Why Did Christ Die?

The late atheist Christopher Hitchens once complained that the Christian God was a kind of celestial dictator, “Greedy, exigent . . . and swift to punish the original sins.” I have known others to reject Christianity on similar terms.  For such skeptics, nothing is a greater obstacle to Christian faith than the doctrine of the crucifixion. Why, for God’s sake, would God demand the death of his only Son?

crucifixionOne source of confusion is that Protestants and Catholics do not agree on the answer to this question. Many people only know the  traditional Protestant answer, in which the notion of God’s vengeance or wrath plays a prominent role. The Catholic Church takes another view, with a primary emphasis upon God’s love, and a different understanding of those biblical passages that seem to ascribe wrath or anger to God. Once you understand these differences, the crucifixion appears in a starkly different light.

Growing up Protestant, I learned that my sin moved God to anger and that His wrath had to be appeased by blood sacrifice. Protestants teach that God actively punishes Christ in the crucifixion, and in the descent into hell.   It is a vicarious punishment. God agrees to punish an innocent victim, treating him as if he were guilty of my offense. In exchange, I get off scot-free.

Consider Calvin’s explanation:

In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance . . . Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.  (Institutes 2.16.10)

Not surprisingly, many people approach this doctrine with a kind of horror. How can justice be satisfied by the punishment of an innocent man? What kind of God would demand such a sacrifice?  But this is not how the Catholic Church understands the death of Christ. To begin with, the Church teaches that God is impassible. He does not change, which means that he does not experience passions like hate or anger. Biblical language about God’s wrath can only be understood metaphorically. It is a way of expressing the absolute distinction between God’s holiness and our sin.  (For a discussion of how Catholics truly predicate love of God, but anger only metaphorically, see here.)

Secondly, the Church rejects the idea of vicarious punishment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this plain, “Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned.” (CCC 603)  Not only would such punishment be unjust, it would also express a very defective view of Christ’s divinity.  God the Son cannot be at enmity with God the Father, nor does the Father reject him. Even on the Cross, Christ never failed to be in perfect union with God the Father. (See the Catechism, again, paragraph 603).

How, then, does the thing actually work? The key is to consider Christ’s death in light of the incarnation. The two doctrines cannot be separated. Throughout Scripture and tradition, we learn that Christ became incarnate not just to die, but that we might be joined to his divine person.  St. Peter says that we become “participants in the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4). St. Athanasius famously remarked, “He became man so that we might become god.”  The priest prays in the Mass, ” “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Christ, through the incarnation, entered into perfect solidarity with the human race. And his union with Christians is so close that Paul speaks of our physical bodies as members of Christ. (1 Corinthians 6:15) When Christ submits to death, there is a real, though mystical, sense in which we also die. Our old way of life is done away with and the resurrection power of Christ is infused. (St. Paul teaches this in Romans 6).

Christ’s whole life was also one of self-emptying. It was humble, self-giving. His ultimate act of loving surrender was in handing himself over to be killed by those who hated him. In this, he perfectly fulfilled his own divine law, ” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39)   Such love and surrender is infinitely pleasing to God. St. Paul again, “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place.” (Philippians 2:8)

In Catholic teaching, Christ’s death is a sacrifice in the sense that he offers up something of value – namely, his own human life.  It is analogous the the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. The worshiper under the Mosaic covenant gave up something of value (a heifer, a goat, a lamb, even grain) in token of thanksgiving, reparation, or satisfaction.   There was no idea that God punished the victim for the sins of the worshiper,  no imputation of sins. The offering was rather a sign of the sincerity of the penitent.  (Remember the words of David, “ I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” 2 Sam. 24:24) 

In this sense, Christ’s sacrifice was of infinite merit. The merits of Christ’s passion are then infused into us, from the head into his members.  The Council of Trent taught that they enable us to do meritorious work, to satisfy the the divine command. The Roman Catechism taught that Christ’s satisfaction “gives to man’s actions merit before God.”

Finally, Christ died in order to leave us with a memorial sacrifice that we might perpetually offer to God in thanksgiving.  “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)  The Second Vatican Council taught that the Eucharist is “the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium) It is a joyful gift, an offering of love whereby we join ourselves and our works to the self-giving love of Christ.

Catholics do not deny that the crucifixion was a sacrifice, nor that it was substitutionary.  Christ made an offering in our place. What Catholics deny is the element of penal substition. This idea does not do justice to the biblical idea of sacrifice.  It also suggests an anthropomorphic view of God, insofar as God acts out of vengeance. St. Paul said, ” May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14) The cross of Christ is our glory, not our shame. It remains for us the ultimate mystery, but one of divine love, not hatred or wrath. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

14 thoughts on “Why Did Christ Die?

  1. Michael Maycroft

    David,
    Can you give me an example of where a “Protestant” or John Calvin said that the atonement was to be understood as “vicarious punishment”?
    Isaiah 53 reads: He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
    Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
    But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
    All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
    My understanding is that Protestants and Calvinists call this the “penal” part of the “penal substitutionary atonement”. Christ died in the place of the elect, taking their punishment for them, which appears to be consistent with the passage in Isaiah.
    There is plenty wrong with Calvinism without making up stuff about what Calvin taught or that his followers believe. . .

    Also:

    I would like to take issue with paragraph four, which begins, “But this is not how the Catholic Church. . . ”
    In that paragraph, you say that God “does not experience passions like hate or anger”. You end by saying that “it is Gods’ love that is the cause of our redemption”.
    Aren’t you saying that God does not experience the passions of hate or anger but God does experience the passion of Love?
    I think you have misunderstood / misrepresented the doctrine of impassibility. Impassibility means that God cannot undergo passion or suffering; nothing in the created universe can make God feel pain or inflict misery on Him. This does not mean that God has no feelings (like hate, anger, wrath, or love), but simply that His feelings are not the results of actions imposed on Him by others. His feelings flow from His eternal and unchangeable nature.
    I believe in the doctrine of impassibility because it goes hand in glove with the doctrine of immutability. It isn’t an easy doctrine to completely understand, explain properly, or use in an explanation.
    What is significant about the doctrine of impassibility when contrasting Roman Catholicism with Protestantism is that Luther and Calvin didn’t teach the doctrine of impassibility because they disagreed with Aquinas. Aquinas taught that God was to be conceived of as His attributes, while Anselm, Scotus, William of Ockham, Luther, and Calvin taught that God was to be conceived of as some form of will. When you start writing about the “philosophy” that underpins the theology of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, then you will be writing something that begins to understand the perspective the theologians were using to build their systematic theologies. This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “an understanding of an understanding”. When you begin to understand the different perspective and philosophical base each camp was using, then you can begin to understand why they believed different things, you can fairly represent what each camp believed, and you can reach definitive conclusions on who was correct.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Michael,

      Can you give me an example of where a “Protestant” or John Calvin said that the atonement was to be understood as “vicarious punishment”?

      From the Canon’s of Dort:

      Article 1: The Punishment Which God’s Justice Requires

      God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. This justice requires (as God has revealed in the Word) that the sins we have committed against his infinite majesty be punished with both temporal and eternal punishments, of soul as well as body. We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God’s justice.

      Article 2: The Satisfaction Made by Christ

      Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s wrath, God in boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.

      Aren’t you saying that God does not experience the passions of hate or anger but God does experience the passion of Love?

      No, I’m not saying that. We predicate love of God analogically, just like we predicate anger of him analogically. Also relevant is St. Thomas’s comment in S.T. 1.20.1, ad 2:

      In the passions of the sensitive appetite there may be distinguished a certain material element–namely, the bodily change–and a certain formal element, which is on the part of the appetite. Thus in anger, as the Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 15,63,64), the material element is the kindling of the blood about the heart; but the formal, the appetite for revenge. Again, as regards the formal element of certain passions a certain imperfection is implied, as in desire, which is of the good we have not, and in sorrow, which is about the evil we have. This applies also to anger, which supposes sorrow. Certain other passions, however, as love and joy, imply no imperfection. Since therefore none of these can be attributed to God on their material side, as has been said (ad 1); neither can those that even on their formal side imply imperfection be attributed to Him; except metaphorically, and from likeness of effects, as already show (3, 2, ad 2; 19, 11). Whereas, those that do not imply imperfection, such as love and joy, can be properly predicated of God, though without attributing passion to Him, as said before (19, 11).

      I think you have misunderstood / misrepresented the doctrine of impassibility. Impassibility means that God cannot undergo passion or suffering; nothing in the created universe can make God feel pain or inflict misery on Him. This does not mean that God has no feelings (like hate, anger, wrath, or love), but simply that His feelings are not the results of actions imposed on Him by others.

      I would direct you to Summa Contra Gentiles, I. 89: “That there are no passions of the appetite in God.”

      -David

      Reply
  2. Michael Maycroft

    David,
    Thanks for the prompt, charitable, and informative reply.

    The two articles from the Canon’s of Dort that you supplied are consistent with “penal substitutionary atonement”. They do not say “vicarious punishment”.
    So, again, I am curious why you are distorting the label?

    If you don’t like penal substitutionary atonement, then use the label Protestants use and explain why it is incorrect. While I find much to disagree with in the Canon’s of Dort, those two articles appear to be consistent with Isaiah 53. Can you try to give me a better explanation of why you disagree with them?

    I agree that Aquinas taught analogical predication – which comes from conceiving of God as His attributes. Calvin, et al. taught equivocal predication – which comes from conceiving of God as some form of will.
    Analogical predication of the love of God would mean that, as a Father, I can understand the love of God for me in the way that I love my own son; However, I cannot fully understand the perfection and depth of the Fatherly love of me as His son — this is what the doctrine of ineffability teaches.
    When I think, “How does God love me like a Father?” I always think of Jesus saying something like, There was a Father with two sons, the younger son took half his Fathers estate, moved to the city, and squandered his inheritance on fine dining and cheap whores. . . — there is a great example analogical predication.

    If I understand your reply, you are saying that anger (in God) implies some imperfection (in God). Proverbs 8 teaches that God hates evil. Hating evil does not imply an imperfection in God. Not hating evil could be construed as an imperfection in God. From what I have read of the church fathers, impassibility does not mean that God does not hate, or God does not love. God does hate evil, and God does love His creatures (and God is jealous!); however, there is nothing that His creatures can do to cause God to suffer pain or be miserable.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Hi Michael,

      I’m not sure I see the distinction you are drawing between penal substitution and vicarious punishment. When I used the phrase “vicarious punishment” I meant penal substitution. That is to say, God imputes my sins to Christ and punishes him in my stead. In turn, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to me, through faith. That’s the doctrine I’m objecting to.

      The reason that I reject the doctrine of penal substitution is that I think it is unbiblical, irrational, unjust, and grounded in an anthropomorphic view of God.

      I agree that the Reformers practiced a form of equivocal predication – especially regarding divine justice. Luther, in fact, says that divine justice is inconceivable to us.
      But I’m not sure you have done justice to the notion of analogical predication. Aquinas’s account of both analogical predication and of impassibility is far more metaphysical.

      Passion, in us, denotes a change from potency to act. But God, on the Catholic view, is pure act. God “loves” in the sense that he always an inevitably wills the good in all things and he “hates” evil insofar as there is an infinite distance between his perfect being and the corruption of will we call evil. But God is not “aroused” to love or hate, nor does he pass from apprehension of some good or evil to an active love or hatred for it. Such a movement would imply change in God.

      When you say, “impassibility does not mean that God does not hate, or God does not love,” I agree with you. We can speak of God’s hatred or love, like Scripture does, in an analogical sense.

      Thanks for commenting,

      David

      Reply
  3. Michael Maycroft

    David,
    Thanks for another charitable and substantive reply.

    The distinction I was making between “vicarious punishment” and “penal substitution” is that Calvin and Protestants do not call it “vicarious punishment”. You seem to agree with me that you are using the phrase “vicarious punishment” and meaning “penal substitution”. That was my point: If Calvin and protestants don’t call it “vicarious punishment”, then why are you saying that they believe in “vicarious punishment” instead of saying that they believe in “penal substitution”. I don’t understand how mischaracterizing someone else’s views advances the discussion.

    Saying that “penal substitution” is unbiblical, irrational, unjust” etc. doesn’t make it so.
    I know the “penal substitution theory” of the atonement is credited to John Calvin — which makes me suspicious of it; However, Isaiah 53, Hebrews 9:22 and 2 Cor 5:21 – “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”, are several biblical supports for the view.
    If you take exception to the “imputed” part of the description, I can sympathize with that. Whether God “imputed” my sins to Christ may be semantics. Whether God imputed righteousness to me in the way Calvin taught, is undoubtedly incorrect.
    I like how George Mac Donald put it, “There is no clothing in a robe of imputed righteousness, that poorest of legal cobwebs spun by spiritual spiders. To me it seems like an invention of well-meaning dullness to soothe insanity; and indeed it has proved a door of escape out of worse imaginations”.

    The point that I would make is this: that God “imputes righteousness to the elect with the gift of faith” (as Calvin et al. taught), does not necessarily follow from a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. In other words, Christ may have made a penal substitution; however, how Calvin thought that the atonement was applied to the elect may be incorrect.
    So when you wrote, “In turn, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to me, through faith”, I agree that sentence is a fair and correct representation of Calvin if I can complete it by saying that Calvin taught that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the elect through the gift of faith. I think we can both agree that that is what Calvin taught, and that that teaching is incorrect.

    When I think about the penal substitutionary atonement, I think of the story, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. I think that is an excellent description of the atonement. A payment / punishment had to be made, God had to accept that voluntary perfect sacrifice as payment / atonement. That part of the view makes sense to me, and I think it is in alignment with the Natural Law that Aquinas taught.
    Thanks for making me think about the atonement!

    We also agree on “equivocal predication”. That God is “incomprehensible” comes from this view as well, which is why the French Confession, written by John Calvin, is the first confession to state that God is incomprehensible. Descartes also said that God was incomprehensible. I think incomprehensibility can probably be traced to Anselm (and maybe Augustine after his recapitulations), but Descartes (in Meditations) is the oldest mention of the doctrine that I have found so far.

    I probably am not doing justice to analogical predication, after all, I am not Roman Catholic. I agree with you that God is pure actuality while his creatures have potentiality, and I think you gave a pretty good description of how impassibility works in your last two paragraphs, as well as why we both believe that the doctrine is correct. Thanks for taking the time to clarify it for me.

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Hi Michael,

      If Calvin and protestants don’t call it “vicarious punishment”, then why are you saying that they believe in “vicarious punishment” instead of saying that they believe in “penal substitution”. I don’t understand how mischaracterizing someone else’s views advances the discussion.”

      Since I’m using these terms interchangeably, I’m not sure how this misrepresents the Protestant view. In any event, I hope I’ve clarified.

      Saying that “penal substitution” is unbiblical, irrational, unjust” etc. doesn’t make it so.

      I agree. I never said otherwise. In this article, I wasn’t attempting to give a fully elaborated defense of the Catholic point of view – merely to state the differences as I saw them between Protestant and Catholic. If you want a more detailed explanation, I’d recommend Oxenham’s book on the subject.

      When I think about the penal substitutionary atonement, I think of the story, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe.

      I find this interesting as Lewis famously denied the penal substitution doctrine. TLTWATWD represents, instead, the patristic ransom theory – insofar as it is the White Witch who is paid off, not the Emperor over the Sea.

      Thanks,

      David

      Reply
  4. Michael Maycroft

    David,

    Good Friday and Happy Easter!

    Your article has inspired me to read on the atonement. On newadvent.org under “atonement” the article reads: “The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.”

    Dictionary.com defines penal as: of, pertaining to, or involving punishment.
    substitutionary as: a person serving in place of another.
    and vicarious as: suffered in place of another: vicarious punishment: and acting or serving as a substitute.

    So…. I understand you to have said that you are using “vicarious punishment” as a “substitute” for “penal substitution”. Having looked up the definitions that seems to be a fair description.
    It also appears that saying “vicarious atonement” is the same thing as saying “vicarious punishment atonement” because the word “punishment” is redundant. Therefore, saying that the atonement was “vicarious” equates to saying that the atonement was a “penal substitution”.

    Hence, my first question: The quote from the newadvent article seems to be saying that it is wrong to believe in a “literal case of vicarious punishment” but Christ was still punished in place of another. . . so “penal substitution” or “vicarious” is right as long as it isn’t too literal? The article left me very confused when it said the literal belief in the word “vicarious” is wrong, but a not too literal belief in the definition of the word “vicarious” is right. . . Can you clarify that for me?

    My second question / point: C. S. Lewis, in Miracles talks about the “vicariousness” of the atonement. I suppose I could say that in that passage, “C. S. Lewis famously endorsed the vicarious atonement / vicarious punishment / penal substitution theory of the atonement”.
    Can you tell me where C. S. Lewis “famously denied the penal substitution doctrine”.
    You may want to read the following Touchstone article: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=22-03-027-f
    (I hope the link works, I am too old to be competent at that sort of thing).

    I hope you don’t think I am hanging my hat on the atonement being vicarious. I agree with what I think Lewis was saying, that there are lots of different theories of the atonement, each lacking a complete explanation, each having a helpful piece of the explanation, akin to Jesus using lots of different stories to explain what the kingdom is. Even the Newadvent article reads, “they all help to bring out different aspects of that great doctrine which cannot find adequate expression in any human theory”. I think the vicarious theory is one of several helpful insights into the atonement, that is has the support of Scripture (Isaiah 53, etc.), that it has some sort of support as long as it isn’t taken too literal from newadvent, that Lewis’ account in Lion/Witch/Wardrobe does contain its elements (as well as the elements of other theories of the atonement), etc.

    This may seem nitpicking, but I don’t think it is correct to say that in Lion/Witch/Wardrobe that the Witch was paid off. In the Newadvent article it states “The strange notion of the rights of Satan . . . now disappears from the pages of our theologians”. The “rights of Satan” is what Lewis describes when the Witch says, “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill”. That isn’t paying the Witch off, it is honoring her right to butchery, while voluntarily substituting himself to take the punishment for Edmund, the payment of sacrifice and blood, is made to the Emperor over the sea.

    I understand why from Anselm on, the view that Satan has rights would not be understood, but any fan of Aquinas and Lewis should know exactly why Satan has rights, and should be able to explain exactly what the “deep magic” is, especially anyone that has read George Mac Donald. I am not surprised that the author of the article on Lewis had trouble even knowing what the deep magic is.

    I look forward to your thoughts.

    Reply
  5. Wayne

    After I sent you the email asking why the Father found it necessary for Christ to drink of that cup of suffering, I read this article and the comments. I’m still not satisfied. The death of Christ in the scripture must not only deal with the sacrificial patterns, but the nature of the curse, the nature of the fall, and the nature of imagio dei. I wonder if the self emptying described by Paul in Philippians not only describes the incarnation and the sacrifice but also the redemption of suffering and hope (liberating the creation moaning in bondage). Thus the value of suffering and intercession described and implied in the scripture and of course in Catholic and orthodox and historic theologies. Hmm. Perhaps Scott Hahn’s theory about the nature of the interaction below the old serpent and Adam and Eve might have some merit.(intimidation, threat, hopeless suffering avoided by disobedience)

    Reply
  6. Cam

    Hi David,

    I have to, with posters like Michael and Wayne, express some of my discontent with this blog (like a good individualistic Protestant does!).

    Before I do, I want to say that I listened to both of your hour-long interviews on youtube. You are so knowledgeable, lucid, calm and well-spoken, and your evangelical experience and subsequent disassociation with that view of Christianity is so much like my own that it is difficult not to connect with your journey and furthermore to be persuaded by your arguments. I have completed a seminary degree and the longer I journey in Protestantism, the more disenchanted I become with it, exacerbated by every new publication about people visiting heaven or another “biblical” case for re-marriage or monogamous homosexual marriages.

    In the second interview, I began to see some small cracks in some of your arguments. You tend to generalize a bit (it is a short interview, what are you supposed to do?) when it comes to the Church Fathers and even the Reformers. You don’t have much good to say about Calvin or Luther at all (which is a bit unfair). You said you think Luther is bipolar and that he tends to connect law and works with his depressive side and faith and justification with his happy side. Well, if this is supposed to be an argument against Luther’s theology (and I’m not sure you meant it that way) it is as fallacious as it gets, even if it is true. Crazy people can still be right. You must be well aware of this since now that you are a Catholic you think highly of the views of Francis of Assisi and all the batty mystics! Okay, that was a bit of a cheap shot, but in jest!

    I also went read your blog along the same lines on “Called to Communion.” Man, the discussion thread on that article is enormous! I poured through a lot of it. There was a Protestant instigator (a very inept and careless thinker who resorts mostly to ad hominem arguments) who kept the discussion going and I was pleased to see that you chimed in a few times and set the record straight.

    Now I come to your blog and your view on the atonement and here is where I find myself still thoroughly stuck in the Protestant mindset.

    Like Fr. Barron (whom I also admire) you see little room for a substitutionary view (penal or not) of the atonement (despite the language in the Catechism to the contrary), but instead see it as the loving sacrifice of Jesus that enables us (somehow) to participate in divinity (a kind of quasi-moral influence/divination theory).

    The worst part though is how you caricature the Protestant view as follows:

    “Many people only know the Protestant answer, which does seem to imply that God is bloodthirsty and tyrannical. The Catholic Church rejects this view, teaching that love, not wrath, is God’s primary motive in the work of redemption. ”

    Really? This is pretty bad, David. You’ve got “weaselling” words (“does seem to imply”) and a full on straw-manning of the one view against the other: “love, not wrath, is God’s primary motive…” Yah, cause the best Protestant theologians would say that God’s primary motive in the atonement (the ATONEMENT) is wrath and not love for us in paying the penalty for our sin and reconciling us to Himself by Himself (Rom 5:8; 2 Cor. 5:18-22).

    In the comments section (in response to some dissension), you release your full verbal arsenal against the penal substitutionary theory:

    “The reason that I reject the doctrine of penal substitution is that I think it is unbiblical, irrational, unjust, and grounded in an anthropomorphic view of God.”

    “Unbiblical”? I have to say that is pretty rich coming from a former Protestant who now holds to a moral-influence/divination theory! 🙂 The penal substitutionary theory may be a lot of things (definitely “unhistorical”), but it is not “unbiblical.” There is more than ample biblical support for this view, much more (I would say) than there is for your view, as some of my Protestant colleagues in the discussion thread have pointed out. But this is the kicker: “irrational.” How on earth can you say the penal substitutionary theory is irrational? For that to be the case, you would have to be able to show that it is either logically incoherent (or implies logical incoherency) or is just obviously contrary to some data we have (namely, biblical data). There is no way you could do either, so this is just overstatement in the extreme.

    It’s stuff like this that turns me off of RC because it shows that you pick and choose from the Bible just like Protestants. I am glad that you have fully committed yourself to the Church (and I hope to follow soon enough when [or if] I can finally make it out of this Protestant paradigm), but to turn on the Protestant view of the atonement like this (especially this penal substitutionary theory of the atonement that makes so much more sense of the biblical data than your own) is unwarranted and more than a little intellectually disingenuous.

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Hi Cam,

      Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your candor and your objections. You seem very fair minded.

      Regarding my generalizations about Protestantism – you are correct. I generalized in those interviews and this cannot possibly do justice to the very rich and complex history of Protestantism. A fair criticism. All I can say is that I was recounting my own experience as well as my academic judgment of Protestantism. As such, I felt I had to give summary reasons for my rejection of Protestantism and my embrace of the Catholic tradition. But, considered as a purely descriptive account of Protestant history, I’d have to agree with you. These would not be adequate statements.

      Regarding the atonement – it’s no so much the substitutionary idea that I think is unblibical, but the penal substitution. I don’t deny that the atonement is also a sacrifice that is made on our behalf by Christ and in that sense “substitionary.” What I deny is that God actively punished Christ for sins imputed to him. To be sure, there is also a “quasi-moral influence/divinization” element to what I affirm. But, I think the moral influence side of the equation is also related to the motif of sacrifice as well as divinization. Especially in one’s experience of the mass, one comes to appreciate Christ’s self-giving and one learns to give oneself. But the whole thing is energized by the Spirit and sanctifying grace and it is, after all, reflection of the satisfaction Christ made by his sacrifice. So these things are all related.

      Regarding wrath as a motive for the atonement:

      The Reformers do cite wrath and/or vengeance as one of the motives for the atonement.

      Calvin wrote (Institutes Book 2, 16):

      sinners, until freed from guilt, being always liable to the wrath and curse of God, who, as he is a just judge, cannot permit his law to be violated with impunity, but is armed for vengeance.

      And again, Calvin describe’s Christ’s experience in terms of suffering the wrath of God directly:

      But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he “was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.

      So, it seems that Calvin does see wrath as a motive for the atonement, and states that it is God’s wrath that Jesus experiences directly in hell.

      Similarly, Luther says (in the Preface to Romans) that the Gospel is meant, in part, to “reveal God’s wrath” and to “proclaim the wrath of God to all who want to live virtuously by nature or by free will.” That’s a rather hard pill to swallow, don’t you think? Consider how different that is from the teaching of the Catholic Church:

      “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” (Lumen Gentium, 16)

      I’ll grant you that I tried to sum up too much in my characterization “Love vs. wrath” and could have been more explicit. But don’t you think there is a meaningful difference in the way Catholic tradition and reformed and lutherans treat the relationship of love to wrath?

      Also, what to make of the prelapsarian decree of reprobation in reformed theology? I know he may not be representative of the whole tradition, but consider what Boettner says about reprobation: “The condemnation of the non-elect is designed primarily to furnish an eternal exhibition, before men and angels, of God’s hatred for sin.”

      There is a decree of reprobation here the positive motive of which is to demonstrate wrath. The synod of Dort speaks similarly.

      Now, if I wanted to wrangle, I’d point out that in Reformed theology the decrees of reprobation and election in Christ, though not perfectly symmetrical, are certainly related. Calvin says that one purpose of reprobation is to make us feel the gratuity of our election.

      Clearly, love and wrath are mixed up here in very fundamental ways. Luther, in fact, says in the Bondage of the will that you can’t untangle them. It is logically impossible to reconcile God’s love and wrath and the sheer irrationality of the claim is proof of its divinity! (So much for the analogia entis!)

      So, I think there is some basis for identifying wrath as a primary motive for the atonement in Protestant theology. But, I don’t want to suggest that Protestants deny the love of God. They certainly don’t do this. Inst. 2.16.3-4 explicitly cites love as the motive of the atonement.
      Still, I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that Calvin’s understanding of “wrath” is far more anthropomorphic, less analogical than, say, Thomas’s. Consider Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 3:

      To flee from the wrath of God, is here taken in a good sense, that is, to seek the means of appeasing God, that he may no longer be angry with us.

      Finally, when I say the doctrine is unbiblical, I mean it. I don’t see any passage of Scripture that depicts God as actively punishing Christ in anger for sins imputed to him.

      As to whether the Protestant view of the atonement makes more sense, I’d love to hear why you think that is the case.

      Thanks again,

      David

      Reply
  7. Cam

    David,

    Thanks for your clarifications. You have conceded some to my criticisms (how could you concede fully?), and I am mostly content to leave your reply as it stands. Keep in mind that I am working my way to a Catholic view of things (even if it is a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of process) and so I agree with many of your criticisms of Protestant thinking. I do have a few questions and comments in passing, but I don’t want to chase down a whole bunch of rabbit trails so I will revisit my original critical comments and see where we have (and have not) made progress towards each other.

    My criticisms were as follows:

    (1) You generalized (a bit negatively) about the Reformers in your interviews and drew some questionable inferences from those generalizations
    (2) You asserted (without warrant) that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement seemed to “imply that God is bloodthirsty and tyrannical” and insinuated that this Protestant view entails that wrath is “God’s primary motive in the work of redemption.”
    (3) You erroneously labelled the penal substitutionary view of the atonement as “unbiblical” and “irrational” (among other things).

    I think you conceded (1) almost completely with the obvious caveat that you (naturally) still don’t see eye-to-eye with either Calvin or Luther. Frankly, neither do I, although I would say that when Luther (in his lucid moods) writes without his typical jaundice or blustery impudence, it is some of the most beautiful theology I have ever read and perfectly conducive to a Catholic understanding of things. So, for instance, in his Preface to the NT:

    “For where works and love do not break forth, there faith is not right, the gospel does not yet take hold, and Christ is not rightly known.”

    Isn’t that lovely? There are almost no great theologians (and no people in general) who get it all wrong (or who get it all right for that matter). We ought not throw out the baby with the Reformed bathwater. On the other hand, Protestants ought to be more honest about how dirty and insipid that bathwater has become.

    You also conceded some to criticism (2), but still defended your view with reference to Reformed statements on the wrath of God. It is not so much those statements I am interested in as with the comment you prefaced them with:

    “The Reformers do cite wrath and/or vengeance as one of the motives for the atonement.”

    Right. They do cite wrath “…as ONE of the motives for the atonement.” I don’t disagree at all with this statement and your Reformed proof texts to follow it up. It is your original insinuation that I am concerned with: that it was the Protestant view that God’s wrath was the “PRIMARY” motive for the atonement:

    “The Catholic Church rejects this [Protestant] view, teaching that love, not wrath, is God’s primary motive in the work of redemption.”

    And a little further on:

    “Protestants teach that God’s motive in the cruxifixion was punishment.”

    Both of these statements are either misleading or false. That is my point. It is not my point to dispute that the doctrine of penal substitution very much involves the idea of God’s wrath and the notions of propitiation and expiation and so on. But to characterize it as a doctrine that implies God is “bloodthirsty and tyrannical” because his primary motive is one of angry punishment or wrathful vengeance is just so disingenuous. You even admit that for the Reformers, “love and wrath are mixed up here in very fundamental ways.” I would characterize it perhaps more charitably as God’s “love and justice” or “God’s love and God’s holiness.” When, as an agnostic, I first became a Christian at a Lutheran University, I never thought of this doctrine as repugnantly unjust or irrational or morally or intellectually reprehensible in any other way. In fact, quite the opposite. That Jesus Christ, the eternal, spotless, paschal lamb of God would, out of his abundant love for his creation and sinful humanity (for even me!), pour himself out in suffering and death he did not deserve (on our behalf), bearing the guilt and shame of our sin on the cross, that we – that I – might be reconciled eternally to God and be called a child of God and heir to his Kingdom, is profoundly moving and humbling. It inspires the deepest sense of gratitude even now as I write this.

    It doesn’t make me think of God as “bloodthirsty and tyrannical” at all. It makes me think that God, being perfectly just and holy, can’t tolerate sin. He can’t just magically ignore it or pretend like it isn’t there or that it didn’t happen, any more than a good parent can tolerate abuse from a wayward child or a good judge can let a murderer walk free.

    So, moving to (3), I don’t see how it is irrational to think that God’s holiness and justice demands that he can’t tolerate sin, that sin inspires His wrath (Whole OT passim. For example, Num 1:53; Deut 9:8, 19; Neh 13:18; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations and Ezekial, passim., Mic 5:15; 7:9; Zep 3:7-9; for the NT, see for example, John 3:36; Rom 1:18; 2:5-8; 5:9; 12:19; Eph 5:6; Col 3:5-6; Rev 14:19-20), that the reckoning for sin is death (Lev 4; 16; Rom 6:23; Heb 9:22), and that Christ’s perfect sacrifice once and for all is the final reckoning on our behalf which *involves, but is not limited to,* the turning away of God’s righteous anger or wrath (Rom 3:25; 8:1; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9; 1 Jn 2:2), and that all of this is very much consistent with God’s love for us (1 Jn 4:9-10).

    And for all the biblical references I provided, I’m unsure how you can still maintain that it is also an “unbiblical” doctrine either. I think you could say that you could make a strong(er) case from scripture for other views of atonement, but to say that the penal substitutionary atonement is flat out “unbiblical” is disingenuous.

    All this being said, I think I could give up the “penal” part of substitutionary atonement, but I could not give up the substitutionary part of it. Even Aquinas believed that Christ was punished for our sins (though not to appease God’s wrath towards sin). Like the other commenters said, there isn’t a good reason to see the atonement in just one way. I think it is much better to see all these different views in it: that by his atonement, Christ conquered sin and death (Christus Viktor); allowed us to participate in his immortality (divination); set an example for His followers (moral influence); and made amends for our broken relationship to God (Satisfaction) by taking our punishment upon himself and becoming the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins (Substitution).

    Sound good to you?

    Reply
  8. David Anders Post author

    Hi Cam,

    I think your criticisms of the article are fair. In fact, I have reworked the original somewhat in light of your comments. I’d appreciate your feedback.

    Regarding your biblical texts, my objection, again, is not to the idea of sacrifice or even substitution, but to the idea of God actively punishing Christ for sins imputed to him. Nor do I deny that Scripture ascribes wrath or anger to God. Catholic tradition simply understands those passages by way of analogous predication.

    Finally, I agree that the atonement is a rich and multi-layered reality. However, Catholic tradition does dogmatize about some aspects of that reality – that it is a sacrifice, for instance, and one that is recapitulated in the mass.

    Thanks again,

    David

    Reply
  9. Harry Ehmann

    Dr. Anders,

    I called your show yesterday and asked about penal substitution. You only had a few seconds to answer but referred me to this article for more information. Thanks very much. I got much from your article and also the exchange of replies. Would it be uncharitable of me to ask if penal substitution is a 16th century innovation or does it share an historical patrimony?

    Thanks again,

    h

    Reply
  10. Leo

    Dr Anders,

    As a Catholic I would find the non-Catholic view troublesome because it is difficult to comprehend God punishing Himself for the sins of His creatures. The non-Catholic position blows away the Theological understanding of the “unity” of the Trinity.
    Please provide some insite on how Calvin or Luther dealt with this to justify Penal Subsitution.

    Reply

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