Packer on Penal Substitution

Given the negative reviews of The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke, I don’t want to buy a copy for fear of someone or some organisation benefiting from error. (This seems to be an unfortunate by-product of the system we live in!) But I will read it if someone can lend me a copy…

However, if you have been swayed by the idea that penal substitution is a form of ‘cosmic child abuse’, read this by James Packer. It honestly addresses the difficulties that have been faced by those defending penal substitution. Packer puts this down to a flaw in the method of argument not in the absence of biblical data. It is a seminal work – a must read!

Packer on Penal Substitution

10 thoughts on “Packer on Penal Substitution

  1. Alastair says:

    Thanks for the link. I found Packer’s article very insightful when I first read it about a year ago and previously had only been able to find the initial section of it online.

    With regard to Chalke’s book, I feel that more charitable readings of certain parts would be in order. Many of the passages that I have heard quoted do admit a more generous construction — yes, even the statement concerning ‘cosmic child abuse’. Many of Chalke’s criticisms of common evangelical beliefs are on target and I think that there has been a knee-jerk reaction from far too many quarters.

    The common form of evangelical belief in penal substitution is, I believe, with little basis in the Scriptures. Whilst a form of penal substitution is taught by Scripture, it takes a significantly different form to that taught by 95% of evangelical churches. See my recent posts on the atonement for a fleshing out of my position on the subject (1, 2, 3, 4).

    I also suggest that you take the time to read Chalke’s own treatment of the subject here. Many of his criticisms are quite correct. I hope you don’t mind if I cut and paste some comments that I have already posted on Chalke’s book on the Wrightsaid list. I am self-consciously seeking to put the best construction on Chalke’s statements, because I believe that this is my Christian duty:—

    I have read Chalke’s sections on ‘original goodness’ and other such things. I would be interested to hear him flesh out a bit more what he is saying. He seems to caricature Augustine, which troubles me. There also seems to be a degree of equivocation: the ‘original’ in Chalke’s ‘original goodness’ does not seem to carry quite the same connotations as the ‘original’ in ‘original sin’. Chalke seems to be emphasizing that God created man good and that the image of God in man has not been totally erased, even by sin.
    Chalke points out that, when Jesus went around during His ministry, He did not feel the need to demonize the people that He met. When He dealt with the common people He did not preach ‘worm theology’ to them (‘you’re such a disgusting, repulsive sinner, noxiously evil, loathsome in God’s sight’, etc., etc.). Rather, He viewed them as God’s creatures and was drawn out in loving concern for them (more ‘you are lost sons; God as a loving father longs for you to be restored in fellowship’). Jesus didn’t merely condemn and judge them, but viewed them as those in whom the image of God had not been wholly effaced.
    I think that Chalke is on to something here, although his language is dangerously unguarded in places. When Jesus dealt with the common people He did not seem to view them primarily from the perspective of original sin, but from the perspective of original goodness – as those who, to some degree, still bore God’s fingerprints from creation. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. If we forget to stress ‘original goodness’ to some degree or other we may leave people with the impression that God is merely a vindictive Judge, rather than the gracious Creator who longs for the restoration of people in relationship with Him.
    As an aside, I think that such doctrines as the covenant of works have a lot to answer for here. Rather than portraying God as creating mankind in a loving, gracious relationship with Himself, designed to attain to a glorious maturity in God’s gracious and loving purpose, the covenant of works tends to present man as originally within some kind of neutral relationship with God, called to earn God’s favour. Given such an approach, the doctrine of original sin will tend to eclipse everything else. Man has never really been in a positive relationship with God, only in neutral and negative ones. God views mankind as failed employees, not as unfaithful sons who have become trapped under the rule of Satan. The employer has no ‘natural’ concern for the fate of employees who have proved disobedient; the father yearns for the restoration of the prodigal son.
    I do not feel that this needs to deny the reality of radical evil in our world; what it does do is challenge the common perspective taken by many Reformed Christians. Many Reformed Christians have a tendency to draw a very sharp distinction between God’s lavish love for the elect and God’s unswerving hatred for the reprobate and can lose sight of God’s gracious relationship to mankind in creation.
    With regard to Chalke’s position, I would like to be reassured that he does hold to the reality of judgment and the jealousy of God’s love that will be felt by those who persist in bringing their rebellion to full maturity. The persistently rebellious son who continually scorns the loving overtures of his father will be finally judged. However, God’s loving acceptance is held out to all who will turn.
    Of course, the standard response to this book in British evangelicalism will be a knee-jerk one. The more I hear about Chalke’s position, the more I think that he pinpoints a number of clear errors in the thought of evangelicals and Reformed Christians. His doctrinal prescription may be confused in places, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot-on.
    FWIWThese are some more of my comments:—

    I find Chalke’s explanation of his view of the cross
    ( interesting. Many of his criticisms of the traditional evangelical view are bang on target. The traditional evangelical is incredibly narrow. It does tend to absolutize one perspective to the exclusion of others. It does seem to downplay the resurrection and the victorious character of the cross. At its worst it seems to construe Christ’s death as the ultimate act of supererogation. It seems to focus overmuch on paying the price for the sins of individuals and fails to appreciate the implications of the cross and resurrection for society and community. The biblical connection of the death of Christ with His body and blood given to us in the Eucharist, constituting us as one body, is hardly explored by many evangelicals.

    The traditional evangelical view also detaches the cross from covenant history. The redemptive historical significance of the cross is easily marginalized; the cross is perceived as Christ’s paying the price for sins committed throughout history, rather than as His dealing with Sin as a totality that has historically become concentrated in Israel by the Torah. The traditional view of the atonement leaves us as forgiven sinners, rather than as participants in a new creation order. It fails to explain how Sin as an entire principle has been dealt with by the cross. Merely doing away with the need to punish the discrete sins of individuals is not enough: how does God decisively set right in the cross, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost what was set wrong in the Fall? Evangelicals are prone to sideline the OT and I believe that this huge weakness manifests itself in a doctrine of the atonement that largely fails to explain the peculiar relationship that the cross bears to the old covenant (e.g. Romans 3:25; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:13) and the establishment of a new covenant in its place. Fail to understand the role, vocation and covenant history of Israel and the role of Jesus the Messiah relative to the nation of Israel and you will quite probably miss the greater part of the purpose and meaning of the atonement.
    In addition to all of this, there is the questionable justice that allows punishment to be exacted on someone other than the criminal on the basis of an extrinsic transfer. This is usually referred to as the imputation of our sins to Christ and I believe that there are reasons to question whether this is a misleading way of speaking about what happened at the cross. The language of ‘imputation’ has become so wrapped up with the idea of *extrinsic* transfer that it fails to do justice to the incarnational and messianic identification that underlies Christ’s relationship with the realm of Sin and its inhabitants. This misuse of the language of imputation is nowhere more obvious than in the popular forms of the evangelical doctrine of the atonement, which generally have very little to say about the necessity of incarnational identification, let alone messianic representation.
    Evangelicals, in my experience, can often be paranoid about anyone who suggests any form of different perspective on the cross. They seem to presume that any new perspective suggested is one that will be absolutized in the same manner as the penal substitutionary model is in evangelicalism. I believe that Wright has a lot of helpful things to say on this subject. However, the little that Chalke says about his own position does little to allay my concerns [After consideration, I would probably tone down this statement slightly to ‘does not fully allay my concerns’].

    Chalke seems to be reluctant to speak of the atonement in terms of punishment. This troubles me. Israel was God’s persistently stubborn and rebellious son and deserved the punishment of death. The apostle Paul seems to think of the death of Christ as the punishment of death upon the rebellious son (Galatians 3:10-13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:18-23). I am not sure that it is helpful to speak in terms of *retributive* punishment as most evangelicals tend to; I feel that the language of retribution tends to exert a distorting influence. I am sure that there are far better ways to think of God’s punishment of His rebellious son than in terms of the ‘lex talionis’. Punishment of children, even in the extreme case of the execution of the rebellious son, seems to operate according to different principles. For one, the punishment is carried out with the aim of either restoring the child in relationship or (in the case of the execution of the rebellious son) cutting off the child from the relationship altogether. The ‘lex talionis’ seems to be far too blunt a conceptual category to do justice to this dimension.
    It may be misleading to say that Jesus was punished instead of Israel. However, I do think that we need to beware of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: Israel was punished *in* Jesus his Messiah. What Jesus suffered was a punishment for sins, even if we seek to avoid the idea of extrinsic transfer of punishment. I am not sure that Chalke is doing justice to this important point. Wright is quite happy to speak of punishment as ‘God’s proper dealing with sins’ (Romans, p.473). I would love to see Chalke unequivocally acknowledge the same thing.
    In addition to this, I find Chalke’s idea of ‘ransom’, as it is expressed in his brief article, confusing. Far better, I believe, to connect the idea of ransom to old covenant history as Wright does, i.e. Exodus.

  2. Stephen says:

    Hi Al,
    Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on your assessment of Chalke since I have not read the book, though I find your comment on the term ‘cosmic child abuse’ incredible. I note on Tim Gallant’s site you call it ‘ridiculous’ so I am not sure what you are saying here.

    Since I heard about Chalke’s book I have felt that he must have a problem with his conception of the Trinity. (This echoes Gallant’s comment.) Brunner brought this our rather well, I thought, in Mediator that God himself enters the world as a man to bear the punishment. It is not a vengeful Father exacting payment from some alien other, albeit his Son, driven by wrath. Rather it is out of love that God the Christ came and suffered for us. (Rom 5:8).

    There is more could be said on this. But I decided yesterday that I could not go any further without reading the book. So I bought it. The first thing I note is the convergence of Chalke and Tom Wright. Wright blurbs on the cover, and is acknowledge above others for his scholarly contribution. Interesting…

  3. Alastair says:

    My position on the ‘cosmic child abuse’ accusation is that it is both ridiculous and unhelpful (I will say a bit more on this later). However, we must remember that evangelicals do not generally have a nuanced Trinitarian and incarnational view of the cross, at least not in my experience. If they did, Chalke’s criticism could be more easily dismissed. However, there are enough serious flaws in the common evangelical account of the atonement that it needs to be challenged and replaced.

    I think that Chalke’s rejection of the common evangelical form of the doctrine of penal substitution is understandable, even if expressed in appalling rhetoric. However, he does not seem to replace it with a more satisfying account of penal substitution (unlike N.T. Wright). Rather, he seems to be generally reluctant to speak in terms of penal substitution (at least the ‘penal’ part). [Of course, it must be remembered that the words ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ do not appear in Chalke’s book.]

    I believe that a number of responses in evangelical circles to the book have not been sufficiently considered. There are genuine biblical objections raised against the common evangelical form of penal substitution (although Chalke’s book is not the first place that I would go to study them) and it is high time that we took them seriously. I have raised some of these issues in my comments on Tim’s post and also in the recent posts on my blog I linked to.

    Chalke is reacting against the grossly overplayed principle of recompense, retribution and retaliation that is expressed in many evangelical doctrines of the atonement. The cross is certainly a place of punishment, but retribution and recompense (and in some low grade forms of penal substitution — retaliation), when absolutized (in the ‘lex talionis’ sense), tend to obscure the character of this punishment. Retribution and recompense certainly play an important role at the cross, but in more general senses of both these words. Understanding them as the ‘infliction of equivalent suffering’ tends to open the door to unbiblical and unhelpful speculations about the quantitative guilt character of sins committed by finite creatures against an infinite God, etc.

    A more general understanding of retribution and recompense (i.e. not obsessed with mathematical equivalence of suffering and crime) seems to do more justice. The ‘lex talionis’ operates more within the covenant legal system. What we see in Jesus Christ is the punishment executed when one has apostatized from the covenant entirely. There is certainly retribution, recompense and vengeance, but in a more general and final sense (i.e. we are not merely talking about a particular amount of punishment accumulated by many discrete sins, but the death sentence passed over the apostate).

    As regards Wright, Wright has affirmed both original sin and penal substitution, albeit in a form that differs from the common evangelical understanding.

    Wright’s recommendation of the book certainly doesn’t imply total agreement. The book does not make an awful lot of reference to the atonement and with much of the rest Wright is in wholehearted agreement. Besides, Chalke’s words on penal substitution are the following:—

    John’s Gospel famously declares, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.Chalke is rejecting a model of the atonement where righteous retributory vengeance descends into a mere need for retaliation. One can understand why such a model is referred to as ‘cosmic child abuse’, although the language is deeply regrettable. I would like to say that it is a complete caricature and I don’t know any evangelicals who hold it, but unfortunately that is not the case.

    The common evangelical doctrine does sometimes lend itself to this accusation. God is certainly a God of retributory vengeance. However, this vengeance is expressed in a righteous way. The common evangelical doctrine seldom explains why Christ’s flesh is an appropriate place for God to punish sins. The relationship between Christ and those for whom He died, when portrayed as a mere external one (apart from incarnational identification and messianic representation), opens itself up to charges of injustice. It also leads to the impression that God simply needs to vent His anger somewhere and Jesus Christ will do. Even if we believe with Scripture that Jesus willingly gave Himself up, this, I submit, still represents a grossly sub-biblical account of the atonement.

    I am trying to give as charitable a reading of Chalke as possible. I do not agree with everything that he says, by any means. However, neither do I believe that he is half as black as his critics have painted him.

  4. Stephen says:

    OK! I need to read the book.

    One of the problems I have with this discussion is a lack of definition. Having begun the book, I find myself asking, “Who exactly is he getting at?” Similarly, you speak of “the common evangelical doctrine” – what do you mean? Can you give an example of a writer who expresses the “common evangelical doctrine”? Or are you refering to a “folk version” of the valid doctrine?

  5. Alastair says:

    I am referring primarily to the folk version of the doctrine. However, many of my points are a reaction against the form of thought that views the atonement primarily as that which ‘purchases’ and ‘merits’ each of the separate blessings of salvation. The crosswork of Christ is seen as a work that both ‘pays a price’ to compensate for sins committed and earns rewards as well. It is this understanding of the atonement (particularly when accompanied with a huge emphasis on retribution , lex talionis style) that I find particularly distasteful and sub-biblical.

    One does not have to look far among ‘Calvinistic’ writers to find something resembling this view of the atonement taught; John Owen is a good example. The problem comes when criminal punishment is reimagined through the lens of an economic model. The debt of sin necessitates the death of the sinful humanity and is not something that can be alienated from the sinner and transferred to another in an extrinsic manner. Hence the need for Christ’s incarnational identification and messianic representation.

    With the model I am opposing the cross begins to look like little more than an act of supererogation. It is worth asking why Christ’s suffering should be ‘intrinsically meritorious’; are we not simply operating using unhelpful categories.

  6. Alastair says:

    Owen does differ from Calvin. If you read The Death of Death you will find that Owen’s doctrine of the atonement is governed by predestination to a degree that Calvin’s doctrine never was. I have actually really appreciated Calvin’s treatment of the atonement and think it is interesting that scholars still find it hard to prove one way or another whether he believed in limited atonement. Calvin’s doctrine is far more nuanced and multi-faceted than the atonement doctrines of many of his followers. Robert Peterson Sr.’s book Calvin and the Atonement is a good introduction. Owen’s doctrine, as opposed to Calvin’s, tends to see the cross as accomplishing redemption single-handedly, without delegating much work to the resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and the ongoing work of the Spirit.

    I think that Chalke’s criticism of the position of Calvin and Hodge (although we should probably distinguish between the two to some degree) is somewhat unfair, albeit not entirely unmerited. The problem with the model presented by many evangelicals who claim to follow in the footsteps of Calvin and Hodge is that our sins are treated as an amount of accumulated demerit that needs to be quantified and compensated for. The suffering of Christ is the means by which God ‘clears our tab’. I find this rather cold and detached, no matter how much those holding this theory (and I have come across numerous evangelicals who do) talk about God’s love behind the atonement.

    Also the vast majority of evangelicals fail to see the Torah as the covenant document. The Law is thought of as an absolute, but detached and somewhat impersonal moral standard (although it is a reflection of God’s own character). Emil Brunner has some good things to say on this. The breaking of God’s Law gradually becomes less like the breaking up of a marriage than the breaking of a window or some other impersonal piece of property. You can compensate for the breaking of a window; you cannot ‘compensate’ for divorce in the same way.

    If we thought of the breaking of God’s Law in terms of divorce I believe that we would need to adopt a form of atonement that somehow deals with the deepest core of our being and not simply the punishment due to our sins. To bring about reconciliation from divorce takes far more than simply compensating for the sins of the past. I fear that the problem of sin is far more deep-rooted than this.

    Unless we are to be Pelagian, we must admit that man’s problem runs deeper than sinful actions to sinful nature. It is not merely our guilty actions that separate us from God, but also the fact that we live in a realm constituted by Sin. Atonement, to truly bring God and man together, must somehow dismantle this realm. The cross must decisively deal with our sinful humanity and the realm of Sin we inhabit and not merely the punishment due to the sins committed by us as sinful humans. The common evangelical doctrine does not do this. It leaves us forgiven, but it fails to explain how the cross provides for us to be reconstituted in a new realm as part of a new humanity.

    Many evangelicals have fused criminal justice with an economic metaphor in order to permit the transfer of guilt (debt) from the sinner to Christ. This leads to the charge (rightly I believe) of injustice against the common doctrine. Even in God’s lawcourt the judge is not permitted to take the place of the sinner condemned to death (without a lot of other things happening first). I believe that Jesus did take our place. However, extrinsic transfer of guilt from one person to another simply will not work.

    In my reading, the problem that Chalke sees in the position of Calvin and Hodge is that, once the inalienable character of guilt is denied and guilt can be transferred from one person to another, Jesus’ role as substitute begins to look arbitrary and God begins to look capricious and unrighteous. The impression is given that God is trying to balance cosmic books of merit and all of our accounts are in debit. He sends Jesus to perform a great meritorious act by which He will pay the price for our sins and purchase the blessings of salvation. Jesus puts His people back into credit. This, of course, is a slight caricature, but you should recognize what I am referring to. Far too many evangelicals seem to hold something that boils down to this.

    This view is coupled with an understanding of the atonement as ‘penal’. The problem with this is that, seen through the lens of economic metaphor just mentioned, the punishment due to our sins is seen by many evangelicals as something that can be transferred directly and extrinsically from one person to another. The impression that this gives is that God is more concerned with venting His wrath than with the justice of condemning the guilty and justifying the righteous.

    Why is it fitting and righteous for God to condemn Jesus Christ at the cross? It is the lack of a convincing answer to this question that is the Achilles’ heel of the common evangelical doctrine, even in its more refined forms. I believe that there are satisfying answers to this question and that a form of penal substitution is taught by Scripture. However, the common evangelical doctrine is not Scriptural.

    I do not get the impression that Chalke has a problem with punishment per se. It seems to me that Chalke’s problem is with the idea that guilt and punishment are not inalienable in God’s eyes. This belief implies that our sin simply means that God has to punish someone. The guilt and punishment defaults to us, but someone else can always step in and take our place.

    This presents punishment in such a manner that accents God’s need for recompense over anything else. There is, of course, an element of biblical truth here, but it is distorted. There must be recompense. However, this recompense is not arbitrary, but must be from the guilty party. If it is not God is portrayed as a capricious God who merely needs to vent His anger somewhere and decides that Jesus will do.

    Of course, the common evangelical doctrine never says this, but this is the impression that many have been left with after studying it.

    Chalke seems to be saying that within the common doctrine, the necessity of God giving vent to His wrath seems to shelve any need for God to deal with sins appropriately. The atonement becomes pagan as, once punishment is permitted to be transferred extrinsically from one person to another, it ceases to truly be ‘punishment’ and becomes something quite morally repulsive. God is seen merely as an angry deity to be appeased by the correct amount of death and suffering, without any regard to justice.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t quite get the bit where you gave your answer to whether Chalke was on target in criticising Calvin and Hodge, or not?

  8. Danny Brierley says:

    I will happily lend you a copy of Steve Chalke’s ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’. This will equip you in the debate you are already contributing to by citing the issues on your site. I found the book challenging, inspiring, provocative, disturbing and, above all, an honest attempt to engage with Scripture and theological issues. If, having read the book, it drives people both to investigate the Scriptures for themselves and reflect on the character and mission of Christ then Steve will have provided an invaluable service to the Church. Entering into the debate without taking the time read the book first shows a lack of intellectual credibility and integrity.

  9. Stephen says:

    I presume you are addressing me. Thanks for the offer of the book, but I have, after all, gone out and bought it! I am well into it now and will make comment as and when. He writes well.

    I understand your subjective experience of the book. I cannot comment personally for obvious reasons. So I’m not sure if I should be pleased or concerned!

    Your objective comments I completely agree with. But I can’t help feeling that you are having a little dig at me. I say again, I have not commented on Chalke’s book directly. I have simply drawn attention to what one person has said about it, commented on a good general principle that person has made, and drawn attention to an article which may have some bearing on the wider issue of the nature of the atonement. Thus, I have not “entered the debate”. More like I am standing outside wondering what’s going on inside!

    Question my intellectual credibility if you like, but please make sure that you have the facts straight first. 🙂

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