Saturday, October 14, 2017

Joel Green on penal substitution

Joel Green is a leading Arminian NT scholar and critic of penal substitution. I'm going to comment on some of his objections to Tom Schreiner's exposition of penal substitution in J. Beilby & P. Eddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (IVP 2006).

By what logic can it be assumed that anger is quenched by acting on it in this way? That is, even if we grant these two claims regarding the divine "penalty," on what basis does it follow that Jesus' dying quenches the anger directed at us by God? Does the transfer of guilt satisfy the demands of justice? (112).

i) Problem with Green's criticism is that he's raising a philosophical objection to an exegetical question. Schreiner is doing exegesis, not apologetics. Schreiner's aim is not to defend what the Bible says; he takes the revelatory status of Scripture as a starting-point in this discussion. His aim is to interpret the witness of Scripture regarding penal substitution. There are well-worn objections to whether guilt is transferable from one party to another, but while that's worth discussing, that's a separate issue. That can be a question of inerrancy, where a critic of penal substitution admits and rejects the witness of Scripture.

ii) Also, even at a philosophical level, it isn't necessary to defend penal substitution directly (which doesn't mean that can't be done). If, say, one can defend the revelatory status of Scripture, then that indirectly defends whatever Scripture teaches. 

Given the anthropathy at work in attributing this sort of anger to Yahweh, can we so easily escape the reality that redirecting anger at an innocent party does not (or at least need not) return the guilty party to good graces? (112).

The human family, not God, needs transformation, a reading that does not mesh well with this emphasis on the atonement as assuaging God's anger (114).

Penal substitution doesn't require a category of literal divine anger or wrath, &c. It can easily translate that colorful language into a more abstract concept like divine justice. Indeed, the necessary presupposition of penal substitution isn't divine wrath, but divine justice. That's the essential principle. 

If this logic is explanatory of the divine economy, how are we to understand those biblical accounts in which forgiveness is extended apart from the satisfaction of wrath (e.g., Mk 2:1-11)? (112).

That's a dubious argument from silence. The fact that Jesus forgave sinners like the paralytic without explicit reference to penal substitution or vicarious atonement doesn't imply that remission is independent of penal substitution or vicarious atonement. Indeed, Jesus would be working at cross-purposes to extend forgiveness apart from his redemptive death. It's more logical to infer that when Jesus forgave the paralytic, that was with a view to his impending death on the cross. That's why he came from heaven in the first place. His redemptive death is the presumptive basis for forgiving sins, in advance of his redemptive death. The relationship is teleological rather than chronological. That's why OT saints can be forgiven ahead of time. 

And although that's more abstract, it remains personal. Justice and injustice are properties of moral agents. 

Green's alternative disconnects the forgiveness which Christ extended to sinners like the paralytic from his death on the cross, as if Christ didn't have that in mind. It is in his proleptic capacity as the Redeemer that Christ forgave the paralytic. It makes no sense to disengage forgiveness from atonement. That renders the atonement superfluous. 

Schreiner has not addressed one of the principal questions raised against the model of penal substitutionary atonement, namely, that it presumes a breakdown of the inner-trinitarian life of God…How can one claim that the Son had to die on the cross in order to propitiate God's anger? (114).

That objection is misconceived. The Son didn't die to placate the Father's wrath. Divine justice is an attribute which the Trinitarian persons share in common. Although vicarious atonement to satisfy divine justice involves a contrast between Father and Son at the level of action, it does not involve a contrast between Father and Son at the level of justice. It's not as if the Father is the repository of divine justice, rather than the Son. No one person of the Trinity is sole custodian of cosmic justice. As an essential divine attribute, justice is common property of the Father, Son, and Spirit alike. 

I'm unsure how the model of penal substitutionary atonement generates transformed life (114).

Green acts as though penal substitution is defective if it fails to address salvation as transformation. But that assumes salvation should be reducible to a single overarching principle. Likewise, it assumes that salvation and atonement ought to be conterminous. 

If, however, sin has two basic components–moral corruption and culpability–then it's logical for salvation to have corresponding components. Penal substitution atones for guilt. That's the work of the Son. Sanctification generates transformation. That's the work of the Spirit. These are distinct, but complementary categories. It would be pointless to sanctify hellbound sinners. 

Focussed as it is on the individual, on forensic judgment and on the moment of justification, how can this model keep from undermining any emphasis on salvation as transformation and from obscuring the social and cosmological dimensions of salvation? If the purpose of God will be actualized in the restoration of all things, then how is this purpose served by a theory of penal substitution? How does the model of penal substitutionary atonement carry within itself the theological resolution of racism? What becomes of the soteriological motivation for engaging in the care of God's creation? Against the backdrop of texts like Col 1:15-20 and Eph 2, these are not peripheral questions (114). 

i) It's unclear what Green means by the restoration of all things. Only a universalist subscribes to that imagery without qualification. But in orthodox theology, not all agents will be reconciled to God. The damned are permanently alienated from God.

ii) It's unclear what Green means by the "cosmological dimension of salvation" and the "care of God's creation". Although the NT uses "cosmological" language, it doesn't use that in the modern astronomical sense. Most of the universe is lifeless and inhospitable to biological life. 

If he's indulging in a radical chic allusion to ecology, that stretches the concept of salvation. It's anachronistic to act as though the NT rubberstamps modern environmentalism, green energy, anthropogenic global warming, &c. 


  1. Steve, what resources do you recommend to understand the penal substitution theory of the Atonement?



    3. Plus Thomas Schreiner's contribution to The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views.

    4. A general work is Steve Jeffrey et al., Pierced for Our Transgressions

    5. Another excellent one is The Glory of the Atonement, ed. Charles Hill and Frank James. (If memory serves, this is a compendium of essays in honor of the late Leon Morris.)

  2. I've collected links to many resources by William Lane Craig on Penal Substitutionary Atonement here:

  3. "His redemptive death is the presumptive basis for forgiving sins, in advance of his redemptive death."

    In fact, Warren Gage notes that many, if not all, of the miracles in Mark seem to be recorded using language similar to his record of the crucifixion of Christ. For example, compare Mark 1:26 with 15:37 (the healing of the demoniac), 1:40, 44 with 15:19, 14:63 (the healing of the leper), 2:7 with 14:64 (the healing of the paralytic), and 8:23 with 14:65 (the healing of the blind man). Mark is saying that everything Christ did for these people so that they could be healed was later done to Him condemnation.

  4. " How does the model of penal substitutionary atonement carry within itself the theological resolution of racism?"

    Am I the only one to find this question amusingly self-revealing?

    "How does the model of [fill in central theological truth of Christianity here] carry within it the theological resolution of [fill in my favorite socio-political obsession here]? Huh? Huh?"