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#640 Atonement and the Deity of Christ

July 21, 2019

Dear Dr Craig,

I've just watched in youtube a debate entitled "Jesus is human and not divine" between unitarian philosopher Dale Tuggy and Christian author Chris Date. Date pointed out that, on unitarianism, God selects a third, non-divine party (a purely human Jesus) in order to atone for the sins of men. In contrast, on trinitarianism, God himself (in the person of Christ) adopts the human condition and absorbs the punishment that we deserve for our sins. The unitarian position seems to imply that a non-divine, purely human person was arbitrarily selected to suffer the punishment for ours sins, which seems to be extremely unjust. Although Tuggy has written reluctantly that Jesus could be "divine in some sense" (which, if true, would imply polytheism since that there would exist at least two divinities, God and Jesus), it is clear that his unitarian position more inclined toward the purely human view of Jesus, as seen in the debate. My question is: Given the perfect being theology, is trinitarianism more just, in terms of explaining the atonement, than unitarianism? Do we have a new argument for trinitarianism based on the justice of the atonement which is not available on the unitarian alternative?



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Dr. craig’s response


You’re raising a very good question, Marco, about whether anyone less than a divine person could have made atonement for sins. The deeper question here is what it would take to satisfy divine justice. Motifs of divine justice permeate the New Testament, especially Paul’s writings. On this basis I’ve argued, in contrast to certain Christian thinkers, that, whether it be by necessity or by God’s free choice, the satisfaction of God’s retributive justice is a precondition of His legally pardoning us of our sins.[1]

So what will serve to satisfy the demands of God’s retributive justice? The medieval theologian John Duns Scotus suggested that God might have accepted any sacrifice He pleased as satisfactory for the demands of His retributive justice.  This view is called acceptation (since God can accept as satisfactory anything that He chooses). Most traditional atonement theorists have not been sympathetic to acceptation accounts.  For then God might have accepted as satisfactory the death of any ordinary human being or even an animal.  But then it is not true, as Scripture affirms, that “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10.4). Indeed, on this view each of us could without Christ provide satisfaction for his own sins, which is unconscionable.

Retributive theories of justice require not merely that the guilty deserve punishment but also that the punishment be proportionate to the crime if justice is to be satisfied. The objector to acceptation theories can plausibly maintain that retributive justice, as we know and understand it, is essential to God’s nature and so could not be satisfied by mere animal sacrifices, much less by me, a sinner.

Given the magnitude of human sin, past, present, and future, the just desert of mankind before the bar of God’s justice is incomprehensibly great, if not infinite. If hell involves infinite incarceration for the damned, then each of us plausibly owes a debt of punishment to God that is infinite. The problem with God’s selecting some sinner to pay the penalty for our sins is not simply that it seems unjust but more fundamentally, I think, that it is unsatisfactory. Who is adequate to pay such a penalty?

As St. Anselm saw, the answer is, only God Himself. Therefore, the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity is necessary if anyone is to be saved. “If it be necessary, therefore, . . . that the heavenly kingdom be made up of men, and this cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it” (Cur Deus homo? II.6).

So I think you’re right that the atonement gives us good grounds for preferring Trinitarianism over Unitarianism.

[1] The Atonement (Cambridge University Pres, 2018), pp. 77-81.

- William Lane Craig