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.)


Tony Bellows said...

An absolutely brilliant examination of the issues and texts involved, and how they have been used selectively and distorted to prop up a theory of atonement. Can part 2 deal with the evidence and problems with alternative views (e.g. Christus Victor etc)?

incognito said...

Hi Tony, thanks for your comment. I have now posted the second part of this review here. Part II doesn't really deal with alternative views at all. I think it highlights a major fault of this book - it consistently doesn't give due consideration to alternative perspectives. As a result, it draws incorrect conclusions.

Oliver Harrison said...

Very good -- thank-you.

I've got a review of this book out in the next "Anvil" (journal) alongside a "pro" piece, written in response to my "anti" one. Also I wrote the critical review on the Amazon website.

This book has so many weakness, not least the underlying Trinitarianism (cf. Moltmann for a corrective) and its refusal to deal with soteiologically with the resurrection (cf. F. X. Durrwell). But it's main problem is that it *thinks* it knows what scripture says and then "finds" in the text. Well, what a surprise!

Well done -- and thanks.


Anonymous said...

as an ordinary Christian, I am actually appalled at how all this debate about penal substitution has diluted the very essence of our own Christianity. I just need to pray and live a life of a good Christian. why is the debate bitter?

Reuben said...

It is indeed a sad situation. Fundamentalist Christians (like the authors of PFOT) seem to get quite twitchy about some of their doctrines, and can be remarkably hostile toward any Christians who share different views. To them, Penal Substitution IS the essence of Christianity. Their hostile attitude seems to me fairly congruent with the teaching of the New Testament, but of course they don't see it like that.

From my perspective, I think the debate around Penal Substitution is important firstly because I know it puts many people off Christianity. Given that I don't think the bible teaches it, I therefore think it would be better if people didn't insist that people believed it. Secondly, I have observed that the theological system associated with it leads some Christians to not take the moral aspect of Christianity seriously. Finally, if as Christians we are to remain faithful to the example and teachings of Jesus, then teaching and believing a set of doctrines very foreign (and even incompatible) with his teachings doesn't sit well with authentically following Jesus.

Those are my views. I certainly accept Christians who believe PS as Christians, since most do seek to follow the teachings and example of Jesus. I simply see PS as an unnecessary and sometimes unhelpful extra doctrine. I see the essence of Christianity as being following the example and teachings of Jesus, and PS seems to distract people from that.

simmmo said...

Great post. I was reading through this title today at a Christian book store here in Sydney. The price was $7.50, I wonder if this is an indication of usefulness of the book!

Anyway, I just want to comment on their treatment of the Patristic material and St John Chrysostom in particular. Just as an aside, Derek Flood has written a great critique of their treatment of the Church Fathers published in Evangelical Quarterly I believe. I want to focus on St John Chrysostom. They have one single quote from Chrysostom. One quote!! And conclude that PS was central to Chrysostom's thinking about the atonement!! Nevermind his Easter homily where he espounds clearly and emphatically that Christ's death and resurrection freed us from the bondage of sin and death. And this sermon was delivered in the context of Easter!!!!!!

Furthermore, St John Chrysostom's liturgy is the one used in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is much devotion to Chrysostom in the EOC. Do they think St John Chrysostom clearly teaches PS?? No!! They emphatically reject PS, clearly in favour of something very similar to Christus Victor. Their treatment of the Fathers is absolutely shocking. It's interest that N.T. Wright thought that this was a strong point of the book. But I think it had to be one of the weakest arguments in it.