Monday, February 13, 2006

Remission & mercy


In my book I argue that there is no coherent understanding of the atonement. Here are some questions for those who accept the penal substitutionary view:

In order for someone to be forgiven why must there be punishment at all? We know of victims who have forgiven their assailants even though they have never been punished, and we know of other victims who won't forgive their assailants even after they have been punished. To forgive someone doesn't mean that you must first punish the offender at all. Forgiveness doesn't really depend upon the remorse of the offender, either, although it does help quite a bit. At this point it's not up to the offender at all, but the victim who must find a way to forgive.

To forgive means bearing the suffering of what that person has done to you without retaliation. If I stole something from you, then forgiveness means bearing the loss without recompense. If I slandered you, forgiving means bearing the humiliation without retaliating. If the cross of Christ means someone got punished for my sins, then that's not offering forgiveness, that's punishing someone for what I did wrong.

If the cross was needed to pay the punishment for my sins, then how can God really be a forgiving God? Forgiveness doesn't require punishment. To put it bluntly, if I can't forgive you for striking me on the chin until I return the blow back to you, or to someone else, then that's not forgiveness, that's retaliation, or sweet revenge! Revenge is never an ethical motive for action, even if we are led to take revenge on others sometimes. John Hick: "A forgiveness that has to be bought by the bearing of a just punishment is not forgiveness, but merely and acknowledgment that the debt has been paid in full. (The Metaphor of God Incarnate, p. 127).


John Loftus has a problem with penal substitution. This would be more understandable if he were your proverbial village atheist. But he’s a seminary-trained apostate.

He says there’s no coherent theory of penal substitution. And why is that, exactly?

i) He says that forgiveness is not contingent on contrition or punishment.

Even if this were true, that is not an argument against penal substitution. It would only be an argument against penal substitution if contrition or punishment were a universal precondition for forgiveness.

So, in order to make his case, Loftus would first have to demonstrate that the doctrine of penal substitution takes has its presupposition that punishment and/or remorse is a universal precondition of forgiveness.

But, of course, Loftus doesn’t do that.

ii) He would also have to demonstrate that it is licit to forgive someone irrespective of punishment or remorse.

It isn’t nearly enough to say that if, in fact, people often forgive other people, no strings attached, then this is licit, in which case penal substitution is unnecessary.

Appealing to a common practice doesn’t automatically make the practice right. Maybe it’s wrong to extend forgiveness on the cheap.

Once again, Loftus takes for granted what he needs to prove.

BTW, I’m not saying that it’s always wrong to forgive people without demanding something in return.

But I’m not the one raising the issue. The burden of proof lies on Loftus to justify his operating assumptions, and he is shirking his epistemic duties.

iii) He also fails to distinguish between symmetrical and asymmetrical social obligations.

Not all social obligations are symmetrical. There are certain social obligations between social peers, but not between social superiors and subordinates.

The fact that I may freely forgive my fellow man doesn’t mean that I should expect the same from God.

The reason we’re more inclined to forgive one another is a gentleman’s agreement among sinners. I’ll forgive you for your sins as long as you forgive me for my sins. It’s a mutual permission slip to sin.

I’m not doing you a favor. I’m doing myself a favor. Because I expect you to do the same in return.

iv) It’s also quite questionable, from a Biblical standpoint, whether it’s ever licit to forgive someone apart from contrition or restitution.

a) In the Mosaic Law, restitution was a penalty for many crimes. In some cases, the death penalty could be commuted if restitution was made.

b) Generally speaking, when the NT speaks of the duty to forgive, it is talking about penitent Christians, not unbelievers.

c) A Christian can “afford” to forgive a fellow believe without demanding recompense because Christ has already atoned for the sins of both the offended party and the offending party.

v) As to unbelievers, I can forgive him, but that doesn’t mean that God forgives him. If he dies in unbelief, he will still have to pay for his sins, including his sins against me.

vi) Then Loftus commits the childish blunder of failing to distinguish between the party that is punished, and the party that is forgiven.

In penal substitution, forgiveness is free to the redeemed because it’s costly to the redeemer. We are not exacting punishment from and extending forgiveness to one and the same party. Hence, there’s no inconsistency at all.

vii) Finally, why does Loftus assert that revenge or retaliation is never a moral motive?

a) The Bible doesn’t say that revenge is intrinsically wrong. For example, you have, in the OT, the avenger of blood.

b) And, from the standpoint of secular ethics, what would be intrinsically wrong about exacting revenge for some heinous crime?

Loftus is a typical apostate. He only half understood the faith he later repudiated. He continues to be under the influence of Christian ethics, although he’s uprooted it from its theological foundations.

He ends up with a value-system that isn’t quite Christian, and isn’t quite secular. It’s a sentimental moralism.

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