into another. Every man must everywhere and under all conditions of his life, be himself and answer for himself. The guilty conscience of one can no more be exchanged for the good conscience of another, than the diseased or defective eye or hand of one person can be exchanged for the sound or perfect eye or hand of another. The idea of an organic substitute, as Christ has been called, or of a substitute in any sense taking man's place and suffering in his stead is, therefore, utterly untenable (pp. 483-84).

2. In the PST, sin and guilt is not truly transferred.
The absurdity of the theory of substitution becomes still more evident when we consider the idea of a double imputation which it involves. God imputes to Christ the sin and guilt of man and punishes Him in man's stead, and then, in like manner, He imputes Christ's righteousness to man. Christ came into actual possession of that which is imputed to Him. Otherwise the alleged penal sufferings of Christ would be a mere sham, and the theory would resolve itself into a mere juggling with words. If Christ is to fulfill all the requisite conditions of a real substitute, the imputation must clothe Him with the actual sin and guilt of man. The transfer must be not in name only, but in fact, so that the God-Man becomes possessed of the terrible burden of a guilty conscience and consequently suffers the penal wrath of Almighty God (p. 484).

3. The PST is a miscarriage of justice.
Looking at the matter now from the stand-point of the justice of God which the theory lays itself out to save and honor, how, it may be asked, can God be just and yet reckon the guilt of the transgressor to the obedient, or punish the innocent instead of the guilty, and in this way shield the guilty from the consequences of his crime, or allow him to escape the punishment justly due him. ... Human government revolts at the idea, and does not allow the faithful, law abiding citizen to take the place of the criminal and suffer instead of him. And even if it did, it would not change the character of either. The just would be just still, and the guilty, guilty still; while the innocent would perish and the guilty escape (p. 485).

4. A Mediator brings two sides together; he does not suffer the penalty due to one side.

Sometimes the circumstances are such that, in order to bring about a reconciliation between men, the offices of a mediator are required. In that event the mediator must be a wholly disinterested party. He takes charge of the interests of both offender and offended. But in the performance of his office of peace-maker, he neither takes upon himself the guilt of the offender, nor receives upon himself in any form or degree the wrath of the offended one. The reconciliation is not effected, if it is effected at all, by any such unloading of guilt and wrath upon a third person who is altogether innocent of any transgression of the divine law (p. 491).

5. The PST is irrational and contradicts man's sense of right and wrong.

Dr. Hodge [Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology] concedes the irrationality of his theory when he says: " It may not be agreeable to our feelings, nor in accord with our views of right that the sin of one should be laid upon another, and that other punished." We think there is nothing more repulsive to reason, and we do not believe that it can be demonstrated that God made one subjective law, which is ingrained in the mind and inscribed upon the heart of man for the regulation of his life, and another objective law whose consistency can be known and appreciated by Himself alone; two laws which are not only not in accord, but run in diametrically opposite directions. If this is so, then we have no standard of right, for what is right with God is not right with man. Has God given to man one standard of right and reserved to Himself another and wholly different one ? Has He implanted in man a sense of right which He Himself may infringe upon and shock at pleasure? [emphasis mine]. If so, then J. Stuart Mill is certainly right when he suggests the possibility of there being other worlds with whose inhabitants two and two make five instead of four as the laws of human reason demand (pp. 502-03).


  1. I am sure that I could find the answer if I searched a bit but what did A.J. Heller use as an alternative to PST. Just a brief summary.

    I asked a christian about PST once and he didn't seem to even grasp the concept let along defend it. I am curious as to the alternatives and how they stack up to PST.

  2. Heller advocated a form of the Governmental Theory of the atonement.

  3. Thanks for the link, Ken.

    I see there is a whole list of theories around ( Do you plan on addressing all or most of them? I know you favor PST since that is the one that most evangelicals ascribe to.