Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (38) 14 objections to penal substitution

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue within chapter (11) on The Substitution and particularly Rutledge’s discussions and explanations of objections to the idea of penal substitution – that Jesus not only ‘took our place’ (substitution) at the cross, but also our punishment (penal) as well.

What thoughts or emotional reactions do you have to the cross as a place of penal substitution?

Objections to Penal Substitution

So, without further ado, here is a summary of objections that Rutledge identifies and discusses. An important point to note is that she has them in a a “more or less ascending order of importance” (489)

1) It Is ‘Crude’

This is a distaste for the ‘style’ of the doctrine as that which is rather ‘primitive’, probably believed by more the more credulous (and uneducated).

To which Rutledge simply says that, as argued in the chapter on ‘The Gravity of Sin’ and the ‘Godlessness’ of the cross, yes, the cross IS crude.

But is this objection also to the content of penal substitution? At times there is weight to this criticism if the cross is preached as a “crudely transactional idea of atonement” – as if God is weighing sin on the scales of justice, merits against demerits.

But ‘bad use does not take away right use’ (my comment)

2) It Keeps Bad Company

By this Rutledge means that the cross is often preached in unattractive and frankly unpleasant ways that appears to rejoice in the fate of the unredeemed. This is a particular form of ‘Calvinistic Temperament’ that is ‘overly focused’ on the penal aspect of the cross. (490)

3) It is Culturally Conditioned

Anselm is obsolete because of his context of feudalism; penal substitution is based in outdated notions of justice from the nineteenth century.

In other words, it may have once been a useful way to talk about the cross but we have ‘moved on’.

The subtext here is linked to 1) – it is crude and out of date. We are more sophisticated now and can leave behind ‘old’ ideas like penal substitution.

Another angle on this, is that penal substitution is a particularly Western idea – focused around ideas of sin, guilt, bondage, failure and judgement. Other cultures less familiar with these notions have little connections to penal substitution.

Or, now we live in a ‘sinless society’ in the West, the idea of penal substitution is of less and less relevance. [Rutledge does not reference Alan Mann’s book Atonement in a Sinless Society written in a UK context]

Yet, she argues, themes of sin and guilt are still all around us. She references Spiderman, Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness) … perhaps you can add your own examples here.

4) It views the Death as Detached from the Resurrection

Again, the cross can be preached this way, almost as an end in itself. But Christianity is an Easter faith, Christus Victor is never detached from crucifixion. The cross is a victory over the Powers of Sin and Death, the resurrection does not ‘cancel out’ the cross, it vindicates the victory of God won at the cross.

It was by ‘looking backwards’, in light of the resurrection, that the first disciples came to understand the cross, not as a terrible defeat, but a glorious act of God.

5) It is incoherent: an innocent person cannot take on the guilt of another

Rutledge is right to say that there is no logical way to understand the cross. It is beyond human comprehension. How does it ‘work’ that ‘God made him to be sin who knew no sin’? Or, as in Isaiah 53, that ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’

This is not to say that it is incoherent or nonsensical. The idea of substitution is simple to grasp, even if it inexplicable ‘how’ it ‘works’. There is mystery here and the work of Father, Son and Spirit that are beyond our grasp.

This same objection could be levelled at the OT sacrificial system. ‘How’ does sacrifice for sin ‘work’? It is not ‘logical’ and can’t be reduced to a purely rational transaction.

6) It glorifies suffering and encourages masochistic behaviour

Various feminist critiques of penal substitution argued that “glorifies passive suffering” and has had destructive impact on women over centuries. It was from these critiques that substitution interpretations of the cross were first called ‘divine child abuse’. (494)

Rutledge is unconvinced that substitutionary views of the cross can be blamed for maltreatment of women. She sees the main culprits as lying elsewhere that have been used to reinforce the idea that “the women’s lot is to endure without complaint” (494)

7) It is too ‘Theoretical’, Too Scholastic and Abstract

Does penal substitution (PS) give the impression that the cross was a logical necessity – as if God is ‘forced’ into the crucifixion by external logic rather than love?

Rutledge’s response is again, that poor presentations of substitution may give this impression but this does not invalidate the Bible’s narrative of substitution that has “unparalleled warmth” (496)

8) It depicts a vindictive God

Does the cross reveal a God unworthy of worship? One who demands the torturing of his own Son to death as satisfaction for his wrath?

In such a caricature, the rich theology of a Trinitarian act of salvation is erased. Rutledge again acknowledges that some presentations of PS can lead towards this unbiblical distortion.

Linking back to where we left off last time, Hodge and 19th Century Reformed scholasticism can all to easily end up in this territory.

9) It is essentially violent

Weaver nonviolent atonementMuch has been written about the cross and violence. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement is one significant example.

The key objection is that in some way the cross glorifies or supports violence. Rutledge lists some main sources of objections

  • Mennonite theologians
  • Feminist theologians
  • Those influence by René Girard
  1. The substitution motif gives a rationale, or encouragement for Christians to commit violence
  2. It links the very being of God with violence

Rutledge finds neither of these points convincing.

First Point: To use the violence of the cross somehow to justify violence has nothing to do with any atonement theory. It is a sacrilege – like the KKK using the cross to terrify or Constantine using it to sanctify war or Bosnian Serbs erecting crosses to mark their ‘victories’ over Muslim communities.

Such examples should make any true Christian weep for shame; but there is no rhyme or reason for assigning the blame to one or another model of the atonement. (500)

Second Point:  To repeat two central assertions of this book

  • The Son must never be detached from the Father or violation is done to the Trinitarian unity of God
  • The cross does not effect any change in God. The self-giving of the Son does not ‘change’ the Father’s mind from wrath to love.

God’s wrath is his action against all that stands against his good purposes.  The cross is his ultimate act of self-giving love. Thus

It seems perverse to argue that the theme of substitution assigns violence to the being of God. If the Son of God submits to a violent death by “the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45), how is that violence in the being of God? (500)

10) It is Morally Objectionable

To see the cross as morally objectionable depends on a prior assumption that the cross is punishment “inflicted by the Father as part of a transaction” (501).

It is not morally objectionable that there is penalty for sin within God’s economy.

11) It Does Not Develop Christian Character

Weaver (referenced earlier) argues that whereas Christus Victor calls believers to a battle against social injustice, penal substitution fosters passivity.

But this objection does not stand up to either historic or theological scrutiny. Historically, Reformed adherents of PS have been politically active. Theologically, there is no necessary impulse to social withdrawal.

Rather, the opposite can be argued

If one believes that the very essence of God is shown forth in the Son’s death on our behalf and in our place, then the logical outworking of this faith would be a style of living for others, even taking their place if necessary. (502)

12) It is Too Individualistic

Again, PS atonement can be preached and taught in narrowly individualistic ways. The corporate work of Christ can be turned into, what Johnny Cash called ‘My personal Jesus’ (my comment, not Rutledge’s!)

The manner in which the motif of substitution has been used to focus on the salvation of individuals one at a time, with a resulting neglect of the Christian community and its vocation, has been a major error. (503)

Again, Rutledge argues that individualism can hardly be pinned at the door of penal substitution – it has shaped much of Western culture in the last 100 years or so and is the lens by which many Americans view the world – and their redemption.

13) It is Controlled by an Emphasis on Punishment

The idea of a punitive God is often rejected out of hand today.

What does the word ‘punishment’ evoke in your imagination? An angry Father reaching for the rod or balling his fist?

Rutledge appeals for nuance: the theological concept of punishment needs to be detached from this emotive image of human anger. Divine punishment resists human evil; it does justice; it acts against those who destroy others with apparent impunity (literally meaning exemption from punishment).

Imagine a world where evil is done with impunity. Where victims have no redress.

We do not have to think too hard – examples abound. Rutledge again refers to American military action, this time the US Army’s Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan murdering civilians for fun (convictions were made in 2011).

If God is to exclude violence and injustice from his coming kingdom, something has to be done about violence and injustice and every other form of enmity that seek to thwart God’s purposes. These things are the manifestation of the reign of Sin and Death, and they cannot be overlooked or ignored – although many construals of salvation attempt to do so … It is the action of God to make right what is wrong, and that means some form of final rejection must take place. (505)

And so Rutledge concludes, that it is Jesus who

‘absorbs into himself the divine sentence against Sin and Death … in the tormented, crucified body of the Son, the entire universe of Sin and every kind of evil are concentrated and judged – not just forgiven, but definitively, finally, and permanently judged and separated from God and his creation.’ (505)

14) Forensic Imagery Excludes the New Testament Apocalyptic Viewpoint

Remember that the objections are in ascending order. For Rutledge, therefore, this is the principal objection to penal substitution.

Fair to say that this is very much her objection, unlike many of the others it does not find anything objectionable in penal substitution per se, but more in the way it has marginalised the apocalyptic ‘cosmic war’ with an active enemy.

The real problem is when PS becomes the dominant model for understanding the cross – as it has been within much evangelical history and theology and church life. In doing so, it has too easily lost touch with the narrative and imagery of the New Testament thought world.

What Rutledge says here challenges such a flattened-out and uni-dimensional understanding of the cross. It is also, I think, wonderfully written and is worth quoting at length – see what you think.

The problem arises when forensic imagery is given precedence over other imagery … When this happens, the single individual, with his solitary guilt looms over the conceptual landscape, leaving no space for the drama of the cosmic struggle in which the new, living organism called the body of Christ joins forces with the unseen heavenly host on the frontier where the doomed and dying old aeon meets God’s age to come. If the image of the law court is allowed to predominate … we can find ourselves mired in a world of “binary discourse” and “score-settling” that leads to many of the abuses cited above. (506)

And a pithily pointed comment with which she closes this discussion. If critics of penal substitution were friendly and constructive, they would be contending for reform of the way the doctrine is taught and preached.

But most represent wholesale rejection of the theme, therefore

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion: a good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it. (506)

No punches pulled there.


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