Ben Witherington III reviews Atonement and the Death of Christ and interviews William Lane CraigWilliam Lane Craig
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read a good book on the atonement. The last one that I found really stimulating and challenging was Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, and it came out 40 some years ago! As it turns out, my old friend Bill Craig the polymath philosopher and apologete has now provided a very readable book that is well-researched and well-argued throughout. It’s the best current book I know of on this subject. I’ll be recommending it to anyone who will listen. One of the things that makes this book distinctive is that Bill ably deals first with the exegesis, then with the history of interpretation, then with the philosophical and logical aspects of the doctrine of atonement. Not many scholars could juggle all three of those balls without one of them falling on their heads. Bill seems to manage it with ease, though of course his forte is his own field of philosophy, so it is no surprise that the longest single portion of the book is the last portion on the philosophical aspects of things.
The essence of the book’s argument can be summed up as follows— penal substitutionary atonement, involving both propitiation of God’s wrath, and expiation of our guilt is at the very heart of the NT doctrine of the atonement. I completely agree with this analysis. Any theory of the atonement must adequately deal with the righteous character of God and the fact that his moral character demands that justice in some form must be done in a world where all have sinned, but at the same time since God is love, and is merciful, he found a way to satisfy the demands for justice and at the same time save the sinner. Bill also tends to favor the theory of imputation that Erasmus first came up with (it’s really not found before him, and the Reformers then pick up that ball and run with it down the field) in which our sin is imputed to Christ and his righteousness to us. I demur on this last notion. I don’t find it in the NT frankly, and indeed the word ‘impute’ is never uttered by Paul or others. There are better ways to understand justification and also what happens at conversion. We are granted right standing with God based on the saving work of Christ for us. But at the very same time we are born of God, so that both our position and our condition change as a result of Christ’s passion. What is not the case is that Jesus is righteous for us. To the contrary he is busy making us righteous through the new birth and sanctification. We don’t need the legal fiction notion to make sense of what is said about these things in the NT. Another important feature of this book is that Bill is a strong advocate not only for the universal scope of the atonement that Christ made on the cross, he’s also clear enough that God has not destined in advance only some to be saved. God desires the salvation of all, but human beings are free to reject that offer. God doesn’t make us an offer we can’t refuse..... for the Biblical God is not the Godfather. And I would add that the chief reason for this is because God is love, and he wants us to freely respond to his love. Love, after all cannot be manipulated or predetermined or coerced or forced, even unknowingly. Our positive faith response is of course not possible without God’s grace, but that grace is not irresistible. Another very helpful feature of this book is that Bill reviews all the major classic theories of the atonement and their strengths and weaknesses. He educates us on some of the classic treatments we may not be familiar with, such as that of Socinus or Hugo Grotius. The only major contemporary dialogue partner who has written a book on Atonement who comes in for regular critique in this book is Elenore Stump. And in my view his critique is right on target. In the dialogue that follows in subsequent blog posts you will see some vigorous discussion on various points, but I find Bill’s basic case to be compelling. This is one of those books that I would say— sell some of your older books and buy this one. It’s definitely a keeper!
Q. Let’s start with the usual question— What prompted you to write this well written book?
A. Thank you! For several years my wife Jan and others have been urging me to write a systematic philosophical theology. I realized that in order to undertake such a prodigious task I would need to bone up on certain areas of systematic theology in which I felt weak. One of those areas was the doctrine of the atonement. I was acutely aware that the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, which I take to be biblical teaching, faced formidable philosophical objections to which I did not have a good answer. I was hoping that some Christian philosopher would tackle these objections and offer a robust defense of the Reformation doctrine of the atonement, but, alas, no such defense was forthcoming. I finally decided that I would simply have to tackle this subject myself, and so I devoted a couple of years to an intense study of the doctrine of the atonement as part of my preparation for writing my systematic philosophical theology. The study proved to be unexpectedly rich and rewarding.
Q. On p. 16 you mention the Passover ritual, originally involving the spreading of blood over the lintel of the door of a Hebrew family. This is an avoidance ritual, an apotropaic ritual to protect the dwellers in the house from the angel of death. That is a very different matter than an atoning sacrifice ala Leviticus. And inter alia, Jesus’ death did not protect the early Christians from physical death like the original ritual. I would suggest that the reinterpretation of the elements of the Passover by Jesus has to do with the inauguration of a new covenant. This means that we should not make too much of the original Passover event and its function and meaning as a way to interpret Jesus’ death. In any case, almost all ancient covenants were inaugurated or sealed by an animal sacrifice, including the Abrahamic covenant. That in itself doesn’t indicate what the ritual meant or whether it was connected with atonement. It is Jesus who connects the Passover ritual with a new covenant and atonement (ala Mk. 10.45). What would you say about this?
A. An apotropaic ritual is one that is designed to ward off something bad. In the case of the Passover sacrifice, the ritual warded off God’s judgement and was in that sense propitiatory. It allayed God’s wrath. Had it not been offered, God’s judgement would have fallen on the first-born sons of Israel as well as of Egypt. But as you note, the Passover sacrifice was not an expiatory sacrifice like the later Levitical animal sacrifices, which served to cleanse the people and the tabernacle from sin and impurity. Jesus’ choice of Passover as the time of his death was surely not accidental. His death would shield his followers from God’s judgement, as did the original Passover sacrifice. Moreover, he saw his death as a sacrifice, akin to Moses’ sacrifice, inaugurating a new covenant and also as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53, where God’s righteous Servant gives himself as a sin offering. So the Last Supper combines a number of sacrificial motifs from the OT. I’d be interested in your opinion of my speculation (p. 33n45) that the Passover sacrifice, which came to be offered not in Jewish homes but in the Temple, had by the time of Jesus taken on expiatory overtones.
Q. In the detailed study of the Servant Songs by Childs and others, it is recognized that in the early portion of those passages—- from about Isaiah 40 to about Isaiah 51, the servant in question is the nation of Israel, not a particular Israelite. As Childs goes on to point out however, somewhere around Isa. 52 or a little earlier the reference becomes to a particular individual. Thus, one has to be careful how one handles the earlier passages. Yes, Israel the nation was supposed to be a light to the nations. This would include the suffering servant later referred to but the earlier part of those Servant songs do not refer to him specifically. See my Isaiah Old and New. We have to be careful how we parse these things on the basis of good detailed exegesis. Reflections?
A. My focus is on the NT deployment of Is 52.13-53.12, not on the identity of the Servant figure in Isaiah itself. Whomever Isaiah was referring to, nation or individual, what is indisputable is that the NT authors, and Jesus himself, saw Jesus as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and interpreted his death in that light. The significance of the earlier universalistic passages in Isaiah is that they make it plausible that Jesus saw his death as a sacrifice given not only for Israel but also for the Gentiles.
Q. Explain to the readers the distinction between substitutionary death and substitutionary punishment. The animal is not being punished in the place of the sinner, it is being sacrificed unto death in the place of the death of the sinner. Here I agree with your critique of N.T. Wright. Since the blood=life of the animal is offered on the altar, on your view that would be necessary because it’s not just that sin must be dealt with but the life of the person in question must be re-offered to God (ala Rom. 12.1-2). So, both sacrificial death and offering of life blood are necessary as substitutes for the sinner. Right?
A. This distinction is so important because failure to differentiate between substitutionary suffering and substitutionary punishment has led scholars like N.T. Wright to deny that the animal’s life was given in place of the offerer’s. That the animal was a substitute for the offerer is evident from the hand-laying ritual that accompanied every animal sacrifice. The animal died in place of the offerer. But that doesn’t imply that the animal was punished in his place. Rather the animal suffered the fate that would have been the offerer’s punishment had it been inflicted on him. (Failure to gasp this counterfactual conditional will inevitably lead to misunderstandings.) I should say that the animal’s death was required because the punishment deserved by the offerer was death. The implausibility of Wright’s view that only the blood rite, but not the death, was required may be seen by the fact that on his view ancient Israel could have practiced blood-letting of animals rather than sacrifice, since drawing and applying some their blood would have atoned for sin and impurity!
Q. In Acts 13, Paul indicates that Christ’s death atones for sins that no OT sacrifice could cover, in particular one would think he is speaking about sins with a high hand e.g. premeditated murder etc. Yet, you suggest pp. 30-31 that the proper way to read the Yom Kippur rite was on that one day only, even sins with a high hand could be atoned for. If that’s true, what sins do you think Paul was referring to?
A. I assume that you’re referring to Acts 13.38-39: “Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” I had never taken that to be a reference to a particular kind of sin but rather to the inefficacy of the law of Moses to free people from any sin. I take it that Paul would have agreed with the author of Hebrews that “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10.4). So Paul says that God “in his divine forbearance had passed over former sins” (Rom 3.25) until such time as He put Christ forward as an atoning sacrifice. It would be exceeding strange to think that for Paul Christ died only for high-handed sins rather than for all sins. As noted, the Yom Kippur sacrifice sufficed provisionally for the full range of “iniquities, transgressions, and sins” until Christ should come to put them all decisively away by the sacrifice of himself.
Q. It would seem that John in John 1 who says ‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin.....’ is thinking of Christ as both like the Passover lamb and also, with the language of taking away, the scapegoat. But you on p. 32 say Christ is not imaged in the latter sense, and his death not viewed that way. Why not?
A. The Yom Kippur ritual involved two goats. The sins of the people were expiated by the goat offered as a blood sacrifice, while driving out the other symbolized the removal of sins from the people, just as the ritual for the cleansing of skin diseases like leprosy involved two birds, one offered in sacrifice for the cleansing of the impure person and the other released into the air symbolizing the person’s cleansing, so that he was able to re- enter the camp (Lev. 14.2-7). John the Baptist does not seem to be talking about the scapegoat but the Passover lamb, which raises my earlier question whether this ritual had taken on expiatory overtones, as intimated by Jub. 49.19-2; Josephus Antiquities 2.312.
Q. Heb. 9.26 says that Christ ‘removed sin by the sacrifice of himself’. Now I would take that to mean that he removed the guilt of the sinner, since sin itself is not a substance but rather involves acts and attitudes. Sometimes I think we wrongly treat sin as like some kind of substance, or disease that could be taken from a person and applied to an animal or to Christ himself as if the phrase ‘he bore the sins of many’ refers to his bearing actual sins on the cross, rather than bearing the guilt and punishment for sins for us. Comments?
A. I agree that the reference is to the guilt incurred by wrongdoing, not to the acts of wrongdoing themselves. Acts in the past cannot be undone, even by time travel, but the guilt of wrongful acts can be undone by a divine pardon. Similarly, the imputation of our sins to Christ is the imputation of our guilt to Christ, not the acts of wrongdoing.
Q. I absolutely agree with you that Christ’s atonement involves both propitiation and expiation, because the problem from the divine side of the equation is that God’s wrath has to be appeased or dealt with. If it is not, God ceases to be a just and righteous God, if he forgives sin without dealing with the justice issue and his own righteous character. There can be no expiation sanctioned by the Biblical God of righteousness if there is not in the first place also propitiation. I suspect that many of the twentieth century presentations in regard to atonement which leave propitiation out of the equation, reflect distaste or even disagreement with the notion of the wrath of God against sin, which is seen as somehow incompatible with the love of God for the sinner, and the atoning for his sin by Christ. Comments?
A. One of the lasting legacies of nineteenth century liberal theology is the widespread conviction that while man needs to be reconciled to God, God does not need to be reconciled to man. But while it is true that “reconciliation” is never used with “God” as its object in the NT, the fact remains that the wrath of God described in Rom 1-3 is a problem that must be resolved in order for salvation to be possible. The solution is to be found in Christ’s death, which satisfies the demands of divine justice and so allays God’s wrath. I think that the notion of God’s wrath can be made more palatable by understanding it as the personal expression of God’s absolute justice.
Q. In your Isaiah chapter, I’m a bit surprised that you don’t deal with how Isa. 52-53 was interpreted in early Judaism. I say this because there is basically no hard evidence that Jews were expecting a suffering for sin Messiah. They interpreted those passages as referring to Israel suffering for the sins of the world... . and by the way, still do. For example, some would even say the Holocaust in WWII is further evidence that Jews are collectively the suffering servant for the sins of the world. What I take this to mean is that what Jesus and his post-Easter followers were doing with this Isaianic material was something novel. This would explain why the disciples didn’t understand the passion predictions of Jesus during the ministry. Indeed, if Peter is any example at Caesarea Philippi, they would have rejected them. They looked for a Davidic messiah to be a warrior (see Psalms of Solomon 17-18) and come clean the land out of Romans like the original David did with the Philistines. They saw crucifixion as proof a person was cursed by God, not God’s anointed. And they were not looking for a resurrected messiah, especially not after the person got crucified. This is why Paul calls the resurrection a vindication (see Rom. 1). I think you needed to deal with this context of Jesus’ novel teaching a bit somewhere. Thoughts?
A. Keep in mind that my book is a study of the atonement, not of Jesus’ Messianic status. So the novelty of what Jesus and his followers were doing with the Isaianic material was less important for me than what they were doing with it. While discussing the novelty of Jesus’ teaching about Isaiah 53 would doubtless have enriched the discussion, I don’t think it was needed to make the central point that Jesus saw himself as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and his death as therefore a substitutionary punishment for the sins of the people. One has to set limits to the discussion somewhere!
Q. Any thoughts about the Catholic (and Mormon) notion that suffering itself atones for sin, based in large part on a certain reading of Isa. 52-53? After all it speaks of suffering for our iniquities. My understanding of atonement is that death, and the pouring out of the life blood in death is what atones, as is surely implied in Leviticus and elsewhere. I tend to say that had Jesus just suffered on the cross, and then was taken down and revived, there would be no atonement for sin. You actually see this theology of suffering as atoning in Mel Gibson’s movie, which Protestants went to in the droves, even though 40% of the movie was based on Anna Katherine Emerich’s The Dolorous Passion of the Christ with all its suffering mysticism, and various ideas not found in the Bible. Death is surely implied in Isa. 52-53. Comments?
A. In the Bible death is clearly not merely the consequence of sin but the punishment for sin. It is our just desert. In other words, sin is a capital offense. So to bear the punishment for our sin or, more modestly, to bear the suffering that would have been the punishment for our sin had it been inflicted on us, requires death. Had Jesus therefore been scourged and crucified but then rescued and revived, he would not have borne the just desert of our sins and we should still be liable to punishment. Perhaps God chose the mode of Christ’s passion because of the moral influence it would exert upon humankind, thereby making space in a full-orbed atonement theory for the motif of moral influence as well as penal substitution.
Q. Any thoughts about the Maccabean references to vicarious suffering by the Maccabean leaders as atoning? 4 Macc. 6.28-29, and 17.22? As you note Exod. 32 has Moses offering himself for the sins of the people, but the offer is rejected, so that’s only potential substitutionary sacrifice, whereas in 4 Macc. the connection is assumed to be actual.
A. These passages are important principally for their use of the word hilasterion in the Hellenistic sense of a propitiatory offering, a word used in the NT only in Rom 3.26 of Christ’s death. The death of the Jewish martyrs thus gives some precedence for taking Paul to incorporate the notion of propitiation in his use of the word with respect to Jesus’ death. Notice that just because the Maccabean martyrs saw their deaths as atoning for the sins of the people, we are not obliged theologically to agree with them that they really did so atone. But the passages do show, as you suggest, that one person’s giving his life to atone for another’s sins was not foreign to Jewish mentality—good point!
Q. Let talk a bit about Rom. 3.21ff and the earlier reference to the righteousness of God in Rom. 1.16ff. It seems clear that when Paul says the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, though it is attested to by the Law and Prophets, that he is not talking about legal righteousness connected to the Law covenant but rather to the actual character of God as righteous (see my recent little book Who God Is). Furthermore, when we read Rom. 1.18ff. and Paul is clearly talking about God’s wrath against pagan idolatry and immorality, this can’t be a reference to the legal obligations of the Mosaic Law. God had no such covenant with Gentiles. So in the first place, when Paul is mainly addressing Gentiles (see Rom. 10-11) the place to start is with the righteous character of God, not righteousness by the law book. Would you agree?
A. Classically, there has been a debate whether the expression dikaiōsynē theou (righteousness or justice of God) refers to an attribute of God Himself or to the righteousness which He reckons to believers. It’s clear, I think, that the expression dikaiōsynē theou is multivalent. “The righteousness of God through faith” (v 22) clearly refers to reckoned righteousness, since God’s attribute is not “through faith,” nor is it “for all who believe.” But then just as clearly, “he himself is righteous” (v 26) designates a property God Himself has. That concerns God’s righteous character.
The attempt by proponents of the so-called new perspective on Paul to reduce God’s righteousness to His covenant faithfulness does not make sense of God’s relations to Gentiles, since they stand outside the covenant made with Israel. If unrighteousness is unfaithfulness to the covenant, then Gentiles cannot be said to be unrighteous, which is expressly said by Paul (Rom 1.18). Fortunately, proponents of the new perspective have backed away from the overly simplistic reductive conception of God’s righteousness. For example, J. D. G. Dunn, in response to his critics, acknowledges that righteousness language in the Hebrew Scriptures also involves punitive divine justice, according to which righteousness is “understood as measured by a norm, right order, or that which is morally right,” with the qualification that “the norm is not seen as some abstract ideal. . . , but rather as a norm concretised in relation” between God and creatures.1 So, yes, God’s righteousness in Romans is about His righteous character.” (James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective: whence, what and whither?” in The New Perspective on Paul, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 63-64; cf. Wright (2016), chap. 13).
Q. The second thing to note is probably the right translation of Rom. 3.21ff. is as follows: “But now, quite apart from the Mosaic Law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, and it is attested to by both the Law and the Prophets— the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ [there is no preposition ‘in’ here in the Greek] for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and lack the glory of God [i.e. the divine presence of God in their lives]. They are now set right by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, who is put forward as a propitiation by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness”. More could be said but what is happening here is Paul is mentioning both the objective and the subjective means of being set right by God’s grace— the phrase faithfulness of Christ refers to his faithfulness unto death on the cross (see Phil. 2), and this supports your larger case about Christ’s death and the atonement. Now this passage in Rom. 3 is an expansion of the initial thesis statement in Rom. 1.16-17, and Paul is talking about a ‘righteousness of God’ that applies equally to Jews and Gentiles. God is righteous in character, and he wants to set in right relationship with him all persons— Gentiles and Jews. Does this make sense to you?
A. Aha! In the book I discussed only briefly the expression dia pisteos Iēsou Christou (Rom 3.22). But I must confess that it would take a great deal, indeed, to convince me that the expression refers to the faithfulness of Christ and not to the faith that we place in Christ. In the immediate context in Rom 4 Paul is obviously talking about Abraham’s faith and our faith that is reckoned to us as righteousness, and farther afield we find unambiguous expression of our faith in Christ (e.g., “we have believed in Christ Jesus [eis Christon Iēsoun episteusamen], in order to be justified by faith in Christ [ek pisteōs Christou] and not by works of the law” (Gal 2.16); “salvation though faith in Christ Jesus [sōtērian dia pisteōs tēs ev Christō Iēsou]” (II Tim 3.15). So Paul is, indeed, talking about both the objective and subjective means of salvation, namely, Christ’s atoning death and our appropriation of its benefits by faith.
Q. On p. 53 I find your exegesis of Phil. 3.6-9. Paul quite specifically says that when it comes to a righteousness that can be had from the Mosaic law, he was blameless. Not sinless or faultless, but he could not be accused of being a lawbreaker when he was a Pharisee. Yes, it was Paul’s righteousness, but no, he is not distinguishing that from what the Mosaic law required. The problem here is that sin is one thing, and transgression of a known law is another. Paul is not claiming he wasn’t a sinner. He’s claiming he wasn’t a transgressor in his past... . Presumably before he persecuted Christians. The reference to hamartia is to the broader term in Rom. 3 Does this help your case? Transgression is a willful violation of a known law, a much narrower concept than ‘sin’.
A. In my forthcoming book In Quest of the Historical Adam (Eerdmans), I myself capitalize on the distinction between sin and transgression in my exegesis of Rom 5.12-14, a very puzzling passage where Paul says there was sin and death in the world prior to the law even though there was no transgression. So your point about Phil 3.6-9 would be confirmatory of such a distinction. Christ’s death atones fully for sin, not just transgressions.
Q. As you say Paul’s use of dikaiosune and its cognates is various in his letters. Sometimes with the modifier ‘of God’ it refers to God’s character. Sometimes it refers to something God gives human beings. The point I would want to make here, is that God is not interested in just reckoning human beings as righteous, he’s interested in making them actually righteous in character, belief, and behavior. In other words, it’s a mistake to think that all Paul is talking about is what we call ‘justification’, but that is certainly included. I prefer the language ‘set right’ to ‘justified’ so that all the Paul usages of this spectrum of dikaios terms has the word right in it. And when Paul says in 2 Cor. we become the righteousness of God, or are made righteous, he is not merely talking about right standing with God. Does this comport with your case?
A. I’m sure you’d agree with me, Ben, that there’s just no reason to see these as mutually exclusive. As I state on p. 5, the Reformers had much to say about sanctification and infused righteousness, but these notions do not belong to the category of justification, which is a legal notion. I think clarity is aided by making clear distinctions rather than blurring them. So for example, in II Cor 5.21 Paul must be talking strictly about legal imputation, lest we say that Christ was actually made into an evil person, which is blasphemous and impossible, and that we are actually as holy as God in our moral character and virtue, which is unrealistic.
Q. On pp. 54-55 you have a helpful discussion on the problem with equating the righteousness of God with ‘the covenant faithfulness of God’. As you show, this dog simply won’t hunt. But I wondered if you realized there is a similar problem in the OT with the word hesed, quite rightly translated in the LXX as mercy, again and again. I once asked Walter Brueggemann what he thought hesed meant and he said ‘covenant faithfulness’. The problem with this is enormous. For example Rahab! in the OT is said to show hesed towards the spies, where it means something like loving kindness... . the oldest of the English translations of the word. Or again Ruth the Moabitess is said to show hesed, but she owed no covenant faithfulness to Naomi or Boaz or any Jew. It turns out that though there are passages where both the notion of God’s faithfulness to his people and hesed show up in the same context, the two ideas should not be equated with one another. God is not reckoning covenant faithfulness to those he sets right. This is not what dikaiosune means applied to either God or his people. I think the comments above about hesed support your case. Would you agree?
A. Thank you for that! I did not realize that a parallel situation exists with the Hebrew word hesed as with the word sedek. Your examples of Rahab and Ruth seem fatal for the reduction of hesed to covenant faithfulness.
Q. It is interesting how you take issue with the new Perspective on Paul in regard to the righteousness language, and I think you are largely right. The opposite of righteousness is unrighteousness, not unfaithfulness. And God’s righteousness leads to divine activity, but it is not that activity, it is property or character trait of a holy God. Help us unpack further how the righteousness of God relates to the saving activity, but also the judging activity of God. How would you characterize this relationship?
A. I’m glad that you picked up on my criticism of NT scholars who equate God’s righteousness with a sort of activity, which seems to me just a category mistake. God’s righteousness is rather, as you say, a property. It is in virtue of His perfect righteousness, a broad moral notion encompassing moral goodness, that God’s essential nature is both loving and just. In virtue of His essential justice and love, God’s righteousness expresses itself toward sinners by condemning them for their evil deeds and by providing a means of salvation from their just desert by a loving act of supreme Self-sacrifice.
Q. It is interesting how far some new perspective on Paul advocates have strayed from what was taken as normative OT concepts, for instance the concept of redemptive- judgment. Klaus Koch made clear that this concept occurs again and again in the prophets. It meant that while Israel was being vindicated (and also judged for their sins, since judgment begins with the household of God), the very means of redemption was the judgment of Israel’s enemies. The Exodus event is a classic example—the Hebrews were freed, redeemed etc. by means of the judgments that fell on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. You make the salient point that new perspective folks have tried to whittle down God’s righteousness to just his saving activity, and even further his saving activity of just the elect, those that he owes covenant faithfulness to. About this Paul says the opposite! He says, speaking to both Gentiles and Jews who follow Christ— while we were yet enemies of God, while we were yet sinners, while we were yet ungodly... God sent his Son in spite of what we were and deserved. God owes no covenant loyalty to covenant breakers, even if we were just talking about Jewish Christians! Am I tracking well with your critique here?
A. Indeed! I love the way Mark Seifrid puts it, “Retribution remains on the ‘backside’ of divine acts of righteousness.”2 They are two sides of the same coin. Righteousness language in the OT takes on a positive or salvific sense because the biblical writers expect God to intervene to reinstate right order when it is usurped by evil in the world. It takes on a negative or punitive sense because the biblical writers expect reinstatement of right order to involve the punishment of the wicked. (2 Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: A Fresh Appraisal of Paul and Second Temple Judaism, 2 vols., ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/140 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), p. 44. Or, more accurately, of God’s saving acts of righteousness.)
Q. One thing that I think would further support your case in this lengthy chapter on Divine Justice is that Paul hardly ever talks about forgiveness. Yes, he quotes the Psalms in Rom. 4 but the language is very rare in the early Paulines, and only shows up once in Colossians and once in Ephesians in the later Paulines. In other words, this is not the main way Paul explains the beneficial effects of Christ’s atoning death. Expand a bit on your point that Paul says sins, not just sinners are forgiven. What is the significance of this fact?
A. That’s interesting. My point is that divine forgiveness is more like a legal pardon which absolves one of guilt than like the personal forgiveness displayed in human relationships. Forgiveness can remove hard feelings and restore fellowship but is powerless to absolve of guilt. For that reason philosophers treat pardon and forgiveness as two quite different notions. God doesn’t merely forgive us but also pardons us and so removes our guilt and liability to punishment. Marvelous!
Q. One place where we seem to diverge fairly significantly, if I am reading you correctly, is in regard to the imputation issue. Nothing is said in Romans about the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness (whether through his general obedience to God or more specifically his obedience by death of the cross) to the believer. The subject in Romans is the righteousness of God the Father, and this is simply not the same thing as Christ’s righteousness. God the Father did not die on the cross for our sins. While I think it is fine to say that we are reckoned in right standing with God as a result of the work of Christ on the cross, the right-standing with God is an actual re-establishment of a positive relationship with God, not a legal fiction. Furthermore, the new birth is coincident in time with justification or right standing with God, so it is not a good thing to insist that what happens at conversion does not involve a spiritual change in the new believer as well as his legal status before God. The verb logidzomai does not mean ‘imputed’. It is a business term which means ‘credited’ or ‘reckoned’, a very different matter. In the end, we need to realize that all this dikaios language in Romans is not merely about forensic or legal discussions, it is also about actual character— the character of God, and of his Christian people, just as you pointed out that the ‘righteousness’ language in the OT is about half the time referring to God’s character and the actions that flow from it, and about half the time refers to the law and legal matters. It’s both. Not either/or. The question is which sort of usage is more to the fore in Romans. I think we have some of both. Later in the book you rightly point out that while Augustine affirms the notion of penal substitution he has issues with the notion of imputation, and I would say— rightly so. Paul doesn’t say our sins were imputed to Christ, he says Christ was made sin for us. Clearly, this is metaphorical language because he doesn’t mean : 1) that Christ was made a sinner, nor 2) that somehow sin was placed like a pack on Jesus’ back, as if sin was a substance, nor 3) does he seem to mean more than that Christ bore the punishment for our sin in our place. And yes, there is a difference between saying that and saying he bore our guilt. Where do you find evidence that Christ bore our guilt as well as the just punishment for our sins? The example of Abraham is important— Abraham’s own faith or trust in God is reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness. This has nothing to do with the imputation of Christ’s or God’s righteousness to Abraham. The language is not legal but rather mercantile anyway. Paul after all was a merchant— sold tents, did reckoning of credits and debits etc. What God wants of the convert is not merely a new relationship with him, but actual change in character involving actual holiness and righteousness. This is what sanctification is all about, and that process begins, as 1 Cor 12 says at the point when the Holy Spirit baptizes us into Christ and his body and becomes indwelling. God does not see Christ when he looks at us and he is not deceived about our ongoing sin. He sees saved persons on the way to being conformed to the very image of Christ. Furthermore, 1 Cor. 1 doesn’t refer to imputed righteousness either... . . It reads literally “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, (who has become for us wisdom from God) righteousness, holiness and redemption.” This is about us becoming righteous, holy, redeemed, none of which Christ needed to become. Yes... it only happens because we are now in Christ Jesus, but this is not a matter of imputation.... It is a matter of impartation. We are being conformed to the image of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4). This is why in 2 Cor. 5.21 Paul says that Christ was made the sin bearer in order that we might become the righteousness of God, in or through Him. Phil. 3.8-9 refers to a righteousness that comes from God to us through the faithfulness of Christ and our faith in Him. Since it is contrasted with a righteousness that comes from obeying the Mosaic law (which Paul previously kept) it seems clear to me that Paul is not merely referring to right standing with God here but something more. I’m sure you have a good critique of this, so please share it.
A. Oh, my goodness, it would require me to write an article to respond this this lengthy objection! I invite the reader to consider what I’ve written about the biblical doctrine of the imputation of our sin to Christ and of God’s righteousness to us (pp. 73-77) and to weigh your comments against mine. I content myself with a couple of clarifications: (1) It is a matter of indifference whether the imputation of divine righteousness to us is construed as either God’s or Christ’s. (2) Imputation is emphatically not a legal fiction. See my discussion of vicarious liability in contrast to legal fictions (pp. 186-93). (3) Of course, regeneration involves a spiritual change in the new believer as well as of his legal status before God. But justification is instantaneous and full, while sanctification is protracted and progressive. (4) Crediting or reckoning is the financial analog to the legal notion of imputation. You don’t have more money actually in your wallet in virtue of having a few noughts added to your account! (5) II Cor 5.21 must be interpreted in such a way that the two clauses are parallel. So it is untenable to say that we become actually virtuous but that Christ did not actually become an evil person. Better to say that Christ was reckoned legally guilty of our sin and we are reckoned divine righteousness. (6) If Abraham’s own faith in God were reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness, that would truly be a legal fiction (see my remarks on Gundry, p. 73n49)! Rather faith is the means by which divine righteousness is reckoned to us, which is, as I say, not a legal fiction, but true.
Q. One of the issues raised in your last exegetical chapter is the difference between someone being a substitute for another and someone being the representative of another. These ideas seem to be regularly fused or confused. Can you help the readers understand the importance of this distinction as it applies to the work of Christ?
A. A substitute takes the place of another person but does not represent him, e.g., a pinch hitter in baseball. A representative acts on behalf of another person but does not replace him, e.g., the baseball player’s agent who represents him in contract negotiations. Christ is both our substitute and representative before God. He is a like a proxy who attends a stockholders’ meeting in our place and casts a vote on our behalf. So Christ as our substitute bears our just desert and as our representative before God satisfies divine justice on our behalf.
Q. I found your phrase ‘faith culminating in baptism’ (p. 83) interesting, but problematic. It seems clear enough from 1 Cor. that Paul distinguishes water baptism (about which he says in 1 Cor. 1 that he is glad he didn’t water baptize more of them) and the sort of baptism described as administered by the Holy Spirit himself in 1 Cor. 12 anyone is spiritually joined to the body of Christ. These two things are not the same. This is why in Acts we have stories about water baptism before Spirit baptism, Spirit baptism before water baptism, and the two things associated close together in a series of events. Further, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1, he baptized whole households, as Acts suggests as well, and there is no evidence of a faith pre-requisite in those texts (cf. also Acts 8). Finally, Paul in describing water baptism in Rom.6 associates it with death and burial, after which takes place resurrection. A moments reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus will confirm that there can be a gap between such events. Baptism is not said to symbolize the whole process. The man who said ‘I thank God I did not water baptize more of you’ is also the man that says that the Spirit baptism is essential to being in Christ (and were it otherwise, there would be plenty of Quakers who are not water baptized whom would not qualify as Christians). I really don’t find anywhere in Paul where Christian faith is seen as a necessary prerequisite for water baptism. What convinces you otherwise? (See my Baylor book Troubled Waters—water baptism like circumcision is an initiation ritual not a confirmation ritual).
A. I follow G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the NT, in rejecting paedo-baptism in favor of believer’s baptism, though I don’t agree with him, on grounds such as you mention, that water baptism and Spirit baptism are coincidental (see my Defenders lectures on Doctrine of the Church https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast- series-3/s3-doctrine-of-the-church/). But for the purposes of my book on the atonement, all that I’m saying is that water baptism is the culmination of one’s conversion-initiation to Christ. Faith that fails to express itself in water baptism is in some sense defective.
Q. I appreciate your strong advocacy that the NT teaches that Christ died for all not just for the elect, but also that not all receive the benefits of his death if they do not place faith in Christ. Forgiveness and redemption offered is not the same as forgiveness and redemption received. As you say, Paul is not a universalist in the sense that all will be saved, but he is a universalist in the sense that all can be saved. Salvation as it turns out, is not a unilateral act of God regardless of the will or response of individuals. One of the things I stress in my Biblical Theology volume is that election is one thing, salvation is another. Israel was God’s chosen or elect people, but this did not guarantee the salvation of any particular individual. More was involved than just God’s election, and in any case, election was mainly about God’s historical purposes, not an individual’s salvation. Furthermore, Christ is depicted as the Elect One of God in the NT (see M. Barth on Ephes. 1), and he did not need to be saved! Christians are only elect insofar as they are in him. Salvation on the other hand is by grace and through faith in Christ. Are you content with this way of formulating things? Basically, I’m saying election is a corporate concept, salvation an individual one. This would also explain the language in Ephes 1. It is Christ who existed before the foundations of creation whom God chose as his elect one. We did not exist back then. We are only elect insofar as we are in the pre-existent Elect One.
A. I do find corporate election to be very persuasive. God has elected a church and invites everyone to be part of it. Those who do join then share in the benefits of the elect. I do think, however, that Acts 13.48 requires that something more be said, and here I advocate a Molinist doctrine of divine providence and predestination, according to which God offers His grace indiscriminately to everyone He creates but knows who would freely receive His grace and be saved. Such persons are predestined in the sense that they did not choose which world God actualized; nonetheless, they are free in whatever world they find themselves to respond to God’s grace and so be part of the elect. As one French Molinist aptly put it, “It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined; but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.”
Q. It seems to me clear that one reason terms like ransom and redemption are applied to salvation in Paul and elsewhere is because the sinner is viewed as being in bondage to sin, like a slave was in bondage to his owner. Indirectly this provides a strong witness to the seriousness of sin, and how salvation could never be a self-help program. It requires liberation from outside ourselves and outside our will and efforts apart from God’s grace. Comments?
A. What I came to see as a result of my study is the close connection between redemption and a divine pardon. How can a condemned criminal be released and go free? By receiving a full pardon from the executive power of the state. A divine pardon blots out our guilt so that we are no longer liable to punishment and can begin life afresh as new men, innocent in God’s sight. That pardon is, of course, procured through Christ’s penal substitution for us.
Q. I think it’s beyond cavil that various of the patristic fathers believed in propitiation and you’ve shown this quite well. I do wish you had dealt with Chrysostom as he is the best of the expositors of Paul’s thought in my judgment, and the best of the exegetes as well. But the ransom to Satan is problematic. God doesn’t owe Satan anything! He never did and never does. It seems to me that this involves an over-pressing of the ransom and redemption images. For example, there were plenty of slave owners in Paul’s day who freed their slaves, plenty who paid the ransom price themselves for their slave to become a freedman, and furthermore, sometimes slaves were able to save up money and occasionally buy themselves out of bondage. So I’m not buying the notion that the ransom image necessarily involves Satan in the picture. The NT speaks of bondage to sin, but not really bondage to Satan. Indeed, Paul’s theology of the cosmic benefits of the death of Jesus, in that it overcame the principalities and powers suggests something different, at least since the death of Christ. And it would seem to besmirch the character of God to suggest he beat Satan by deceiving him. Furthermore, neither Jesus himself nor the speeches in Acts suggest that Satan was responsible for Jesus’ death. Rather, it was wicked human beings. Finally, if you properly analyze the garden of Gethsemane temptation... it’s a temptation to avoid the cross. If this temptation is also from Satan, and surely it is, then Satan is trying to get Jesus to avoid an atoning death on the cross. He knows what is coming and is not deceived about the significance of Jesus drinking the cup of God’s righteous wrath against sin via his death on the cross. Comments?
A. I did have a little on Chrysostom (p. 98), who offers one of the most striking illustrations of penal substitution to be found among the Church Fathers. I found that the portrayal of the Church Fathers as uniformly committed to a ransom theory of the atonement is a gross caricature painted by the secondary literature. You’re quite right in saying that those who did portray Christ’s death as a ransom payment to Satan were overextending the metaphor. I do think, however, that Satan did not understand the significance of the cross, for Paul says, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (II Cor 2.8—my favorite counterfactual conditional in Scripture!). Satan probably thought he had Christ beat; but Christ turned out to be, as Augustine declared, victor quia victimA.
Q. I am rather amazed that it did not occur to some of the patristic fathers that if Jesus’ death on the cross was not absolutely necessary for our redemption then unfortunately it is an example of child abuse. What loving Father would subject his own Son to such a hideous punishment if it were not the necessary and sufficient means of reconciling us to God? But if it in fact it was necessary because of the unchanging righteousness and just nature of God’s character then we can still sing ‘What wonderous love is this O my soul’ in good faith. Comments?
A. Don’t be too hard on those who thought that God’s choice of the cross as the means of our salvation was contingent. Thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius argue very persuasively that God has good reasons for choosing substitutionary atonement even though it was not necessary. For example, nothing shows so powerfully God’s hatred of sin and the depth of His love for sinners as the cross. Here’s where moral influence theories of the atonement have a real contribution to make. There can be no doubt, I think, about the impact of the graphic display of God’s wrath and mercy in Christ’s passion. Repeatedly represented figuratively in literature and graphically in art, the death of Christ has, even more than his teaching, more than his character, made Jesus of Nazareth an arresting and captivating person for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people and has inspired countless people to bear with courage and faith terrible pain and even death. Indeed, Ben, I think it not at all implausible that only in a world which includes such an atoning death would the optimal number of people come freely to love and know God and so to find eternal life. Thus, as Gregory of Nyssa saw, the atoning death of Christ manifests not only God’s holiness and love, but also God’s wisdom.
Q. One of the subjects too little broached is whether physical death is a natural part of being a finite human creature, like the animals. Are we to suppose Adam was not subject to disease or physical harm before the Fall? I don’t think so. I raise this issue because of Anselm’s reflection that Christ offered up, in essence, his everlasting life, to God in exchange for humans being forgiven and redeemed, as a sort of compensation or satisfaction. But this assumes a certain reading of Genesis which may be wrong. Many commentators have rightly noted there was in addition to the tree of knowledge of good and evil also a tree of life in the garden. Why would that need to be present if pre-fallen Adam and Eve already had everlasting life of some sort? It’s a very good question, and of course it raises the issue of what Paul means by saying ‘the wages of sin are death’. But again, what sort of death are we talking about? A good case can be made that the warning to Adam and Eve was about spiritual death happening as a result of eating of the forbidden fruit. Certainly, that disobedience led to estrangement from God and a kind of narcissistic self-awareness. Physical death followed not immediately, indeed not until a considerable lifetime later, including after producing children by the ‘mother of the living’. And why exactly would the original couple need to be banished from the garden after sinning? How about— because God didn’t want fallen persons to eat of the tree of life and be fallen persons with everlasting life (rather like Jonathan Swift’s humorous tale of the man who was granted everlasting life but not everlasting youth and so he got older and older but could not physically die). So, the punishment for sin is spiritual death and attenuated physical life as a result. I bring all this up because it seems to me that for Jesus to be truly human, he had to partake of the five natural limitations of human existence— limitations of time, space, knowledge, power, and mortality. And the NT suggests he did so in regard to his human nature. Incarnation means divine self-limitation in order to be truly human without giving up his divinity. So when Jesus dies on the cross, he’s not giving up his everlasting life he has in a body, but rather he’s giving up his physical life, having lived in the likeness of sinful flesh. Thoughts? Corrections?
A. This is an issue on which my study of the historical Adam has led to a change of mind on my part. Previously, my work on the resurrection had led me to infer that physical mortality and death were the consequence of sin. But now I’m convinced that Adam was created mortal and so would naturally die. In I Cor 15.44-49 Paul associates human mortality with the creation of Adam, not with his Fall. Adam is created with a sōma psychikon; he does not obtain one by sinning. Gordon Fee comments on I Cor 15.45, “The first Adam, who became a living psychē was thereby given a psychikos body at creation, a body subject to decay and death. . . . The last Adam, on the other hand, whose ‘spiritual (glorified) body’ was given at his resurrection, . . . is himself the source of the pneumatikos life as well as the pneumatikos body.”3 On this view Adam was created with a mortal body. Paul thus implies that physical mortality is the natural human condition. That’s why, as you say, the Tree of Life served a purpose in the Garden and why Adam and Eve did not drop over dead the day they sinned. The death threatened in Gen 2.17 is spiritual death, a rupture of their relationship with God. The only sense in which physical death might be seen as a consequence of sin is indirect: it is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, cutting off any hope of immortality, symbolized by the Tree of Life. This is the same paradoxical conclusion found in Jewish pseudepigraphal and apocryphal writings touching on Adam.
Q. Your chapter on the Reformers and their views on the atonement is helpful, not least because few of our readers will have known the nature of Socinius’ critique of penal substitution theory, nor Grotius’ response and so-called governmental theory. What you do not discuss, unfortunately is Erasmus, to whom we actually owe the language of imputation (cf. my Romans commentary pp. 121-22). As J. Fitzmyer points out in his Romans commentary, Erasmus, like Calvin, used the common legal language of the day to talk about these matters, including God’s righteousness. Calvin of course had been a lawyer. And here’s the rub....whereas Paul in Romans 4 clearly uses business language of Abraham’s faith being reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness, Erasmus in his 1516 Novum Instrumentum chooses to depart from the Vulgate which says Abraham’s faith was reputed to him (reputatum) as righteousness, and he chooses instead ‘imputatum’. Now ‘reckoned’ again is not legal language it is business language from ledgers that have credits and debits and there was precedent for Paul to use such business language of human conduct in 1 Macc. 2.52 and Psa. 106.31 (cf. Philm. Vs. 18). In early Judaism, there was the notion of aheavenly ledger recording human deeds (Esth. 6.1; Dan. 7.10; Test. of Ben. 11.4; Jubilees 30.17). Paul is well aware of these things and his language comes from that sort of Jewish business universe of discourse, not from later forensic or legal discussions. And as you have pointed out, the SEDEK language in the OT about half the time comes from the moral sphere, and half the time it comes from legal discussions. It is interesting as well that Luther, who knew Erasmus and his Greek NT well, nonetheless does not usually use the language of imputation when talking about these matters. There is no doubt that Calvin the lawyer does. What happened in the history of Reformed approaches to these matters is that later Lutheran orthodoxy as well as Reformed orthodoxy picked up the imputation ball and ran with it right down the field of atonement theory. Now there is no doubt that Paul in 2 Cor. 4-5 and elsewhere thinks that a remarkable moral transformation happens to a person at conversion. In 1 Cor 6.11 he speaks of his converts as having already been washed, sanctified, and set right. The old person has passed away and if anyone is in Christ they are already a new creature. They don’t have to wait for a long process of sanctification, though such a process of being conformed to the image of Christ does begin at conversion. Paul expects of his new converts in Corinth that they lead new more morally upright lives. He does not expect them to simply claim they have legal right standing with God. I would say, Paul would be appalled at the notion that he was talking about some sort of legal fiction when he refers to the believer being made righteous (2 Cor. 5.21). Even worse would be the notion that when God looks at Christian sinners, he is deceived about them, and actually sees the perfectly righteous Christ—Christ’s righteousness somehow being credited to the believer’s account without them actually having to become righteous. So, when Paul quotes the Psalms about a person being blessed whose sins are not credited to him because they are forgiven, we need to let that language be what is. It’s not about imputation which involves a transfer of something from one person to another. It’s about reckoning. The interesting thing is, that yes Paul affirms a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, no question, but not the later theological notions of imputation of sin or righteousness. Christ bears the punishment for our sins which meets a righteous God’s requirement that justice be done at some juncture. He is not a sinner, nor is he guilty (despite Luther’s colorful language) but he is the substitute who propitiates the wrath God and expiates or cleanses us from the effects of our sins and so makes atonement. Mk. 10.45 calls this ‘the one providing the ransom for the many’ (which is everyone else). Jesus is the one person for whom Jesus did not need to die, and should not have been punished for human sin by death on a Roman cross. In short, the announcement of the theme of God’s righteousness in Rom. 1.16-17 leads into a discussion about God’s wrath in Rom. 1.18-32 for good reason— it’s about God moral character and the need for human character to change, as well as human relationship to a righteous God to change. Paul rings the changes on righteousness language for a reason, and it is not primarily for legal reasons. After all, the majority audience in Romans are formerly pagan Gentiles and they were not under obligation to the Mosaic legal requirements of what counted as legally right behavior. Reactions???
A. Again, rather than write an article in response, I invite the reader to compare my discussion about imputation and the use of legal fictions in the law (pp. 183-86) with your remarks and to decide for himself. I’ll just make a couple brief comments. (1) Erasmus did not contribute significantly to the study of the atonement but merely used in his commentary on Romans 4.3 the expression imputatum est that later proved useful to Lutheran and Reformed dogmatics for clarifying theological discussions of soteriology, just as terms like trinitas, persona, ousia, and hypostasis became useful technical terms among the Church Fathers for clarifying discussions of the Trinity and incarnation. It is not word origins but word use that is important. Such technical terminology can be helpful and even crucial for capturing biblical concepts. As I said, the concept of imputation is to be found, in my opinion, in the NT, and it is incidental whether the concept is expressed in accounting vocabulary as reckoning or in legal vocabulary as imputation. (2) Paul’s use of accounting language from the field of business illustrates once more my point about the variety of metaphors and motifs the Bible uses with respect to the atonement. Paul also uses legal language. Language of the court, the Judge, guilt, condemnation, justice, and punishment pervade Paul’s discourse. This was fully in line with OT Judaism. Indeed, no religion is so suffused with concepts of law as Judaism. (3) Of course, Paul expects his Corinthian converts to lead moral lives, but he does not think that because of their justification in Christ they have suddenly become paragons of virtue. Obviously not! It is a serious misunderstanding to think that imputation is a legal fiction. These are very different legal concepts. A divine pardon and the blotting out of our guilt is no more a legal fiction than the President’s pardon of a convicted criminal and his consequent release from prison is a legal fiction.
Q. What’s the difference between saying God punished Jesus for our sins, and saying, for instance, God sent his Son to suffer in our place for our sins, which was God’s will? Is this simply to avoid the idea that Jesus deserved to be punished, and that if God punished someone who didn’t deserve to be punished, even as a substitute for others, then God is not fair and just, but rather cruel?
A. It’s hard to know what motivates atonement theorists like John Stott and Howard Marshall to deny that God punished Christ for our sins. Perhaps they want to avoid the appearance of cruelty. Perhaps it’s to deflect the objection to punishing an innocent person. But the view is clearly and importantly different from the view that Christ was punished for our sins. On the non-punitive view, Christ bore the suffering that we deserved as the punishment for our sins, thereby freeing us from our liability to punishment; but he was not punished in our place.
Q. I’m surprised that in the philosophical discussion of penal substitution theory more is not made of the fact that it was Pilate, not God who punished Jesus for the supposed act of treason. Why exactly lay the blame on God, unless one of course is some sort of extreme Calvinist or fatalist who insists that God predestined Pilate to do it, as his human agent who could not do otherwise, since he did not have free will?
A. My Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg does make a great deal out of the fact that Jesus was legally condemned by human courts. But I don’t try to exonerate God for punishing Jesus in our place. Talk of “laying the blame on God” betrays a complete misunderstanding of theories of retributive justice and punishment. On a retributive theory of justice (the majority view today in philosophy of law) what gives the state the right to inflict harsh treatment and even death on its citizens is that the guilty deserve punishment. Punishment of the guilty is therefore a good thing which a just state carries out. Similarly, God’s punishment of the guilty is a positive good. God should be credited for punishing Jesus our sin-bearer (and, of course, Jesus credited for voluntarily bearing it).
Q. One of the problems with analytical philosophy as practiced in North America is that to the average reader of the practice it involves battles over semantics, as if all words should have very precise, very limited meanings. But of course, words often have a spectrum of meanings, and in any case, meaning is determined by the context in which a word is used. Words don’t have meanings in isolation. It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary’. Dictionaries are ex post facto studies of how words are used in various contexts, and the meaning is figured out by such studies. So yes, texts have meanings, but sometimes an overly precise or analytical approach to meaning is not all that helpful. This is not to say meaning is in the eye of the beholder, which I would definitely dispute, nor that meaning happens in the interaction between an active reader and a text, but still reading an analytical philosophical discussion about the meaning of penal substitution sometimes seems to the average reader like logic chopping or involves over precision. I got used to this at Carolina when I took a good deal of philosophy including graduate level theological philosophy of Anselm, Aquinas etc. What would you say to this?
A. In interpreting literary texts, it is very important to recognize the flexibility of language and the ambiguity of words. But ambiguity and unclarity are death to the systematic theologian and philosopher. One of the glories of analytic philosophy is its emphasis on clarity and precision in our use of terms. For example, take the issue we’ve been discussing: was Christ punished for our sins or did he bear the harsh treatment that would have been our punishment had it been inflicted on us instead? While the biblical theologian may rightly say, “It’s not entirely clear in the NT,” the theologian wanting to articulate an atonement theory needs to be precise about what he means. Otherwise his theory is vague, and we don’t know what his theory is. Not only is conceptual clarity important for the systematic and philosophical theologian, but also for the biblical theologian. To return to a previous example, is death the punishment for sin or merely the consequence of sin? Those are very different views, and the biblical theologian needs to understand that distinction, even if he concludes that we can’t be sure which view a biblical author holds. Or again, the wages of sin are death, but is it physical or spiritual death (or both)? We’ve already seen what a difference that makes. So, again, while the biblical theologian may insist that the answer is unclear in this or that text, he needs at least to be conceptually clear about the alternatives.
Q. In your discussion of the justification for penal substitutionary atonement you stress that perhaps the main objection to the theory is that it is thought to include the notion that God punished Christ, an innocent person, for our sins, a premise you deny. You stress that Christ voluntarily chose to be our substitute and so his death is not a punishment inflicted by the Father. Please explain this distinction a little bit. I mean Isa. 53 certainly says it was the will of God for the servant to suffer. I do find it ironic in any case that there is so much hollering about punishing the innocent in contemporary discussions of human justice, when in fact other that Christ, there are no innocents! All have sinned means all! But perhaps the complaint is that person X is not guilty of particular sin Y and so should not be punished for it.
A. This question misrepresents my view. While I recognize the legitimacy of the view held by people like Stott and Marshall that Christ was not punished for our sin, that is not my view. I affirm that God punished Christ in our place, principally on the basis of Isaiah 53. Indeed, in my chapter “Satisfaction of Divine Justice” I argue that the non- punitive view, while adroitly sidestepping the objection based on the injustice of God’s punishing an innocent man, has greater difficulty explaining how Christ’s suffering the fate that we deserved satisfied divine justice if it was not a punishment. So I argue that God did punish Christ in our place, thereby satisfying the demands of divine justice. But what I also say is that Christ was not innocent. In virtue of the imputation of our sins to Christ, he was legally guilty before God and therefore justly punished for our sins. In legal terms he was held vicariously liable for our sins and therefore justly punished.
Q. You say on p. 184 that every orthodox Christian not only affirms that Christ did not sin, but that he could not sin. Actually, this is not true. Plenty of orthodox Christians say that Christ’s temptations were real, and his resisting them meritorious, virtuous. If he could not do otherwise, there is no virtue in that, never mind no free choosing of the good. Perhaps it would be better to say the following, as Phil. 2.5-11 suggests. In the incarnation, without ceasing to be God’s only begotten Son, Christ limited himself. Or put another way, he put the omnis on hold. A very good philosopher, Tom Morris has explored this idea quite profitably in his The Logic of God Incarnate. Christ lived his life as a genuine human being, accepting the limitations of time, space, knowledge, power, and mortality in order to be fully human. Sin is not a normal human limitation. So, Christ lived as Adam gone right, and his resistance of temptation is not because he has a divine nature, but because he resists temptation through the help of the Word of God and the Spirit of God (see Luke 4 and par.), two resources every human being has to draw on. I am not suggesting the traditional ‘kenosis’ theory that the Son emptied himself of his portion of the divine identity. I am suggesting that he found a way to be truly human, and this involves some mystery. Temptations are not real temptations if one could not have done otherwise, and as the NT also says God can’t be tempted. The essence of the temptation in Luke 4 is ‘if you are the divine Son of God turn these stones into bread’. It is a temptation only a divine Son of God would be prone to. He is tempted to push the God button which he actually has, but if he does so, he will cease to be genuinely human. Indeed, all the temptations actually mentioned in the Gospels both in Luke 4 and in the Garden of Gethsemane are not ordinary human temptations (though Hebrews says he suffered those as well). We need to think about the Son being part of the divine identity and at the same time being truly human in fresh and more Biblical ways, not locked into to later Greek philosophical categories about ‘ousia’ etc. See Richard Bauckham’s excellent work in regard to talking about Jesus as part of the divine identity (Jesus and the God of Israel), rather than all this two natures stuff from Nicaea and Chalcedon. Comments?
A. I think that these last two questions illustrate so powerfully the truth of what I just previously affirmed about the importance of analytic philosophy for the conceptual clarity necessary for doing careful systematic theology! Of course, Christ could not sin! This is the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability, which is embraced by orthodox Christians. The reason is simple: there is only one person who is Jesus Christ, and that person is divine. He is the second person of the Trinity. He has two complete natures, human and divine, but there is no human person who is Jesus Christ. Otherwise one falls into the error of Nestorianism. God cannot sin. He is essentially holy and therefore cannot do evil. So Christ, being God, must be impeccable.
But that doesn’t imply that Christ’s temptations were unreal and not freely resisted. One doesn’t need to be able to sin in order to feel the allure of sin (especially if one is unaware that one is impeccable!) The question whether Christ freely resisted sin plunges us inevitably into philosophical debates about the nature of libertarian freedom, specifically whether libertarian freedom implies what philosophers call the Principle of Alternative
Possibilities. I think, on the basis of illustrations given by Harry Frankfurt in a famous article, that that principle is false. If a choice is up to you and you are not causally
determined in the choice you make, your freely choosing does not require the ability to do otherwise. Tom Morris’ view of the incarnation is very similar to the view I lay out in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. On Morris’s view Christ is one person with two minds (self-consciousnesses), and that person is divine and therefore impeccable. It is impossible that Christ could have sinned with respect to his human nature. But in his human mind he felt and freely resisted temptation, despite his impeccability. If we say that Christ could have sinned, then kenosis is unavoidable. As for “all this two natures stuff from Nicaea and Chalcedon,” that’s exactly what I meant by “orthodox Christian!” We should not give up orthodoxy simply on the basis of a philosophical assumption, the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, which can and has been disputed. As for Bauckham’s view, he recognizes that there is in Judaism a bright dividing line which separates God ontologically from everything else. Bauckham observes that so- called intermediate figures in Judaism fall into one of two categories: (1) beings which are supernatural but nonetheless created, like angels, and (2) personifications of aspects of God Himself which have no independent existence, such as God’s Word and God’s Wisdom. God’s unique status comes to practical expression in the Jewish restriction of worship as properly directed toward God alone. According to Bauckham this restriction “most clearly signaled the distinction between God and all other reality.”4 To my mind that clearly entails that Christ, being God, was impeccable. If not, Bauckham (or somebody) needs to give us an account of how Jesus can “be part of the divine identity” and yet not share in the essential attributes of God. It sounds incoherent to me. (4 Richard Bauckham, “God Crucified,” in Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 11; cf. idem, “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism,” in Jesus and the God of Israel, pp. 60-106.)
Q. I wonder if it would help the discussion of penal substitutionary atonement if we stuck to the letter of what Paul says. He says that God made Christ sin. Full stop. We might not fully understand what that entails, but let’s say it’s true. Then suppose we add the idea that God punishes sin, in this case, rather than saying God punishes Christ as a person. Does this alleviate the concern about God punishing an innocent person, and thereby calling into question his own righteousness?
A. The biblical theologian may rest content with a biblical author’s words, saying that we’re not really sure what he meant. But that is insufficient for the systematic or philosophical theologian, who wants to understand, e.g. , how Christ’s death atoned for sin and reconciled us to God and to defend the coherence of that doctrine against attacks by secularists, Muslims, and non-evangelical theologians that biblical teaching is immoral and absurd. I doubt that we can make sense of the claim that God punishes sin but not a person, since, as you pointed out before, sin is not a substance and in any case cannot suffer harsh treatment.
Q. As you helpfully point out, Turrentin’s theory of union with Christ as the basis of imputation doesn’t work. On that showing one would first have to be in Christ for a person’s sins to be imputed to Christ, and vice versa for Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us. But clearly, Paul, says while we were yet sinners, ungodly, even enemies of God Christ died for our sins, making atonement. The objective basis of justification or right standing with God took place quite apart from us and before we responded in faith. That being so, all we had to do subsequently is receive it. Nothing is said in that context about an exchange or transfer of our sins to Christ. What is spoken of is atonement for such sins. Comments?
A. I argued that Turretin’s theory was viciously circular because on his theory in order to be justified one had first to be united with Christ, but in order to be united with Christ one first had to be justified. Better to say that the sins of mankind were imputed to Christ by the divine Judge (Christ was declared to be vicariously liable for our sins) and then punished on the cross by God by his suffering the alienation from God that we deserved. Divine justice thus fully satisfied, God can offer to us a full pardon, which we then have the freedom to receive or to refuse. Those who receive His pardon are imputed (Christ’s?) divine righteousness as well, so that they are not merely guiltless but positively righteous in His sight.
Q. If in fact Christ’s death satisfies God’s justice issue in regard to our sins, completely satisfies it, why then do we need a legal pardon at all? If the demands of justice are met by Christ, then a pardon would seem to be completely unnecessary because the issue has been resolved. God no longer has anything against us, and we are no longer his enemies. We just need to be reconciled to God by grace through faith. Please explain why pardon or forgiveness is necessary if we are declared not guilty due to the death of Christ. Pardon is only necessary for those who are still actually guilty it would seem. It is interesting that apart from quoting Ps. 32 in Rom. 4 Paul rarely if ever talks about God’s forgiving or pardoning us. In fact, the usual discussion of forgiveness has to do with Christians forgiving each other (in Colossians and Philemon).
A. Oh, I think that we are still guilty, though Christ has died for us, until such payment is received by faith. Even Reformed theologians recognize the distinction between redemption accomplished and applied. Otherwise the elect would be born redeemed. Though Christ has discharged for us the demands of God’s justice, we still need to accept his payment on our behalf. Perhaps this is just a matter of God’s respecting our free will. In the American justice system a pardon cannot be forced upon a convicted criminal; rather the pardon must be accepted in order to be valid. There have been cases where a convicted criminal has preferred to refuse a pardon rather than to accept it, and the state cannot force it upon him. Similarly, God may not wish, pace our Reformed brethren, to redeem us apart from our consent. So if we refuse a divine pardon, we reject God’s mercy and remain under His justice (and you know where we stand there!)
Q. Thinking further about this, it would seem that the issue is not an issue of law. It’s an issue of God’s unchanging righteous character. After all, Gal. 4 is clear that Christ came to redeem those under the Mosaic law out from under the Mosaic law (and under the stoicheia—the elementary principles and teachings Gentiles were under), and Rom. 10.4 says Christ is the telos, the end/terminus/goal/fulfillment of the Mosaic law as a means of right standing or righteousness before God. Obviously, God’s righteous character is a bigger and broader sort of righteousness than that required of persons under the law (remembering that Paul says he was blameless when it came to a righteousness that comes from the Mosaic law). My point is this— analogies with human pardoning powers and laws may be missing the mark. After all, the reconciliation God is working towards in Christ is a reconciliation involving persons— God and human beings. It is not a reconciliation between persons and the Law, either the Mosaic law or other human laws. Comments?
A. I’m assuming here on biblical grounds that retributive justice is essential to God’s unchanging righteous character. So I do believe that legal analogies from enlightened human justice systems can be helpful. U.S. Chief Justice Marshall famously characterized a pardon in the following way: “A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private, though official, act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended, and not communicated officially to the court” (U.S. v. Wilson, 32 U.S. 150, 160-1(1833)). Notice here the personal, private character of a pardon. That is why the court cannot take any cognizance of a pardon unless the accused pleads it publicly it in court. Marshall’s characterization is wonderfully appropriate for a divine pardon of a sinner condemned before the righteous Judge. It is, as you say, a personal reconciliation. Where analogies with human pardoning powers fall short of the mark is that we are not rendered merely guiltless in virtue of God’s pardon but are reckoned to be positively righteous on the basis of the imputation of divine righteousness to us. Praise His name!
Q. I think the conclusion drawn at the end of the first redemption chapter is helpful in explicating guilt— guilt means someone has done something wrong, and only by punishment or pardon can the guilt be expiated or done away with. This is quite helpful. Guilt shouldn’t be associated with the past fact of having done something wrong, in itself. Otherwise, a person is perpetually guilty since the past cannot be erased. Also helpful is the discussion of tenses. Just because someone is pardoned, and is currently not in a state of guilt does not erase the fact that he once was. This reminds me of Steele’s famous discussion of forgiveness, in which he says that forgiveness gives someone a fresh start going forward, but it does not erase either the sins of the past, nor their consequences. The consequences may go on and on, as in the case of a nasty divorce which affects a family system. One question–about being cleansed? Is it merely the legal record against someone? Hebrews 9 says this “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purifies your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” This provides a helpful reminder it seems to me, that too strong a distinction between justification and the new birth, which is coincident in time with justification, accomplishes in and for the believer is probably not what Paul has in mind. He’s concerned about both right standing and actual righteousness going forward, and they both begin at the same point in time. The new birth is the beginning of sanctification. The Reformed notion of regeneration prior to responding in faith to God really isn’t Paul’s view. Paul says his Galatians received the Spirit in the first place by hearing with faith (Gal. 3). Yes, God’s prevenient grace enabled those people to freely respond in faith to the offer of the Gospel, but no, they were not regenerated before they did so respond. Comments?
A. I’m so glad that you picked up on my characterization of guilt as liability to punishment and the importance of tenses in affirming that though I was once guilty, my guilt has now been expunged and I am no longer guilty for my former sins. I think this is one of the most important insights of the book. Your point that “forgiveness [pardon] gives someone a fresh start going forward, but it does not erase either the sins of the past, nor their consequences” is explicitly recognized in our justice system. For example, when Elliott Abrams sought to have his law license reinstated because he had received a presidential pardon, the court refused, declaring, The implications of Abrams’ position are troubling to say the least. Let us consider an apt analogy. The implications of Abrams’ position are troubling to say the least. Let us consider an apt analogy. The consequences of wrongdoing continue. So what is cleansed? Our guilt! It’s not just that the records are sealed; far more than that, our guilt is canceled.
I do find it helpful to distinguish clearly between justification and new birth, though these are simultaneous. There’s just no need or reason to play them off against each other. They belong to different categories, so that it is both/and, not either/or. I don’t respond in this book to the strange Reformed position that regeneration logically precedes justifying faith, but I do discuss it in my Defenders lectures on Doctrine of Salvation https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3- doctrine-of-salvation/.
Q. On p. 243 you once more get to the heart of the matter— God’s own righteous character, and how that affects his actions, namely the judge of the earth must, according to his very nature, enact justice, must judge justly. Put another way in Pauline terms, God cannot pass over or ignore human sin forever. A Righteous God must deal with it. This it seems is the basis for saying retributive justice is a necessary function of a righteous God. What this means, if I’m reading you right, is that for such a being (and here analogies with mere human judges break down since human judges are not necessarily inherently righteous in themselves and the justice they do is according to law, not according to their own nature) even if God is going to offer grace to the sinner, justice must somehow also be done, or else God ceases to be the God revealed in the Bible. Indeed, one might even say justice must be done first, before grace and mercy can be extended to the sinner. Is this summary what you have in mind?
A. Yes, I claim that even if God is going to offer grace to the sinner, because of God’s own righteous character justice must somehow also be done, or else God would not be the God revealed in the Bible. I wouldn’t want to deny that Adam, even in his state of innocence, was the beneficiary of God’s grace, but certainly God’s gracious pardon does presuppose that His just verdict of condemnation has first been rendered.
Q. Let us suppose for a moment that retributive justice is fully done for sinners in the death of Christ our substitute. He voluntarily takes our punishment or penalty upon himself. Now that would seem to resolve the issue of justice, would it not? Why then would the sinner still thereafter need to be pardoned? And I ask this because while the NT talks plenty about forgiveness of sins, it doesn’t talk about legal pardon for them so far as I can see. If justice is done by a surrogate, pardon is not needed by those once guilty (remembering what you said about the time element in regard to guilt). Explain why pardon is not an alternative to punishment for those deserving to be punished. It seems to be an either/or situation, not a both/and one. Doesn’t a pardon imply that the person in question is still guilty and needs a pardon?
A. I addressed above why a pardon is offered us by God on the basis of Christ satisfying for us the demands of divine justice. Why is pardon not an alternative to punishment for those deserving to be punished? Well, remember that for non-necessitarians like Augustine, Aquinas, and Grotius it is an alternative that God could have taken but chose not to. On my necessitarian view pardon without satisfaction of divine justice is impossible because God would in that case be unjust. But out of respect for our free will, He offers us Christ as a substitutionary payment which we may either accept or refuse. If we refuse, we remain under His just condemnation. So, yes, people are still guilty until they accept God’s pardon.
Does the NT talk about legal pardon? Here again we return to this issue of vocabulary and the concepts expressed by the words. True, the Bible speaks of divine forgiveness, but it’s clear from an analysis of what divine forgiveness achieves, viz., expiation of guilt, that it comprises a divine pardon. It’s so much more than simply forgiveness as that notion is usually understood (relinquishing of feelings of indignation, resentment, bitterness, or what have you). God does forgive us, yes, but He also pardons us.
Q. Like with the statement ‘forgiveness offered is not the same as forgiveness received’ on pp. 256-57 you make the important point that if a person rejects God’s saving grace, rejects his offer of substitute payment by Christ for sin, then such a person remains guilty for the sins they commit, and faces the legitimate punishment for said sins. This conclusion, it seems to me only really makes sense if we accept a non-Reformed view of salvation, namely that it is dependent on repentance and faith by the sinner in question, neither of which is predetermined by the One offering the grace. In short, this is not a problem for Arminians, but it can be for some Calvinistic views that want to have its cake and eat it too— by this I mean they want to assert that Christ died for the sins of the world, but at the same time they want to say that God predetermined who the elect would be who get the benefits. But if God predetermined both the scope of the atonement and who benefits, then it would seem the logical conclusion is that everyone atoned for should get the benefits otherwise God is contradicting himself. Comments?
A. Right, my soteriology is broadly Wesleyan. Our Reformed brethren are forced into affirming the unbiblical doctrine of limited atonement because they cannot allow human free will to factor into the process of redemption. Unfortunately, that leaves them hard- pressed to explain their own distinction between redemption accomplished and applied, a distinction which makes good sense on an Arminian view.
Q. p.257— Since the NT itself couches the discussion of salvation not in terms of legal pardon but rather in terms of forgiveness and remission of a debt (see the Lord’s prayer), perhaps the forensic approach to salvation Is not the best way to account for the NT data. Thoughts?
A. I’ll simply repeat my point that the NT concept of divine forgiveness entails a legal pardon, since it annuls the guilt of the offender. The forensic approach is, moreover, required by God’s being Judge and Ruler.
Q. I think you are right that the moral influence of the death of Jesus is vast, but only if we also realize that his death was a penal substitutionary atonement which propitiates and also expiates. It should have been us on the cross, paying for our sins. It seems to me that the best case for explaining all this is the necessitarian one—the God of love and mercy could not simply take a pass on dealing with sin, or else he ceased to be inherently righteous, a God of justice. So sin had to be dealt with if mercy was to be offered. If you take the non-necessaitarian view that Christ’s death was optional, this raises very serious questions about God’s moral character— what Father would ever ask that of his only begotten if it wasn’t necessary for the salvation of humankind?
A. I wholly agree that a plausible moral influence theory demands penal substitution at its core. If someone drowned in an effort to save me from drowning, I should say, “Greater love hath no man than this!” But if someone said, “See how much I love you!” and just threw himself into the water and drowned, I should find his act bizarre.
It seems to me, however, that the non-necessitarian who holds that God freely chose penal substitution can avail himself of the same answer. By this act of sacrificial Self- substitution, God demonstrates His hatred of sin and His love for us in so powerful a way as to draw billions to faith in Christ. Indeed, it’s not at all implausible that only in a world featuring Christ’s passion and death would the optimal number of people freely come to love God and find eternal life. That makes it worth it.
Q. Lastly, if you were asked how exactly Christ’s divine identity was affected by Christ’s death on the cross (since God can presumably not be killed), what would you say?
A. I should say, no effect whatsoever! As mentioned earlier, Christ is a divine person with two natures. He does not perish with respect to his divine nature, which is impossible; rather he
perishes with respect to his human nature. “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim 2.5).