Monday, November 14, 2005

Paul Owen: Cross-burner

Paul Owen has penned yet another public attack on the doctrine of penal substitution—to follow up on his previous assault.

It is striking that, to my knowledge, none of his confreres in either the “Reformed” Catholic or Federal revisionist camp has deemed the doctrine of penal substitution sufficiently important to mount a pubic defense. Says a lot about the company he keeps. He can put a match to the cross of Christ while they simply yawn and turn the page. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to look to Tim Enloe or James Jordan or Doug Wilson or Peter Leithart or Andrew Sandlin for spiritual guidance.

Before commenting directly on his remarks, I’ll briefly summarize the Scriptural evidence for penal substitution. We’ll quickly see that the categories are interrelated.

Although there are verses which explicitly teach penal substitution (e.g. Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pt 3:18; 1 Jn 3:4-5), it isn’t necessary to find this combination in a single prooftext. All you need is find the work of Christ separately described in both penal and vicarious terms, and then combine both truths to form the doctrine of penal substitution.

I. Penal

i) Divine wrath

a) The wrath of God is a pervasive theme in Scripture. By the reckoning of Leon Morris, it occurs over 585 times in the OT alone. It also occurs at strategic junctures in Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, Ephesians, Colossian, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and Revelation.

The wrath in view is not mere anger, but moral outrage or righteous indignation in relation to sin. Although the Bible depicts the wrath of God in anthropopathetic terms (e.g., Isa 30:27-30), this is a colorful way of expressing a literal truth about God’s attitude towards sin. Divine wrath presupposes that sin is culpable or blameworthy.

As you’d expect, divine wrath is also associated with the judgment of God. Hence, the wrath of God has a punitive dimension. God will exact justice on sinners.

b) Wrath and propitiation are correlative. Even if the Bible had no separate term for propitiation, the concept would be implicit in the nature of salvation, for salvation would, of necessity, include deliverance from the wrath of God.

ii) Covenant

A covenant is a legal arrangement. Breach of covenant carries legal sanctions. Both the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant are expressions of contract law. The New Covenant is God’s law for the church.

iii) Sacrifice

Nowadays we ordinarily use sacrificial language as a figure of speech. But a sacrifice is literally putting to death a man or animal or propitiate the deity. In Scripture, a sacrifice is a sin-offering or guilt-offering. The penalty of sin is exacted on victim to secure a reprieve or pardon for the sinner.

This has its foundation in the Mosaic code. It underlies Isaiah 53. And the author of Hebrews makes systematic use of this framework to explicate the work of Christ.

iv) Sin

Sin is a forensic category. Sin is a violation of God’s law (1 Jn 3:4). The sinner contracts guilt as a result of sin. The sinner is liable to divine judgment for his sin.

v) Blood

In Scriptural usage, blood is generally a synonym for violent death. It is often used with reference to the OT sacrificial system, where the sacrificial animal is penalized in lieu of the sinner.

In the NT it is, of course, associated with the shed blood of Christ, as a synonym for his death upon the cross.

vi) Death

In Scripture, death is a penalty for sin (Gen 2:17; 3:19; Rom 5:12-21; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:21-22). If death is penal in character, then atonement must be penal in character.

vii) Hell.

Hell is a penalty for sin. If hell is penal in character, then atonement must be penal in character.

viii) Redemption

In OT usage, redemption can be either figurative (e.g. the Exodus, post-Exilic Restoration) or literal (e.g. manumission of indentured servants). The sense of the word can sometimes shade into the bare idea of deliverance.

More directly relevant to NT usage is where the offender must make restitution to avoid the death penalty (Exod 21:28-29; Num 35:31-32); likewise, where a sacrificial animal is offered in lieu of the firstborn son (Exod 13:2,13; 22:29-30; Lev 18:15; 19:20; Num 3:46,48,51). The firstborn Jewish male escapes the Plague of the Firstborn, unlike the firstborn Egyptian male, because his life is ransomed by an animal sacrifice.

The flip side of this provision is the avenger of blood who redeems the life of a kinsman by taking the life of his murderer (Exod 13:2,13; 34:19-20; Num 3:12; 35:19; Deut 15:19-20) in a vicarious life-for-life transaction.

In NT usage, the ransom price is the blood and/or death of Christ (e.g. Rom 3:24-25; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12,15; 1 Pet 1:18).

In passages like Mk 10:45 (par. Mt 20:28), the case for substitution doesn’t turn on the mere meaning of a given preposition (Gr. anti, hyper). Rather, the vicarious dimension is evident both from the explicit statement of a one-to-many relation as well as the way in which the action actually plays out. Jesus, and Jesus alone, dies on the cross.

In addition, Christ redeems us from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13). His death is nothing less than a judicial execution.

ix) Reconciliation

Reconciliation presupposes a prior state of enmity.

x) Propitiation

a) In secular Greek, hiliaskomai means “to placate, propitiate, appease.” In Septuagintal usage, it is associated with the wrath and judgment of God. Although that association doesn’t define the word, it confirms the secular import.

b) In its NT occurrences (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) it also denotes propitiation.

c) Again, even if the Bible had no term for propitiation, the idea would be implicit in the principle of divine wrath and sacrifice to appease the deity.

For standard word-studies on the meaning of hiliaskomai, cf. D. Hill, Greek Words & Hebrew Meanings (Cambridge 1967), chap. 2; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans 1983), 144-214; R. Nicole, “C. H. Dodd & the Doctrine of Propitiation,” Standing Forth (Mentor 2002), 343-85.

xi) Justification

Justification is a forensic category. The sinner is guilty, but acquitted on account of his Redeemer. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer.

II. Substitutionary

i) Covenant

In the ANE, a king would enter into a treaty with another king. Each king acted as the official representative of his royal subjects. It is generally held that the genre of Mosaic covenant is literarily indebted to this legal form.

In divine covenants, a human being like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, acts as the official representative of his people. In the NT, this role is assumed by Christ, who acts on behalf of his people.

ii) Sacrifice

In a sacrificial system, the victim takes the place of the sinner. (e.g. Isa 53; Heb 9:26). This is signified by the imposition of hands, with its symbolic transfer of guilt from the sinner to the victim (Lev 1:4).

iii) Kinship

The OT category of redemption is related to the OT principle of kinship. For example, an indentured servant could be ransomed by a kinsman-redeemer (Lev 25:49; Deut 25:5-10). Likewise, next of kin could function as collateral (Gen 43:9; 44:32-33).

This underlies covenant theology. In a tribal society, the chieftain or patriarch would act on behalf of the clan. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David assume this role in the OT.

iv) Kingship

Kingship is an extension of kinship. The king was head over all the tribes.

v) Priesthood

A priest would act on behalf of the sinner. He would intercede for the people.

Already in Messianic prophecy we see the fusion of the royal and priestly office in one incumbent (Ps 110:1-4; Zech 3:8-10; 6:9-15; 9:9-10).

vi) Redemption

In the OT avenger of blood we have a vicarious life-for-life transaction as the avenger takes the life of the murderer to atone for the life of the victim.

Using the classic Exodus paradigm, Isaiah says that God paid a ransom for Israel, and the ransom-price was Egypt in exchange for Israel (Isa 43:3-4).

vii) Reconciliation

Reconciliation is not inherently vicarious. However, the NT describes the reconciliation effected by Christ in vicarious terms of a one-for-many exchange (2 Cor 5:14-15,19-21).

Let us now consider Dr. Owen’s objections:
“My rejection of the propitiation model, and penal substitution (as it is commonly understood), is not a new development. These are views I have rejected since my graduate school days (mid 90’s). They are not indications of some alarming new shift in my theological compass.”

Whoever said that Dr. Owen’s view marks an alarming new shift in his theological compass? His heterodoxy is more indicative of an abortive conversion process. He never made a complete transition from Mormonism to Evangelicalism—much less Calvinism. This accounts for his eclectic and eccentric theology. You can take Owen out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of Owen.

What he’s been doing all along is a softening up exercise. He started out sounding nominally Evangelical to lower the guard of the gullible and unsuspecting. But as time goes he slowly unveils his hidden agenda. Having suckered and snookered the easily deceived with the tar-water of his cure-all catholicity, he shows his true colors.

“2. I do not reject propitiation because I do not believe in the wrath of God. My primary reasons for rejecting it are:
i)The OT nowhere associates the slaughter of animal sacrifices with the appeasement of God’s anger toward sinners. Since Jesus’ death is plainly to be seen as the anti-type of those sacrifices, I see no reason to link his death with the appeasement of God’s wrath either.”

i) In my brief summary of the Biblical evidence, I have argued otherwise.

ii) But even if what Dr. Owen says here were true, penal substitution is a broader category than propitiation. You don’t require an explicit link between sacrifice and propitiation to establish the penal character of the atonement.

iii) Since, to judge by his double negative, Dr. Owen does admit to the wrath of God, how can he affirm the wrath of God in the very same breath as he denies the propitiatory character of the atonement? Wrath and propitiation are correlative.

“2) I do not believe it to be consistent with eternal election and limited atonement. God’s election of sinners indicates an already present love for them, and a willingness to forgive them. The death of Jesus therefore cannot be understood as causing or effecting God’s benevolent disposition towards them by appeasing his wrath. Christ’s death does not cause God to be willing to forgive those whom he has already determined in his decree to forgive.”

This is a fallacious objection. All you have to say is that apart from penal substitution, God’s wrath would terminate on every human being. The elect are deserving of judgment, deserving of hell. Were it not for penal substitution, they would be objects of God’s wrath, like the rest of mankind. This is a necessary precondition of the atonement.

“3. The expiation model which I hold to does agree that Christ’s death delivers us from destruction. But the logic is different. Christ’s death is not designed to satisfy the offended honor of God, nor his punitive justice. The eternal punishment of the unrepentant will do that. Rather, the death of Christ is designed to satisfy: a) God’s holiness (through expiation); and b) God’s demand for righteousness in his creature (through Christ’s obedience). Now it is true that it would be out of character for God (and in that sense unjust) to allow sin to abide in his blessed presence. So in order to maintain his holiness, God must do one of two things: a) destroy the sinner; or b) destroy the sin (understanding sin as an offensive stain). He can either propitiate his wrath, or allow a substitute to offer an expiating sacrifice. He can either punish or pardon. Christ’s death is the means of granting pardon, in such a way as to satisfy the demands of God’s holiness (which cannot abide the presence of sin).”

This is exceptionally confused.

i) Appealing to expiation only pushes the issue back a step. What need is there for expiation unless sin is offensive to God?

ii) Expiation is just a placeholder. It fails to explain how atonement is made. Hence, it is no an alternative to penal substitution.

iii) Eternal punishment may satisfy the justice of God with respect to the reprobate, but that hardly explains how the elect are able to escape the judgment of God.

iv) Notice the false antithesis: God can “either punish or pardon, propitiate his rather, or allow a substitute to offer an expiating sacrifice.”

Somehow it never connects with Dr. Owen’s furry brain that God pardons the sinner by means of exacting retributive justice on the sin-bearer. Otherwise, there is nothing to underwrite the pardon. Like a voucher, the pardon must be redeemed. It has to have something to back it up.

How would the death of Christ satisfy the claims of divine holiness unless the death of Christ were the very retribution which divine justice demands?

“4. So it is true that Christ dies instead of us (since we would be destroyed if we were not pardoned through his blood). It is also true that Christ dies the death that we deserve. However, he dies our death, not to satisfy God’s punitive justice, but to take away our sin, so that we need not die. The penal substitution model sees the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus so as to satisfy the demand for a just punishment of the pardoned sinner. Inevitably, in effect, this takes the emphasis off of the physical death of Jesus, and places it upon some supposed outpouring of God’s anger upon Christ on the cross as the unfortunate substitute. This leads to the erroneous idea that God killed Jesus on the cross instead of us.”

i) As an aside, notice how Dr. Owen constantly talks about the sinner being “destroyed.” Is he an annihilationist?

ii) Back to the main point, observe what a remarkably illogical mind Dr. Owen possesses. He begins by admitting that Christ dies instead of us, dies the death we deserve, dies our death. But then he ends by speaking of “the erroneous idea that God killed Jesus on the cross instead of us.”

“It is very important to distinguish between Jesus being punished in our place so that we do not have to be punished, and Jesus dying in the place of our sin so that we do not have to die.”

i) Dr. Owen is doing far more than drawing a distinction. He is driving a wedge between the two.

ii) Why is this a very important distinction, anyway? Death is a penal sanction for sin.

iii) Strictly speaking, Christ doesn’t die for sin. This is just a shorthand expression for the fact that Christ dies for sinners. There is no collective reservoir of anonymous sin for which Christ dies.

Sin is not some nameless, free-floating hypostatic entity. There is the sin of Adam as well as the sin of his posterity. Christ doesn’t die for sin: Christ dies for (elect) sinners, and he dies to atone for their sin and the sin of Adam imputed to them.

“One model emphasizes the punitive justice of God (an extra-biblical concern), and the other model emphasizes the purity and holiness of God (a biblical concern).”

He can only say that God’s punitive justice is an extra-biblical concern in defiance of literally hundreds of Biblical verses to the contrary. This may be good Mormon theology, but Biblical it isn’t.

“5. To illustrate: The penal substitution model sees God bringing down his celestial hammer to smash the guilty sinner. But at the last moment, Jesus steps into our place and takes the blow upon himself. God does not care that the one who got smashed was in fact innocent; just so long as he smashed somebody. Jesus was smashed just as if he had been guilty of the crime. Since God’s wrath is now spent, he does not feel the need to lift the hammer again and smash us. So we escape punishment.”

This is an amazingly obtuse statement coming from someone who claims to be a Calvinist and adherent of the Westminster Confession.

i) No Calvinist sees Jesus as stepping in at the last moment. Jesus dies for the elect. That was the deal all along. Those whom the Father chose, the Son redeemed, and the Spirit renews.

ii) God doesn’t care who got smashed as long as someone got smashed? So Jesus just happened to be at the wrong place and the wrong time? Is Dr. Owen really so dense that this is his conception of penal substitution?

iii) God doesn’t care that the one who got smashed was in fact innocent? What a perverse way of putting it, as if God were indifferent to the innocence of the sin-bearer, as if, what is more, this were a miscarriage of justice.

It should be unnecessary to point out that the innocence of the sin-bearer is a presupposition of the atonement. To turn this around as though it were incidental at best, and unjust at worse, misses the whole point—and no minor point at that.

iv) Jesus was smashed just as if he’d been guilty of a crime? See how Dr. Owen poses this statement as something objectionable, something to be rejected out of hand. You’d think the Calvinist made this up whole cloth. You never know that it comes straight from the pages of Scripture.

Yes, that’s exactly what the Father did: to punish his Son just as if he’d been guilty of the crime. You get that from reading the Bible.

What it comes down to is the old rationalistic objection to penal substitution and vicarious atonement. It’s so unfair! Is downright immoral!

At this point it’s no longer a question of defending “whether” the Bible teaches penal substitution, but defending “what” the Bible teaches about penal substitution.

For a Bible-believing Christian, our point of departure is what God has actually said and done. But the rationalist has to begin and end with his intuitions. And his intuitions are culturally-conditioned.

So, I’ll now shift from exegetics to apologetics. As I’ve already noted, penal substitution takes certain things for granted, like kinship and sacrifice.

Many contemporary westerners have lost their sense of kinship. When we think of a family, we think of a nuclear family at best, and a broken family at worst. And family members typically live hundreds or thousands of miles apart. This has resulted in the felt loss of kinship that comes of village life, extended families, tribes, elders, and chieftains. And we haven’t really put it all behind us, for this fragmentation and diminution of family life has taken an emotional toll.

In Bible times, it would seem perfectly natural for a king or kinsman to act on behalf of his people—taking their place, if need be. That was a socially accepted and expected role for them to play.

And remnants of this instinctual bonding linger on. Let’s say that Peter and Paul are friends, while Paul and John are friends, but Peter and John are not friends. They’re not enemies, just not friends.

One day, Peter does something to offend John. He would like to patch things up with John, but he doesn’t dare approach him. So he prevails on their mutual friend Paul to intercede.

The assumption here is that John will forgive Peter as a favor to Paul. Peter has done nothing to deserve this. Paul is deserving, but Paul wasn’t the offender.

Now, if you wanted to be contrarian, you could object that favoritism is unfair, even immoral. And if you took that position you wouldn’t have any friends left because favoritism and friendship are correlative. Friends do favors for each other. That’s the essence of friendship.

I use this simple illustration for its universal appeal. Maybe we find penal substitution repugnant, but if we think it about it, we all operate with very similar honor-code.

To take another example, Christian children naturally relate to the idea that Christ died for their sins. Indeed, they’re more receptive to that precious truth than are many adults. It’s only when some folks grow up that they become very self-conscious, inhibited, and easily embarrassed by their “childish” beliefs. They lose their natural spontaneity and become red-faced at what they used to believe. Instead of difficult things becoming easier to understand, easy things become more difficult.

Which brings us to another point. Every culture is a shame-culture. We may pretend that this is irrational. That I shouldn’t feel ashamed of what my close associates do. But we feel it all the same.

Sacrifice is another cultural universal. If this were so counterintuitive, why is it so ubiquitous?

Nor is this just a thing of the past, or backward regions of the globe. The only difference is that we’ve learned to disguise it or put a nice name on it. We still wage war. Murder one another. Revel in abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. Indulge in high-risk behavior. Watch violent movies and play violent video games.

Contact sport is a domesticated form of warfare. So is hunting.

All we’ve done is to sublimate the sacrificial instinct. Bloodletting by another name.

“On the cross, Jesus was not paying the price to satisfy the punitive justice and anger of God; rather, by means of sacrificial love, he performed an act of sacrificial obedience which so pleased and moved the heart of God, that the offensive stain of our sin was destroyed.”

So the Father bloodied and brutalized his own Son, not because it was necessary to discharge a judicial debt, but to give his boy a chance to impress the old man—something like that? This is Dr. Owen’s preferred theory of the atonement?


  1. Steve Hays locuta est, causa finita est.

    Wonderful post as always, Steve.

  2. Yes, it's a wonderful post. But the first thing my eyes fell on was the phrase 'to mount a PUBIC defence'. Combined with PENAL substitution, this was mildly shocking. ;)