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Friday, October 22, 2010

Punishment is not an Abstract Commodity --From Sola Ratione

I have discovered a blog, Sola Ratione, which has some good posts on the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. With the author's permission, I am going to re-post them here. This one is entitled: Punishment is not an Abstract Commodity

"[T]he victim, within limits, has the freedom to decide to what extent and in what manner to inflict punishment. I do not see how this freedom would not extend to accepting a voluntary penal substitute. Take for instance the football player who is late to team practice. The coach of the team punishes the late player by demanding he run 5 laps around the field. The team captain steps forward and asks the coach if he could run the 5 laps in the other's stead. If the coach agrees to such an arrangement, then there does not seem to be anything unjust about this transfer of penalty. I take it this is because in the transfer the initial justification for punishment is still in place – that is the late player's misuse of his team-privileges led to the temporary withdrawal of a team-privilege. Whether the late player of the team captain serves the punishment, the initial justification is the same. And the additional good ends that the punishment is likely to secure (e.g. team unity) are accomplished whether the late player runs the laps or the team captain runs them." - Steven L. Porter "Swinburnian Atonement and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution," Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume 1: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, edited by Michael Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009): p. 325.

This is an excellent example of just how counter-intuitive penal substitution really is.

Can anyone imagine a team captain asking to run 5 laps on behalf of the late football player? And the coach agreeing to this bizarre transaction?

What message would that send to the late player, let alone his team-mates? 'Don't worry if you do the wrong thing lads. The captain is (literally!) a sucker for punishment, and will cop it on your behalf.'

I don't know what kind of football players Porter is acquainted with, but you don't have to be a total cynic to see that the team is very unlikely to respond well to the captain's offer. 'Team unity' would not be particularly high on the list of possible outcomes.

The players are far more likely to ridicule the captain for being such a 'mug' (or words to that effect). And if this were the only time that the captain had made such an offer, then it is not difficult to foresee the players suspecting favoritism . . . or worse: 'Jeez, what does this guy have on the captain?'

And they would have good reason to question the propriety of what is going on here. This kind of substitution is clearly inappropriate, at almost every level.

How can Porter be so mistaken in his intuitions?

I think the root of the problem is that he thinks that punishment is a kind of abstract commodity. Like hard cash, it really doesn't matter who gives it or who receives it. Its value remains the same: 20 dollars is 20 dollars, no matter who owns it.

Likewise, the value of punishment, Porter thinks, is entirely independent of who it is directed against. If a temporary withdrawal of a team-privilege is warranted by the offending behavior of the late player, then what is required is that there be a temporary withdrawal of a team-privilege. Doesn't really matter who cops it, just so long as they agree to it and know what they're doing.

We can perhaps see just how bizarre this view is, by creating a similar scenario:

Suppose it's pay-time for the football team. The coach is about to hand out their individual pay packets, when the team captain steps forward and asks the coach if he could have all the team's pay for himself, instead of it being distributed to the other players as per usual. If the coach agrees to such an arrangement, then there does not seem to be anything unjust about this transfer. This is because in the transfer the initial justification for the wages being paid is still in place – that is, each player has fulfilled their job description for that month. So it really doesn't matter who takes the pay. The initial justification for the wages being paid is the same.

Doesn't really work, does it!

That's because 'what is deserved' is, morally speaking, inextricably linked to 'the person who deserves it'. Punishment can only be morally justified if it is directed against the person who deserves it. If you break this connection - as is necessarily the case in any penal substitution - the situation immediately becomes morally incoherent, if not repugnant.


  1. Once you try to accept this thing that Jesus did for you that you didn't deserve, you are on the spot to show gratitude every moment from then forward (or feel guilty.) At least that's the way it worked for me-probably because of my personality type. But I'm sure I'm not the only one affected that way by the theology they were exposed to in childhood.

    Jesus gives you a "free gift" but then much is required of you afterwards. It doesn't make sense to me.

    It reminds me of something in one of my favorite Christmas movies. The one guy saves the other guy, and then the first guy controls all future decisions by reminding the saved guy of how he's owed. Isn't that how Christianity works?

  2. The whole point of having the late player run laps is so he learns not to be late. It's not as if there's some judicial sense of "when a player is late, there must be laps run to pay back the universe for that lateness." So screwy! Theology really does warp common sense.