Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Critique of a Critique

[The following blogpost is re-edited from a series of posts originally published on 9/15/09-10/17/09.]


When I first began thinking about coming to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my pastor at the time warned me that seminary education can often involve reading more attacks against Christian faith than edifying reflections on the Word of God, and thus time at seminary can, if one is not careful, leave one spiritually drained rather than enriched. Thankfully, my teachers here have seemed aware of this reality and the great majority of my textbooks have been enlightening and beneficial. For the sake of academic integrity and due to the desire to accurately represent various viewpoints, we do occasionally have to read material that attacks a core doctrine or doctrines of our faith. In this vein, one book I'm required to read this semester is Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker. Despite its promising title, this book is an extended attack on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the teaching that the Lord Jesus Christ died in our place to pay the penalty of our sin and bring us into a right relationship to God. J.I. Packer describes this doctrine as follows:

The notion which the phrase 'penal substitution' expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption, and glory.

In this post, I plan to look carefully at Green and Baker's critique of this doctrine and to offer a response. In my critique of Green and Baker's attack on penal substitutionary atonement, I will focus on their assessment of Charles Hodge's teaching on this subject.

Universal Moral Law and Blood Sacrifice

At the heart of Hodge's explanation of the atonement is a legal metaphor that would have been readily understood by people of his era. That may be less true today with the dissolution of an accepted framework of universal moral law. Hodge also, however, leans heavily on the biblical image of blood sacrifice, something very distant from his students in nineteenth-century New Jersey. His concern does not appear to be to develop a presentation that will connect with people's reality but to articulate a logical, intellectually sound, and biblically correct theory of the atonement. He cites many scriptural passages to support his explanations, thus at least giving his position the appearance of being biblical. Upon closer examination, however, we find that Hodge's model actually falls short in this regard. [Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 146.]

Green and Baker first criticize Hodge's "explanation of the atonement" (i.e., penal substitutionary atonement) by calling into question two concepts "at the heart" of a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, namely: "universal moral law" and "blood sacrifice." Green and Baker are correct in identifying these concepts as fundamental to penal substitutionary atonement, for "penal" indicates the death penalty incurred by humanity for breaking God's "universal moral law" and "substitutionary" indicates that one life may be substituted for another in accordance with a system of "blood sacrifice."

Green and Baker are also correct to point out that the concept of universal moral law may be less readily understood by people today than in the past.

What Green and Baker fail to mention is that the concept of universal moral law is a thoroughly biblical idea (they give the impression that "universal moral law" was invented by 'modernists'). Psalm 119:160 declares, "All your words are true, all your righteous laws are eternal" (NIV 1984); in Matthew 5:18 Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (NIV 1984). This everlasting Law is not merely an artifact in a museum, but as Psalm 19 makes clear, it is vitally involved in "reviving the soul" "making wise the simple" as well as in warning against sins.

While Green and Baker (rightly) label blood sacrifice as "biblical," they apparently believe that the concept of blood sacrifice is dispensable and that other concepts may be used instead of blood sacrifice to communicate about the atonement in cultures that do not have experience with a sacrificial system. The idea that blood sacrifice may be dispensable only makes since after the idea of universal moral law has been rejected. If people do not stand under condemnation for breaking a universal moral law, then they do not need the God-ordained means (the biblical blood sacrifice) for re-establishing a right relationship with God in light of their law-breaking.

The concept of blood sacrifice is truly irreplaceable. When we lose the concept of blood sacrifice, as biblically developed, we lose vital knowledge about who Jesus is and what He has done for sinners. Without blood sacrifice we cannot understand John's declaration that Jesus is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Without blood sacrifice we cannot understand the presentation of Hebrews that Jesus is our great High Priest who offers his own blood for our redemption (Heb 9:11-14). Without blood sacrifice we cannot understand the vision in Revelation of Jesus as a "Lamb looking as if it had been slain" who is praised because with His blood He purchased men for God (Rev 5).

God’s Justice and Western Criminal Justice

Because Hodge read the Bible through the lens of the criminal justice system of his era, the Bible appeared to support his explanation. In other words, if readers come to the biblical text with the presuppositions Hodge has about justice, God's wrath and judgment, and the mechanics of biblical sacrifice, then indeed his model seems biblical. If, however, we attempt to allow the Bible itself to shape the way we think about those same terms, his model appears fundamentally flawed because it operates with an understanding of these terms that is foreign to the Bible. [Ibid.]

When Green and Baker see similarities in the traditional evangelical interpretation of God’s justice and the Western criminal justice system, they consistently attribute this similarity to an influence of the Western understanding of criminal justice upon biblical exegesis that is illegitimate, at least in our post-modern age.

Green and Baker may be guilty of committing the false-cause fallacy. Observing similarities between the Western criminal justice system and traditional evangelical explanations of God's justice, they consistently assert that the traditional evangelical explanations of God's justice are shaped (and distorted) by the Western criminal justice system.  But similarity does not necessarily indicate causation.

On the other hand, Green and Baker never seem to consider the following question: What if the traditional understanding of criminal justice in the West was actually influenced by the biblical presentation of God's justice? In other words: if there is a demonstrable causal relationship, might this relationship not flow in the other direction? And if the Western criminal justice system was actually shaped by a biblical understanding of justice, might the similarities between the criminal justice system and the traditional evangelical interpretation of God's justice be legitimate after all?

Penalty and Trinity

Green and Baker assert:

Rather than presenting a Father and Son who are one, Hodge has one member of the Trinity punishing another member of the Trinity. [Ibid.]

In this assertion, Green and Baker present their readers with a false dilemma: EITHER the Father and Son are one OR the Father punished the Son.

But Hodge's presentation of the Covenant of Redemption holds both of these ideas together, not setting them at odds. Of the Covenant of Redemption, Hodge writes:
There is only one God, one divine Being, to whom all the attributes of divinity belong. But in the Godhead there are three persons, the same in substance, and equal in power and glory. It lies in the nature of personality, that one person is objective to another. If therefore, the Father and the Son are distinct persons the one be the object of the acts of the other. The one may love, address, and commune with the other. The Father may send the Son, may give Him a work to do, and promise Him a recompense. All this is indeed incomprehensible to us, but being clearly taught in Scripture, it must enter into the Christian’s faith.

The Father and the Son are one God AND the Father punished the Son (who willingly took the punishment that we deserved upon Himself): "the punishment that brought our peace was upon Him... it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer" (Isaiah 53:5, 10).

The Straw Man of God Subservient to Justice

Within a penal substitution model, God's ability to love and relate to humans is circumscribed by something outside of God- that is, an abstract concept of justice instructs God as to how God must behave.

With the above statement, Green and Baker present their readers with a straw man. If Charles Hodge and others who hold to penal substitutionary atonement actually argued that God is "circumscribed by something outside of God," then the "penal substitution model" would OBVIOUSLY be false for the Bible clearly teaches that NOTHING is greater than God.

In studying Charles Hodge's actual writings about the justice of God (from a section of his Systematic Theology titled "Satisfaction Rendered to Justice") it becomes clear that the justice that informs God's actions and with which sinners must deal is not an "abstract concept" but comes about due to God's own character. For God is a just God and has revealed His own intention to reward the righteous and punish the wicked: this is not something that is forced upon God from outside, but is in accordance with His own will.

In order to both fulfill the intention just mentioned above–to reward the righteous and punish the wicked–and to also fulfill His intention to save sinners, God provides a righteous substitute who takes the punishment due to the wicked and who covers the wicked in His own righteousness, thereby saving sinners. This act of salvation in Christ is, again, not something imposed on God, but which flows from His own purposes and character.

Penal Substitution and the Prodigal

In Green and Baker's fourth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of penal substitutionary atonement, they argue against the idea that a substitute must pay the penalty for a sinner in order for that sinner to experience the benefits of atonement. To this end, Green and Baker utilize Robin Collins’ illustration of how Collins claims the story of the Prodigal Son must be changed if penal substitutionary atonement is true:

When the son returns and recognizes the error of his ways, Collins has the Father respond, “I cannot simply forgive you… it would be against the moral order of the entire universe… Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath–my avenging justice–must be placated.”

The above illustration assumes that no penalty is paid for the son’s sin in the parable, and that the Father in the parable “simply forgive[s]” the son. (As if true forgiveness for great offenses–like those committed by the son–is a ever a ‘simple’ matter.)

It is true that penal substitution (or any other particular model of the atonement) is not explicit in this parable. As John MacArthur notes in his great book on the parable, A Tale of Two Sons:
Notice that Jesus did not mention anything about the actual means of atonement in the parable of the prodigal son. That, after all, wasn’t the point of the story. But our Lord did nevertheless directly confront the heart of the Pharisees’ error, which was their insistence that all sinners need to perform certain works to atone for their own sin– and thus earn the forgiveness and favor of God. (123)

Through careful analysis of this parable, MacArthur also demonstrates that a kind of substitution was, in fact, made. The Father in this parable runs to the returning Prodigal, which would have been considered extremely undignified in his culture. The Father embraces and kisses the Prodigal, thus taking on himself the uncleanness (physical and ceremonial) that the Prodigal had from living with swine. The Father, in a culture that demanded a man seek restitution from those who had wronged him, freely forgave the Prodigal. In all of the actions just mentioned, the Father took shame upon himself–shame that the Prodigal alone deserved–while granting the Prodigal forgiveness. Also, remember, that the Father suffered loss from the Prodigal when the Father had to pay out the Prodigal’s inheritance before its time, but the Prodigal did not have to go on suffering the poverty he incurred due to wasting away his inheritance. Rather, he is restored into the family with full rights and privileges.

So the idea that the Father forgives the Prodigal without suffering on behalf of the Prodigal is ludicrous.  Robin Collins is no more accurate in his reading of Jesus’ parable than Green and Baker are in their reading of Hodges’ Theology.

The Resurrection Unnecessary? An Empty Accusation Rebutted

Green and Baker begin their fifth paragraph of their section assessing Charles Hodges' presentation of penal substitutionary atonement with the following accusation:

We could also mention that because of the singular focus on penal satisfaction, Jesus' resurrection is not really necessary according to this model.

After the sentence above, Green and Baker move on to other accusations. At this point Green and Baker fail to provide documentation by way of any kind of interaction with Hodges' writings (or the writings of any other person who has held to penal substitutionary atonement) that would serve to demonstrate a "singular focus on penal satisfaction" of such a nature that would exclude the necessity of the resurrection for atonement. I would like to counter their simple accusation with a simple denial. Charles Hodge (and others who take a similar view of the atonement) are not blinded to the necessity of the resurrection.

But unlike Green and Baker's accusation, the "simple denial" stated above can be supported by an argument from the relevant source material.

Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, includes fourteen chapters under the major heading "Soteriology;" these chapters cover a range of topics. Two chapters of "Soteriology" in Hodges' Systematic ("Intercession of Christ" and "The Exaltation of Christ") are specifically focused on Christ in His resurrection and post-resurrection existence. Several other chapters include consideration of the resurrection and Christ's work post-resurrection as well (for example, each of Hodges' three chapters on the offices of Christ include consideration of how these offices are still being performed by Christ in His exalted state). This resurrection and post-resurrection work of Christ is presented as "really necessary" for atonement).

In 1 Corinthians 2:2 the Apostle Paul writes, "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (NASB). The Apostle refers to his gospel preaching as "the word of the cross." Because of statements like these, an opponent of Paul could easily charge, 'Because of his singular focus on the cross, the resurrection is not really necessary according to this model.' But such an accusation would ignore the rest of Paul's teaching. Green and Baker have made a similar mistake in their accusation against penal substitution.

Penal Substitution Unintelligible? An Assertion Self-Refuted

Again, from Green and Baker's fifth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of penal substitutionary atonement:

...the reality is that in may societies- at the time Hodge lived, and even more so today- people have different concepts of justice, so that for them penal substitution is simply unintelligible.

The above statement is in keeping with a criticism that Green and Baker make throughout their book: that the concept of penal substitutionary atonement is missiologically deficient because it is not understandable by people in other cultures.

This criticism is contradicted, however, by the experience of one of the authors recorded on page 140 of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. The author recounts a situation in which he spoke to "a group of indigenous pastors in Panama." In response to the question of "why Jesus died on the cross," these pastors responded with an answer that (as the author himself claims), "communicate[d] the heart of the penal substitution model of the atonement." The author then comments, "the basic ideas of this model can be communicated even to children."

If the author's anecdote and comment are true, then how can he claim an objection to penal substitution on the basis that it is "simply unintelligible"to people of other cultures? Obviously, they can be led to understand the idea that Jesus died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins.

Also, though the idea that "people have different concepts of justice" is certainly true, should gospel ministers not seek to teach people the biblical concept of justice and then to explain the atonement in light of that concept, rather than to formulate a "model" of the atonement based on [mis]understandings of justice that have not been influenced by biblical teaching?

Penal Substitution and Christus Victor

In their fifth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of penal substitutionary atonement, Green and Baker also criticize Hodge for linking the Christus Victor model of the atonement to penal substitution. (Christus Victor refers to the teaching that Christ by His death and resurrection gained victory over Satan and the power of sin.) Green and Baker write:

The weakness of forcing all atonement thinking into the mold of one image became especially apparent when Hodge attempted to explain victory over Satan and the power of sin in terms of penal substitution. In contrast with the tight logical arguments of other sections, in these it appeared he was trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Hodge explains victory over Satan and the power of sin in a section titled "Doctrine of some of the Fathers." In this section, Hodge writes:

1. That man by sin became subject to the penalty of the divine law.
2. That Satan has the office of inflicting that penalty in so far as he is allowed to torment and degrade the children of men.
3. That Christ by his death, having satisfied the penalty of the law, of course has delivered us from the power of Satan.

This appears to be neither a 'loose argument' or an attempt "to force a square peg into a round hole." But, since Green and Baker's attack of Hodge's presentation at this point consists simply of assertions with no arguments offered, they do not open the way for dialogue about any specific points to which they may object.

When Green and Baker criticize Hodge “for forcing all atonement thinking into the mold of one image,” the reader cannot help but feel that they are being disingenuous. Green and Baker had already made it clear that they believe penal substitution to be an invalid model of the atonement. One suspects that Green and Baker would not accuse a writer for “forcing all atonement thinking into the mold of one image” if that writer demonstrated inter-connectedness between other models of the atonement: say, for example, the Christus Victor and recapitulation models.


Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. (Gal 3:13a NASB)

In Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Green and Baker deny the true scandal of the Cross. The offensive message of the Cross is that we have all broken God’s universal moral law (summarized in terms of loving God heart, soul, and mind and loving our neighbors as ourselves, Matt 22:37-40), that violation of this Law deserves death, that we in ourselves could do nothing to escape this penalty, and that God Himself has provided a blood sacrifice in place of sinners: sending His own Son–true God and true Man–to die upon the Cross in our place, taking on our condemnation. Christ rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, offering free forgiveness and eternal life to everyone who trusts in Him. Forgiveness and eternal life are only given to those who acknowledge that they need forgiveness: that there is a penalty we rightly deserve. Forgiveness and eternal life are only given to those who trust in Christ as their substitute, and not in their own works. In denying the true scandal of the Cross–intimately tied to the message of penal substitutionary atonement–Green and Baker risk becoming guilty of denying the power of the Cross for salvation.

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