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.


nelmezzo said...

Hi, Reuben. Will have to read this review and reflect for a while. (Also will need a copy of PFOT). Thanks for your comment on my blog. I posted a comment in response, if you're interested . . .

nelmezzo said...

Just posted a comment, not sure if it grabbed. In any case, thanks for your comment at my blog. Replied, if you're interested in interacting with that . . .