Saturday, August 21, 2010

Corporate responsibility

JD Walters raises three objections to penal substitution:

1. Methodology

“I've read the introduction and some chapters [of Pierced for Our Transgressions] and I don't think the authors do a good job of responding to the moral and logical difficulties of the idea of penal substitution.”

i) Suppose that’s a deficiency of the book. It seems to me that the book in question is mainly an exercise in exegetical theology rather than philosophical theology.

ii) This brings us to the next point. Is it JD’s position that every Biblical teaching must receive independent philosophical justification before we are obligated to believe it?

If so, that overlooks the underlying principle of revealed religion: some truths are revealed truths because their truth is inaccessible to ordinary channels of knowledge, like sense knowledge. We don’t know why God commands some things or does some things unless he volunteers his rationale.

It would be more efficient to establish the Bible as the word of God. In that event, if the Bible teaches penal substitution, then that teaching is authorized by the nature of the source. We don’t require independent philosophical justification for each individual teaching. That fact that God reveals it is sufficient warrant.

2. Personal Responsibility

“Penal substitution goes against the clear biblical standard of justice whereby only those who sin will suffer the penalty of their sin, and the innocent cannot be punished in place of the guilty (note that this does mean one person's sin can't have bad consequences for an innocent person, but simply that the innocent person cannot be said to suffer the guilty person's penalty).”

i) One of the problems with this statement is that it begins at the wrong level of abstraction. The question at issue is not, in the first place, the specific question of whether one party can be punished for the actions of another, but the general question of whether Scripture inculcates a vicarious principle–of which collective punishment would be a special case or special application.

On the face of it, it’s easy to come up with examples of corporate responsibility:

a) We have the programmatic statement in Exod 20:5-6 (par. 34:7; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9-10; 7:9-10).

b) In the Abrahamic covenant, God and Abraham are the two contracting parties. Yet that arrangement is binding on Abraham’s posterity.

c) Likewise, God, Moses, and, to some extent the Exodus generation, are the contracting parties to the Mosaic covenant, yet the terms of the Mosaic covenant bind subsequent generations of Israelites.

d) Likewise, Paul, in Rom 5, indicates that Adam’s posterity is held responsible for Adam’s sin.

ii) In addition, we have particular instances in Scripture where a second party is punished for the misdeeds of another party.

a) The fate of the Saulides in 2 Sam 21 is a case in point. Their ritual execution is an act of propitiatory restitution for the misdeeds of their deceased father, King Saul.

Moreover, this isn’t simply a case in which the narrator relates an incident without endorsing the incident. For the effect of the execution is to purge the land of bloodguilt, thereby lifting the divinely-imposed famine.

b) Another example is 2 Kgs 24:3-4.

iii) JD doesn’t tell us where he finds the “clear Biblical standard” of personal responsibility–as over against corporate responsibility. Perhaps he’s alluding to stock prooftexts like Deut 24:16 & Ezk 18:4.

If so, then what we have is prima facie evidence for a Biblical standard of personal responsibility alongside prima facie evidence for a Biblical standard of corporate responsibility. I don’t see that the Scriptural witness to corporate responsibility is less clear than the Scriptural witness to personal responsibility. At a superficial level, we have apparent tension between two different principles.

The immediate question at issue is not how JD proposes to resolve that apparent tension. Rather, the immediate problem is that his one-sided appeal fails to even acknowledge the counterevidence.

iv) One possible way of harmonizing the two sets of statements is to note that, in Deut 24:16, there’s a corollary between legal accountability and individual accountability. Israelites are not to punish a man for the crimes of a second party.

That would be in distinction to God’s prerogative, where God reserves the right to punish a man for crimes committed by a second party. A difference between the divine and the human administration of justice.

Underlying this distinction might be the fact that even a divinely inspired law-code dispenses rough justice. Only the final judgment will render perfect justice. In the meantime, the law code exists to establish some general boundaries of socially permissible or impermissible conduct.

This can be someone arbitrary in various individual cases, which is why an OT judge must exercise appropriate discretion in considering legislative intent as well as mitigating circumstances.

That, of course, still doesn’t address the question of “fairness,” but for now I’m simply expounding the Biblical standards.

v) Ezk 18 isn’t as clearcut as popular prooftexting would suggest. For one thing, this is set in the historical context of the Babylonian exile. Yet the Babylonian exile was, itself, a collective punishment for the cumulative sins of generations covenant-breakers. And personally innocent parties like Daniel were swept up in the collective punishment.

Arminians get this backwards. The point is not that personal responsibility obviates corporate responsibility; rather, corporate responsibility doesn’t obviate personal responsibility. The exilic community can’t simply blame its current woes on the misdeeds of its errant forebears. It must move forward on its own. The specter of ancestral guilt doesn’t mean the present generation is trapped in the past. For there’s the standing duty to repent, which has future repercussions.

3. OT offerings

“Penal substitution rests on a misunderstanding of the sense in which sin-offerings and other sacrifices were substitutionary. Jesus was a substitutionary sacrifice, but not a penal one.”

This commits a level-confusion. It fails to distinguish between what these offerings did, and what they signified. The fact that these offerings weren’t inherently expiatory doesn’t mean they don’t typify penal substitution. That confuses type and antitype, sign and significate. Although they don’t effect vicarious atonement or penal substitution, they illustrate those principles and prefigure their fulfillment.


  1. Thanks for the comments, Steve. Please see my most recent post which comments on the meaning of OT sacrifice, and a post I'll have up in a few hours which addresses the personal/corporate responsibility issue.

  2. P.S. You complain that I 'don't say' what my proof-texts are in one instance. What you don't bother to tell your readers is that you've lifted these comments from the CADRE combox, where I was making only a quick reply to one of the responders, and I specifically said I was going to address these issues in a later post. But you plucked them out of context and tried to refute my statements as if they were my considered position on the subject. I don't think that's a very decent thing to do.

  3. Isaiah 53 is proof that the substitution was penal.

    5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the PUNISHMENT that brought us peace was upon him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.... 10 Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
    he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

    Unless you have a different interpretation.

  4. i) You're getting hypersensitive. You haven't shown that I "plucked them out of context."

    ii) I didn't "complain." Rather, I went ahead and discussed the usual prooftexts for personal responsibility, and related them to prooftexts for corporate responsibility.

    iii) Yes, I saw your post on OT offerings, which reiterates the confusion I noted in my response.

    Finally, if you're going to be a blogger, and you attack a core doctrine like penal substitution, then you need to develop a thicker skin.

  5. "i) You're getting hypersensitive. You haven't shown that I "plucked them out of context.""

    Did you give your readers a disclaimer that I put these things in a brief comment and that they probably don't represent my considered view on the issue? If not, you plucked them out of context.

    "ii) I didn't "complain." Rather, I went ahead and discussed the usual prooftexts for personal responsibility, and related them to prooftexts for corporate responsibility."

    Fine, you 'objected'. That still doesn't change the fact that you pointed to a weakness in my statement (that I didn't cite the relevant scriptural evidence) which resulted from the fact that it wasn't my considered view on the subject, and hence unfair.

    "iii) Yes, I saw your post on OT offerings, which reiterates the confusion I noted in my response."

    No, we simply disagree on what the type signifies for the antitype. I was aware of that distinction when I wrote my last paragraph. I argued that whereas for the Israelites the significance of the sacrifices was to make a costly display of their repentance and their willingness to offer God what was due, what these sacrifices were foreshadowing was the need to offer a blameless, righteous life of perfect obedience to God.

    "Finally, if you're going to be a blogger, and you attack a core doctrine like penal substitution, then you need to develop a thicker skin."

    Attack my considered pieces all you want. The fact that PST is something near and dear to your heart doesn't give you the right to disregard basic standards of civil academic discourse, such as putting one's opponent's words in their proper context.

    I am not protesting the firmness of your opposition, but the way you choose to go about it.