Responding to Preacher’s Institute on Penal Substitution

One of the frustrations I had when I looked into Orthodoxy was their unfamiliarity with Calvinism.  About all they knew about Reformed theology was “predestination” (always left undefined) and countered by saying “We believe in free will.”  Any sophomore Calvinist could quickly make short work of that argument.  Preacher’s Institute at least tries to interact with Calvinism on Calvinist terms, for which they should be commended.  I will give a point-by-point response.

The penal substitution view was completely absent from the church for over 1,000 years.

And Palamas’ essence/energies doctrine is found 1,000 years earlier?  This is actually one of the later criticisms he makes.  It’s a dangerous one because it backfires, unless you are a Roman Catholic who holds to Newman’s view of doctrine changing with the times.  One may ask where the doctrine of the “person” was before Basil.   That’s far more damaging than noting an absence of penal substitution.

1. Penal substitution compromises the deity of Christ and puts a rift in the Trinity

If Christ died for, and is our solution to, our sins against god the Father, then what about our sins against Christ? He’s just as god as the Father is. or our sins against the Holy Spirit? With penal substitution, God is pitted against God, either dividing God (and thus destroying the Trinity) or saying that Christ isn’t fully god.

I thought on the Orthodox gloss that the “One God” is properly predicated of the Father.   Orthodox theologians like John Behr and Thomas Hopko are clear on this.  Is the author aware of this?  On to the objection:  how is it pitting one member of the Godhead against another?  Orthodox, like everyone else, hold to the doctrine of the opera ad extra united.   That construct easily solves the problem.   In any case, the author never demonstrates the problem; he merely asserts it.

2. With penal substitution, God is bound by necessity

If god’s justice demands that He punish sin, then there is a higher force than god—necessity—which determines what God can and cannot do. Calvinists will be quick to argue,

“No, justice is an aspect of God’s nature. There is no necessity laid on Him from outside His nature.”

The problem, though, is that if I do “A” then God must do “B.” If I sin, God must punish. He does not have the freedom to do otherwise. Thus God’s actions are bound and controlled by some- thing outside of Himself, i.e. my actions. This becomes even more confusing if we add in the Calvinistic notion that God foreordained my sinful actions in the first place, thus forcing Him to respond to them. Furthermore, it is often argued by the Reformed that God is sovereign and doesn’t have to save anyone if He chooses not to. On the other hand, He does have to punish sin. So God has to punish sin, but He doesn’t have to save sinners. It’s very interesting that justice (or at least what the Reformed see as justice) becomes the defining characteristic of God rather than love. Justice forces God to respond to our actions, but love does not.

Let me turn the problem around:  if there is no necessity in God (and I’m not saying there is), then is God free to act contrary to his nature?  At best our author is left with a kind of nominalism in the being of God (which is ironic, since they always accuse the Reformed of nominalism).  At worst, we have a schizophrenic and chaotic god.  Since the author attacks the Calvinist view of God and yet does not offer his own,  but leaves himself open to dangerous inferences, I am fully warranted in drawing these inferences.  Incidentally, this is one of the better criticisms of the Essence/energies doctrine.

3. Penal substitution misunderstands the Old Testament sacrifices

The Old Testament sacrificial system was not a picture of penal substitution. God was not pouring out His wrath on the animals in place of the Israelites. He didn’t vent His righteous judgment on the animals, sending them to hell in place of the Israelites. On the contrary, they were killed honorably and as painlessly as possible. Their life (i.e. their blood) was offered to god as a sweet smelling aroma. The resulting meat was good and holy—not just worthless carrion fit for dogs and vultures. Such is also the case with Christ’s sacrifice: it is a holy offering of blood to the Father, not a means whereby god can vent His wrath.

19th century liberal Germany called.  They want their theology back.  The elephant in the room:  weren’t these animals representing sinful Israel?

4. Penal substitution misunderstands the word “justice”

A quick perusal of the psalms and prophets will reveal that the word “justice” is usually coupled with “mercy.” Justice really means to show kindness and deliverance to the oppressed, and to right the wrongs done to them. True justice is destroying our oppressors—sin, death, and Satan—not punishing us for the sins to which we are in bondage.


5. Penal substitution misunderstands the word “propitiation”

Propitiation should not be thought of in the classical pagan sense, as if our god were some angry deity who needed appeasing and could only be satisfied through a penal sacrifice. It’s really quite different. Propitiation (Greek hilasterion) is also translated “mercy seat.” The mercy seat covered the ark of the covenant, which contained a copy of the ten commandments—the law. While the law cried out against us and demanded perfection and showed us our shortcomings, the mercy seat covered those demands and our failure to live up to them. Was the mercy seat punished for our sins? of course not. Likewise, Christ’s blood was not the punishment demanded by justice, but rather the ultimate mercy seat, covering and forgiving our sins. This is why “propitiation” is sometimes more accurately translated as “expiation” in some versions of the Bible. (“expiation” implies the removal of our sins, while “propitiation” implies appeasing an angry deity.)

And the main passage in Romans 3:25 presupposes the background of Romans 1:18ff:  the wrath of God is revealed against unrighteousness.  I don’t particularly care if you translate it as expiation.  It makes no difference when placed in the context of God’s wrath.  Again, this looks a lot like old-school liberalism.  In fact, it’s the same argument.   I noticed Orthodox theology doesn’t really have a place for God’s wrath.  Paul does.

6. With penal substitution, God does not show unconditional love

With penal substitution, god Himself does not show the unconditional love that He commands us to show one another. There is a big condition attached: god must have an “outlet” to vent His wrath. His “self-giving” love is only made possible by His “self- satisfying” justice.

The sad thing is that I think the author is actually serious.

7. With penal substitution, God does not truly forgive

With penal substitution, the debt is not really forgiven; it’s just transferred. But we are commanded to forgive as god forgave us. If my brother offends me, should I demand justice and vent my wrath on someone else? Should I beat myself up? No, obviously we are to simply let it go and graciously accept the offense.

Orthodox believe you can lose your salvation.  Therefore, am I truly forgiven?  If Christ died for my sins (which I haven’t seen them really come clear on), which pays a debt, yet I am not fully saved and end up in hell, was I truly forgiven? Like elsewhere, I don’t think the interlocutor is completely free of his criticism.

8. With penal substitution, God changes

According to penal substitution, god is angry with us because of our sins. But once He expresses His wrath in His Son, He is no longer angry with us. Now He loves us as He loves His own Son. In other words, He changes. First He’s angry with us, then He changes His mind and decides to love us. But how can this be if god is love? How can a God who is infinite, self-giving love ever vary in His degree of love towards us? Besides, not only is God love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), but He’s also unchanging (Mal 3:6) and doesn’t change His mind (Num 23:19).

They don’t believe in absolute simplicity, so I don’t see what the problem is.  God expresses his wrath against sin and still remains wrathful against sin.   If we hold to simplicity of some sort, we at least have to see the attributes as consistent with each other.  God’s wrath against sin is consistent (implies, causally entails, or if you are a Thomist, is identical to) with his love for his own holiness.  Nothing is changing.

9. Penal substitution makes the resurrection unnecessary

According to penal substitution, salvation is made possible only by a legal exchange. We are counted “just” and “forgiven” only because god’s wrath has been poured out on Christ instead. Since hell is said to be a punishment for sins, and since our sins have already been punished in Christ, we are free to go to heaven. The resurrection then becomes simply a nice bonus, nothing more than a “proof” that Christ is divine.

I am not aware of any Reformed Protestant who believes this (I don’t care what mainstream evangelicalism might believe).  I think this person is confused on eschatology and what the words “resurrection” and “heaven” mean.

10. Penal substitution makes the incarnation unnecessary

Was it Christ’s physical suffering or spiritual suffering which atoned for our sins (according to penal substitution)? If physical, then anyone who has suffered physically more than Christ (and there have been plenty in the history of our race), is exempt from hell, since they already paid for their own sins. If it was Christ’s spiritual suffering that counts, then He didn’t need to be incarnate. (After all, the demons will be punished without needing bodies.) The incarnation becomes just an “add-on” to help us out a little more.

I really don’t know what to say.  In order for Christ to suffer, he had to be incarnate.   Penal substitution is not abstracted from Christ’s representing his people and fulfilling the law.   Yes, if we were simply to abstract penal substitution, this criticism might apply.

11. One person cannot be punished for another

Contra penal substitution, the Bible tells us that one person can- not be punished for another. each one shall die for his own sins:

Joshua 7:1-26; 2 Samuel 21:5-6; Isaiah 53 (it doesn’t get any more explicit here.  You don’t have to accept penal substitution in this passage, but you clearly see person A dying for the sins of people B.), Romans 5:19; 1 Peter 3.  This is embarrassing and shows a woeful lack of basic biblical literacy.

The others in the last are inferences from above.  Drake has dealt with them in fuller detail.  The author represents a lack of knowledge on the doctrine of God (he basically capitulates to Euthyphro’s Dilemma), as well as ignorance of a myriad of biblical texts.  He would no doubt respond I have interpreted them incorrectly, and maybe I have, but still…


6 comments on “Responding to Preacher’s Institute on Penal Substitution

  1. Trent says:

    Those were by far some of the weirdest and most emotional arguments I have heard.
    Anyway, I was wondering how did the doctrine of theosis develop and how does one refute it?
    Also didn’t the reformers use some of the idea?

    • theosis sounds esoteric, butif you really read what these guys are saying, it isn’t all that striking. They deny any admixture with the divine essence and our natures. The Reformers’ doctrine of unionwith Christ captures the same idea.

  2. Karen says:

    EO priest, Fr. Stephen Freeman, takes a pastoral (how does this affect things “on the ground” in the believer’s life), rather than a scholarly/historical, approach to explaining the EO “ontological understanding” of salvation in Christ on his blog, but you might still find this post interesting for this discussion:

    • The problem with his analysis is that that he divorces the ontology of salvation from forensics: the Reformed do not. We speak of both union with Christ and forensic justification–because the Scriptures do. He simply does not deal with the Scriptural evidence that God put our sins on Christ in Isaiah 53.

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