Penal Substitution as Trinitarian Love: A Response to Frederick W. Schmidt

Rublev’s famous icon depicts the other-oriented love of the God who is triune.

Is God a violent monster? If you think Jesus embraced the penalty of your sin on your behalf, then the Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. believes you must “believe in a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds the Christian tradition.” At least that what he claims in a recent article called “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution.” Schmidt is no insignificant critic. He is the author or editor of numerous books and holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, all of which are reasons we might expect him to levy an argument that is not marked by fallacy. But, alas, we expect too much.

Steel Man, not a Straw Man

The chief fallacy Schmidt commits is that of arguing against a straw man. That is to say, he marshals an argument against the weakest form of penal substitution and fails to even acknowledge that there might be more robust articulations of the doctrine. Schmidt paints penal substitution as a fundamentalist doctrine that pits an angry God the Father against the “innocent victim” of God the Son. In this way of thinking, substitution is branded as a dangerous teaching characterized by what might be considered divine child abuse. How could anyone love a God like that? How could such a monster be worthy of our worship? Well, I’ve got good news for Schmidt and any who share his concerns. Serious proponents of penal substitution don’t actually believe in that sort of God either.

In the classes I teach, I always encourage my students to represent their opponents as well and as accurately as possible. I remind them that misrepresenting those whith whom they disagree undermines their credibility and makes their arguments easily refutable. The opponent can simply note that the critique is offered against a view they don’t hold. Some put it this way: be sure to argue against a steel man, not a straw man. That is to say, argue against the best version of whatever you are criticizing. It’s easy to knock over a scarecrow. A statue forged of metal takes a bit more work and, when it is toppled, is cause for rather more respect.

A Trinitarian Approach

So, what is the more robust version of penal substitution that critics of the doctrine need to take seriously? It is a version that accounts for the trinitarian nature of God. The problem with the “Monster-God” construal of substitution is that it emphasizes the personal distinction between God the Father and God the Son and neglects the unity of being between God the Father and God the Son. The trinitarian doctrine of God says both that God is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that Father, Son, and Spirit are one in deity, glory, power, eternity, and being. (If it helps, remember that “persons” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian distinction, and “being” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian oneness or unity.) We run into trouble (1) when we emphasize the distinction between persons to the neglect of their union and (2) when we emphasize the union of the Godhead to the neglect of their distinction. Balance must be maintained.

What happens to penal substitution when we approach it with the essential unity between God the Father and God the Son in mind? Consider this. In the person of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity took upon himself the penalty that the one triune God requires for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued. In Jesus, God takes the penalty of human sin on God’s self. It’s worth noting also that Jesus is no passive victim. To the contrary, he is the judge who doles out the penalty. Consider that in the canonical gospels it’s not God the Father who is portrayed as the judge before whom all must one day stand. Jesus insists that role belongs to him (Matt 7:21-24). It is the Son of Man who separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-40). Jesus is the Lawgiver and the Judge who steps down from the bench to take upon himself the penalty he himself requires. And when the triune God, in his eternal counsel, determined that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), the one God knew the day would come when he would take on flesh and feel the horrible weight of those wages for the sake of the rebel creatures he loves. In this way, Jesus embodies and reveals the perfect, self-giving love that characterizes the eternal unity of the Trinitarian persons. If we want a robust account of penal substitution, it requires a balanced account of trinitarian love. This is what Schmidt fails to offer. That is why his argument is flawed and unconvincing.

Resist the Caricature

Let me add before concluding that I would offer the same argument against any who might actually hold the view Schmidt critiques. Against those who promote a caricature of penal substitution as an angry or unhinged monster-God furiously abusing an innocent victim, I would say they’ve failed to reckon with the trinitarian love of the one God, and they need to rethink their account of substitution.

What then shall we say? Is penal substitution the only way to talk about what God has done in Christ to redeem us? Certainly not. Dr. Schmidt helpfully reminds us of other ways to talk about the atonement (e.g., recapitulation). But is penal substitution one of the central ways that God reveals his trinitarian love? It certainly is. And when we miss that, we miss out an expression of God’s perfect love that is not only good and true but beautiful as well.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

For more from Matt on understanding the Trinity, watch this video. Then subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Eternally secure; provided that

The debate over eternal  security among various stripes of evangelicals is unlikely to go away any time soon. Some assert that upon conversion believers are guaranteed their salvation cannot be lost. Others disagree by claiming that believers can fall from grace. One of my professors who takes this view is fond of saying, “No one is eternally secure until they are securely in eternity.” Both sides argue that their view accurately interprets the biblical data. Interestingly, these two variant perspectives come together in scripture in surprising ways. Take 2 Peter 3:17, for example:

“Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (NIV, emphasis added).

Did you catch that? Fall from your secure position! It would seem that Peter can speak of both security and falling away in the very same breath. We might be inclined to ask what sort of security this might be if one can indeed fall from it. But that’s just it. In this passage, security is not a matter of being once saved and thus always saved. The language of security is here used to describe the believer’s position, but that security is not understood by the author as something that cannot be lost. So, Peter understands security differently than proponents of the doctrine of perseverance. Perilous error appears a real possibility. The believer is secure provided that he does not fall. Language about security can be one of those places where we bring our presuppositions shaped by our theological system into the interpretation of the text. Sometimes it may even be the case that we presuppose a certain idea of eternal security to give ourselves a doctrinal safety net. However, texts like this one undermine such a view. This case provides a good example of allowing scripture to define its own terminology rather than importing our own systems and presuppositions onto our reading of scripture. In 2 Peter 3, security of salvation in this life is conditioned on steadfast faith in the promise of the Lord.

Written Before the Foundation of the World? Translation Matters

I got a few interesting comments on Facebook and Twitter recently when I wrote that I find it increasingly humorous to run across what seem to be theological biases in published standard translations of the Bible, and I must say that it’s not always so humorous. Some questions of translation could go either way; others should not be handled so poorly. So, I thought I would point to another verse where there is almost always an unhelpful discrepancy between the original and the published translations.
The ESV renders Revelation 13:8b like this: “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” This translation suggests that the action of having one’s name written (or not) in the book of life took place “before the foundation of the world.” The NRSV, NAS, and NLT each handle this verse in a similar way. This translation has a certain Calvinistic odor about it suggesting that one’s fate is unconditionally predetermined before the dawn of creation. Arminians (like myself) don’t appreciate that too much precisely because we think it maligns the character of God. Why would a good God condemn any of his creatures, if he has the power to save them without doing harm to their will? Arminians insist that he would not. In the case of Revelation 13:8, the Greek text does not support the Calvinist view.
In the Greek syntax of Revelation 13:8, the prepositional phrase does not modify the verb rendered “has not been written” (γράφω); instead, it modifies the substantive participle translated “who was slain” (σφάζω). So, a proper translation would read: “everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world” (cf. the NIV). You can easily see that the Greek makes no comment on the timing of when one’s name is or is not written in the book of life. The emphasis is altogether different. The emphasis is on God’s eternal commitment to reveal himself as the one who is self-giving sacrificial love in the person of Jesus, the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8 says nothing about individual or unconditional predestination; it says that God is unconditionally committed to the cross, and he is committed to it from eternity.

Substitution not Abandonment: A Response to Dan Wallace

Having recently written on Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross, I was pleased to see this piece by Al Hsu at Christianity Today that likewise argued against the view that God the Father actually turned his back on Jesus the Son as he hung on the cross. With Hsu, I take the whole of Psalm 22 to be the determinative factor in interpreting Jesus’ quote from the first verse of that very Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even with this agreement, I want to be clear that I think Hsu is unhelpfully accommodating to those who charge that the crucifixion of Jesus is divine child abuse.
Dan Wallace thinks so as well, if not more so, and recently wrote a response to Hsu criticizing him for going soft on a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Wallace seems to take the reality of the Father’s abandonment of Christ on the cross as necessary to a penal substitutionary view of atonement. I affirm Wallace’s commitment to penal substitution, a doctrine to which I too am committed. I also want to affirm that Wallace has made many positive contributions to contemporary Christian theology, not least with regard to our understanding of the textual reliability and the language of the New Testament. His work has been a great benefit to me and has informed the way I read the scriptures. His books have probably taught me as much about New Testament Greek as any. I appreciate Dan Wallace and his work. However, I find his response to Hsu to be problematic four at least four reasons. So, having written on the view that Wallace is here criticizing, I offer these points in response:
1. As I said, Wallace suggests that God turning his back on Jesus is essential to understanding the death of Jesus as taking the penalty of human sin on himself. I want to assert that the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6:23), Jesus most assuredly suffered this penalty, the benefits of which are applied to those who believe in him. Where does scripture say that the penalty of sin is God turning his back?
2. I find Wallace’s argument to be insufficiently trinitarian because he seems to take the wrath of God to be exclusively the wrath of the Father (click here for more on this). However, the gospels present a different picture. In Matt 25:31ff., it is Jesus himself who bestows blessing on the sheep and executes the just wrath of God’s judgment against the goats by consigning them to eternal fire (25:41, click here for more on this). Jesus seems to think the role of judge against unrighteousness falls to him. Thus, the wrath of God is not merely the wrath of the Father, it is the wrath of the triune God, which means it is also the wrath of the Son. If the wrath of God means forsaking the Son, then the Son must in wrath forsake the Son, which is nonsense. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the judge who takes the penalty that his own judgment requires upon himself for our sake. No self-abandonment necessary.
3. This point flows out of the previous one. I find Wallace’s method to be flawed as well. He goes primarily to the letters of Paul to explain the gospels. But we know that good inductive hermeneutic method gives primacy to the book-as-a-whole as the most significant context for exegesis. That is not to say that Paul was wrong; he wasn’t. Neither is it to say that Paul does not inform our readings of the gospels; he does. It is to say that Wallace needs to attend first to the views of the particular gospel writers of sin, judgment, atonement, and divine wrath as they relate to the words of Jesus that those same gospel writers record from the crucified Jesus before correlating that with Paul. What Wallace neglects is what I’ve attempted to do in #2 above, though only as a start.
4. Since we’re talking about Paul, I finish by saying that I see no reason that any of the Pauline texts to which Wallace appeals must require that we take the Father to have turned his back on Jesus. Was Jesus cursed for us? Yes. Does that necessarily mean God turned his back on Good Friday? I don’t think so. The curse is death, not abandonment. And was Jesus “handed over”? Certainly he was, but it is far from clear that being handed over for crucifixion is the same thing as being abandoned by God. Wallace would have to do extensively more work to persuade me that the penalty is not only death but divine abandonment as well. The series of proof-texts he provides are insufficient.

A Narrative Theology of Penal Substitution

One common objection to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement is that it cannot be found articulated in the gospels. I find this claim to be unpersuasive, not least because of Jesus’ declaration that he came to offer himself a ransom in place of the many (Mark 10:45). Further, the account of Jesus taking the place of Barabbas strikes me as a rather straightforward narrative describing how the innocent Jesus took the penalty of the guilty criminal, who walked away with his life a free man. Do not the gospel writers intend their readers to understand that what is true of Barabbas is also true of all, that the Son of God has taken our penalty in our place? This is precisely what is argued by Adam Hamilton in his book, 24 Hours that Changed the World, as he reflects on the depiction of this event in the film The Passion of the Christ:
“For an instant, Barabbas seemed to comprehend that this innocent man would be nailed to the cross in his place. Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died. This is one small picture of the substitutionary work of atonement Jesus performed with his death; for we, like Barabbas, have been spared, with Jesus suffering the punishment we deserve” (67).
This is not to say that penal substitution is the only way to understand the atonement. And it is true, the gospel writers do not give a systematic exposition of the doctrine of penal substitution, but what they do give us is, in some ways, more telling and more powerful. They show us through their narratives what it looks like for Jesus to bear the punishment of a single sinner. And they invite us all to place ourselves in that story. Jesus not only died in place of Barabbas, he died in place of us all.

Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as “theories.” Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell’s latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of “justification theory.”
It’s one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn’t work it’s way into the Church. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don’t want to leave that up to theory.
Paul wrote of sinners that, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.
The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn’t he? Does God justify sinners or doesn’t he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.

Penal Substitution: Theological Innovation or Ancient Doctrine?

Is the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement a novel idea held mainly by the Reformers and their theological offspring? This is indeed the charge that is sometimes leveled against the argument that penal substitution is an essential element of a biblical view of the atonement. But can the historical evidence bear the weight of the charge? In this post, I want to draw your attention to a few major historical figures whose writings reveal that substitutionary atonement has been an important part of the Church’s understanding of the work of Christ since its earliest years. I intend to offer little in the way of commentary. My aim is primarily to draw attention to a few representative sources to counter the suggestion that substitution is not a truly ancient Christian understanding of the atonement.

The citations below are drawn from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway, 2007) by Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Chapter 5 provides a thorough survey of historical figures which demonstrates that substitutionary atonement has characterized all periods of church history. This is a highly important work with which any serious critic of penal substitution must reckon, and I commend it as a thorough and persuasive defense of a biblical understanding of the atonement. And now, ad fontes.
A key figure from the early second century is Justin Martyr, who was one of the most important Christian writers from that period. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes:
For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all…If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves (Ante-Nicene Fathers I.247, emphasis added).
For Justin, then, the whole of humanity is under the penalty of the curse of God that is the consequence of their sin. The work of Christ is to bear that curse on their behalf.
Eusebius of Caesarea lived and wrote in the late third to early fourth century. While he is best known for his Ecclesiastical History, his penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement appears in his Proof of the Gospel:
And the Lamb of God…was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us (10.1, emphasis added).
Note the precise use of penal substitutionary language: Christ suffered a penalty on our behalf. That penalty was itself death, and Christ’s bearing of that penalty is the cause of our forgiveness. Here we have evidence from none other than perhaps the most well-known church historian writing in the early fourth century using the precise language of penal substitutionary atonement.
Not to be overlooked is the influential Athanasius, who also wrote in the fourth century. In his all-important work On the Incarnation, Athanasius developed the consequences of sin in terms of corruption leading to non-existence. In light of this problem, Christ “surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father” (sec. 7, emphasis added). He then says further:
He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required (sec. 9).
As the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions point out, the notion of substitution is present in the use of “in place of all” and “exchange”, while the Son’s offering of himself “in death” establishes the penal element (172).
The fourth century preacher John Chrysostom likewise demonstrated his affirmation of penal substitution in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21:
If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen then a thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, set 1, I.12).
Chrysostom’s story of a king who transfers the guilt of a criminal to his own son is a perfect illustration of the doctrine of penal substitution, which, he asserts, should shape our understanding of how God relates to us.
One final quote will firm up the case. The following is from Augustine’s Against Faustus:
But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment (14.6, emphasis added).
Augustine could not be more clear; Christ died to bear the curse for our transgressions.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions also draw on the work of Hilary of Poitiers, Gegory Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, and Gregory the Great, who all wrote between the second and seventh centuries, to make their case that penal substitution is not only ancient but an ongoing way of understanding the biblical doctrine of the atonement. While penal substitution is certainly not the only way of speaking of atonement, it is certainly one of the most ancient ways the Church has thought about the atoning work of Christ. The idea is neither new nor novel. Rather, some of the greatest minds in the history of early Christian thought have seen in the scriptures the truth that God allowed the penalty of death for human sin to fall upon Christ who stood condemned as a substitute in our place. And those who maintain this truth today do so in accord with the Church through the ages.