Sunday, December 16, 2007

Confidence and credibility of biblical interpretations

What gives people confidence in how they understand the New Testament? Here are some approaches I've seen people use to gain confidence that their interpretations of Scripture are valid (and by extension, that their theological ideas are too) :
  1. Just "believe the Bible": The bible doesn't need "interpretation". The important things are clear and cannot be misunderstood - so we can be confident that we understand key Scriptures correctly.
  2. Listen to the Holy Spirit: The meaning of Scripture is made clear to us through the working of the Holy Spirit as we read it, which gives us confidence about our interpretations. God wouldn't allow his Word to be misunderstood by those who listen to the Holy Spirit.
  3. Follow tradition: "Fifty-thousand Frenchmen can't be wrong", especially if they lived over the last few centuries. We can be confident of our interpretations if lots of other people have thought and still think the same thing.
  4. See what fits: Learn how passages can be interpreted differently, and choose the way that best fits with the "big-picture". We can be confident of interpretations that fit the big picture, and can confidently reject alternatives that don't fit.
  5. Comprehensively detailed research and reasoning: Consider a range of big picture frameworks to see how each passage of Scripture can be interpreted within each one. Then assess the collective evidence of all Scriptures for each big picture to determine which one is best by using criteria like:
    1. Internal consistency with the whole of the text
    2. External consistency with the socio-cultural context of the text
    3. Explanatory power
    4. Explanatory scope
    5. Lack of being ad hoc
    The best big picture can then be used to identify the best interpretation of individual passages.
Some combinations of these are possible, especially those involving revelation of the Holy Spirit and tradition. Each approach provides a different degree and quality of confidence in the interpretations they support, as I will try to explain.

Bible-believing does not recognize the inevitable process of interpreting texts. As a result of this ignorance, people adopting this approach have high confidence that the way they have been taught to interpret Scripture is the right way. This often goes hand in hand with ignorance of alternative explanations and trust in the teacher's opinion. There is a place for trusting the opinions of more qualified people, but the validity of such opinions isn't determined by how much we trust them. To gauge the real credibility of views held through this method, we must understand the reasons behind the original interpretation. This approach thus leads us to look to other grounds for confidence.

Revelation by the Holy Spirit provides the most confidence if it is authentic, but the least authoritative otherwise, because it would be an illegitimate claim to authority. History shows that people who have all claimed revelation by the Holy Spirit have held quite different interpretations of Scripture, which can be resolved by holding one of two options:
  1. There is more than one legitimate meaning in the text.
  2. One or more interpretations are not faithful to the intended meaning of the passage.
The problem with the first way is that it leads to a very incoherent conflation of ideas that are often mutually exclusive. The problem with the second way is that it demonstrates that not all claims to divine revelation are valid. So if we want a coherent way to interpret Scripture, we need a method to determine whether or not the claim to a divinely reveled interpretation is valid - and that method obviously cannot rely on divine revelation. So this approach leads us to look further again.

Following tradition provides no inherent grounds for credibility, as it is simply following other people. Yet people tend to be much more confident in their ideas if those around them are like-minded. There is some weight to the collective thought of many people, but the majority opinion can be wrong - and sometimes disastrously so. For this reason, the serious enquirer must investigate the origin and basis of the Scriptural interpretations themselves, and not simply assume that commonly held interpretations are well-founded.

The fourth method of choosing what fits is at least more informed than the previous three. It is a common method, and one that gives people high confidence in their interpretations. Many who use this method are unaware of the implicit framework they use to assess the various interpretations, though. They may quite correctly discern what interpretations best fit their framework, but be ignorant of whether or not their presupposed framework is a good one or not. So what is needed is to assess not only how interpretations fit a given framework, but also the frameworks themselves.

That is what the fifth approach does. This method weighs not only different interpretations, but it considers each within the range of possible frameworks. It looks at both the broad picture and the details to determine the best set of interpretations. Only scholars usually attempt this approach because it is very time consuming and difficult. It is made even less appealing to many because other methods allow people to feel more confident of their interpretations. This hard approach just doesn't suit Christians who want great confidence in their own beliefs without taking the time and effort to break out of their relative ignorance of other views.

Yet can people justify having confidence in their interpretations if they don't understand the options nor take into account the possibility that they are wrong? They might think their interpretations were revealed by God, but what if they weren't? In-depth research and reasoning lessens both naive confidence and questionable claims of authority. Instead it fosters a richer and deeper kind of confidence that comes from a thorough research and careful consideration. This confidence may even be strengthened through the Holy Spirit and a knowledge of tradition, since it doesn't exclude these other approaches.

It is for all these reasons that I think in-depth study provides far more credibility in interpreting the bible. I use the word "credibility" because confidence doesn't always correspond with the accuracy of ideas. Credible and thorough research and thought does lead to confidence, though, and I have found it to be a confidence that is far more able to weather the storms of debate. Having followed this last method for several years now, I have learned that it is important to discern the degree of authority held by others, and the degree of their in-depth study also makes a good gauge for this purpose. My opinion can be summarized simply: there is no better approach to interpreting the bible than comprehensively detailed research combined with sound reasoning, humility, and a commitment to follow Jesus.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Heretosis - dissent from "religion"

In the churches I've attended all my life, I've often heard Christians claim that while Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and so on are "religions", Christianity is not. While many in the church often seem to agree that some Christians are tied up in "religion", most invariably think they themselves are not. Curious.

Over the years my Faith has grown a great deal. The most amazing thing to me now is how much a lot of popular Christianity is a religion. By religion, I essentially refer to buying into a mindset that subjugates common sense, reason and reality to "faith" in ideas that are not consistent with reason and reality. It seems to me that many Christians have crises of Faith during their lives because they notice this dissonance. There seem to be three ways people who face this deal with it.
1) They suppress it until a later life crises.
2) They give up their Faith.
3) They find ways to rationalize their Faith.

But there are many approaches to rationalise one's Faith. Following Calvin and the Reformed tradition, many Christians would consider subjugating their beliefs to reasoning to be forsaking true "faith". So they adopt the kind of religious mindset I mentioned above, and change their reasoning to fit their Faith. Almost by definition, this approach of people seeking to resolve their faith crises in this way doesn't seem to truly resolve and discrepancies between reality and their Faith. Instead it drowns out those problems by other ideas and reasoning that fit their Faith, and hides them quietly under the carpet of ideas that are really problems because we just don't understand things as they really are. The reason I don't like that approach is that I've seen it make people unwittingly hold on to ideas that really don't help, and in some cases cause harm.

The second way to reconcile one's Faith is to change it to fit common sense, reasoning and reality as best we can. Many Christians would see this as a process of becoming a heretic: a kind of "heretosis". It is heretosis precisely because it questions the accepted religious mindset with the aim of finding a faith that is consistent with our reasoning and experiences of reality. Care is needed, of course, because of course we don't know everything, and so a keen awareness of what's clear and what's uncertain is helpful.

Fortunately for me, I've found other Christians who share my desire for a Faith that makes sense. I think they too share my distaste for "religion", and accept a kind of heretosis in discerning and holding less tightly some of the unhelpful traditions within popular Christian ideology. It seems we share the concept that instead of being "Christians" in a religious fairyland we can be people who follow Jesus in a very real and very down-to-earth way that makes a lot of sense.

An unexpected effect of my dissent from religion, though, is that I've actually come to feel more comfortable discussing Jesus with non-Christians than I do with Christians. I can easily understand why now - to me following Jesus isn't about believing a whole lot of inconsistent and thus unconvincing ideas, but about living in a better way that makes a lot of sense and helping others to also.

So where does that leave me? Various Christians think I am not one, which saddens me for several reasons - both personally, and because it highlights how quick Christians actually are to judge people because of their religious attitude. But I believe one can be a Christian without adopting a religious mindset, perhaps it's even better not to. I say that because many Church services leave me cringing and thinking of things Jesus said about people like the Scribes and Pharisees, perhaps that makes me a little judgmental too - perhaps wrongly, perhaps rightly. Yet I hope for a new kind of Christianity that could be much more like the original than the popular modern version. I suppose I am a bit of a rebel. But then I think of how Jesus' was rejected and even hated by the religious authorities of his day and I see that perhaps I'm not such a rebel after all... and that in my heretosis from the mass-produced modern Christian religion, I might be able to learn more orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Things we can and cannot change

There is a wise proverb: "We must accept what we cannot change." The hard thing is to figure out what we can change, how we can change it, and the way we should change it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Important factors for Scriptural interpretation

It's amazing just how few Christians realise how small their set of particular scriptural and theological ideas are compared with the vast number of ideas that have been and are held by other Christians. I've been thinking about ways to help people understand the concept of other interpretations of Jesus and Scripture, and came up with the following diagram. Hopefully, it might also show how we can stand a much better chance of understanding Jesus if we understand what influences the interpretations of his ministry and person.
Essentially, I think the NT authors interpreted Jesus in the context of their culture and their own inspiration and thought. So they wrote these interpretations down in the NT, which have now become Scripture. Later Christians have taken the NT writings, and interpreted them in the context of their own cultures and inspired thoughts. Each generation tends to take the ideas of previous Christians and interprets them in their own context. The problem with this recontextualisation is that if people aren't aware of this, they are inclined to misunderstand writings written in different cultural contexts. It is through many generations of such misunderstandings, I think, that several cherished doctrines exist today. In contrast, the best way to understand the NT authors, and ultimately Jesus, is to understand not only the culture that influences us now, but also the cultural context of the NT writers and Jesus. Understanding their cultural context helps us interpret what they say more accurately.

However, it seems common for Christians these days to be aware of only a very small subset of the ideas held within the whole of Christendom, both past and present. So, I think it's very useful to dialogue with people who understand other ideas. Only when we have understand a range of interpretations do we really have any choice about how we understand Scripture. For this reason, I think I like to help give people more informed choices about how we understand Scripture by sharing other ideas with them.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why people are more than biological machines

Imagine a program which reprogrammed and developed its own programming based on inputted information. The original program could be quite simple – as simple as that first sentence, in fact. Yet very quickly the complexity of the program would exceed its initial complexity. This program would, in a way, be alive.

This, I believe, is an appropriate analogy of the human mind. This effect is why I believe our thoughts can in some way transcend our biology. Our thoughts are not constrained by our DNA, our biology, and our physical environment because we are to greater or lesser extents metacognitive. We think about how we think, and can change how we think accordingly – just like the above example of the self-programming program. We are an example of complex adaptive systems - and very complex ones at that.

The reason I thought all that is because I’ve just heard that some people reduce thought and will to naturalistic, socio-biological phenomenological effects. The conclusion of such argumentation is that ethics and morality has evolved by socio-biological mechanisms, and that we are basically just biological zombies, robots, or animals. Because we are metacognitive, I believe our thoughts are not solely determined by biology and social phenomena. We are human, I think, precisely because we have this capacity to transcend the physicality of the atoms, proteins, cells and organs that make up our physical bodies. Instead, we can engage with ideas and thoughts which don’t exist in physical stuff – but which exist nonetheless. Perhaps even more amazingly, we can experience life consciously, rather than simply being biological machines with no self-awareness of our existence. Our cognitive processes emerge into a level above merely biological processes. In other words, I think that what it means to be human cannot be reduced to the atoms, proteins and biological processes in us. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (e.g. the controversial HTM) do seem to provide support for the idea that intelligence can indeed emerge from complex adaptive systems composed of natural, physical components.

We are somewhat like words – on a physical level, words are just markings on a page, but on another level, words convey meaning far beyond their physical nature. Another analogy would be one of Beethoven’s great pieces of music; on one level it can exist as written music, but it is not confined to that level of existence. It can be played and heard. It can be transcribed to other sheets of paper, and in doing so it transcends the physicality of the original written score. There are many examples of a system of physical or “natural” components creating more complexity than the sum of the physical components themselves. People, I think, are a very complex example of the same thing. And we are even more complex because we change our "program" based on the inputs we receive – both of physical things and of ideas that exist somehow beyond the physical realm.

This, I think, is why being human is so wonderful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Getting information vs learning wisdom

I'm not very good at teaching. I fail, I think, precisely because I try to be too accurate in what I say. There's an example. As a consequence, I fear that what I write does little to help people but simply gives them reason to dislike me or my views.

Trying to explain ideas precisely sometimes looses the whole gestalt of what's being explained. It would be like describing the Mona Lisa by a very accurate list of Cartesian coordinates and colours. It might be very accurate, but you miss the whole effect of the painting (a cool part of it, from memory, is how it appears she is always looking at you). It is much better to bring someone to the Mona Lisa so that they know the painting on more than just a level of factual information.

Giving people facts and information sometimes doesn't really help them in the way they need to be helped. I think I'm about to begin considering opinions and even true statements in that category. People can learn more facts, but more facts don't necessarily make someone any wiser.

I think I've placed far too much emphasis on trying to convey facts and information, and far too little on the skill of wisdom. I mean, if we knew all the facts and information in the world, what good would it do us? Facts cannot ever tell us how it is good to think. They cannot guide how we should interpret them and see the world. Facts are facts. Information is information. What I would like to do is not merely give people information, but to teach them wisdom.

You'll notice, especially when I point it out, that I didn't say "give people wisdom". That's because wisdom is not something you can "give" like information. It's more like the skill of playing a piano, for example. I can play it for you, explain some useful concepts to help playing, and serve as a guide to help you learn - but you have to learn it. Just telling you things isn't what will ultimately get you to play the piano well.

So, I see that on this blog especially, I've been basically trying to convey my ideas about things. Information... As if that is what would actually benefit people. I'm not sure such information is of much benefit to people. But helping people to be wise, that is something of great benefit to people. Perhaps I can learn not only more wisdom myself, but the wisdom of how to nurture wisdom in others too. Perhaps. I think I have much to learn... so to begin my learning, I will stop typing.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Focussing on wants rather than opportunities

I’m sick of wanting things. I want more free time. I want to be successful, liked, and funny. I want to fit in but somehow be respected and esteemed because I’m unique. I want to know more but not grow older. What don’t I want? Ironically, I don’t want this desire I have of wanting things. Wants are never fulfilled, because if they are, they become “haves” instead of “wants”. All wants ever do for me, or perhaps to me, is make me more bitter for not having what I think I should have. It’s stupid, really.

What will I do? Trying to not want things doesn’t work. It just leaves this temporary vacuum in my mind that quickly slurps in more things to want when I’m not looking, like a mischievous little child beside an empty cookie jar… Trying to want different things doesn’t work, because I’d still be wanting things and it would just shift the target.

No, a much better idea I had today is to replace this want of things all together with something better. The thought I had today was that maybe I could look and be glad for what opportunities I have instead. Looking at opportunities seems better, because instead of being off in a daydream wishing I had what I wanted I could be engaging the real world. Looking at opportunities is seeing what I can actually do instead of being distracted by what I wish I could do, and it might help keep my outlandish expectations more realistic.

This idea gives me the opportunity to start thinking in a different way, and perhaps prevent myself from becoming a bitter old man who never got what he wanted and never wanted what he got. See, I didn’t say that I want to start thinking in a different way, I said it was an opportunity. That way, if I don't manage to take this opportunity, I won't be depressed that I haven't got yet another thing to add to my enormous pile of things I don't have. Yes, that's the pile I'm sick of. But missed opportunities don't pile up on top of me like wants, they just drift of out of sight if you're looking ahead for more opportunities.

I now have the opportunity to end. =)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Solid faith despite uncertainty and doubts

So what do you do as a Christian when you're confronted with skepticism, doubts, and uncertainty not from other people, but from your own mind? The postmodern perspective has let people see that the complexity of life and Christianity doesn't really fit the small tidy filing cabinet filled that apparently contains "the truth" that people should believe. Doctrines and Christian ideas once safely treasured suddenly find themselves out in the messy world, where people ignore or trample on them. What do you do when the faith once based on believing those doctrines also finds itself out in the cold, struggling to survive?

Let me tell you of what I did, because it seems to have worked. It's quite simple really. I reestablished my Christianity not on dogma, but on principles. To base my Christianity on dogmas that I questioned was inherently unstable, so I based it instead on principles that withstood the tide of skepticism. So what were these principles? Let me investigate my own mind and hope it is coherent...

Given that I don't know everything, I need to figure out how to live with the relatively limited understanding I have. More important than my current knowledge is my approach and attitude to the knowledge I don't have. Postmodernism seems great at establishing a lack of certain knowledge, but I think we need to go beyond that to deal with that lack - a kind of post-postmodernism. This attitude in light of what I don't know, I think, is what wisdom is all about. If you found yourself lost in a place you had never been before, the most important thing for you is not where you should be, or where you are, but how you go about getting back to where you want to be. Wisdom is not about where you are, but about how you make progress. Similarly with knowledge, wisdom is not about what you know and what you do, but about how you learn and grow. Growing as a person seems to be not about accumulating life experience, but about becoming richer in wisdom, which makes our life experiences somehow better. For my Christianity, this helped me see that how we go about life in our relative ignorance of is far more important than what we know. This in itself somehow made my doubts and uncertainties seem in a strange way irrelevant. So wisdom, I think, is my first principle. And my second would be to grow in wisdom, for obvious reasons - a great wisdom is to seek more wisdom.

So given that I currently don't know most important facts in the world, and even if I did I wouldn't have the capacity to do nearly enough about them - I have to make a few working assumptions about how to live. They might not be the best, but I need to assume them or else I couldn't do anything - and that, I believe, is worse (because it seems to contradict the first two principles). So what principle can I use to guide my assumptions? I can't see that life would be particularly like living without it involving other people. So the on e such principle is that of community - that I should live in relationship with others.

Given that life involves other people, then, I consider as basic the idea that "I" could have been one of the other people, so I should treat as equals - and want as much good for them as I want for me (I know, sounds a lot like what Jesus taught). That, I think, is what love is about. Now I may not know the best way to act for the good of others, or my own good, but that's where wisdom comes in again.

I think life also somehow involves God, perhaps in a significant way. I don't know that with certainty, but I don't need to, because I can live according to the limited wisdom I currently have. Wisdom provides a way to live in the midst of uncertainty. I believe that God wants us to mature into experiencing life in better ways (by becoming wiser, more mature) , so I see no significant difference between a wise way to live if God exists, and a wise way to live if he does not. I seek to grow in wisdom, and I think that is both good and Godly. Because I believe God wants us to grow in wisdom as people, I don't think he will mind my uncertainty about whether he exists or not - that will all be cleared up in a few short decades anyway. And if God does indeed exist, I think he would want to help me grow in wisdom to become more like the person he'd want me to be (which I consider to be a sort of ideal "me").

So I suppose my Christianity is built upon not ideas or doctrines or theories, but upon a disposition towards wisdom. This disposition is about growing and developing in wisdom for the good of both myself, others around me, and maybe even God. That is what my heart is set on. That is what I am committed to. That is what my faith is all about. Uncertainties about doctrines don't really seem to shake that foundation. The philosophies and cultures I am exposed to can't seem to shake it. In fact, I've not come across anything that can shake it. It is basic. It is my foundation. But it wasn't always, and seeing Christians around me trying to balance their Christianity on their own wobbling doubts, I wonder: what do other people base their faith on?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The guise of authority, arrogance, and ambiguity

Here's what I've been thinking lately... distilled as a rant.

There is a cacophony of stupid doctrines resounding around the Christian community because people often don't seem to realize that teachers who (arrogantly) claim to teach "the truth" can in fact be mistaken. The common appeal to the authority of tradition isn't valid if the tradition is wrong. Yet many just seem to believe what they're told because someone says "it's the truth" without investigating what warrants that claim. The thing is, the many "true" doctrines out there are not harmonious - they don't all fit together. So what seems to be happening is that they are becoming blurred by ambiguity.

People increasingly pick and choose whatever doctrines suit them, but they keep all the same language to talk about them. So superficially, it sounds like everyone believes the same thing. But in fact Christians can mean very, very different things by the same words. This is what I mean by ambiguity.

So take the idea of "grace" for example. According to scholars, the Greek word (charis) was originally quite a clearly understood word used in the ancient Favour System, where it referred to having someone's favour or a favour given to someone. These days, I have read and heard "grace" being used to describe pretty much anything good or pious-sounding that involves God. It's perhaps the most non-meaningful word used by Christians now precisely because it's used to mean so many things. It's not only God's act of sending Jesus. It's his willingness to forgive us. It's the new covenant we're under. It's the means of our redemption. It's God empowering us, even "working in us" like we're some kind of marionette being pulled by the strings of grace. It's how God's looks at us, what he gives us, why he gives us it. It's the opposite of "law", "legalism", "striving", "effort", "works" and any other equally ambiguous terms that Christians don't like. It's everything Christians want and the opposite of everything they hate. Don't think, just "rest in grace".

Then there's "faith". When directed towards a person such as Jesus, the Greek word pistis seems to have originally referred to ideas of faithfulness, obedience, loyalty and commitment to the person. These days, though, "faith" is used to justify whatever people can't justify through normal means. "Faith" is what assures believers that whatever they happen to believe is true (which of course isn't much assurance at all). It is a gift from God, but if you struggle to have it then it's your own fault, your own "disbelief". "Faith" justifies whatever ideas you want to hold and provides a firm and solid foundation from which to reject any ideas that don't like. It is the answer to all problems, the cure for all uncertainty, and the carpet under which to sweep all contradictory evidence. All pain, evil, trouble and intelligence suddenly disappears if we just have "eyes of faith." Don't think, just "have faith".

Complementary to faith is the idea of revelation, especially in Reformed circles. This is the truth divinely revealed by Scripture, which both the Jews and the early Christians needed to be interpreted carefully. The same Scripture can be interpreted in sometimes widely different ways. Many people who hold quite contradictory views can claim to have a divine revelation of truth - but they can't all be right. People often seem to ignore this though. Instead, they appeal to the authority of a divine revelation of Scripture, but they seem to actually be appealing to the authority of their own interpretation of Scripture (whatever than interpretation may be). The consequence is that people use this idea of having a "revelation" to justify whatever silly interpretations of Scripture they may have, and they arrogantly dismiss any and all opinions contrary to their own.

Then of course, there's the Holy Spirit. Now I'm not sure how the early Christians understood this, but I suspect that very few Christians these days correctly understand how they did. It seems to me that the early Christians saw this Spirit as a kind of disposition of character, and that by sharing "the mind of Christ" we share his Spirit also. Today, the Holy Spirit is often thought of as some kind of external invisible cloud that floats around near the ceiling of church buildings, or that lurks around the dim corners of our hearts. It has become so mystified with ambiguous and subjective personal cognitive experience that it has almost become meaningless. There may be authentic experiences with God, but Christians seem to welcome all manner of psychological effects masquerading as the Holy Spirit. The emotional and physiological results are often seen as authentic "experiences with God" - but they seem to bear little fruit beyond the physiological high. Of course, if you express skepticism about the validity of some of these religious experiences, you just don't have enough faith and you need to accept more of God's grace...

And there's the often mentioned "personal relationship with God". Now I think God can still interact with people personally, and the early Christians probably did too, but the modern idea of a "personal relationship with God" seems quite dangerous. It's dangerous because it's almost entirely subjective, and so can potentially be used as an invalid source of authority. These days God seems to have become the ultimate emotional substitute for an intimate relationship. In whatever ignorance they may enjoy, people seem quite happy to project onto God whatever thoughts, feelings, and views they want. There seems to be no clear doctrine of a "personal relationship with God" and everyone is left quite at liberty to imagine what God might be telling them. For example, how many times have you heard young Christians think God's telling them to marry the girl they're attracted to? Here's where the ambiguity and Christian terms and the cacophony of stupid doctrines really come into play, because people use them to construct their idea of God and his relationship with them. They reinforce their own ideas with "faith" and the experience of the "Holy Spirit", all the while taking comfort in "grace" if their character and lives don't seem to be moving in the direction Jesus taught.

So because of the ambiguity afforded by modern Christian terms, the likelihood of some Christians these days believing biblically accurate doctrines seems alarmingly low. Yet their eagerness to assert the authority and truth of their beliefs is alarmingly high. Does Christianity make these people arrogant, or would they be arrogant whatever they believed? Does Christianity attract a certain kind of person? How should Christians and non-Christians respond to these issues?

And what happens for the other people, who like me want to follow Jesus, but don't wish to believe stupid doctrines and imagine a inaccurate relationship with God that will meet their psychological needs? I suppose their Christianity will be as difficult and rewarding as it is authentic, and I suppose they will be humble in proportion to the amount they are willing to learn and grow. As for me, I will continue to pursue God and what is right, to do what I can to understand the bible accurately, and to be willing and open minded in sharing my thoughts with others while using all my faculties to discern what to believe as best as I am able. To help with this, I will try to be clear about my ideas rather than ambiguous. And with luck and some concerted effort, perhaps I will be able to avoid arrogantly claiming authority for my ideas, and instead to let them stand or fall on their own merits.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Pierced for our Transgressions: a critique - Part 2

Read the first part of this review here.

Part II – “Answering the Critics”

Chapter 6: “Introduction”

The authors are to be applauded for their intention here to interact with objections commonly raised to penal substitution (PS). Furthermore, this introduction contains a far less accusatory tone the introduction to Part 1, which is quite refreshing. They give their motivation for Part 2 as being that “we believe penal substitution is thoroughly biblical, but it would not be good enough simply to ignore our critics.” (p205-206) In this chapter they don’t frequently offend their critics as in the introduction to Part 1. Instead, they keep them in mind and say they will “try to present all the evidence, and invite readers to make up their own minds.” (p206) The hope of the authors is that “this second part of the book will benefit people starting from a range of different positions.” (p207) One point they make could not be truer: “it helps nobody if one side of the debate simply opts out of the dialogue.” (p207) The chapters in this part of the book are much shorter. Each chapter contains discussions of objections, grouped thematically by chapter as follows:

Chapter 7: “Penal substitution and the bible”

1. Penal substitution is not the only model of the atonement

This “objection” isn’t really an objection to PS, it’s simply an observation. The authors simply note “in response” that “a comprehensive doctrine of the atonement must include other themes besides penal substitution.” (p210) Nothing lost, nothing gained, little of importance said.

2. Penal substitution is not central to the atonement

The objection here is a valid one if it can be substantiated – that other perspectives are more important than PS and that PS only deserves a peripheral place. The response given here is to refer back to the “big-picture” of the theological doctrines which they tailored to fit around PS in Chapter 3. They use this to argue that “it is clear from our discussion in chapter 3 that many biblical doctrines would be compromised if we were to remove penal substitution from the picture.” (p211) Other views of what Christ achieved are dismissed by claiming that “far from being viable alternatives to penal substitution, they are outworkings of it.” (p211) Many people who do not hold to PS as strongly as the authors would see this very differently. They thus fail to adequately deal with this objection, because the theological picture they painted was tailored to PS. By claiming that PS is central to that picture, and thus central to the atonement in general, the authors demonstrate not only circular logic but an illogical extension of their argument. The response of the authors here is inadequate and leaves this objection still bearing its full force.

3. Penal substitution diminishes the significance of Jesus’ life and resurrection

The authors have again correctly highlighted a common objection to PS. They quote Stuart Murray Williams, Green and Baker, Tom Smail and Paul Fiddes as raising this type of objection. Their response to the first part of this objection is that Jesus’ life was significant in PS because “he lived in perfect obedience to the law,” (p213) which they imply is so that he could be a perfect sacrifice. Because this is all the significance the authors seem to seek in Jesus’ life, it is claimed that “this integrates perfectly with the doctrine of penal substitution.” (p213) Yet again the authors demonstrate ignorance of broader perspectives, for Jesus could have simply washed people’s feet his whole ministry or perhaps run an orphanage and still been perfect. Yet why did Jesus do the specific things he did? PS cannot answer this question. The idea of “living a perfect life” simply doesn’t give any significance to the specific things Jesus did and taught. Again, the response given is inadequate to lessen the force of this objection, and other atonement theories are required.

Regarding Jesus’ resurrection, the authors respond with a list containing aspects of its significance which are held by proponents of PS and claim that “these theological themes are integrated into a coherent theological framework in which penal substitution plays an indispensable part.” (p214) What they fail to recognise is that the significant things listed actually have nothing to do with PS – they do not require nor indicate a framework of PS to be held. The claim of the authors here is simply untrue. Thus, this whole objection still stands in full force.

4. Penal substitution is not taught in the Bible

The authors respond to this rejection in an obvious fashion – by pointing out the evidence they have given in Chapter 2. Indeed, it is difficult to defend the position that PS is not taught in the bible at all, and they have simply presented and refuted this objection.

The far stronger objection is that PS is a minor theme in Scripture; that it is not taught in the bible very much. By seeking to give biblical evidence for PS and ultimately providing only a handful of verses, the authors have in fact fuelled this stronger objection further. PS is not given the centrality and prominence in the NT that Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach portray it as having. The verses they give in support of PS are simply not very significant in the arguments of the NT authors. Thus while refuting this over-generalised objection that PS is not taught at all in the bible, the authors have ignored far more glaring facts that bring into question the prominence of PS asserted by this book.

5. Penal substitution is not important enough to be a source of division

Firstly, this objection is not a biblical one, and it is wrongly categorised into this section on biblical objections. They again present an objection few would use against PS, that major differences in theology (like PS) should be down-played in the name of “unity of believers”. The authors simply refute this objection by pointing out that “when the gospel itself is the thing being debated, there is nothing around which to unite.” (p216) Yet they do nothing here to defend their case for the centrality of PS against objections on biblical grounds.


In this chapter the authors have successfully refuted one “objection” that is not really an objection to PS at all. They have failed to adequately deal with two strong objections, which remain bearing full force. The fourth objection is over-generalised to conceal a much more powerful objection that also remains in full force. Lastly, they successfully refute a completely irrelevant point. In this way, Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have demonstrated the opposite of what they sought to show. They intended to defend their position against objections on biblical grounds, but instead they have failed to. Furthermore, there are many other strong biblical objections to their theological framework that includes PS which were not even discussed here. Lastly, there are many theological doctrines given far more attention in the NT than PS, which brings into question the authors’ claim for the prominence of PS. If this chapter was intended to silence their critics, the authors have instead earned more criticism here.

Chapter 8: “Penal substitution and culture”

1. Penal substitution is the product of human culture, not biblical teaching

In essence, this objection is that PS was not a major teaching of the early Christians and instead has developed its prominence only several centuries after Jesus (i.e. later than the 4th century). The authors respond: “the claim that penal substitution is a relatively late doctrinal development is unsustainable in view of the historical survey we have presented in chapter 5.” (p220) They seem to see the single paragraph they found from the first three centuries as enough evidence to base this claim upon, but such logic is demonstratably false simply because this paragraph is insignificant amid the 6500 pages of Christian writings from this period. Furthermore, this and several of the quotes within the next few centuries they reference are contestable over their support of PS. In light of this, most critics would simply not view their response here as valid. The authors continue for a page discussing irrelevant details and failing to deal with this objection any further, leaving it with much of its original force.

2. Penal substitution is unable to address the real needs of human culture

An issue raised by some is that penal substitution is not culturally relevant in many cultures. While an interesting point, this doesn’t inherently provide grounds for rejecting PS. Nevertheless, the authors respond to this objection by simply saying that we cannot let our doctrine be shaped by culture, and instead need to find ways of explaining the gospel in a given culture. This objection does little to oppose PS, and their response also does little to support it here.

A related objection which the authors fail to deal with here is that Christians in several other cultures don’t seem to even notice PS in the bible. PS seems only to be observed by people in certain, mainly western, cultures who have been taught it. This brings into question the centrality and prominence of the theory. However, this objection is not even dealt with by the authors.

3. Penal substitution relies on biblical words, metaphors and concepts that are outdated and misunderstood in our culture

The authors quote extensively from Green and Baker here, whose approach is portrayed as being to “change our theology to fit our culture.” It is unlikely critics of PS seriously hold this position. Such a position is easily refuted, and that’s exactly what the authors do: “the claim that the concepts connected with penal substitution are outdated… and must therefore be abandoned… must be firmly resisted.” (p225) There is, however, a different important aspect of this objection that overlaps with the previous objections highlighted in this chapter. Green and Baker suggest that PS is based on anachronistic readings of New Testament words, and that if these words were understood in the 1st century context penal substitution would not be an obvious interpretation. To this objection, Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach provide a completely inadequate response, simply agreeing that because of this, “considerable care must be taken to avoid misunderstanding.” (p225) Of course, there is not room in the book to delve into this objection in detail, but nevertheless the objection that PS is based on anachronistic readings of Scripture remains unaddressed here.


The authors fail completely to defend against the objection that PS was not a major teaching of the early Christians, and that was instead a later development. They successfully refute a point that provides little basis to object to PS, thus helping their case little. A related objection is completely overlooked. Finally, a misrepresented objection is refuted, leaving the objection that PS draws on anachronistic readings of Scripture unanswered. Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have again helped their case little in this chapter.

Chapter 9: “Penal substitution and violence”

1. Penal substitution is rests on unbiblical ideas of sacrifice

There are two components to this objection. The first is that PS misunderstands the nature of the sacrificial system outlined in the bible that was understood by the authors of the bible and misapplies it to Christ’s death on the cross. The second is that these misunderstandings of the sacrificial system come from paganism. It is to this second, much weaker, component that the authors respond to because they don’t seem to recognise the first component. They point out the differences between Judaic sacrifices and pagan ones, that “the biblical understanding of sacrifice is poles apart from pagan sacrificial ideas.” (p228) So they rightly dismiss this “supposed dependence [of PS] on paganism.” (p228) It is implicitly assumed that the view of sacrifices held by the authors is accurate, yet earlier in the book they demonstrated a poor understanding of the sacrificial system. Thus, while they adequately respond to the weak part of this objection, they fail to defend against the objection that PS draws on an inaccurate understanding of the sacrificial system.

2. The violence involved in penal substitution amounts to “cosmic child abuse”

This is the now infamous objection attributed to Steve Chalke. Simply stated, this objection is to the idea that according to PS, the Father “willingly caused his son to suffer” for a reason which seems objectionable. (p230) Jeffery, Ovey and Sach respond by highlighted that Jesus went to the cross of his own volition, and that his death was not for the gratification of God as a “child abuser.” (p230) Furthermore, they quote Isa 53:10 and argue that we must accept God truly willed his son to suffer: “we can reject this idea only by rejecting the word of God.” (p231) They scarcely recognise that Jesus could have suffered for reasons other than achieving a death for PS, if it was part of a different redemptive strategy. The central point of this objection is the idea of God willing Jesus to suffer specifically for the reason of Jesus being a penal substitute, not of him wilfully allowing Jesus to suffer as part of the redemptive strategy Christ undertook.

The authors seem to wrongly assume that if God didn’t prevent Jesus’ suffering, it must have been because an atonement of PS was required. Arguing from this assumption, they claim that God was in some sense willing Jesus’ death because God obviously let it happen. They use the idea of “God’s sovereignty” (by which they mean “control over his creation”) to argue that “in some sense God caused Jesus’ suffering and death.” (p231) Finally, they bring in the idea of predestination to complete their case that “God foresaw, planned and was in full control of the death of Christ” (p232). None of this is at the heart of this objection to PS, though, for this objection is made on different grounds; God willing Jesus to suffer specifically for the purpose of being a penal substitute (not for some other, valid reason) does not accord with the biblical revelation of God’s character and moral code. Hence, the authors have only partially defended against this objection, and the core of the objection remains unaddressed.

3. The retributive violence involved in penal substitution contradicts Jesus’ message of peace and love

The authors recognise that “at first sight, this objection appears compelling.” (p234) This is the first of several objections regarding the idea that in the PS system, God never allows sin to go unpunished. This attitude seems to contradict the portrayal of God in other parts of the bible. Yet the authors distort this objection to be simply that God is setting “an unworthy example.” (p234) Their response is to point out that “the bible does not urge us to imitate all of God’s actions or every aspect of his character.” (p234) Examples of God’s worship and vengeance are given. They rush to conclude that because God doesn’t tell us to imitate his action in PS, this “right understanding of the Bible’s teaching silences [this criticism of PS].” (p235) Yet Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have entirely missed the point of this objection by distorting the objection to one of merely about the example of Jesus, and ignoring the heart of the objection that PS appears to contradict the message of Jesus and the heart of God. The authors seem to have simply ignored the many verses which appear contradictory to their conclusion, and they have failed to convincingly refute this objection.

4. The violence inherent in penal substitution is an example of “the myth of redemptive violence”, which can never overcome evil

Essentially, this objection observes that in PS, God’s problem to the suffering caused by sin in the world is to impose more suffering, “which merely increases and compounds the problem.” (p235) The authors respond firstly by undermining the alleged foundation of this objection. The author's correctly highlight that Rene Girard raised this objection. However, they wrongly imply this objection can only be held on the basis of his framework, and proceed to highlight several of his unbiblical positions (p236-238). After several pages of this, the objection is finally addressed. Three arguments are given in response.

The first is that Jesus willingly went to the cross. With only a framework of PS in mind – in which it is the suffering of the cross that is significant – they assert that Jesus would not have done this if he had not seen that the violence of the cross was the answer to sin. (p238) This argument is narrow-minded and fails to consider other frameworks for his death. Secondly, the authors appeal again to the sacrificial system – where their biases toward PS lead them to see the violence of the sacrifices as the significant element. (p238-239) Lastly, it is argued that the motivations behind the violence of the cross are different to those behind acts of human violence. (p239) As an after-thought, the authors add that Jesus’ death was obviously violent, as if that supports the idea that God was the perpetrator of that violence. (p239)

Yet none of these four arguments actually address the heart of this objection. All of them are based on the presupposition of PS combined with the violent elements in Christ’s death (or sacrifices) to conclude that God’s solution to sin was in the violence of the cross. PS forms necessary a presupposition for their arguments, and thus their logic here is circular to support a framework of PS. Here, the authors successfully defend a position that is not being attacked, while they fail to defend the position that the objection targets. The original objection remains.


The authors fail to address the central issue of the first objection in this chapter, and respond to only a weakened form of it. By presupposing a framework of PS and ignoring alternative ones, Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach fail to address the second objection to how PS portrays God. They fail to answer the objection that PS seems inconstant with the message of Jesus and the heart of God, and instead simply respond to a misrepresentation of the objection. Finally, again presupposing PS in their argument, they fail to address the last objection to the logic of PS. A casual reading of this chapter may leave the reader thinking that the objections have been successfully refuted. Yet in fact the authors have attacked very minor aspects of these objections, and left the heart of these objections unaddressed.

Chapter 10: “Penal substitution and justice”

1. It is unjust to punish an innocent person, even if he is willing to be punished

This objection to PS is well summarised by the authors, who distil that “guilt and punishment simply cannot be incurred by one person and transferred to another.” (p242) The authors begin by asserting that the biblical authors believed God judged in a just manner. Penal substitution is then implicitly assumed to be what the biblical authors believe. Thus the authors reach the conclusion of a blatantly circular argument, that “it is unbiblical to charge penal substitution with injustice.” (p242)

After this ridiculous initial defence, the authors appeal to the idea of a spiritual, ontological “union with Christ,” which “exists by faith.” (p243) Using this idea, it is argued that guilt and innocence are not transferred at all but simply “imputed.” (p243-245) They argue that “this objection to PS arises from a failure to understand the significance of union with Christ.” (p245) Two objections can be made in response. Firstly, this position separates Christ and believers where and when it is convenient, but unites them at other times when it is convenient for the argument. It holds that before we are united with Christ, he is seen as righteous and we are seen as sinful. When we are united with Christ, we would expect that either a) both become considered righteous or b) both become considered sinful. This is not what happens, though. Christ is considered sinful to take our punishment, yet at the same time he is also considered righteous as our representative. Likewise, we are considered sinful in that our union with Christ allows God to treat him as sinful, yet at the same time we are also righteous because Christ was righteous. It is argued that each party is simultaneously considered sinful and righteous. As such, the argument of “union with Christ” it is not a sensible explanation of the imputation of guilt and righteousness inherent in PS. Secondly, this assumes a logical progression that first we are unified with Christ, then by this we are saved. The bible presents the logic as being reversed, we are saved and then by this we can be unified with Christ. It is beyond the scope of this critique to explain this further, but needless to say the authors fail to deal with this problem.

The authors note that “Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18 appear to deny that individuals will bear the responsibility for the actions of anyone but themselves.” (p247) They then present a false dichotomy, that either PS is true and scripture contradicts itself or that these apply in circumstances different to those of PS. Of course, the obvious third option is that it is PS which is contradicted by these verses. They successfully argue that Old Testament characters symbolically suffer for the guilt of others, (p248) as if it proves it is possible and just to actually suffer for the guilt of others, and these demonstrate “transferred punishment.” (p248) However, their argument here fails to be persuasive.

Finally, again in complete ignorance of other theological frameworks, the authors state that in “denying that our guilt could be imputed to Christ,” “the theological and pastoral casualties are severe.” (p248) This fails to recognise that a whole set of other doctrines can be held apart from PS. The logic here is founded upon ignorance and bears little strength. Hence, despite a long discussion, the authors have not successfully refuted this objection to PS.

2. Biblical justice is about restoring relationships, not exacting retribution

The authors misrepresent this objection as being that God should never justly exact retribution or final judgment. Yet at the heart of this objection is the idea that retributive justice does not make sense specifically in the framework of PS. Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach give their response to this objection the most discussion of all.

To claim they present an argument that addresses this objection would be an exaggeration. The authors begin by talking at length about three “penal systems,” or “ways of construing the proper relationship between crime and punishment.” (p251) They highlight the retributive theory (p252-253), deterrent theory (p253), and the corrective theory (253). It is then argued (wrongly) that this objection is based on holding the corrective theory and denying that the other two are biblical. The authors proceed to simply show that the other two theories are supported biblically as if that is all that is required to defend their position. Yet their premise that this objection relies on only the corrective theory being biblical is incorrect.

Furthermore, they proceed to undermine their own argument by looking at “the biblical criteria” to assess the fairness of retribution. They highlight that

1) guilty people, and only guilty people, should be punished” (p253)

2) “punishment must be proportional to the crime” (p254)

3) “punishments must be equitable… equivalent punishments must be imposed on different people who have committed the same crime.” (p254)

The authors then spend seven pages not discussing these at all. Instead they return to defending the idea that the bible teaches not only the corrective theory of punishment, but also the deterrent and (most importantly) the retributive theories. At one stage they also dubiously argue that it is morally right according to the corrective theory to punish people before they have offended so long as they are “likely to commit a crime” (p257), using the film Minority Report as support.

Yet their very “biblical criteria” to assess the fairness of retribution fuels further objection to PS. PS breaks one of the principles of fair retribution. It is clear that the innocent Christ, rather than the guilty people are punished – which directly contradicts their first criteria for fair retribution. In PS, retributive punishment is exactly what is not inflicted on those who deserve it – for saved sinners are not punished at all. Thus by defending the idea of retributive justice, the authors have in fact added weight to the objections of PS.

As a postscript, the authors discuss how it is fair that believers still suffer in various ways. It is argued that “the bible does not conceive of painful experiences that come upon Christians as punishment,” they argue instead these are instances of discipline. (p262) This section adds nothing to their overall argument. What remains at the end of their response is a stronger objection, not a weaker one.

3. Penal substitution implicitly denies that God forgives sin

The main point of this objection is that PS implies that God does not forgive sin, but instead exacts “every bit of the debt owed him by humans.” (p263) The authors sideline this objection by replacing it with a very different second objection: that it seems silly that “God himself pays the debt we owe in the person of his Son.” (p263) They proceed to use conceptions of the Trinity to try to refute the second objection (unpersuasively). Finally, they return to the original objection and assert that stories in which God forgives without reference to an atoning sacrifice must be read “in the context of a gospel that reaches its climax as the Son of Man dies a rises again.” (p265) Hence, they simply assert that the biblical stories where God forgives without a sacrifice do not portray what they actually seem to portray, and instead they insist that the additional framework of PS to be read into them. Their response here seems weak, and leaves the original objection in full force.

4. Penal substitution does not work, for the penalty Christ suffered was not equivalent to that due to us

This objection is simple: “how could the suffering of Jesus for a few hours constitute an equivalent punishment to an eternity in hell?” (p266) The response given here is the standard one of equivalent value. “Christ’s suffering, though it lasted only a finite time, was infinite in value because he is infinitely worthy.” (p267) Thus they correctly observe that “it is true that the punishment Christ suffered at Calvary was not identical to that due to us.” (p267)

The underlying assumption here is that infinite suffering can be transformed into a different kind of suffering for only a short duration because of the worth of who is being punished. Other than the obvious problems with that, there are more problems. The assumption is that these different punishments are equivalent. Maybe, in the eyes of God that could be so, but maybe this idea breaks the principle of impartial retributive justice. God seems to be playing favourites. If normal people sin, they are to be punished forever for it; but if God’s favourite son is to be punished for the same sins, he need only be punished for a few hours.

The logic of the authors also leads to the problem of “why the cross?” Essentially, the argument is that infinite punishment can be distilled into a small finite suffering of Christ. Thus, Christ could have taken on this infinite punishment anytime. He could have been effectively taking on the infinite punishment of the world by stubbing his toe, or cutting himself shaving. The fact that he received insults could be considered equivalent punishment for the sins of the world. The shame of the cross could have been considered equivalent. In other words, there is no need to associate Jesus’ punishment with his physical suffering on the cross.

5. Penal substitution implies universal salvation, which is unbiblical

This objection of universalism only arises when our salvation is conceived of as purely objective, in which our faith plays no part. A common evangelical view is that Christ died for all, but that only those who place their faith in him are saved. Hence, PS does not imply universal salvation. Jeffery, Ovey and Sach reveal their Calvinistic background strongly here, because they seem to not even consider the place of our faith in salvation. (p268) They assert that “Christ’s death does not just make salvation possible, but actually achieves the salvation of God’s people.” (p273) Thus, they assert the doctrine of limited atonement, where Christ died and saved only the predestined elect. (p269) Hence they claim that “God did not will to save all” (p270), which is an idea that many Christians rightly find incompatible with a loving God. If this were true, God ultimately sends people to suffer eternally in hell on a whim to not save them. What sort of God would do this? The authors spend the next few pages attempting to justify their view, using ideas of predestination, false dichotomies, and theological hand-waving. The original objection and their response are both based on ignorance the doctrines of faith and human free will.


The first objection is responded to by a circular argument, a dubious appeal to “union with Christ”, misuse of Scripture and ignorance of alternative theological frameworks. The objection remains in force. The authors fail to understand the second objection, and instead respond to a misrepresented position through making invalid assumptions. Their discussion fails to address this objection, and instead highlights another objection to PS. The third objection is first sidelined, then it is simply claimed that this objection is not valid. Finally, they present a poor objection to PS and attempt to refute it by using a doctrine many Christians find objectionable. Their response here does not help their case. Hence, this chapter presents another disappointing effort to deal with common objections to PS.

Chapter 11: “Penal substitution and our understanding of God”

1. Penal substitution implies a division between the persons of the Trinity

This objection is based on a misunderstanding of the Trinity, and few who understand the Trinity and disagree with the centrality of PS would do so on the grounds of this objection. The authors correctly explain why this is an invalid objection. (p279-285) The 6 pages taken in response seem excessive here, but nevertheless the rebuttal of this objection is largely coherent and well made.

2. Penal substitution relies on an unbiblical view of an angry God that is incompatible with his love

Like the last objection, this one can only be made against a caricature of PS. Thus, it is easily and successfully rebutted by Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach, who simply show that the fact that God is angered at sin invalidates this objection. (p287-294) There are differences in opinion about why God is angered at sin, and some would argue that how God is portrayed by PS is inconstant with his character. However, these are not discussed here. The objection that is discussed is shown to be a poor one.

3. Penal substitution misunderstands the relationship between God’s wrath and human sin

Rather than considering the reasons for God’s anger at sin, they portray this objection as being to deny a final judgment by God, in which not all people are judged favourably. Hence, the authors have an easy task to demonstrate biblical evidence that in support of a final judgment to rebut this objection. (p296-300) There are also a number of irrelevant asides here that. This objection is successfully rebutted, but it doesn’t help their case in defence against the critics of PS.

4. Penal substitution generates an unbiblical view of a God constrained by a law external to himself

This rhetorical objection is often used to express how for the sake of PS, God is portrayed as acting in ways thought unfitting for his character. As such, it is not an objection in itself, but it points to the idea that if PS is true then God acts in ways thought by many to be unfitting. The authors, however, wrongly interpret this argument as being that God is constrained by something. Again, they have an easy task to demonstrate the fallacy of suggesting God is subject to anything. (p300-302) While they successfully refute this “objection”, they do not deal with the issues that underlie it.

5. Penal substitution is an impersonal, mechanistic account of the atonement

Critics of PS can interpret the same doctrine as proponents of PS in different ways. This is exactly the nature of this “objection” – it is simply a different perspective on the same doctrine, in which PS is seen as “a mere formula.” (p304) The authors simply respond by giving their perspective of the same doctrine and explaining why they simply don’t think the perspective of this objection is valid. This neither helps nor hinders their case, but it does take three pages.


In a unusual chapter, the authors successfully refute a number of objections. Yet this doesn’t help their case because the objections are based on misunderstandings, and the portrayal of several objections misses the point of the critics. The first objection is based on misunderstanding the Trinity, while the second is based on misunderstanding PS. The third objection is misrepresented, and that misrepresentation is then successfully refuted. The essence of the forth objection is missed, and an unlikely position is presented and refuted in its stead, but the underlying issues behind the objection are not addressed. Finally, they present and refute an “objection” which is simply a difference of interpretation of the same theory, and thus neither weaken nor strengthen their case. Hence, the authors refute “objections” to PS which few scholars would use against PS, and in doing so only appear to strengthen their case.

Chapter 12: “Penal substitution and the Christian life”

1. Penal substitution fails to address the issues of political and social sin and cosmic evil

Unfortunately, the authors have limited this objection to only political and social sin, and cosmic evil. Yet more broadly, objection can be made that PS says little about actual transformation of people, families, communities, societies and our world. It says little about freeing them not only the guilt of sin, but its power. PS simply doesn’t seem to directly include the idea being truly liberated from a life of sin to experience the kind of life God intended for us.

The authors confine the objection to only the political, social, and cosmic dimensions of this objection, and highlight “that a belief in penal substitution does not preclude a concern” for these issues. (p310) This, of course, is true. Yet throughout five pages of their response, the authors devote most of the discussion to irrelevant side-issues. Like magicians, they spend most of their effort in distracting the reader from the core of this objection. Occasionally, they simply deny the objection carries force by asserting the opposite claim, saying that in PS, sin is the “root problem that it treats.” (p311) This fails to recognise the objection, which highlights that PS deals with the guilt and the punishment for sin, but has little to do with actually preventing it or freeing people from its power.

The authors claim that PS “deals with [sin] inasmuch as… those who are transformed by this gospel will have an impact on society around them.” (p313) Yet this is simply denying the heart of the objection that PS has little to say regarding actual transformation to be freed from sin. Thus, the response here is merely to deny the objection carries weight, and distract the reader onto side-issues. The objection not only remains in full force, but it is stronger and larger than the two aspects they mention.

2. Penal substitution is an entirely objective account of the atonement, and fails to address our side of the Creator-creature relationship

This objection is simply that PS is an objective “event” that involves no involvement by us, and thus that PS downplays the importance of our choices in following Jesus. (p131-215) Such an objection is particularly relevant within the framework of a Limited Atonement held by the authors. The response is to deflect the objection away from PS by emphasising that other atonement models provide what is lacking: “Those who make this objection fail to recognize that penal substitution is not proposed as the only biblical facet of the atonement, and certainly not as the only implication of the death of Christ.” (p315) This sudden emphasis of other atonement models seems the opposite of the author’s thesis in the book of the central, prominent and foundational position given to PS. By appealing to other atonement theologies, the response here also implicitly admits that the objection carries weight – the PS is indeed deficient in this important area.

The authors assert without any justification that these other ideas are “intrinsically related” to PS (p316), despite the objection pointing out that this is not the case. As a last defence, they attempt to assert that there are subjective implications of PS (namely assurance and confidence before God). The authors simply assert that if we find difficulty in making these subjective connections to PS, “the fault lies with us, not with the doctrine of PS” (p317) – a simple denial of the original objection. While their closing remark is true that “an objective understanding of the atonement is in many ways the pathway to a renewed spiritual life” (p318), this does not mean that PS in particular is required. The full force of the original objection remains.

3. Penal substitution causes people to live in fear of God

The book “Saved from what?” is firmly based in PS. In it, R C Sproul argues that “what we are saved from is really a who - God Himself.” It is in this context that critics object that PS causes people to see God as a fearfully unreasonable judge. (p318) The heart of this objection is not simply that God’s judgment should be feared, but that penal substitution portrays his judgement as being unreasonable, and thus the sort of fear it induces is unjustified.

The authors divorce this objection from its context and give no indication that they even understand the context. Hence they refute an over-generalised idea that ‘God’s judgement should not be feared.’ (p319-321) Having attacked this over-generalisation, they even suggest that “a lingering fear of God may actually arise from a neglect of penal substitution,” (p320) demonstrating ignorance of the reasons behind this objection. In this way, Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach fail to address the real issue behind this objection.

4. Penal substitution legitimates violence and encourages the passive acceptance of unjust suffering

In a similar way to the last objection, this one claims that the ideas of PS in particular use the story of Jesus’ death in a way that portrays violence and being passively oppressed as acceptable. In essence, this objection is that PS portrays God as setting a bad example. This objection is not a particularly strong one to begin with.

Regarding the violence of the cross, the authors respond by presupposing the accuracy of PS and their previous arguments, and proceed to create a number of circular arguments. They draw on previous sections of the book to assert that “the Bible does not set forth God’s judgment as an example for us to follow, on the contrary, it is something to avoid.” (p323). They say this despite there being several verses advocating us to forgive as God forgives, and to imitate him, thus imitating his judgments.

With regard to the example of “passive acceptance of unjust suffering,” they assert that this objection “pertains not to penal substitution but to the so-called ‘exemplary theory’ of the atonement” (p324). In this way, they first attempt to deflect the objection away from PS. However, it is true that Jesus did not use violence to avoid his suffering, and thus the authors go on to reasonably conclude that Jesus’ passivity “hardly constitutes a valid objection to penal substitution.” (p324)


The first objection is responded to by distraction and denial, and leaves an even broader objection to PS in full force. The authors implicitly concede the second objection carries weight by appealing to other atonement theories, then simply deny the second objection is valid without justification. Poor understanding of the third objection is shown, and the authors instead succeed in refuting an over-generalisation. The weak fourth objection is responded to by circular logic and misdirection away from PS, but nevertheless it is shown to be a weak objection. In this way, the authors succeed only in refuting one weak objection, while stronger objections remain.

Chapter 13: “Final word”

The authors conclude by dealing with “two objections of a different kind to those discussed above.” (p325) These are called the “vague objection” and the “emotional objection.” They respond to the first by correctly pointing out that it is not valid to object to PS in a vague sense without providing reasons behind the objection. (p325-326) To the second, they also correctly highlight that it is not a valid objection to use emotionally charged language against a theory without providing a reasoned argument. (p326-328) This second concludes the author’s responses to criticisms of PS, and unfortunately there is no summary or concluding chapter. This seems to an abrupt end to Part II of the book.

Appendix: “A personal note to preachers”

In a useful appendix, Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach provide guidelines to ensure the explanations of PS given do not falsely portray key elements. They list 7 important points for illustrations of PS, which should:

1) Not deny the active, consenting involvement of the Father and Son

2) Not imply any conflict between God’s law and God’s will

3) Not imply that God’s action in averting our punishment is unjust

4) Not imply and conflict between God’s wrath and God’s will

5) Not imply a conflict between God’s attributes

6) Not imply that God did not foreordain Christ’s atonement work

7) Not imply that no-one actually benefits from God’s saving work

They authors point out the difficulty of finding any analogy which fulfils all these criteria simultaneously. (p334-336) Indeed, it is hard to imagine any analogy which fulfils all these criteria. The authors exhort teachers “not to abandon illustrations in preaching, but to make sure we use them carefully.” (p334) Again, there is no concluding section to this chapter, or the whole of Part II.

Overall critique of Part II:

While the intent of this part is good, the quality of the arguments is poor. Many of the objections are over-generalised or mistaken for other ideas, and the underlying issues are not addressed, some of the objections to PS are even strengthened by their responses. In cases where the objections have been addressed, invalid assumptions, faulty logic, and ignorance of alternative interpretations dominate their arguments. The response of the authors here leaves most of the strong objections to PS in full force.

The biggest problem with this Part, however, is how limited in scope it is. The authors only address objections to PS as an interpretation of what occurred on the cross. The theological system in which PS plays a central part is largely ignored. Yet many strong objections to the system of PS can be made, bearing a weight of evidence from the New Testament authors and early Christian fathers. These objections bring into serious doubt the centrality of PS in early Christian theology, yet they were not even mentioned here.

In short, it is unlikely that this part of the book will silence the objections being made to both the specific doctrine of PS, and the theological system in which it is central. Despite the authors’ frequent assertions that their responses will silence their critics, this poor defence of PS will likely give them even more cause for criticism. Most discerning critics of PS will be not be persuaded by the responses here. At the start of this part the authors “invite readers to make up their own minds” (p206), and no doubt readers will. It seems likely that whatever the opinion of readers prior to reading this part, it will not be changed.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pierced for our Transgressions: a critique - Part 1

Pierced for our Transgressions: a critique

The authors summarise the purpose of their book as being to “argue that penal substitution is clearly taught in Scripture, that it has a central place in Christian theology, that a neglect of the doctrine will have serious pastoral consequences, that it has an impeccable pedigree in the history of the Christian church, and that all of the objections raised against it can be comprehensively answered.” (p31) This review will go through the book part by part here with the goal of critiquing the book and explaining why it fails in its goal.

The book is structured in two parts as follows. After a brief introductory chapter of Part I, Chapter 2 is an investigation of the bible aiming to show in a way that is “absolutely decisive” (p33) that “the doctrine of penal substitution is clearly taught within the pages of scripture” (p33) and is “a central emphasis of some foundational passages in both the Old and New Testaments.” (p33) They argue from these scriptures that PS “has such prominence that it cannot be sidelined.” (p34) They continue in Chapter 3 by discussing other relevant doctrines with the aim to show that “penal substitution has a foundational place in Christian theology” (p148) and that “to exclude it would distort or undermine many other theological themes.” (p31) A brief Chapter 4 discusses the pastoral implications of penal substitution (hereafter PS), arguing that “the implications of penal substitution for the Christian life are profound, and a great deal is lost if it denied.” (p150) A survey of historical Christians writings in Chapter 5 aims to “amply prove” (p204) the “long and distinguished pedigree” (p203) of PS that “has been affirmed from the earliest days of the Christian church” to the present. (p203) It aims to show that “lots of people throughout church history have believed it” (p203) and even that throughout this time “penal substitution was considered central to the Christian faith.” (p203) Part II concludes by responding to biblical, subjective (cultural), ethical, judicial, theological and pastoral objections to PS, arguing in each case “that the objection does not successfully undermine the doctrine of penal substitution.” (p206)

Part I – “Building the case”

Chapter 1: “Introduction”

The authors provide a brief synopsis of the current debate around PS here. Yet this introduction is laced with judgements against those who disagree with the authors which are neither agreeable nor justified. For example: “The more disturbing thing is that some of the more recent critics of penal substitution regard themselves as evangelicals, and claim to be committed to the authority of Scripture.” (p25) They liken those who disagree with the centrality of PS to those described in 2Ti 4:3-4 who will “turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” (p24) They say that “the most pressing reason why this book is necessary is that the misconceived criticisms of penal substitution show no sign of abating.” (p31) They write that “those who want to deny the doctrine [of PS] and yet own the label ‘evangelical’ would do well to recognize just how far they are departing from their heritage. Few if any of their forefathers would stand with them.” (p32) While these derogatory assertions may well seem justified to the authors, they certainly do not win any favour with the readers they are seeking to persuade.

Chapter 2: “Biblical foundations of Penal Substitution”

They preface their biblical survey by saying that the verses they list in support of PS “are not the only places in the bible where penal substitution is taught,” and claim to have “selected a small number for the sake of simplicity and to allow space to explore each in some detail.” (p34) However, they cover all the main verses used in support of PS, and it looks very much like they have not omitted any verse that might provide good support for PS. This chapter will be looked at in detail here because of the importance of Scripture, following the sections of the book as follows:

Exodus 12 (Passover)

They argue that during the Passover “it was through the substitutionary death of a lamb… that [Israel’s] firstborn sons were spared” during the plague of the firstborn. (p41) They note the comparison with Christ and the Passover and thus infer PS into his death also. “That penal substitution should be taught here of all places is to give the doctrine a high prominence,they claim. (p34, emph. added) A sceptical view of the same material would point out that the fact they have to search here of all places to try to prove PS shows the exact opposite.

Their argument that the Passover was PS in nature is based on the dubious assertion that in this last plague, “the Israelites were to be delivered not from Pharoah, but from the judgment of the Lord.” (p36) The fact that they had to mark their doorposts in order to not suffer the plague is used to infer that God was intent on punishing the Israelites. (p37) This is evidently poor logic, as God not only desired to rescue them, but he told them exactly how to not be harmed by the plague because he did not want to harm them. They recognise the obvious, that “this might seem puzzling.” (p38) To justify their view, they refer not to Exodus, but Ezekiel 20:4-10 to suggest that they deserved God’s judgement because they participated in Egyptian idolatry. (p38) Yet this reference is taken grossly out of the context of a long list of occurrences where God withheld judgment. The point Ezekiel is making is that God did not “poor our fury” upon them but patiently worked with them “not according to your wicked ways or corrupt doings.” (Eze 20:44)

In addition, they draw attention to the sacrifice of the lamb as the important element in the story involving the lamb. However, Exodus makes the role of the lamb with respect to the plague quite clear: “the blood shall be a sign to you, on the houses where you are. And I will see the blood, and I will pass over you.” (Exo 12:13) It was the distinguishing mark that was important – and what more distinguishing and symbolic of cleanliness than red blood? There is no need to assume the sacrifice itself was the reason the plague did not visit the Israelites when such a clear reason is specified. If anything about the lamb was important, it was the blood, not the death of the lamb per se. Additionally, the feast would have served to sustain the Israelites for the beginning of the Exodus the next day, which is itself a good reason to sacrifice the meat.

Despite the weak and highly contestable argument, they wrongly conclude that “the substitutionary element in the Passover is therefore beyond dispute.” (p38, emph. added) They refer to Jesus’ last-supper statements in Mark 14:22-24 as being penal-substitutionary in character, and do not consider any other possible frameworks for this passage (e.g. martyrdom, suffering righteous). So combining poor analysis of the Passover with a narrow-sighted reading of the Last Supper, they argue that the Passover proves Jesus’ death involved PS. (p38-41) It is a poor beginning to their case for biblical support of PS.

Leviticus 16 (Day of Atonement)

The significance of the scapegoat used on “Yom Kippur” (the Day of Atonement) is looked at next. They point out that kipper can mean to forgive, or to cleanse, which are obvious meanings in Yom Kippur. Yet continuing, the authors speculate that “a third possible meaning for kipper is ransom (p44) and use this to argue that in reference to the Day of Atonement, it refers to averting God’s wrath. (p45-47) They conclude that the Day of Atonement “refers to the propitiation of God’s wrath through the offering of a substitutionary animal sacrifice.” (p48) Thus, they assert that God’s wrath is a central idea in Yom Kippur, and they use that to argue that the day was about propitiating God’s wrath.

Any scholar who is well familiar with the Day of Atonement will recognise not only the tenuousness of their argument here, but also that these claims are simply incorrect. Scholars such as Stephen Finlan note that the function of the scapegoat was seen as being to carry away the curses of Israel incurred by their sins and thus ritually cleanse the people. Yet the authors here go even further in their illogic. They dubiously assert that the term “cut off” refers primarily to death rather than separation, and use that to argue that sending the goat away was not to separate the sins from the people, but instead to die bearing their sins. (p49-50) In fact, the ritual was considered complete without the death of the scapegoat, and stories are told of the scapegoat wandering back alive to the camp after some days. They assert that God’s wrath was propitiated by the death of the scapegoat, (p48) but the scapegoat didn’t die as part of the ritual at all! They do not even mention that the goat that was actually sacrificed to God did not carry any sins at all, but instead was to remain pure. In contrast, it would have been seen as a great offence to sacrifice the sin-carrying scapegoat to God, so it was sent out to the desert alive.

Hence they very wrongly conclude that the scapegoat ritual demonstrates PS: “the scapegoat is depicted… as bearing the sin, guilt and punishment of the people, and being condemned to death in their place.” (p50) Later, “Leviticus 16 depicts the propitiation of God’s wrath by the substitutionary death of an animal.” (p52) In this regard, a very limited understanding (in fact, a deceptive misunderstanding) is shown of the ancient Jewish rituals. Nevertheless, the alleged conclusion to this poor logic is that “penal substitution is central to God’s dealing with sin,” (p50) as if this one particular ritual is the key to understanding how God deals with sin in all cases.

The authors completely ignore the weight of biblical stories in which God forgave people without sacrifice, which completely undermines their case. Take Nineveh, for example, where: “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” (Jon 3:10) They do look at God’s forgiveness of David’s adultery and murder in Ps 51, but do not recognise that it undermines their argument. They reinterpret David’s statement that “You [God] do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Ps 51:16) as referring to sacrifices of praise, incorrectly using his earlier reference to hyssop to provide the illusion of support for their argument. (p51) Far more likely is that David recognised there were no sacrifices prescribed by the Torah to atone for sins of adultery and murder, and thus appealed to God for merciful forgiveness apart from sacrifice. Indeed, for this very reason Paul points out that David was forgiven despite not “working” the Torah in Romans 4:4-8. At the end of the authors’ argument, they give a blanket disclaimer that explains Hebrew’s statement that “blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins,” and indeed any situations of God’s forgiveness that don’t fit with their ideology: “The Old Testament sacrifices provided a window through which they looked in faith to their Messiah who was yet to come.” (p52) Thus it is argued that despite being thousands of years in the future, Christ’s death was what actually atoned for people’s sins all along. (p52) Such appeals to a time-travelling cosmic atonement of the cross combined with the dubious assertion that the Old Testament people of God had in mind Jesus being on the cross centuries in the future hardly strengthen their case.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (suffering servant)

The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 apparently is used to support PS, and this is perhaps their strongest case for PS being present in Scipture. (p52-57) Of course, it is widely accepted that the original author of this passage wrote it in reference to Israel, not Jesus. The New Testament (hereafter NT) references this passage in the context of writing about Jesus, though. When dealing with these, Jeffery, Ovey and Sach adopt unlikely interpretations to fit their position. They choose to not see the meaning of the NT references to this passage as being defined by the context in which the authors quote verses from it. Rather, they assert that the penal substitutionary theme of the passage is what the authors refer to – despite recognising the objections that have been raised to this idea. (p63-65) Despite no NT quote occurring clearly in the context of PS ideas they claim: “The New Testament uses this passage to speak of Christ’s death in penal substitutionary terms.” (p67) Again, they show complete disregard for other ideological frameworks of the Scriptural authors into which these quotes would fit, and do not even mention the obvious ones.


Moving to the New Testament, the authors begin by completely omitting the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – perhaps because they found no support for PS in these gospels. Of course, one would wonder how if it is such a “central doctrine” that these Gospels could be considered complete without it. This problem is glossed over by simply beginning with the heading “The Gospel of Mark.”

One would expect a discussion of the story found in Mark, but instead the authors simply argue about the meaning of biblical words to find support. Firstly, they chose to interpret the word lytron (which refers to payment for release) in Mark 10:45 as connoting substitution rather than its plain meaning (p67). In addition, they choose to interpret anti (normally translated “for” in Mk 10:45) as meaning “in place of.” Hence they see Mk 10:45 as proving “a substitutionary payment in the place of others.” (p67) Rather than deal properly with the other frameworks into which this verse fits sensibly, they attempt to support a PS framework by looking at the context of Mk 10:45 through the eyes of PS. (p68-70) They make an un-compelling argument that because the Old Testament uses a “cup” in the context of wrath a few times, Jesus’ request that God “take this cup from me” involves God’s wrath rather than simply the suffering of his death which he foresaw. (pg 68-90)

They continue by looking at Mk 10:33-34 and a third word definition for support. This time, they focus on when Jesus was handed over (paradidomi) to the Gentiles to be killed. They argue that in this case, paradidomi, “admits an extra shade of meaning” – which they assert is that of God’s wrath while providing virtually no support for this tenuous claim. (p70-71) Again, by completely ignoring other explanatory frameworks for the verses, they conclude that Mk 10:45 proves that Jesus was “handed over to God’s wrath” in giving his life for many. (p71) Final brief appeals to Mk 15:33-34 and 14:27 as proving PS exhaust their look at Mark, and appear to be “clutching at straws” for support.


John 3:14-18 is first looked at in some detail to prove the trivial idea that God’s wrath remains on those who do not follow Jesus. (p73-74) They continue to point out that “death is the penalty for sin, imposed as God’s sentence of condemnation on sinful humanity.” (p74)

Having established a theme of God’s wrath, they connect it to John 11:47-52, 8 chapters later, by again looking at controversial word definitions. (p75) Here they attempt to argue that hyper (“for”) “conveys a substitutionary sense on Caiaphas’ lips.” (p75) Caiaphas probably means here that they thought it better to kill Jesus than risk suffering under military action by the Romans to crush what they might consider a rebellion. John’s connection of Caiaphas’ statement to Jesus as being “prophetic” is then regarded as definitive, not an aside. (p75) The authors continue to completely ignore the many occurrences of hyper that obviously do not mean “in stead of” and proceed to read their interpretation into John 18:14; 6:51; 10:11, 15. Thus choosing to define hyper in a way that suits them, they conclude that John “teaches clearly that Jesus’ death was substitutionary.” (p77)

They end their conclusion by making a completely unwarranted step in their argument, concluding that because death is the penalty for sin and Jesus’ death was substitutionary, that it proves atonement worked via penal substitution. This is hardly compelling. Yet they use it to assert that “to ‘perish’ in John is to suffer the punishment for sin under God’s just condemnation. This is penal. [It proves] penal substitution.” (p77) So after looking a sprinkling of verses from the Gospels and drawing some tenuous conclusions, they leave the Gospels, as if they have proven PS is a major theme throughout them all.


Their attitude and approach to Romans is summarised in their opening sentence: “the book of Romans teaches the doctrine of penal substitution so plainly that the steady stream of attempts by some recent commentators and theologians to evade the obvious is both surprising and a little tiresome.” (p77) So after again condescending upon those whom they seek to persuade, they adopt a standard Reformed reading of Rom 1-3. Despite this being a relatively easy position to try to defend, they choose to defend it again by grasping at specific words selectively throughout the text, rather than assess Paul’s overall argument. (p78-79) Of course they completely omit any reference to Rom 2:5-16, which would greatly trouble their argument. They simply use Rom 1-3 to prove that “we stand under the just wrath of God.” (p80)

Yet none of that proves PS. So they first hold Rom 3:21-26 as their first passage in support. Despite this being a highly controversial passage amongst scholarship, they suggest that to prove it teaches PS is simple. It is clear that through Jesus’ death we are no longer under God’s wrath, and thus they state “we need only to establish that it was by Christ’s death in our place that this was accomplished.” (p81) All they actually do is highlight Jesus’ death, our subsequent favour with God, and suggest they have proved their case. They seek to strengthen their argument through their wishful thinking: “the mere fact that Jesus died, in the context of the thought-world of Romans, constitutes an argument for penal substitution.” (p81) Given the near non-existent evidence they give in support, it seems to be in fact their own thought-world that leads them to write, “we cannot conceivably imagine that the punishment for sin has been overlooked! God must punish sin, and in the death of Christ he has done so.” (p81) They illogically argue that because God left past sins unpunished, he must have punished sin in Christ, simply because they do not see any of the plausible alternatives. (p81) Finally, they spend four pages “proving” that hilasterion means “propitiation” – as if that in itself proves that PS is the mechanism that turns away God’s wrath from us. (p82-85) It is amusing they even quote at length from N.T. Wright to support other meanings of hilasterion also, who called their book “deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.” (The Cross and the Caricatures, 2007) Despite their weak argument, they conclude that “the undeniable teaching of Rom 3:21-26 is that the Lord Jesus Christ was set forth as a propitiation, to turn aside God’s wrath from his people by suffering it in their place.” (p85, emph. added)

After spending eight pages on Rom 3:21-26, their argument drastically looses content as they look to Rom 4:25 for support. They make the astoundingly weak argument that because the “handing over” (paradidomi) of Christ refers to his death, “penal substitution is plainly in view.” (p86) Again by completely ignoring alternative atonement frameworks, they look at the use of “blood” in Rom 5:8-10 and assert that “once again, the doctrine of penal substitution underpins the logic of Paul’s argument.” (p86) They move to Rom 8:1-3, which occurs after Paul’s metaphors of “dying with Christ” to sin and during his lengthy discussion about living by the “Spirit” rather than the “Flesh.” Despite these themes being clearly in Paul’s mind, they assert that the reason there is “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (v1) is not because they are “set free from the law of sin and of death” to “walk according to flesh, but according to Spirit” as Paul continues directly to say in the very next words. Rather, they say it is because God literally “condemned sin in the flesh” (v3) of Jesus. (p86) This constitutes poor exegesis of scripture to attempt to support a point that Paul is simply not making here. Yet they falsely claim that “this amounts to an explicit statement of the doctrine of penal substitution.” (p87) The conclude their look at Romans by saying PS “is woven into the fabric of these chapters,” (p88) as if restating their claims makes them sound more convincing.

Galations 3:10-13 (Mosaic curse of those hung on a tree)

Central to their next argument is that despite the huge controversy over interpretation of this passage, “we shall merely demonstrate that the doctrine of penal substitution remains secure, regardless of which path is taken with respect to the issues of recent controversy.” (p89) They fail to demonstrate this. Three pages are spent arguing that we are still under the curse of the law. Yet again, no thought is given to other redemption frameworks, and so they wrongly conclude “there is no way of evading the conclusion that all people need Christ’s substitutionary death to redeem them from the curse that would otherwise be due to them for their failure to meet the requirements of God’s holy law.” (p93) Most Jews, of course, believed they were keeping God’s law and thus were not under a curse.

The authors hinge their argument around the phrase that Christ “become a curse for us; for it has been written, ‘Cursed is everyone having been hung on a tree.’” What they fail to point out is that if the passage in Deut. 21:23 did not exist, Paul would have said no such thing. In other words, Paul’s motivation for mentioning this is not because it is central to his theology, but because he must explain Deut. 21:23. The authors simply ignore this, and say “the doctrine of penal substitution emerges plainly.” (p95)

1 Peter

The meaning of lytroo (“redeemed”) in 1 Pet 18-19 is argued. The authors speculate upon a connection with Isiah 53, and use that to suggest Peter speaks “clearly about the penal substitutionary death of Christ.” (p96) Moving on to 1 Pet 2:21-25, while they recognise that the passage refers to the exemplary significance of Jesus’ death, they argue that this “cannot, however, account for all of the teaching in the passage.” (p97) This claim itself is debatable, yet the passage probably provides one of their stronger biblical arguments. They continue by ignoring the context and by connecting words in the passage to their previous arguments regarding Gal 3, Isaiah 53, and their dubious assertion of a substitutionary meaning of hyper. Apparently one single verse gives them grounds to claim that “Peter draws extensively on the imagery of the Servant of Isaiah 53 to explain the penal substitutionary significance of Jesus death.” (p99, emph. added) Yet Peter is talking about an exemplary framework in this context, not a penal substitutionary one. While far from being their weakest argument, this one is still unconvincingly made.


After all this, they claim that “the Bible speaks with a clear and united witness” (p99) in support of PS. What it striking, of course, is that they have simply not compared PS with any of the other frameworks for understanding the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They also omit mentioning that they found no support for PS in two of the Gospels, and very little support in Mark and John. In fact, the diversity of these other “witnesses” and the consistent emphasis of the New Testament authors of different frameworks for understanding the significance of Jesus (which they don’t mention) would suggest that their assessment is simply untrue.

Even if we generously double the number of New Testament verses referenced, they still only find that only a handful of NT verses could possibly support PS. They state that their “aim in this chapter has been to demonstrate that penal substitution is taught in Scripture.” (p99) So even if these verses do “clearly teach” PS and their assessment that “this cannot be denied” (p99) is true, they have certainly failed to evidence that PS “has such prominence that it cannot be sidelined” (p34, emph. added). Perhaps that’s why they added the word some here: saying that PS is “a central emphasis of some foundational passages in both the Old and New Testaments” (p33, emph added), for judging by the evidence they give PS is hardly emphasised at all!

Chapter 3: “The Theological Framework for Penal Substitution”

Pages 100-148 are spent outlining the “big-picture” of Christian theology, to “place [PS] in its proper theological context.” (p101) It is fitting that the chapter is entitled “the theological framework for penal substitution,” because that is exactly what it is – a set of doctrines they have selected especially for PS. They proceed to present a number of doctrines which are used to support the theory, and omit any doctrines that don’t fit in. They seek to justify their gross bias by distinguishing between “understanding something truly and understanding something exhaustively.” (p101-102) So then at the end of the chapter, after presenting all the peripheral doctrines that specifically relate to PS, they misleadingly claim that PS lies at the heart not simply of the doctrines they have selected, but that “penal substitution has a foundational place in Christian theology.” (p148)

They begin by providing a helpful one-page summary of their view of the doctrine of PS. (p103-104). This provides the foundation from which they assess primarily only three doctrines: human depravity, God’s unwillingness to forgive sin, and redemption. These doctrines are split up between the following headings:


“The doctrine of creation is plainly important for a right understand of redemption,” (p105) or more accurately, of penal substitution. Thus, after a brief recount of God’s powerful words that created the universe, they highlight: “the fact that the universe continues to function… needs to be seen in the light of God’s continued, intentional, active, sustaining involvement.” (p107) This point is used to argue that “since the moral consequences of sin are willed in this way, they have the character of divine punishment.” (p107) The same point can also be used to argue God is responsible for all evil in the world and that God is therefore evil. Their logic simply overlooks any concept of humans as moral agents, and so it is unclear how their point here helps their case. They continue by emphasising a legal aspect of Creation, where the hierarchy of command proceeded from top to bottom as God, Humanity, The rest of Creation. (p108-109)

‘Decreation’ (the fall)

The preceding chapter is used as required background for this chapter describing the sinfulness of humankind. They argue that “the sin of Adam and Eve also overturns the order God has established in Genesis 1-2.” (p111) Hence they present that due to the fall, the “hierarchy of Creation” was reversed: The rest of Creation, Humanity, God. They use this view to argue that “nothing less than another act by God, on the scale of creation, can set things right.” (p112) This becomes a set-up to make the cosmic act of PS seem necessary later on. Five pages are then wasted discussing “false faith” (p112-117), which seems largely irrelevant to their argument and doesn’t aid their case at all.

The consequences of sin

After another irrelevant discussion on the nature of death (p118-121), it is argued that “death is God’s punishment for sin.” (p121-123) There is nothing wrong with this conclusion, but it doesn’t help prove PS as they would like. Lastly, they assert that “sin is a personal affront to [God]” (p123) based on nothing more than a few examples where God is portrayed as being angry at sin.

Truth, goodness, justice and salvation

They begin by asserting that “sin, as an act of decreation, is a denial of God’s truthfulness and justice.” (p124) No support is offered for this creative assertion. Further claims regarding the nature of God and what it means for sin and salvation don’t further their case much. (p125) The reason for this section appears as this: to make the point that God’s nature requires him to “find a way to restore his creation to its original goodness, without compromising his promise that sin will bring death.” (p126) Sadly this point does little to strengthen their argument for PS as the specific way in which God does that.

Relationships within the Trinity

Here is it highlighted that the different members of the Trinity can act upon other members and yet be unified in purpose. (p127-132) This becomes important for their rebuttals to objections in Part 2 of the book, but is largely irrelevant to their main point in this chapter. It is simply concluded that “these aspects of God’s character… [are] reflected in God’s work of redemption.” (p132)


This section contains two central themes: “not only does the Father give the Son to believers, but he also gives believers to his Son.” (p132) In the first of these, the perfection of the Son is highlighted as being suitable for a sacrifice for PS. (p132-137) This section is loaded with presuppositions suitable for PS. A few pages are given to looking at how this very biased view of Christ and PS fits into other atonement ideas of victory, reconciliation and ransom. Lest these detract from their point, they conclude that “we should not see these perspectives on the cross as alternatives to penal substitution, but rather outworkings of it. Penal substitution underpins and enriches them.” (p144, emph. added) Having loaded the chapter with ideas that fit with PS, they give their reasoning behind this claim by saying “to dispense with PS would distort these other perspectives.” (p144) This is a classic circular argument. Due to shear ignorance of other frameworks, they then make the completely inaccurate claim that without PS “the very elements of these other perspectives that are praised with such passion in Scripture… would have to go as well.” (p144, emph. added) Following this, they describe a Calvinistic interpretation of God drawing believers to himself and unifying them with Christ in order to perform the double-imputation of PS. (p144-147) It is claimed from all this that “penal substitution emerges as a central aspect of God’s redeeming work in Christ.” (p147)


Perhaps their statement that “penal substitution has a foundation place in Christian theology” (p148) is a valid point, but it is not at all a valid conclusion from their argument. Their argument is simply far too ignorant of alternative viewpoints and too lacking in sound logic to prove their thesis here. In this chapter the authors have selected only certain doctrines that fit and even suggest PS, mixed them with many suggestive remarks connoting PS, and omitted all views and doctrines which do not fit with PS. In their conclusion, they suggest that PS is not simply central to the particular doctrines they have outlined, but that it is the foundation of all Christian theology. Yet the majority of the important other doctrines of Christian theology can be held without believing PS. Their rhetorical conclusion here is not based on a solid argument, but instead a biased and incomplete portrayal of Christian theology.

Chapter 4: “The pastoral importance of Penal Substitution”

In this short chapter, the authors outline how they see PS as impacting our Christian lives. (p150) They discuss the assurance of God’s love (p150-153), confidence in God’s truthfulness (p153-156), a passion for God’s justice (p156-158), and realism about our sin (p158-160). None of these are particularly controversial points. Yet they present them as if PS is the only basis for having them, by saying that “the implications of penal substitution for the Christian life are profound, and a great deal is lost if it is denied.” (p150) In fact, one can hold all the things they have presented here without holding PS. Thus, their above assertion is simply untrue, and this chapter does little to help their case.

Chapter 5: “The historical pedigree of Penal Substitution”

The authors correctly observe that “we ought to be worried if what we believe to be a foundational biblical truth remained entirely undiscovered from the days of the apostles right up until the middle of the sixteenth century.” (p162) In comparison with their biblical analysis, here they “have tried to be fairly exhaustive up to and including Gregory the Great” in the 6th century to demonstrate support for PS. (p163) They are confident that “the weight of evidence is quite overwhelming.” (p163)

However, it should be sufficient to cause concern if PS was not a prominent view even in the first 300 years of Christian tradition. For the first three centuries, they only find one single paragraph from Justin Martyr (2nd century) which may support of PS. (p164-166) Justin wouldn’t even have included this paragraph if not for the existence of Deut. 21:23, and supporting PS is clearly not his main point. Nevertheless, the authors claim a total of one paragraph that supports PS out of an estimated 6500 pages of Christian writings extant from this period. The New Testament contains 260 chapters, averaging about one page each. Roughly scaling the 6500 pages of these Christian writings to the size of the New Testament, their paragraph in support of PS would be the equivalent to about one word in the New Testament. This is hardly an overwhelming “weight of evidence.” In fact, their own evidence shows the PS is hardly mentioned at all by the early Christians within the first three centuries. This seems to prove exactly the opposite of what the authors present it in proof of.

They find about one or at most two paragraphs to support PS from each of Eusebius (p166-167), Hilary of Poitiers (p167-169), Athanasius (p169-173), Gregory of Nazianzus (p173-174), Ambrose of Milan (p174-175), John Chrystostum (p175-176), Augustine of Hippo (p177-179), Cyril of Alexandria (p180-181), and Gregory the Great (p183). They also present a paragraph from an unheard-of Gelasius of Cyzicus (p181-183), who by their admission “has almost no significance as a theologian” (p183) and “was somewhat lacking in integrity as a historian.” (p182) Thus, they exhaust the references in support of PS written prior to the 13th century. Of course, from this time we have a vast amount of Christian works extant, and thus their “exhaustive” list of quotes is hardly compelling. The fact that 21 pages are taken to present only about 20 paragraphs of quotations also reveals how padded with irrelevant discussion the section is. It is clear that even in these quotes in support of PS, the writers had no intention of focussing on PS or emphasising it as an atonement theory. Thus even if these quotes do refer to PS, none of these writers considered it a theory worth emphasising at length. Furthermore, they omit any mention of several key aspects of the modern PS theory. Thus, it is unclear exactly in what way this evidence is “overwhelming” – whether it is in support of the chapter’s case or contradictory to it.

After a brief quote from Thomas Aquinas (p184-185) in the context not of PS, but of satisfaction, the authors nestle into the comfortably supportive quotes of the Reformed tradition. They go through quotes that are far more supportive of PS from Calvin (p185-186), Francis Turretin (p186-187), John Bunyan (p188-189), John Owen (p189-191), George Whitefield (p191-193), Spurgeon (p193-194), D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (194-195), John Stott (p196-197), J. I. Packer (p197-200), and throw in quotes from the UCCF and the EA for good measure (p200-203). Of course, they fail to mention the objection of the Catholic church to some of the Reformers ideas. They do not quote here the numerous people who have challenged PS throughout this time. Their case is built mainly on quotes from the Protestant tradition.

Despite this, the authors conclude that “lots of people throughout church history have believed [PS]” and that it thus has “a long and distinguished pedigree.” (p203) They neglect to mention the obvious fact evident from their “exhaustive” evidence from the first three centuries – that the vast majority of Christian writers didn’t even mention PS, and the one that allegedly did certainly didn’t consider it worth more than a passing mention. So far from finding this data “reassuring” (p203) and their conclusions “amply proven” (p204), a more accurate conclusion is the very one the authors sought to avoid – they ought to be worried because PS is hardly mentioned at all in the extra-biblical Christian writings of the first 300 years.

Overall critique of Part I:

This book fails to prove its main thesis regarding the importance of penal substitution in the minds of the biblical authors and the early Christians. The conclusions of this book are founded upon ignorance, poor logic, and misinterpretation of evidence. Alternative views are not even considered. Biblical texts which contradict their conclusions are ignored. Circular arguments are used extensively. Claims of “clearly proving” conclusions are prolific, yet almost never supported by the arguments. Lastly, the very small amount of evidence found in support of PS in the writings of the early Christians is grossly misinterpreted. It is wrongly concluded from this evidence that PS was “a central theme” to the authors, rather than a peripheral theme that is barely even mentioned. Some claims are simply misleading from the truth. It is little wonder that N.T. Wright considered this book “deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.”

Part 1 of this book is unlikely to persuade any of its critics, and indeed it seems likely to be heavily criticised by scholarship. Yet the condescension and cursory dismissals of those who hold different opinions in the introduction make it even less likely to be well-received by any who do not already agree with the authors. Hence, it is unlikely that this part of the book will have the effect desired by its authors.

(The second part of this review is continued in this next post.)