Saturday, June 18, 2011

Penal Substitution and the Problem of Justice

One key feature of Western theology (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) is a fixation on legal categories. The leads to certain ideas about justice and penal substitution which are simply not part of the picture within Eastern Orthodox theology, at least not according to Alexandre Kalomiro. This is not to say that the Eastern Orthodox view is not without its own philosophical problems. Given their synergistic soteriology, for example, one could question whether the God of the East satisfies the conditions necessary for God to even be sovereign. However, at least it solves certain problems about justice inherent in the Western mindset.
Of course, ultimately one would need to examine what scripture says about justice. Towards that end, I am looking forward to reading the book defending penal substitution that my good friend Steve Jeffrey has written on the topic. Not having studied the issue in much depth, however, what does strike me from the outset is that in the Old Testament justice is more of a hands-on, putting the world to rights, type of thing and less of an abstract, judicial tweaking of the accounts that is behind the Western idea of penal substitution, imputation, etc. Moreover, by understanding Jesus' relationship to Israel, Tom Wright has put forward an idea of substitution that may solve some of the ideas endemic to the Western model without completely abandoning the substitutionary paradigm.

So what are these problems inherent to Western legal theology?

I have articulated some of the problems with the penal idea of justice in my post Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions. Essentially, the problems hinge on the idea that God's justice being judicial, occupied with punishing sinners and achieving satisfaction through retribution.

Did Jesus Suffer Infinitely?
Consider one of the implications of thinking about God's justice as being judicial, occupied with punishing sinners and achieving satisfaction through retribution. Let’s assume for a minute (a) that this is true and (b) that while the wages of sin are death, eternal punishment is nevertheless an outworking or necessary extension of death as sin is given its just deserts. Well, if (a) and (b) are correct, then wouldn’t Jesus have had to undergo eternal torment on the cross in order to receive the just deserts of sin on behalf of the elect? Jesus took the punishment our sin deserved by suffering death, but if every sin deserves eternal punishment than Jesus would have had to undergo eternal punishment on the cross for our sins, which He obviously did not.
Or did he? I recently asked some people this question and they answered that because of the hypastatic union, Jesus was capable of undergoing eternal torment on the cross on behalf of the elect.
But consider: it is impossible for a past event to be infinite because then that past event could never have been completed. When we talk about the future or the series of positive integers being “infinite”, we mean that it can stretch on forever without limit, not that it constitutes an actually infinite completed whole (William Craig’s book The Kalam Cosmological Argument goes into the mathematics of set theory to establish this.) Imagine the distance from the beginning of time to any point in the vast distant future, or the distance from zero to any conceivable number, and the distance will always be bounded and finite. One of the reasons we can say this is because it is always possible to imagine such a series being increased, whereas a series which formed an actually infinite completed whole cannot be added to since the series is already as large as it can be. Put another way, an infinite series can only be infinite in terms of its potentiality, not in terms of its actuality, since an actual infinite can never be traversed. But this is precisely why a past event like the suffering of a man within past history in the space time universe, cannot be said to be infinite.
But if the just deserts of every sin is eternal punishment, then because Jesus didn’t suffer eternal punishment, He could not therefore have taken upon Himself the just deserts of the sin of His elect. So either eternal punishment is not what every sin deserves, or Jesus did not suffer what every sin deserves and, consequently, the cross is not efficacious and we are still dead in our trespasses. Or the whole Western model of retribution is false.

I Forgive You...Because

Consider the same problem from a different perspective. If every sin deserves infinite punishment, then when someone sins against me, should my forgiveness of them be predicated on the fact that I know Jesus has suffered for that sin? If so, then how can I forgive someone without first knowing if Jesus died for that person, and how can I know whether Jesus died for that person without knowing whether that person is part of the elect? But suppose I could know that Jesus died for that person or that I merely assume so: would it then be appropriate for me to say, "I forgive you because I'm satisfied that the magnitude of Christ's torment was sufficient punishment for what you deserved when you did that to me?" Clearly it would not be appropriate to say that, but is the reason it would be inappropriate to say that because such sentiments would be false, or because they would be uncharitable but not false, or because they would be both uncharitable and false?
An Unlimited Process Can Never Be Complete

Or consider another problem. I frequently hear something like the following: “All sin deserves eternal punishment since all sin is an offense against an infinite God. Therefore, to get rid of eternal punishment is to get rid of justice.”
But isn’t it the other way round? Doesn’t eternal punishment mean that justice doesn’t happen? Think about it: if eternal punishment is retributive (as it is within the Western legal model) then it means that justice is never actually achieved, because justice is forever in the process of being achieved. But since an unlimited process can never be complete, this means that justice never actually gets achieved since an unlimited process can never be complete. Therefore, eternal punishment seems to entail that justice never gets done. Justice is never done within the schema of eternal torment, but is always in process rather like the process of filling up hotel rooms in THIS comic – a process that, by its very nature, can never reach completion.

I'm only scratching the service of the problems inherent in the Western idea of justice, and those wishing to see some further problems (including the absurdities of saying that required the existence of evil in order to demonstrate His hatred of sin) should consult my section "The Third Problem of Justice" in my previous post on universalism.

Towards The Hostility to Mystery

I am not the only person to remark on these problems. In his excellent book A Secular Age, the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher and Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor gave the following rather unflattering summary of this basic narrative:
God's honour and glory is paramount. But the honour of God is attacked by the sin of Adam. God owes it to his justice, and his glory to reject such creatures. But he is merciful. He gets satisfaction he must have for our sin through Christ; he works off the required punishment on him, and this allows us to be imputed just.

I want to digress a comment to note here the fateful fact that Calvin, like the other Reformers, casts his doctrine of our incapacity and God's remedy for it in the juridicial-penal framework that he takes over from Augustine and later Anselm. There is one enigma which Christians (and perhaps realists of any persuasion) have to recognize, and that is the puzzle of evil; why, in spite of knowing that we are born for the highest, we sometimes not only inexplicably choose against it, but even feel that we cannot do otherwise. The symmetrical mystery (now for Christians alone) is that God can act to overcome this incapacity - the doctrine of grace.

Anselm expressed this double mystery in terms of crime and punishment. The incapacity is explained as our just desert for our original falling away (which founding act remains shrouded in mystery, of course). Being inveterate sinners, we now deserve damnation. Not only is our punishment now permissible, but some has to be exacted as reparation for our fault, according to the juridicaal logical of this conception. God is nevertheless merciful, wants to save some of us. But in order to do this he has to have the reparation paid by his son, and then count it as satisfaction for our sins, in an act of gratuitous mercy.

Needless to say, this wasn't the only way that the double mystery could be articulated. eastern fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, put things differently. But Augustine and Anselm shaped the theology of Latin Christendom in this regard, and the Reformation, far from correcting this imbalance, aggravated it. The sense that this language, above all others, has got a lock on the mysteries, is an invitation to drive its logic through to the most counter-intuitive, not to say horrifying conclusions, like the doctrine of the damnation of the majority of humans, or double predestination. The confidence - not to say arrogance - with which these conclusions were drawn anticipates and offers a model for the later humanist hostility to mystery.

What Does the Bible Teach?
Now just because an idea does not make sense to us doesn't mean that  it is false. Ultimately we are bound to accept what holy scripture teaches regardless of whether it makes sense to our finite minds. However, we should not take these mathematical and philosophical illogicalities lightly when interpreting the Bible's teaching on divine justice, and if there is an alternative model that avoids such difficulties and still does justice to the Bible's teachings, then that has to count for something. And this brings me back to where I started. I am intrigued to see that Eastern Orthodoxy presents an understanding of justice that avoids these difficulties, and Esther and I are currently watching the following series on Youtube about this very thing (presented by a Coptic Christian, but still very similar to EO). Again, it is not without its own difficulties, and Calvinists will be quick to point out that some of his statements make salvation ultimately a matter of human choice. Nevertheless I'll post the videos here for feedback. As I say, we're only half way through the series but very intrigued at the way it seems, not so much to answer these difficulties about justice, but to propose a framework in which they cease to even be problems. (Of course, other difficulties are still going to be present no matter what within a paradigm that affirms eternal punishment.)

1) Divine Justice: Life not death; Forgiveness not punishment
2) God Through Human Language 
3) Justice, Theosis, Punishment and Discipline 
4) Mercy, Forgiveness, Judgement, Hell 
5) Equation of Life & Death 
6) Sacrifices in The Old Testament
7) Saint Athanasius on Sin, Death and Redemption
8) St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom 
9) The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy and St. Cyril on Theosis 
10) Western Theories of Redemption (Anselm, Luther)
11) Criticism of Western Theories
12) Criticism of Western Theories and Conclusion

God's Righteousness

Finally, I'd like to suggest how this relates to God's righteousness. Within the Western legal model, the idea is prevalent that a righteous God has to punish sin. Thus, it is righteous for God to torment people eternally for their sins. Many will go further and even say that God requires a certain group to be sinful in order that He may demonstrate His righteous hatred of sin, a point I have dealt with in my section "The Third Problem of Justice" in my previous post on universalism.
Now clearly 'righteousness', like all moral categories, can have no meaning independently of God, so we must ask whether the Bible describes God's righteousness in this way. Certainly the Psalms frequently appeal to God's rightousness when praying that He will punish sin, but even then it seems to be part of a larger narrative of God putting the world to right, not because punishing sin for the sake of punishing sin is inherently righteous in itself.

Let me put it another way in the form of a question: Does the Bible teach that God's righteousness has to punish sin for the purpose of punishing sin (which is the Western legal model), or does it teach that God's righteousness has to punish sin as a subservient means to a higher goal, such as putting the world to rights or defending His covenant people (which was the Hebrew view)? Today in my devotions I was reading Tom Wright talking about God's righteousness in his book Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, and his studies underscore the fact that the answer to this question is the second. This is what he writes:
Unless there had grown up in the Western church a long tradition of (a) reading 'God's righteousness as iustitia Dei, then (b) trying to interpret that phrase with the various meanings of iustitia available at the time, and (c) interpreting that in turn within the categories of theological investigation of the time (especially the determination to make 'justification' cover the entire sweep of soteriology from grace to glory)...unless the scholars of any time had lost their moorings completely, drifting away from the secure habour of ancient Jewish thought, not least the biblical thought where both Paul and his contemporaries were anchored, and had allowed the little ship of exegesis to be tossed to and fro with every wind of passing philosophy, nobody would have supposed that 'God's righteousness' was anything other than his faithfulness to the covenant, to Israel, and beyond that again to the whole of creation. It would have been taken for granted that 'God' righteousness' referred to the great, deep plans which the God of the Old Testament had always cherished, the through-Israel-for-the-world plans, plans to rescue and restore his wonderful creation itself, and, more especially, to God's faithfulness to those great plans.
If Wright is correct that this is what God's righteousness means in Romans and throughout the whole Bible, then I am hardpressed to think how we get from there to the idea that God's righteousness requires Him to punish sin in contexts (i.e., eternal hell) where it has nothing to do at all with putting the world to right or defending His covenant people. But this is exactly the same point that the Eastern Orthodox have made according to the video links given above.

Postscript: A Fatal Objection?

Since writing the above, a couple people have objected that my argument hinges inappropriately on time-bound concepts. But eternity, heaven and hell are outside of time. One person wrote that I am trying "to comprehend in terms of time what is accomplished in eternity" while someone else wrote, "Perhaps the biggest difficulty I have with your case is the constant references to time."

A couple things need to be said in response to this objection. First, it is by no means certain that heaven and hell are in fact outside of time. I actually think C.S. Lewis got it wrong there, and that only God is outside of time. Even when we are glorified we will continue to experience the time sequence. I'm not going to argue for that position here, because even if you take the view that heaven and hell are outside of time, it is by no means certain that this overturns the arguments presented about. This is because most of my references to time were references to events within the space-time continuum anyway. For example, when I said that Jesus can't have experienced unlimited punishment on the cross and that the wages of sin cannot therefore be unlimited punishment, I was surely justified in using such time-language because I was talking about something within the past history of the universe. After all, the crucifixion happened within time.

Similarly, when I spoke about the grounds by which we can forgive someone who has wronged us, I was speaking about things which happen on this earth and therefore fall within the time-sequence.

Or again, when I spoke about how God's justice and righteousness are spoken about in the Old Testament, I was writing about realities that occur within the space-time continuum.

As I can see it, the only argument which would be potentially undermined by assuming that heaven and hell are outside of the time-sequence (an assumption which is itself doubtful anyway), is the argument that a judge is never satisfied if the process of achieving retribution is infinite and therefore can never be complete. If we believe that hell is outside of time, then this objection would need to be re-worded to account for qualitative eternity instead of quantitative eternity, but it is hard to see how the substance behind this objection would go away.

One more thing before I finish this postscript. It may be that the big narratives about Western vs Eastern approaches are historically flawed, and that the links given above present merely one aspect of Eastern Orthodox thought. For an alternative view of the historiographical issues, see 'Divine Justice, Substitution and Propitiation as Aspects of the Atonement in the Eastern Orthodox Confessions and Catechisms' and 'More Patristic Quotations on Divine Justice, Substitution and Propitiation as Aspects of the Atonement.'

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.
Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 
Click Here to follow me on Twitter.
Visit my other website: Alfred the Great Society
Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!