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Three more thoughts on penal substitution

Further to the discussion here...

1. The early church taught a substitutionary, propitiatory, sacrificial death as the key to Christ's 'sweet exchange' with sinners.

e.g. For Irenaeus, Christ's filling out of Adam's distorted image necessitates a 'filling up of the times of his disobedience' (Ad. Her. III.21.1).  In taking on Adam’s substance, He took on Adam’s curse, satisfying it at the cross, ‘propitiating indeed for us the Father, against Whom we had sinned’ (V.17.1) and ‘redeeming us by His own blood' (V.14.3).

For Athanasius the curse of Genesis 2:17 is key.  The Word becomes incarnate in order to take a body capable of death “so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished." (De Incarn. 8)  Moreover this death is specifically a sacrifice (ch9; 10; 20) made under God’s curse (ch25).

2.  Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) cannot mean a disruption to the Father-Son love since God's wrath is an aspect of His love.  Perhaps if we thought that wrath was some other thing, divorced from love, then we might say that God's wrath poured out at the cross breaks the Father-Son union.  But no, if God is love and if this wrath is a reaction of love to the sin that Christ had become, then there is no danger of breaking the homoousios.

3. PSA means God saves us from God.  It says that the ultimate problem facing humanity is not death or corruption or sin or the devil but God Himself.  Sin is not our real problem - wrath is. We need to be saved from the Judge Himself.  And we can only be saved by the Judge Himself - the Judge judged no less.  Certainly Christ ransoms us from all those lesser powers (and therefore certainly there is a place for Christus Victor etc).  But that's not the ultimate meaning of salvation.  It's a divine curse, a divine judgement, divine wrath from which we must be delivered. PSA takes this with the seriousness it deserves.


0 thoughts on “Three more thoughts on penal substitution

  1. Perry Robinson


    I agree with 1 except in so far as those terms pick out the penal model, which in the context of the early church, they don’t. It needs to be demonstrated that Irenaeus for example means what the Reformation tradition meant by propitiatory, otherwise this is just the word-concept fallacy. I don’t know of any specialists on Irenaeus that take him to be endorsing the idea that Jesus was punished by the Father or a kind of penal model here. The same goes for Athanasius. The scholarship on these two Fathers seems to me to be very clear-they endorsed a Christus Victor model, and not a penal model. The later is a product of a much later period. Consequently the key terms mean something different for them than they did for Luther or Calvin and it is a bit anachronistic to suggest that these terms mean for Irenaeus and Athanasius what they meant in terms of a later theory for Calvin and Luther.

    2. If wrath is an aspect of divine love then love and wrath are only perspectivally different. (Which seems only true if Augustine was right about Simplicity, which your remarks seem to suggest that you think he wasn't.) If that is so, its hard to see how we could be saved from God. The difference then is not in how God relates to us, but then how each person relates themselves to God. It’s a perception problem, not a problem in fact. Second, God doesn’t “react” does he? How exactly does that square with immutability do you suggest? How exactly is condemning people to hell retributively forever an act of love exactly? How is tormenting the divine Son with the torments of hell on the cross an act of love towards the Son? I don’t see how what you are proposing is either plausible or gets around the problems I posed and Si illustrated.

    3. I agree that that is what the Penal model implies but the Satisfaction model does the same with respect to God. Why do we need the Penal model for that if other models do the same? Second, the enemy of God is not man but the devil or so I’d argue. We have made ourselves God’s enemy but God is never our enemy. The relation is asymmetrical. Christ comes not to judge but to save, so it seems we are saved not by the judge but by the savior. Further, I think when you cash out what you mean by Christ ransoming us from the lesser powers the penal aspect will be superfluous. Why rescue us from the lesser powers when they are only tools of the divine will? If the problem is God’s relation to us and vice versa, then the lesser powers are not the problem we need rescuing from. Moreover, the Christus Victor implies a lot more than a mere ransoming. It includes the idea that Christ is victorious over sin, death and the devil by maintaining the hypostatic union by his divine power, thereby conferring immorality on all men.

    Lastly, if you endorse the penal model, is Jesus punished for all men or some men only? How will an endorsement of the penal model not entail limited atonement or actual universalism?

  2. Glen

    Hi Perry,

    1 - I'm no church historian, I just lifted those examples from an old essay of mine on Irenaeus and Athanasius. Not sure how Irenaeus understood 'propitiation'. Happy to hear from others on examples of proto-PSA in early church...?

    2 - Not trying to make an argument from 'simplicity' - just saying that the statement "The Father punishes the Son" does not mean "The Father ceases loving the Son" or "The Father ceases being Father to the Son". It just means that when the LORD our Righteousness becomes Sin, the Father in His love responds to sin appropriately - with personal hostility.

    I hold onto language of "responds" and "reacts" because I don't think the gospel makes sense without them. Whatever we say about immutability we don't want to make the gospel events into pageantry. Real stuff is being effected at the cross. Whatever we think 2 Cor 5:21 means we have a 'becoming' no?

    3 - I don't so much want to say that the *model* of PSA includes or implies the others so much as that the *Scriptures* teach PSA and they teach other models. I'm not so concerned to have a system that ties up all loose ends as to put words to what the Scriptures declare (this is where JI Packer talks about PSA as properly being kerygmatic driven).

    You speak of the lesser powers as 'tools of the divine will.' Well the Father has not entrusted judgement to Satan or to impersonal powers. The Father has only entrusted judgement to the Son. I don't need to be saved from the devil as much as I need to be saved from the Judge. Thank God the Judge was judged in my place.

    On whether PSA implies limited atonement, I don't think it has to. See the diagrams here:

    The side-by-side diagrams reflect a 'one-or-other' substitution. The top-down pyramid diagram reflects a 'Head-providing-shelter' substitution.

  3. Heather

    I couldn't help but push in again.

    I was wondering if perhaps we tend to misunderstand the concept of "wrath". In my mind, I have often imagined it as God's active anger and malicious destruction of humans for our rebellion. Some have gone so far as to say it looks as though God is throwing a temper fit over man not doing what He wants.

    But, what if "wrath" is intended to be descriptive of what happens when we stubbornly remain outside of God's gracious offer of love and life by way of the Son? We could say God's wrath hangs over man who wants to be god for himself.

    God Himself is the source of Life and all that is good. If someone says "no thanks" to His offer that is extended via Christ and the Holy Spirit, isn't the only thing that is left is a violent and torturous "death"?

    Could perhaps what happens in a state of death be described by God as "wrath", as a way of warning us what sort of destruction occurs when we won't allow God to give us Himself?

    Perhaps the Law is not so much a divine decree of perfect behavior that He's stated but instead is a revealing of a state of being that He IS.

    We see the word "judge" and think in human terms. But a judge (at least in the US) interprets and enforces existing Laws. He isn't the Law maker. While I believe that God is also the "Law maker", I don't see this as being an arbitrary list of "do" things but instead are descriptive of Who God IS. This is described in human words and actions for us in the OT Law.

    So, I was thinking that when God judges us, it is on the basis of His eternally existing nature and our rejection or acceptance of the only way (Christ) we've been given to be able to participate in it.

  4. Heather

    I couldn't help but push in again.

    I was wondering if perhaps we tend to misunderstand the concept of "wrath". In my mind, I have often imagined it as God's active anger and malicious destruction of humans for our rebellion. I suppose it could be.

    Some have gone so far as to say it looks as though God is throwing a temper fit over man not doing what He wants. I don't think that is a correct concept.

    But, what if "wrath" is intended to be descriptive of what are the unavoidable consequences when we stubbornly remain outside of God's gracious offer of love and life by way of the Son?

    I don't believe God is subject to whims of emotion in the way we are. But might we say (in human terms) that God's "wrath", or anger, hangs over those who continue to want to be god for themselves?

    God Himself is the source of Life and all that is good. If someone says "no thanks" to His offer that is extended via Christ and the Holy Spirit, isn't the only thing that is left a violent and torturous death?

    Could perhaps what happens in a state of death be described by God as "wrath", as a way of warning us what sort of destruction occurs when we reject God's to gift of Himself?

    Ok. I'm done confusing the issue.

  5. Heather

    oops. Sorry about the double post. One of the kids must have hit the submit button while I was trying to pare down my original thought.

    Just delete 'em both. I was rambling again.

  6. pgjackson

    Because God is God, there is ultimately no difference between talking about
    a. Cause and effect leading to consequence within his creation
    b. His own personal determinate actions.

    Where punishment for sin can be described as cause and effect, as natural consequences, as what 'inevitably' happens when you reject God and his ways etc., this in no sense undermines these punishments being his personal will and determination.

    The God who runs the universe is ultimately active and ultimately personal. His wrath against sin, even where it looks to us like cause and effect (and one legitimate way of describing it would be in such terms), is his personal action against sin - who else set up/ runs/ determines/ sustains the cause and effect of the universe after all?

    Hope that maybe helps rather than confuses. :)

  7. Heather

    Thanks pgjackson. It does help clarify.

    I do believe that God's wrath is absolutely justifiable--and very real.

    We are made in His image and have emotions and respond to the way others act, so I don't see why God wouldn't (after all, He IS a relational being) .

    What I was trying to say is that I wonder if our perception of His anger, wrath and hatred is messed up because we have a hard time comprehending how offensive we really are apart from being found in union with Christ. And, I do believe that, if nothing else, our sinfulness does not allow for us to stand in the presence of a holy and righteous Maker. It would utterly destroy us if Jesus was not Mediating.

    I've had a bad week and probably shouldn't have been commenting on anyone's site.

  8. pgjackson

    Hi Heather.
    Hope my comments came across as friendly attempt to help clarify and not tub-thumping correction. They were meant as the former. If they came across as the latter, the fault is mine, sorry.
    I always enjoy your comments, and I'm sure others do too.
    Hope your week gets better.

  9. Heather

    You're comment was taken as it was intended. I'm not offended.

    Sometimes I do need an occasional thump, though, and I'd much rather it be done by one who is motivated by concern for God's truth and for a fellow believer's welfare.

    This is just a really "down" time of year for me and the Lord seems to like to do a bit of pruning about now. Having one's faith stretched is good, if exhausting.
    But fried brains don't function well....

    I appreciate the prayer, Glen.

    Thank you, guys. :)

  10. Si Hollett

    Here's some things I found for point one (if only I hadn't lent my Pierced for my Transgressions, which has pages of quotes from church history).

    I'm not going to say that most of these are explicitly penal in their substitution, but it is interesting to see how Clement and 'Barnabas' jump straight to Isaiah 53 when thinking of Christ and his Cross. I'm also not going to say that they only held to a substitutionary model, only that they did see the cross as substitutionary, used words like punishment and said things that death is the reward for sin.

    1Clement 16 is Clement's first description of Christ and it is mostly just copy and paste Isaiah 53, though it reads differently (that could be translation, but it looks like Clement added some stuff in there). My English translation has gems like: "Yet this is he who carries the burden of our sins, and suffers pain on our behalf"
    "Men in plenty shall be given him for his portion, and he shall divide the spoils of the strong, because his life was delivered up over to death and he was counted amongst the transgressors. On his own shoulders he bore the sins of many, and for their sins he was delivered up" (here Christ is Victorious, because he was counted amongst the sinners and died for our sins - this is how he can reign from a tree!).

    The Epistle of Barnabas chapter 5 begins:
    "Now, when the Lord resigned himself to deliver his body to destruction, the aim he had in view was to sanctify us by the remission of our sins, which is effected by the sprinkling of his blood. For what scripture says of him (referring partly to Israel, but also partly to ourselves) is, he was wounded on account of our transgressions, and bruised because of our sins, and by his scars are we healed."

    in chapter 7, whoever wrote Barnabas compares Jesus to both goats of the Day of Atonement - the one killed for the sins of the people, and the scapegoat, led off into the wilderness, taking the separation from God, so that God could meet with the people.

    And finally, having saved the best until last, Diognetus 9:
    "As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food."

    Yes, Luther (though he didn't not know it) wasn't the first to say of the atonement "O sweet exchange!"

    Models of the atonement, just like models of Trinity and models of Christ took time to develop (mostly through error) - these 1st and 2nd Century works show that, while they didn't explicitly make it clear that they were on about Christ being punished in our place, for our sins, that they did feel that we deserved God's wrath, that death was what sin deserved, that Is53 is a crucial passage on the Cross, that Christ bore our sins, and was like a sacrifice. They most definitely don't deny PSA, have a substitutionary atonement and have little bits suggesting that there was a penal element of the substitution.

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