Against Penal Substitutionary Theory, Round 2

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 7, 2010 in Christian Theology,Guest Post

Dali Christ From The Apocalypse of St John

Below is another post by Common Sense Atheism guest blogger Ken Pulliam of Former Fundy. Benefiting from his Ph.D. in Christian theology, Ken will discuss the coherence and plausibility of specific Christian doctrines.

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In a continuation of my discussion on the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (hereafter, PST), I would like to deal with some objections that were raised to my first post. In the initial post, I argued that the PST is unjust under any human concept of jurisprudence.  Men universally agree that it is never just to punish an innocent in the place of the guilty.

May an innocent person pay the price for a guilty person?

One objection centered around the idea that we consider it okay for an innocent person to pay a fine that is owed by a guilty person. Reference was made to the essay by philosopher David Lewis.1 It is true that Lewis states that sometimes we think it okay and even noble for an innocent to pay the fine owed by a guilty, but he is not certain why this is.

Lewis argues that maybe we allow a substitute to pay a monetary fine “because we have no practical way to prevent it” (p. 312). Even if we required the criminal to pay the fine out of his own bank account, it would be practically impossible to prevent someone else from giving the criminal the money to deposit in his account. Lewis also clearly argues that all men seem to have a moral problem with a substitute being incarcerated in place of the guilty. He asks if a person guilty of a burglary could have his punishment paid by a substitute. He says:

Mostly we think not. It is unheard of that a burglar’s devoted friend serves the burglar’s prison sentence while the burglar himself goes free; or that a murderer’s still-more-devoted friend serves the murderer’s death sentence. Yet if ever such a thing happened, we surely would hear of it–for what a newsworthy story it would be! Such things do not happen. And not, I think, because a burglar or a murderer never has a sufficiently devoted friend. Rather, because the friend will know full well that, whatever he might wish, it would be futile to offer himself as a substitute for punishment. The offer would strike the authorities as senseless, and they would decline it out of hand.2

Some will continue to defend the justness of the PST on the basis that Scripture presents man’s sin in terms of a debt (compare Matt. 6:12 with Luke 11:4; see also Matt. 18:21-35). That is true but the debt that man owes is not a monetary one, as Paul makes clear in Romans 6:23a: “For the wages of sin is death.” ((All Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version.)) According to the PST, man’s sin incurred a debt and that debt demands the penalty of death. Sin in the Scripture is a major offense, in fact a capital offense, not a minor matter that can be settled by paying a monetary fine.

Only one theory of atonement

A second objection raised was that the PST is one of several theories of the atonement that have been held through the centuries and it is not a requirement of the Christian faith, having never been codified in a creed. That is correct but for the overwhelming number of evangelical Christians (and evangelicalism is my focus in this essay), the PST is not just a theory but is the clear teaching of the Scripture.  Roger Nicole, of Reformed Theological Seminary, is representative of the majority when he says:

Atonement is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, and penal substitution is the heart of this doctrine. ((Blurb for Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach (Inter-Varsity Press, 2007).))

Our moral intuitions

A third objection centered around man’s moral intuitions. I argued that it is counter to our moral intuitions that an innocent be punished in place of the guilty. Someone replied:

Our moral intuitions are reliable but not perfect. If we have the intuition that some moral proposition is true (false), then that is evidence that its true (false). But we have to allow for revisionism. Intuitions get first pass. They’re innocent until proven guilty. But they can be overridden by defeaters.

It is true that our moral intuitions may not be perfect. However, when they are as universal as the notion that it is wrong to punish an innocent person, then the probability is that, in this particular case, our intuition is not wrong. If a universally agreed upon moral intuition is in fact erroneous, then how do we know that we can trust any of our moral intuitions? They would  all become suspect, and therefore virtually worthless. Couple this with the evangelical teaching that our sense of right and wrong comes as a result of being made in the image of God and evangelicalism  has a big problem.

But couldn’t someone argue that the image of God has been marred by the fall and thus, our moral intuitions cannot be trusted? Yes, evangelicalism does teach that the imago dei has been damaged by the fall but Paul’s statement in Romans 2:14-15 is in reference to man after the fall:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

The judge is the victim?

A fourth objection was that I was failing to recognize that in the case of the PST, it was the judge himself who was the victim and that as the victim, the penalty owed was owed to him. Since he was both judge and victim, he could decide on the appropriate penalty and on who should pay it. The argument went like this:

A better analogy would be like a murder case wherein the victim’s family freely chooses to pay the punishment incurred by the murderer for the sake of showing their love and compassion for the murderer as well as providing an opportunity for the murderer’s reform. I have the intuition that this is the moral right of the family; we would obviously not demand it of them but I see no moral problem with their freely choosing to do this. In fact, it seems to be a praiseworthy thing; they have done something painful for the sake of helping some other person. You can make the punishment incurred as strong as you want – even death – [and] it does not change the fact that paying the punishment is a prerogative of the family as it is they who are owed the debt. With relation to God and the punishment due sin, God is owed the debt and thus has some say in how it is paid, including volunteering to do it himself. His choosing to take the punishment upon himself is not only morally neutral; it seems to be morally admirable.

But what is the need for the punishment of a substitute in this case? If the family agrees to forgive the criminal, why must someone still die?  In the case of the judge – God himself – paying the penalty, my question is: Why? Why is it necessary for God (or, in reality, His son) to pay the penalty? How does the punishment of an innocent satisfy the penalty? Unless the sin and guilt of the offender is somehow really transferred to the substitute so that the substitute is in a genuine sense guilty of the crime, then it still makes no moral sense.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in an essay entitled  “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”:

The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice.3

A noble act?

A fifth objection was:

Isn’t it a great act of nobility and love for a person to voluntarily take the punishment due someone else?

Absolutely it is. But that is not the question. No one is saying that the willingness of Jesus to die in man’s place was ignoble. What I am saying is that it is unjust for the Father to be willing to accept that sacrifice as the legitimate penalty owed by the sinner.

Someone drew an  analogy here with regard to the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe:

When he was in a concentration camp, the Nazis were going to execute a prisoner by starvation. Kolbe voluntarily asked to take the man’s place and the Nazis agreed. Can there be any doubt that Kolbe performed a supreme act of love and kindness towards his fellow man? But he also suffered injustice at the same time. The injustice was not on Kolbe’s part, but on the part of the Nazis. So the question is: Is God more like Kolbe or the Nazis? I think it’s obvious that God was more like Kolbe (or perhaps I should say that Kolbe’s action was godly). Jesus’ willing death on the cross was a profound act of kindness, even though he also suffered injustice. The Romans and the Jewish leaders did commit wrong in condemning an innocent person. But how is God blameworthy for that injustice? That would be like saying that Saint Maximilian Kolbe was blameworthy, because he allowed himself to be unjustly punished by the Nazis.

I would argue that God, the Father, was more like the Nazis in that he accepted the punishment of an innocent in place of the guilty. Yes, the Romans and the Jewish leaders were the human instruments that God allowed to accomplish the “dirty work,” but the Scripture makes it clear that it was God’s plan. Acts 2:23 states:

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

Not a payment?

A sixth  objection was that the punishment for sin was not something inflicted by God as payment for sin but rather just a natural consequence of sin. In other words, one of the ramifications of sin is that it brings death. Someone wrote:

One could take an Augustinian (On Free Choice of the Will) perspective and see punishment for sin as not something that’s necessarily inflicted by God but which is inflicted by the act of sin itself. Sin just, by its nature, brings just punishment to the sinner… There is no extrinsic punishment needed for immorality (although it is not excluded); immorality is its own punishment in that it is a breaking down of what it means to be human. If sin is viewed this way we see humans stuck in a sin-filled world, mastered by sin and thus full of intrinsic punishment already – needing to be rescued. Jesus is able to take the compulsiveness of sin away through his suffering the punishment. This is still PST as Jesus is paying the penalty of sin as a substitute for another even though it’s not necessarily as [an] appeasement to the Father.

The problem with this view is that the NT makes it clear that the death of Jesus was an appeasement (propitiation) to the Father and on that basis alone is the Father justified in forgiving man’s sin. Romans 3:24-26:

…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Similarly, 1 John 2:2 says:

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Jesus as representative for humanity

A seventh objection was that the penalty for sin was owed by the entire human race corporately and Jesus, as the representative of the entire human race, could pay the penalty for the whole. This is the reason why God had to assume humanity so that he could identify with us.

The problem with this view is that it fails to recognize that within evangelical Christianity, Jesus assumes human nature as it was before the fall. In other words, Jesus possessed a sinless humanity. Therefore, he could not identify with man as a sinner and could not be a representative for fallen humanity. Interestingly enough, the traditional Seventh Day Adventists hold that Jesus assumed a fallen human nature, and so, within their scenario, it would be possible for Jesus to die as a representative for fallen humanity. This view, however, is rejected by most contemporary Seventh Day Adventists and by all of evangelicalism as well as by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

But even if one held that somehow Jesus was legitimately the representative of the human race, there would still be a problem. The problem relates to  “collective culpability.” There is little doubt that Paul and many of the ancients held to collective culpability. It is evident in Paul holding all men somehow responsible for Adam’s sin (Rom. 5).  It is evident in the OT, for example, in the case of Achan (Josh. 7).  I think that is why the author of Joshua saw no ethical problem with executing all of Achan’s family for the individual sin of Achan or why the author of Samuel saw no problem with executing all of the Amalekites for what their ancestors did 400 years prior (1 Sam. 15). To the ancient man, this made sense.

To modern man, however, it does not. I have read some of the philosophical literature on this that sprang up after WWII when the question was raised as to whether the whole German nation should be held culpable for the holocaust and other atrocities of the war. The consensus seems to be that it would be unjust to hold every person within a group responsible for what some or even the majority within the group did.4

Jesus a real sinner?

The eighth and final objection was:

Why think it problematic for the Christian to say that Jesus became “in real terms” a sinner? After all isn’t that what 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches?

There are two legitimate ways to translate the verse. It could be rendered ”became sin” or “became a sin offering.” There are good arguments on both sides so the verse itself is not going to be determinative here. I think most evangelicals are going to be reticent to say that Jesus in any real sense became a sinner because of the problems that would create not only for the fact that he would not be a perfect sacrifice but also for the fact that the God-man would be a sinner.  If there is one thing that all evangelicals are agreed upon, it is that God is absolutely holy. To imagine that sin was somehow really imputed to Jesus in the sense that he literally became sin is to destroy the holiness of God.

I appreciate the feedback and criticisms that I received from this first post. I would like to address another internal inconsistency for evangelical theology with the PST in my next post, namely,  problems related to the doctrine of the Trinity if the PST is true.

  1. “Do We Believe in Penal Substitution.” Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume 1: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, edited by Michael Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 308-13). []
  2. Ibid., page 308. []
  3. God in the Dock [The Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis, 1970], pp. 287-300. Page 288. []
  4. See Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, edited by Larry May and  Stacey Hoffman [Rowman and Littlefield, 1991]. []

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{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

chuck May 7, 2010 at 7:13 am

Great stuff. Ken. Thanks.

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J. K. Jones May 7, 2010 at 9:54 am

“If the family agrees to forgive the criminal, why must someone still die? In the case of the judge – God himself – paying the penalty, my question is: Why? Why is it necessary for God (or, in reality, His son) to pay the penalty?”

A penalty must be paid for sin if justice is to be served. God must remain just while granting mercy and grace. What other option is there? How else could a person be forgiven?

Forgiveness in human relationships always involves the forgiving party agreeing to bear the pain caused by the sins of the offending party without demanding suffering in return. That’s just part of it.

Why would God be an different? PSA is just God showing His willingness to suffer the pain of the offense in much the same way as humans do. The pain and punishment is suffered by the God who was offended.

“How does the punishment of an innocent satisfy the penalty? Unless the sin and guilt of the offender is somehow really transferred to the substitute so that the substitute is in a genuine sense guilty of the crime, then it still makes no moral sense.”

The guilt is really transferred from the sinner to Christ. That’s the whole point. Christ, “who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).

You have shown that you are willing to read Christian authors on this subject, or at least some of them. I would recommended “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller. His treatment of this subject is the best I have seen.

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Roberto G May 7, 2010 at 9:56 am

Concerning Jesus as rep for humanity. Connected with PST is that another aspect of evangelical Christian theology (especially of the Reformed variety) is closely related. Namely, the necessity of Christ’s merits to be imputed to sinners. A sinful Jesus would not have been able to have been of any use for humanity had he been incarnated fallen as we are now. Sin or fallenness is never viewed in the Bible as man’s natural state in the sense that without our sinfulness we no longer are human. After all, in the future, we believe we will be without sin when we are glorified. The collective culpability consideration is one I suppose most Christians are willing to accept considering they accept collective salvation. It may not be an easy pill to swallow. But the more a believer learns of the sovereignty of God as it applies to all areas of life and reality as described in the Bible, we realign our intuitions to conform to what we believe to be the revealed truth. I enjoyed the post. It is challenging.

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J. K. Jones May 7, 2010 at 10:06 am

By the way, I plan to link to your post over at my blog. I want to see how it folds into some other discussion I have having over there.

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noen May 7, 2010 at 10:10 am

“for the overwhelming number of evangelical Christians (and evangelicalism is my focus in this essay), the PST is not just a theory but is the clear teaching of the Scripture.”

This is why I consider the New Atheists to be secular fundamentalists. You think just like they do. After all, who gives a flying frak what the fundamentalists think when it comes to understanding what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross might mean for Christians? They are wrong about pretty much everything else so they’re probably wrong about this too.

Of course, it doesn’t even make sense to talk about whether or not Penal Substitutionary Theory or some other theological theory is “wrong”. What people believe is what they believe. Wouldn’t it be better to actually understand what is going on rather than what people believe is going on?

On this I prefer René Girard. Girard believes that all societies have victimized scapegoats as a way to quell the mimetic desires. Some sort of weakness or deformity generally singled this person out, which made them a prime candidate for a release of violence. However, what happens after this person is killed? Ambivalence. Initially, the collective considered this person to be responsible for their problems, but now they have experienced that cathartic peace that resulted form the scapegoat’s death. This leads the dead victim to be transformed into a sacred object. Girard thinks that this explains this founding murder marks the genesis of civilization (Cain/Abel).

Or put another way, if you are building a civilization you have to find some way of suppressing mimetic (imitative) desire. The way most civilizations have chosen to do this is by finding a scapegoat who can become the locus for displaced desire. Kill the scapegoat and your desire dissipates but the scapegoat really must be guilty or it doesn’t work.

Christianity is different in this regard. Jesus is the scapegoat but he is innocent. The Christian narrative is unique because it refuses to justify the violence that was unleashed on the scapegoat. In his ministry, Jesus adopts a nonviolent approach. His confrontations with the powers and principalities expose the violence that is built in to every society to preserve order. Girard suggests that the only way to resist the temptation of violence inherent in desire is to imitate Jesus as the perfect model. What does Jesus desire, the will of the Father. This liberates us from the chains of violence that affect our relationships, economics, and discriminatory practices such as misogyny and racism.

Girard believes that a substitution view is actually a regression into paganism. I agree.

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Erika May 7, 2010 at 10:20 am

J.K. Jones, you say, Forgiveness in human relationships always involves the forgiving party agreeing to bear the pain caused by the sins of the offending party without demanding suffering in return. That’s just part of it.
Why would God be an different? PSA is just God showing His willingness to suffer the pain of the offense in much the same way as humans do. The pain and punishment is suffered by the God who was offended.

You are right in so far as to say that when someone forgives, they bear the pain caused by the sins of the offending party. However, I would contend that they bear pain regardless of whether the offender was punished (otherwise, they would feel no need for the offender to be punished in the first place). Thus, your explanation does not explain why God would need to suffer beyond the “psychological” pain he would already suffer due to human sin.

Or, to put it more concisely, even if you turn the other cheek instead of demanding an eye for an eye, you still lost your eye.

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Erika May 7, 2010 at 10:23 am

noen, you may consider evangelicals to be fundamentalists, but you are on no good ground when you imply that discussing their views is swiping at straw men. At least in the U.S. Christian evangelicals are a the most politically dominant religious group and so they can hardly be dismissed as inconsequential.

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chuck May 7, 2010 at 10:26 am

The rationale offered here by Christians for PST further convinces me that the doctrine is a left-over ritual of a an ancient and superstitious people who believed in collective guilt and satisfactory propitiate child sacrifice. I am very very glad I’ve exited christendom so I no longer need to rationalize such myths in a post-enlightenment world.

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J. K. Jones May 7, 2010 at 10:41 am

Erica,

When I forgive, I experience the pain in a different way than it originally felt. I think God does the same.

I just don’t see the issue with Christ being credited as a sinner and Christians being credited with His rigtheousness.

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noen May 7, 2010 at 10:48 am

Erika

noen, you may consider evangelicals to be fundamentalists, but you are on no good ground when you imply that discussing their views is swiping at straw men. At least in the U.S. Christian evangelicals are a the most politically dominant religious group and so they can hardly be dismissed as inconsequential.  

Evangelicals are a subset of fundamentalism. While it is true that anyone, even Unitarians(!), can be evangelical, in common use in the US today the term usually means those fundamentalists who are evangelical in their outlook.

I did not say that they should be dismissed. I argued for a functional understanding of Christ’s crucifixion based in critical theory rather than the never ending rabbit hole of fundamentalism.

Cut the Gordian Knot. Fundamentalists are Pagans.

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Josh May 7, 2010 at 10:50 am

I think the biggest problem with penal substitution is that it is just insane.

Why does god need to sacrifice himself to himself? Seems a bit ridiculous.

Moreover, he barely suffered: 3 days in hell? I don’t even think it comes out to a full 72 hours. I’m soooo impressed.

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RA May 7, 2010 at 11:17 am

I never learned that Jesus went to hell in my Southern Baptist days. I don’t know if they don’t believe that or if it just wasn’t considered of interest.

I’ve always thought that if Jesus had gone to hell for us for eternity and suffered then that would have been a legitimate sacrifice. But from what I understand, he just went down there to preach to the people in the holding tank of sheol. I don’t think he even felt the flames or the absence.

I really wish I could have been in the holding tank and had the chance for the personal visit instead of having to depend on the present story that makes no sense. I don’t find that fair at all, and I’m going to try to point it out to God when I am judged if I can get a word in edgewise. If I could get a personal witness, I’d believe.

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drj May 7, 2010 at 11:48 am

One problem I have with the whole narrative of the cross, is that the cross wasn’t any kind of special torture device, specifically designed for Jesus. It was a common method of execution in those days.

While it must be a horrific death to be sure, it wasn’t exceptional. So it really seems odd to believe that there was something special about his suffering, when maybe even thousands of people suffered the same exact way – even innocent people.

If Jesus is took upon himself all the harm caused by the sins of the entire human race, to wipe the sin-slate clean, it seems like he would have had to suffer an appropriate proportion. Wouldn’t he have had to suffer a lot more, than say, well… what the dude on the next cross over felt? But he didn’t, not that we can tell.

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Ken Pulliam May 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

Thanks for all the comments so far. I wanted to reply to J. K. who said: I just don’t see the issue with Christ being credited as a sinner and Christians being credited with His righteousness.

The problem is that it is a “legal fiction.” John Nevin, whom Charles Hodge called his best student, later came to disagree with his esteemed professor on this very note. Nevin maintained that a God of truth cannot consider something to be true unless it really is true. In other words, God cannot deal in “legal fictions,” which is what considering Jesus to be a sinner would be and what considering saved sinners to be righteous would be. See Is Imputation a Legal Fiction?

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Justfinethanks May 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm

drj: While it must be a horrific death to be sure, it wasn’t exceptional.

Julia Sweeney captured this idea perfectly:

“Jesus had a bad weekend for your sins.”

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drj May 7, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Julia Sweeney captured this idea perfectly:“Jesus had a bad weekend for your sins.”  

Haha, that’s great!

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Roberto G May 7, 2010 at 12:27 pm

From a classical evangelical Christian perspective, the atonement (PST) and justification (of which imputation of our sin to Jesus and imputation of his righteousness to believers) are closely linked (along with many other things), but should be distinguished clearly in these discussions. As far as legal fictions go and the assertion that God being a God of truth conflicts with him considering Jesus a sinner and believing sinners righteous, it’s not as if Christian theology doesn’t have resources that address these issues. Pertinent considerations can be drawn from the covenant of grace, the covenant of redemption, other attributes of God (not simply the aforementioned attribute of truth), etc. Perhaps some of these will be mentioned when the next post is up.

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Ken Pulliam May 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm

drj,

in all fairness the Christian position is not that the physical sufferings of Jesus were worse than anyone else’s but that he suffered spiritual death, i.e., separation from God which is what the unsaved will suffer for eternity. Of course he only suffered it for a few hours but the usual reply there is that an infinite person can suffer an infinite penalty in a finite period of time whereas a finite person (human sinners) need an infinite period to suffer an infinite penalty.

The internal theological inconsistencies that evangelical Christianity faces as a result of their belief that Jesus suffered spiritual death will be addressed in my next post.

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Ken Pulliam May 7, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Roberto,

You will need to explain how your concept of the covenant of grace or covenant of redemption answer the problem of a God of truth calling something true which is really not true. I also don’t see how any of his other attributes can help here–he either is a God of truth, that cannot lie (Tit. 1:2) or he is not.

I appreciate the dialogue

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm

One can come up with all sorts of rationalizations for rejecting what God has declared in His revelation about justice—or any other topic. Ken is obviously very good at this. I do appreciate the thinking that he has obviously put into this issue. He does raise pertinent questions. But what he is missing is that underlying this issue, this discussion, and indeed all of human thought and experience is the question of authority.

The word of the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator, who cannot lie, tells us:

Proverbs 9:10 (ESV) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

And,

Proverbs 2:6-10 (ESV) For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;

And finally,

Proverbs 28:5 (ESV) Evil men do not understand justice,but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.

God has given us a conscience as a guide to discerning right from wrong. He has also given us instruction in the scriptures as to how the sacrifice of Christ displays and magnifies both the justice and the mercy of God. Details can be found here: Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:18, Hebrews 9:14, Romans 5, among many other passages.

Yes, people can and do use rhetoric and sophistry to deny what God has declared about the atonement, imputation, and how these relate to divine justice, but to do this is to place one’s own opinion over the testimony of one’s Creator and thus to insure that one’s understanding of justice fails. One must start with what God’s word teaches about justice. Only then can one come to understand it. And then one can learn to understand it fully.

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chuck May 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Oh yippeee!!!! Salvatore thumps his bible and provides the obvious answer. Divine Command Ethics!!!!! Wheeeeeeee! Hey Salvatore, is X good because God loves it or does God love X because it is good? Also, how is using scripture to emancipate the twisted ethics of scripture NOT circular reasoning.

I love how bible thumpers make up in arrogance what they lack in irony or intelligence.

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al friedlander May 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

“The FEAR of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

Just giving my honest opinion on the matter, but this here has always bothered me immensely. God definitely (or at least, the one in biblical scripture), with all due respect, seems to me like some sort of ‘cosmic tyrant’. I’ve never known any ‘loving being’ that -demanded- worship. For example, I don’t necessarily worship my parents, but I deeply respect them. My father, because of his patience and willingness to learn, and my mother, for her authentic sense of care for her children. The kind of parent that threatens their children into submission, is for sure one that I would never admire.

“God has given us a conscience as a guide to discerning right from wrong. ”

Which leads to my next point. I can say that authentically, my sense of morality has always been fiercely opposed to the doctrine of hell. It’s absolutely terrible, and in my opinion, any sane person would see it as an incredibly unfair punishment, even for the worst of all human-beings.

“the sacrifice of Christ displays and magnifies both the justice and the mercy of God”

The ‘sacrifice’ of Christ was never really a sacrifice at all. We were born damned; in other words, being born is more of a curse than never having lived at all.

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Charles May 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

One can come up with all sorts of rationalizations for rejecting what God has declared in His revelation about justice … Ken is obviously very good at this …

Ken is just using his brain. Try it some time. You might like it.

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Chuck,

You wrote:

Hey Salvatore, is X good because God loves it or does God love X because it is good?

Neither. Love fulfills the law, because God is love.

Also, how is it any more arrogant for me to hold up scripture as the standard than it is for you to deny that it is authoritative?

Al,

God has every right to command that we worship Him, since that is what he created us to do. Because of this, it is actually good for us. And to refuse to worship Him is bad for us.

You wrote:

…my sense of morality has always been fiercely opposed to the doctrine of hell.

The conscience is a helpful guide, but, like all man’s capacities, the fall has damaged it, rendering it less than fully functional. Which is why it is such a blessing that we have God’s written word to teach us that God is just in all his ways.

I don’t know a Christian who is not grieved by the thought of the lost enduring the torments of hell forever. I am. But we must trust that all God does is right and good.

You wrote:

The ’sacrifice’ of Christ was never really a sacrifice at all.

As brutal as crucifixion is, that is only the beginning of what the Lord Jesus Christ endured. God the Father poured out his wrath on the Son in the place of those He came to save. This is far greater suffering than any other human vbeing has even endured. And He did it for love of sinners, and to honor the Father.

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Charles,

The brain can be used to learn and to promote truth or to suppress the truth.

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Chuck May 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Salvatore, your Iron Age superstition is non-falsifiable and your god exists in your imagination. That is why it is arrogant. I should be more accurate. It is solipsistic.

And you didn’t answer the question. You changed the subject.

Does god love x because it is good or is x good because god loves it?

Your fundamentalism is ignorant.

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Chuck, I did answer: Neither.

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Charles May 7, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Salvatore,

This is Common Sense Atheism. Here, the authority of Scripture is not assumed. I would have the title gave it away.

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Chuck May 7, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Salvatore,

Neither is not a viable answer. Try again.

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lukeprog May 7, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Salvatore,

“Love fulfills the law, because God is love.”

I have no idea what this means. Could you explain?

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm

lukeprog,

Thank you for asking. I will have to get back later to hopefully give you a succinct answer. Gotta go now.

Sam

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Charles wrote:

This is Common Sense Atheism. Here, the authority of Scripture is not assumed. I would have the title gave it away.

Revelation is the only way we know anything. Atheists are no exception.

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Chuck May 7, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Revelation is the only way we know anything. Atheists are no exception.

No Salvatore. That is not true.

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Charles May 7, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Salvatore,

It seems to me there are other ways of knowing. For example, I had oatmeal for breakfast. How is that ‘revelation’?

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al friedlander May 7, 2010 at 10:56 pm

“For example, I had oatmeal for breakfast. How is that ‘revelation’?”

http://img376.imageshack.us/img376/3762/1337cereal070kh7.jpg

~

“And to refuse to worship Him is bad for us.”

Oh no, I certainly do not doubt that. In that…if we don’t worship Him, He punishes us with unimaginable torture. What I was claiming before, however, still holds: the idea of a cosmic-tyrant.

“The conscience is a helpful guide, but, like all man’s capacities, the fall has damaged it”

Ironically, I’m pretty sure that scripture says the opposite. The fall of man was the event that revolved around eating the forbidden fruit (which possesses the knowledge of good and evil). So technically, the fall of man didn’t damage our morality. It ‘gave us’ our morality.

“I don’t know a Christian who is not grieved by the thought of the lost enduring the torments of hell forever. I am. But we must trust that all God does is right and good.”

But why? Why do we have to trust something -against our own judgment-? Every moral-bone in my body is opposed to the concept of hell. In my opinion, if Christians -really did- believe in it, they should lose hours and hours of sleep over the issue. Mild bursts of ‘grief’ are simply not enough.

“God the Father poured out his wrath on the Son in the place of those He came to save. This is far greater suffering than any other human being has even endured. And He did it for love of sinners, and to honor the Father.”

With all due respect, I see no love in this. The sacrifice is conditional; in order to benefit, the price is to be a slave for all of eternity. I realize many Christians wouldn’t mind worshiping God forever and ever and ever and ever and ev…, but I always imagined that I would be quite disgruntled in heaven watching my kind/innocent friends burning in another realm simply for embracing an alternative world view, due to a lack of evidence.

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 7, 2010 at 11:32 pm

lukeprog wrote:

“Love fulfills the law, because God is love.”
I have no idea what this means. Could you explain?

It is my conviction, and, I believe, the teaching of scripture that God is triune: three persons in one being. The “nature” (perhaps not the best term to use of Deity) of the trinity is that the trinity is interpersonal. That the three persons exist eternally in community, in a love relationship, which is why John tells us that “God is love.” While not an exhaustive definition, “love” can be defined as a desire for and a commitment to the welfare, the good, and the happiness of another person.

Because God is love, the members of the Godhead love those they created in their image. They have a desire for and a commitment to their good. In accord with this, God the Father (and the other members of the trinity) requires that those creatures that He made in His image exhibit this attitude as well, toward God and toward their fellows. So the law flows forth from God’s very being, in that God is love.

Expressions of the Euthyphro dilemma that you will commonly hear assume that the only two possible options are that God decides arbitrarily by whim what is good or that there is a standard external to God that God must conform to as to what is good. As
Chuck expressed it above:
Does god love x because it is good or is x good because god loves it?

This is a false dilemma. There are other possibilities. When God acts in history and in human affairs, it is always good. That is, the members of the Trinity act to promote the good, the happiness of the other members of the trinity and the welfare of God’s people. God is love. This is simply who God is, not a standard external to God or an arbitrary choice God has made for no reason. Now, as creatures made in God’s image, we have a duty to emulate God in this, to act out of love for God and for others. And one of the ways we do this is by obeying God’s commands as expressed in our consciences and in the written word of God, even when we do not understand why He has given some of them.

1 John 4: 7-12 (ESV) Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

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Salvatore Mazzotta May 8, 2010 at 12:22 am

Charles,

You wrote:

It seems to me there are other ways of knowing. For example, I had oatmeal for breakfast. How is that ‘revelation’?

God spoke all things into existence (Genesis 1, 2 Peter 3:5, John 1:1-3). He continues to sustain all things by His Word (Hebrews 1:3, Acts 17:28, Matthew 4:4).

So then, the creation is a medium of communication through which we hear God’s voice.

Psalm 19:1-3 (ESV) The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.

Based in large measure on the Bible’s teaching on what has been called “the book of nature” (among other contributing streams of thought, of course), men such as Bacon, Descarte, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others founded modern empirical science. They sought to understand the creation through systematic study in order–in the words of Johannes Kepler, “To think God’s thoughts after Him.”

So what can a good, steaming hot bowl of oatmeal tell us? When I eat good food, it reminds me of how God cares for me and provides for my needs.

Of course it goes far beyond what is on the menu. Everything that you see, hear, taste, touch and smell was created by God and placed before you. Further, your brain was designed and made by God. He imparted your reasoning powers to you. He gave you a conscience. All this is from and by the Word of God. You truly cannot escape His voice. And you cannot know anything by any means that is not from and by His Word.

It’s revelation. And you’re soaking in it. You’re also eating it for breakfast.

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chuck May 8, 2010 at 1:19 am

Salvatore I believe an honest appraisal of history shows that your god concept is the superstitious invention of primitives.

Also, for the record, you cite the authority of Newton in response to the magical revelation of oatmeal but Newton thought a triune god absurd.

How ’bout you try to make an argument without begging the question.

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chuck May 8, 2010 at 1:20 am

Salvatore what if I believe an honest appraisal of history shows that your god concept is the superstitious invention of primitives?

Also, for the record, you cite the authority of Newton in response to the magical revelation of oatmeal but Newton thought a triune god absurd.

How ’bout you try to make an argument without begging the question.

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unkleE May 8, 2010 at 2:53 am

Ken

I am an occasional and christian visitor to this blog, but I gave up posting because I find argument and inconclusive discussion where the two “sides” never really engage to be frustrating and unrewarding. But I found your two posts so amazing for someone with your background that I thought I would make a comment (or ten!).

Let me say at the start that I respect you and your position, and I am really trying not say anything belittling or nasty. If I fail in this, I apologise in advance.

I find your position amazing because it seems like you ignore some of the most obvious points about historic christianity, and I can only wonder whether it was misunderstandings that led you out of the faith. Here’s what I mean:

1. Every christian knows that “the cross is foolishness to the Greeks” (i.e. the intellectuals) – we just have to understand it the best we can and accept the rest. This isn’t too difficult to understand. If I read John Polkinghorne on particle physics (he was formerly professor of Physics at Oxford), I quite reasonably trust that he knows a thing or two about the subject. So if he tells me about action at a distance, something that totally violates all normal physics, as far as I can understand it, I don’t reject it because I find it so weird, I accept it because of his authority on the matter.

It is the same with things about God. God, by definition, is so utterly beyond me in every way that only a foolish person would think that I could reasonably expect to understand him fully. In fact, I think this is maybe one of the core bases of unbelief – somehow believing we can understand more than we really can, and choosing to disbelieve all we cannot understand. I don’t believe in a literal Adam & Eve, but the story is still instructive, and it suggests that if we think too highly of our own thinking, we are up ourselves and will take a wrong turning.

So if I have reason to believe an apparent authority, I can then choose to trust them on things which I cannot understand. And so if I trust Jesus with good reason, then I would be foolish to disregard his teaching just because my brain cannot get my head around it. This is not that atheist favourite straw person, faith against reason, but rather faith going on from where reason stops, but still consistent with reason.

So, have I got good reason to trust Jesus?

2. There isn’t time here to argue the case, but it is clear that many christians believe they have very good reason to believe in God and in Jesus. And I do too. In very brief summary …

If there was no God I’d expect there to be no universe, and if there was one I’d expect it to be random and chaotic. But there is a universe and it is highly ordered. God is a better explanation than anything else.

If there was no God, I’d expect there to be no organic life, no consciousness, merely pragmatic ethics and reason, and humans would have no special value. But I find that humans universally think these things are real, and it takes special effort for even strong atheists to think otherwise. God is a better explanation of all this than any others.

If there was no God, people might make up experiences of him, but I’d expect the stories to be foolish and futile and the apparent healings and miracles to be spurious. And most of them probably are – but some are not, and are difficult to explain without God. My own life and apparent experiences of God would likewise be difficult to explain apart from God.

Finally, the existence of Jesus and the general historical validity of the gospels is well established by neutral historians, despite what Jesus-mythers try to argue. There is good reason to believe in Jesus and to trust him, especially as the God he revealed is consistent with all the above (unlike other alleged Gods).

So with all those pieces of evidence in support, why wouldn’t I trust Jesus when he tells me some things I have no way to really judge for myself? And, more to the point, why would you give all that up because you couldn’t understand the atonement?

3. Many of your arguments are based on the concept of justice, and analogies to human justice (“I argued that the PST is unjust under any human concept of jurisprudence.”. These are obviously attractive and to some degree helpful in understanding. But there is a fatal (to me) flaw in them because the analogy to human justice is a false analogy. Human justice, as your CS Lewis quote shows, is concerned about acting justly or fairly to all parties (and some more besides). But God’s dealings with us are all about going way beyond justice to mercy and grace. So just because God’s alleged reasons for requiring Jesus to die do not seem (to you) to reflect human standards of justice is in many ways irrelevant. Most of your arguments fall at this point.

(more to come)

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unkleE May 8, 2010 at 2:56 am

(part 2)

4. You make a number of statements that suggest to me that, despite your former position, somehow your understanding of, or perspective on, historicchristianity is sadly flawed. Here are just a few:

“for the overwhelming number of evangelical Christians (and evangelicalism is my focus in this essay), the PST is not just a theory but is the clear teaching of the Scripture.”
Overwhelming? I don’t think so. CS Lewis was perhaps the most influential christian in the western world of the 20th century, and he wrote in Mere Christianity:

“Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are. My own church-the Church of England-does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality.”

Tony Campolo is a very influential US christian, and he said in a talk I attended that there had been three different theories of the atonement through history, and there was no reason why we might develop others. And UK author Steve Chalke, supported by NY scholar Tom Wright, is doing just that (even though I don’t fully agree with them). I read somewhere that the genius of christianity is that it is so adaptable. The basics (Jesus, the cross & resurrection, forgiveness, etc) stay the same, but everything else is adapted to culture and time. Explanations of the atonement are not exempt. I’m surprised you didn’t understand that.

Yes, there are US christians who oppose all this and call Lewis a heretic etc (I have come across some very nasty websites, and I don’t blame you for reacting to them), but you aren’t going to judge worldwide christianity by some local (in space and time) over-zealous and often poorly behaved people are you? I have been a generally normal christian for about 48 years, and I have never worried over much about theories of the atonement, and I suggest to you that most christians have a general belief that “Jesus died for them” but don’t understand all the nuances and are happy with that. (After I wrote this, I discussed it with my wife, a very committed christian for just about 50 years, and she said; “What’s the PSA?”)

It is worth noting that any statement of doctrine that requires the use of non-biblical terms, such as PSA is should never be considered as the only christian view on the topic. Using the Bible Gateway Bible search facility gave this result: “Sorry. No results found for “penal substitutionary atonement” in Keyword Search.”.

“if God’s ways are beyond our comprehension, how can we say anything definitively about God?”
Revelation. (I’m very surprised you even asked this question!)

” I think most evangelicals are going to be reticent to say that Jesus in any real sense became a sinner because of the problems that would create not only for the fact that he would not be a perfect sacrifice but also for the fact that the God-man would be a sinner.”
Not me. Try the same form of argument about an animal sacrifice. An animal sacrifice has to be a live animal without blemish, but when we kill it it is no longer either live or spotless – so it can’t be a sacrifice???. It’s obviously silly. It was spotless and alive at the start, which is what matters. Ditto Jesus – alive and spotless at the start, dead and made sin at the end – until the resurrection of course.

So where does this leave us? For me, your statement “the central doctrine of evangelical theology – that Jesus died in the place of sinners – is fatally flawed and must be rejected” is itselfquite flawed and unsupported, and shows a poor understanding of historic christianity, surprising in someone of your experience. It may be a useful argument against a small subsection of christianity, which you seem to have been unfortunate enough to grow up within, but it is pretty much irrelevant to what I believe and what I understand most christians to believe. That’s where it leaves me, still believing the same.

But where does it leave you? You say “I deconverted from Christianity in 1996 because of inconsistencies within Christian doctrine.” and I presume that includes the atonement. May I respectfully suggest your reasons here are phantom, and you might reconsider your decision. I don’t suggest you reconvert to your old belief, but to a more thoughtful, better justified and more historically representative version. If you did, your deconversion would have been of value. (BTW, it pisses me off when people misrepresent a viewpoint by using the worst possible examples. I strongly oppose it when christians do it about atheists, since I know some very friendly and honest atheists. I am less upset when unbelievers do it because I have become used to it. But I think you have sailed very close to this in your comments.)

Sorry this was so long, but there was a lot to respond to. Thanks and best wishes to you.

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Ken Pulliam May 8, 2010 at 5:16 am

Eric,
Thanks for your kind words and thoughtful comments. I will respond to each point.

1. It is not that I don’t understand what the Bible is saying with regard to what the atonement is and what it accomplished (as Mark Twain famously said: “its not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, its the things I do”), but that I believe what it says contradicts the moral sense of justice that, according to the Bible, is given to every man as a result of being made in the image of God. It is an internal contradiction in the revelation that is supposed to be from God.

To argue that God’s ways are just too far above us to understand would mean that we can’t really know anything about him. If it really is just to punish an innocent even though it is a universal human intuition that this wrong, then how can we trust any of our moral intuitions? And if these intuitions come from God, as the Bible indicates, then how can we know we are properly understanding any of his revelation?

2. I don’t find your arguments convincing but as you say this is not the place to debate these. I will say something though about the historicity of the gospels. I think there is a kernel of true history present in the gospels but I think it has been greatly embellished .

3. I understand that the Bible presents the atonement as more than justice but it can’t be itself an unjust act if God is truly a just and righteous God. No matter how much good an act of injustice might accomplish, it is still an act of injustice.

4. I am writing from the perspective of American evangelicalism as it exists today. There was a huge controversy in the UK Evangelical Alliance over the PST a few years back and they took an adamant stand that one must believe the PST in order to be an evangelical. A book was published from this debate entitled, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution . The first several pages of this book are filled with endorsements from what reads like a “who’s who” of evangelicalism. See here.

Yes, there are other theories as I pointed out in the post, but for American evangelicalism, the core teaching of the Scripture about the atonement is that in some way, Jesus paid the penalty for man’s sin. Any attempt to soften that is seen as compromise.

As for the fact that the words “penal substitution” are not in the Bible is irrelevant, in my opinion. Neither is the word “Trinity” but I doubt you would want to surrender that doctrine.

You say that we can have true knowledge of God thru Revelation, but my point is that the revelation is contradictory. The concept of punishing the innocent is intuitively wrong (general revelation) and condemned in certain parts of the Bible (e.g., Eze. 18), yet it is God’s basis for forgiving man. If the revelation is contradictory, how can we know what to believe and what not to believe?

If Jesus was “made sin,” then you have enormous problems and contradictions. 1) How can God, even the God-man, be “made sin”? Sin and God do not mix–the Bible makes that perfectly clear. I John 1:5–“God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” 2) How can Jesus, if he never sinned, be “made sin,” except in some type of “legal fiction.” A God of truth, “who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2) cannot regard something that is false as if it were true.

Eric, I really don’t think I have misrepresented American evangelicalism at all. I was one. I lived in the environment for 20 years. I was a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. I know what American evangelicalism teaches and believes and the PST is not a negotiable doctrine for them.

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Zeb May 8, 2010 at 5:41 am

Salvatore, that was quite a good response to the the Euthyphro dilemma, tying morality, love, and the Trinity together. I would take issue only with your wording here:

In accord with this, God the Father (and the other members of the trinity) requires that those creatures that He made in His image exhibit this attitude as well, toward God and toward their fellows.

I think according to your reasoning, God cannot require anything of us, rather our natures require certain conditions and behaviors in order to reach our greatest good, and any God-given morality is merely the revelation of the requirements of our nature. A physician telling you to exercise three times a week is not going to punish you if you don’t, but you will suffer.

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Chuck May 8, 2010 at 6:14 am

Zeb please explain who is the physician in your analogy below, what is the medically proven clinical benefit in theology equivalent to regular exercise and how is the predictable decline of the human physical condition equal to eternity of torture?

A physician telling you to exercise three times a week is not going to punish you if you don’t, but you will suffer.  (Quote)

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Josh May 8, 2010 at 7:01 am

Salvatore,

Your response to the Euthyphro dilemma MAKES NO SENSE. I can’t believe that anyone can get away with this argument. You say

“This is a false dilemma. There are other possibilities. When God acts in history and in human affairs, it is always good.”

What? Who says? Have you just defined the actions of God to be good? In that case, then it is good because God says it is good.

“That is, the members of the Trinity act to promote the good, the happiness of the other members of the trinity and the welfare of God’s people.”

What does this even mean? Now it seems like good exists externally to god, because the members of the trinity are acting to promote it. That is, unless everything they do is by definition good, in which case you are back to the case where good is arbitrarily defined as anything god does.

“God is love. This is simply who God is, not a standard external to God or an arbitrary choice God has made for no reason.”

Can someone please explain what this means? It seems really weird to say that “god is the laws of physics”, or that “god is 1+1 = 2″. But I believe these statements are on the same level as the statement “god is love”. For example, the laws of physics are an immutable and objective part of our world (with about 10000x more certainty than any moral law we have ever proposed) and yet it seems that either a)within god’s omnipotence to change them (and he certainly has, if we are to believe the bible) or b)The laws of physics are set in stone due to some other requirements of the universe, e.g. point-of-view invariance (c.f. Vic Stenger).

“Now, as creatures made in God’s image, we have a duty to emulate God in this, to act out of love for God and for others. And one of the ways we do this is by obeying God’s commands as expressed in our consciences and in the written word of God, even when we do not understand why He has given some of them.”

Who says we have a duty? Again, if you are just defining it to be the case that what god does is worthy of emulation YOU ARE GRABBING ONE OF THE HORNS OF THE DILEMMA!

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Chuck May 8, 2010 at 7:05 am

Well said Josh.

What is annoying is that guy’s like Salvatore act as if we haven’t heard his illogical arguments before.

Salvatore, your inanity is the reason I left Evangelical Christianity and have admitted I’ve always placed my decision making and moral footing on metaphysical naturalism.

Your emotional pleas to make believe worlds does not inspire trust.

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Lee A. P. May 8, 2010 at 9:13 am

“Fundamentalists are Pagans.”

This is interesting given fundamentalists themselves like to insist that Catholics are pagans.

Can you elaborate?

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noen May 8, 2010 at 10:23 am

Lee A. P.
“Fundamentalists are Pagans.”This is interesting given fundamentalists themselves like toinsist that Catholics are pagans.
Can you elaborate?

Paganism is the belief that a scapegoat dies for the sins of the community. A victim is selected who carries the collective sin, it typically has some genetic deformity, who is then sacrificed to the gods. The community then experiences a cathartic release because the scapegoat was the vessel that held their guilt but now it is gone. The sacrificial act is then elevated to the level of the sublime and ritually re-enacted when the community needs to discharge it’s mimetic desire.

But with Christianity this is different. The sacrificial lamb is innocent, not guilty. The Christian narrative refuses to justify the violence inherent in Paganism and it is very pointedly a critique and accusation against the power of the state. It exposes the violence inherent in the system and threatens it’s destruction. That is why Jesus says “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”

Fundamentalism then is pagan in it’s understanding of the role of the crucifixion because it posits the pagan belief that a sacrificial object can stand in for, or substitute, or take the place of, our collective sins. Jesus’ death on the cross offers no such comfort.

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Jeff H May 8, 2010 at 10:49 am

I would like one thing explained for me, if that’s possible. Salvatore, when you say that “God is love”, what does it mean to say that “A person is an abstract concept”? I mean, I can get “God is loving” or “God is a good example of a loving person” or “God characterizes love”…but “God is love”?

You define love as “a desire for and a commitment to the welfare, the good, and the happiness of another person.” So in other words, you’re saying that God is a desire for and a commitment to the welfare, the good, and the happiness of another person. Not that he has this desire, or thinks this desire is good, but rather that he is a desire.

So when I say “Salvatore is anger”, that actually means something? How can someone be the actual embodiment (though this word doesn’t even make sense here) of an abstract concept? It’s entirely incoherent.

Unless you want to say that “God is an abstract concept”. In which case, I’ll agree with you. I just don’t see how “God is love” can be true except for a vague metaphorical sense that really just means “God is loving” without saying so.

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nate May 8, 2010 at 11:09 am

//he suffered spiritual death, i.e., separation from God which is what the unsaved will suffer for eternity.//

I thought that God was by definition omnipresent. How is it possible to be separated from a being that is everywhere?

//infinite person can suffer an infinite penalty in a finite period of time whereas a finite person (human sinners) need an infinite period to suffer an infinite penalty.//

What is an infinite person? If human sinners never actually “pay the debt” for their sin, isn’t God unjust for not “paying the debt” that the sin demands?

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Joshua Allen May 8, 2010 at 12:05 pm

@Ken – Your weakest point is your defense of your moral intuitions. Paul does not say that you reliably exercise moral intuitions. In the very passage you quoted, Paul says that your “conflicting thoughts will accuse or even excuse” you. How is your argument here not a textbook case of what Paul is describing?

Regardless, I wonder what you think about things like the sin offering of Leviticus 4 or the practice of animal sacrifice in general. You’re acting as if this is a new problem, related to Christ specifically, but hasn’t Israel always washed away their sins with the blood of the purest and most innocent?

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unkleE May 9, 2010 at 12:54 am

Ken

Thank you too for a courteous response. Unfortunately, I feel you have left me with more questions than answers. :( I think there is little point in my reiterating points, so I will try to limit my comments to asking some clarifying questions (if you have time for further discussion).

1. My point here was simply that it sometimes makes sense to trust authority, especially if we don’t understand the matter in question. Do I take it that you agree with this in principle, but in this case you can’t?

2. I mentioned a bunch of fairly standard arguments for the existence and truth of the God of Jesus. I would have assumed when you were a christian you would have agreed with all or most of these. So what happened to them? I can think of only three possibilities:

(i) Your doubts about christian doctrine, including the atonement, were so great that they overwhelmed your belief in God founded on the philosophical arguments and your belief in Jesus founded on the historical arguments and personal experience. If this was so, can you explain why you abandoned all these truths because of something you couldn’t understand and could never expect to understand?
or
(ii) Along with your problems with christian doctrine you also lost your belief in these reasons too. If this is so, wouldn’t these have been the bigger factor, not the doctrines?
or
(iii) Perhaps, though I would have thought unlikely, you never really believed these arguments. If this was so, then is it really fair to say that you were a christian at all?

3. I suggested your analogy to human justice was a false one because God’s aim was grace, not justice. You didn’t comment on this. What do you think?

Just in passing, you say: “I think there is a kernel of true history present in the gospels but I think it has been greatly embellished”. This is not the view of mainstream historians. I could give many quotes, but here’s one from Ed Sanders, who was slightly on the sceptical side of the mainstream of NT scholarship:

“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died.” and “the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”

My question therefore is, do you base your views on the conclusions of historians like Sanders, or on something else?

4. I don’t doubt the accuracy of your assessment of the views of American evangelicalism, but that belief is not monolithic, it is not the whole world and it is just one time. Christianity is far far bigger, and there are many of us outside the US who think the US church has got serious problems. The Bible teaches “atonement”, and the fact that the words “penal substitutionary” are added means that those who hold this doctrine go beyond the Bible in some way. I and many others believe in the atonement and have no real problems with the ideas behind the PSA, we just don’t think that theological nit-picking is helpful or holistic.

My question is, are you simply aiming at American evangelicalism, or are you aiming to argue against all christianity? If the latter, what are your views about christians who (like me) believe in the atonement but are not so particular about defining it any further such as in the PSA?

I ask these questions because it seems to me that you have jumped from a particular form of christianity, one with which I am not well acquainted (I live in Australia), but which I view as somewhat unrepresentative. And I wonder why, having decided that form of christianity had problems for you, you threw the whole thing over rather than follow Jesus via a form of christianity that is more reasonable and (IMO) more Biblical? Babies and bathwater.

Thanks again, and best wishes.

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Ken Pulliam May 9, 2010 at 3:03 am

Joshua,

I think you are misunderstanding Rom. 2:15. Listen to Charles Hodge: “Their thoughts between themselves, accusing or excusing;” that is, “their moral judgments alternately approving or condemning.” This clause may be considered as merely an amplification of the previous one, so that the testimony of conscience is made to consist in these approving and disapproving judgments” (Commentary on Romans, p. 51). IOW, it’s not that they are having conflicting thoughts about the reliability of their conscience but that they are having conflicting thoughts about their actions . When they do right, their conscience approves them, and when they do wrong, their conscience condemns them. Paul is not intimating that there is anything wrong with the function of their conscience but with their behavior. If he were saying that the conscience was not reliable, then that would undermine his argument that God can justly judge the Gentiles because they have the “law written on their hearts.”

It is not clear that the OT sacrifices were thought of in terms of penal substitution. Even the book of Hebrews which interprets the death of Jesus specifically in light of the OT sacrifices does not make a clear case for penal sub. There is a concept of sacrifice and representation but not penal substitution. That is another whole issue which is beyond the scope of this post but which I will be exploring on my blog. There are some today who want to throw out the PST and adopt a representative, sacrificial theory of the atonement. The main problem with that, though, is it would be to ignore Paul’s teaching on the atonement as well as Peters (1 Pet. 2:24).

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chuck May 9, 2010 at 3:42 am

UncleE

You’ve aptly stated in your question #1 to Ken what defines Christianity as morally dubious to me. It relies on unquestioned obedience to authority regardless if that authority is operating within the objective bounds of morality or not. Secondarily, it authenticates emotional infantilization as a moral standard.

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unkleE May 9, 2010 at 6:02 am

UncleEYou’ve aptly stated in your question #1 to Ken what defines Christianity as morally dubious to me.It relies on unquestioned obedience to authority regardless if that authority is operating within the objective bounds of morality or not.Secondarily, it authenticates emotional infantilization as a moral standard.  

Chuck, I understand what you are saying about why you disbelieve, but you are unfortunately referring to something I didn’t say. But I suggest discussion is unlikely to get us anywhere, so I’ll leave it to you to work out where you have mis-read me. Best wishes.

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chuck May 9, 2010 at 6:25 am

UncleE

You suggested in your question some merit to be gained in submitting to authority whether one finds it morally sensible or not because god’s ways may be beyond our comprehension. Please correct where my interpretation is wrong.

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Ken Pulliam May 9, 2010 at 7:36 am

Eric,
Thanks. I appreciate the dialogue.

1. Yes, I accept the testimony of authorities all the time. For example, when I go to the doctor, I don’t ask to read his medical textbooks or journals to see how he has arrived at my diagnosis. However, I see a difference between this and accepting the testimony of the Bible. Accepting the Bible as God’s word requires several presuppositions that I don’t embrace (although I once did). If I had the same reason to trust the Bible as I do to trust my medical doctor, then the analogy would be valid. I realize that my medical doctor has graduated from an accredited medical college, has passed the exams to be licensed in my state, has a legitimate medical office with other doctors and nurses, and I know him personally and can ask him questions, etc. All of this causes me to have a justified belief in accepting him as an authority with regard to medical science. I don’t have this kind of evidence or reason to accept the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. It seems more likely to me that it is just the record of various men’s religious experiences and thoughts.

2. I have not ruled out the possibility of a supernatural being or force. I am an agnostic atheist which means that I don’t believe in any of the gods that men have postulated but I don’t know for certain that no god(s) of any kind might actually exist. The philosophical arguments for the existence of god(s) have some merit but not enough to firmly convince me that a god must exist and even if they did, it would not require belief in the God of the Bible.

My belief in Jesus as God’s Son and my Savior were based on my uncritical acceptance of the Bible as God’s word and the testimony of religious authorities to which I was exposed. Based on what these religious authorities told me the Bible meant, I trusted Christ as my savior and experienced a life transformation. Although only 18, I was guilty of some serious misdeeds and had adopted a very rebellious attitude toward my parents and other authorities. Upon my conversion, my life changed drastically and my old habits and my old friends disappeared.

So, my belief in Jesus was not based on “historical evidence.” I didn’t begin to examine this evidence until years later. After a long period, I finally came to the conclusion that the historical evidence is not substantial.

I realize that you probably conclude that I was never a “true” Christian to begin with–this is a very common conclusion that Christians draw. All I can say is that if I was not a true believer, then I am not sure anyone is.

3. I think I did comment on your point. I said that even though God’s aim was grace not justice, his actions must still be deemed just if his holy character is to be maintained. No matter how much good might come from an unjust act, it is still an unjust act. To paraphrase Paul, “Can we do wrong so that good will come?” His answer is an emphatic NO.

Yes, I do agree with the conclusions of men like E.P. Sanders. I think that a man named Jesus of Nazareth really existed in the first century and that he died by crucifixion and that some of his followers reported seeing him alive after his death.

4. I recognize that American evangelicalism (despite American hubris) is not the totality of conservative Christianity nor necessarily the “truest” form of Christianity. However, the PST did not originate in America. I think the seeds of the doctrine, if not the doctrine itself, is found in Paul’s writings. It was left to the Reformers and especially John Calvin to formulate the doctrine in a systematic fashion.

Virtually all conservative Christians since the Reformation have held to some form of the PST, even though they may not have understood all of its fine points. In other words, all conservative Christians believe that Jesus died for their sins, so that they could be forgiven. The logical deduction from this is that Jesus paid the penalty that we deserved.
I am focused primarily on American evangelicalism but I believe my criticisms apply to most conservative Christian theology. I have examined other forms of Christianity such as the neo-orthodox teachings of Karl Barth and the existentialist theology of Paul Tillich. I have fewer problems with those but at the end of the day, it seems to me that non-conservative Christians are merely “pretending” that the Bible is true. Although they reject its history and doctrines, they still find some inspirational benefit. I can acknowledge that there is some wisdom and insight in the Bible and especially in some of the teachings attributed to Jesus but I don’t see the need to adopt any of the trappings typically associated with organized religions.

I hope you find these answers helpful and pertinent to the questions you raised.

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Zeb May 9, 2010 at 9:01 am

Chuck, I’ll assume you were honestly asking a question. The physician in my metaphor is of course God, I am not claiming a “medically proven clinical benefit of theology” because it was a metaphor, and I was comparing any sort of harm to a person’s holistic well-being to the strictly physical decline that a physician advises to prevent. On this model God doesn’t punish in response disobedience of his admonishment any more than a physician does. If an eternity of suffering is a potential fate for a person (I doubt it is, but that’s not the subject at hand), a loving God might reveal to us how to avoid that harm among others. So divine command morality becomes not a set of arbitrary rules God chose out of his own preference, but a set of practical advice about how to reach and maintain spiritual, psychological, and physical welling. Here the only sin against God would be denying that he knows and wills what is good for us, but at worst he would merely allow us to decline his love out of respect for our freedom in the same way a physician would allow us to decide his treatment.

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chuck May 9, 2010 at 11:24 am

Thanks Zeb

That is what I thought you meant. I find it to be a bad analogy (metaphor?).

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unkleE May 9, 2010 at 3:47 pm

UncleEYou suggested in your question some merit to be gained in submitting to authority whether one finds it morally sensible or not because god’s ways may be beyond our comprehension.Please correct where my interpretation is wrong.  

Chuck, I think if you read over what I wrote and what you wrote, you will notice certain things that you said which I didn’t, and certain things which I said which you ignored. I think you can “correct where your interpretation is wrong” without my help. If you show me you have genuinely tried to do that, I will offer my comment. Sorry to be cute, but I think it will serve a useful purpose, so please indulge me. Best wishes.

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chuck May 9, 2010 at 3:50 pm

That’s OK UncleE. I feel I understand what you believe and I find it unethical.

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unkleE May 9, 2010 at 8:10 pm

That’s OK UncleE.I feel I understand what you believe and I find it unethical.  

On the contrary Chuck, you have quite misunderstood in what you have said, but if you are happy with that, I am not going to disturb your contentment! : )

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unkleE May 10, 2010 at 12:06 am

Ken

Thanks again. I think we are making progress of a sort.

1. We are agreed that authority is not necessarily a thing to be suspicious of, it is just that you do not accept the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels as an authority.

BTW you said in your original post: “if God’s ways are beyond our comprehension, how can we say anything definitively about God? “ But if you indeed accept the concept of authority, then this statement makes no sense as a criticism of christians who believe on Jesus’ authority, even though you do not. I can say something reasonably definitive about God because I believe in revelation and authority.

2. So this becomes the critical issue – whether you and I have good reasons to accept the authority of Jesus. And before I comment further, can I please double check what you are saying here. Are you saying that you completed a BA, MA and PhD in theology, all the time presumably attending church and living as a christian, and didn’t ever consider the historical evidence for Jesus and didn’t ever form a view that the philosophical arguments such as the cosmological and teleological arguments were true? (I’m not doubting what you say, nor trying to belittle you, just wanting to clarify I have understood you.)

Thanks too for your agreement with EP Sanders. That gives us some commonality from which we can discuss. The question then is: does this historical basis provide enough reason to trust in Jesus? (Next post)

BTW, just to clarify, you say” “I realize that you probably conclude that I was never a “true” Christian to begin with”. Let me reassure you, I would not say that because I cannot possibly know. I don’t think anyone can totally and unambiguously define what a true christian is and is not. You’ll note I asked you a question relating to that, but I didn’t make a statement.

3. Thanks for the clarification here. I don’t think you have adequately grappled with the implications of my question for your arguments, but I don’t propose to follow through further on that. But you say: “even though God’s aim was grace not justice, his actions must still be deemed just if his holy character is to be maintained”, and surely this is a logical mistake!? Surely the true statement is “God’s actions must be actually just” – what we deem may be quite mistaken and irrelevant!

So we come to this point again – does our lack of understanding of something equate to an argument against it? I can see that it may, but it would seem an amazing piece of hubris to me to think my inability to understand God should overcome all the good reasons I have to believe. So again it comes back to reasons to believe and trust.

4. I think unfortunately that on this matter you may have given up your belief but you still seem to be thinking like a fundamentalist. I mean no insult, I just find it common that ex-believers often criticise beliefs as if the only alternatives are fundamentalism or nothing.

It should be obvious to us all that if God exists, we will not be capable of fully understanding him, and much of our thinking and language about him will be analogical. And so we may crave certainty, but we have instead a more fuzzy understanding. When I say many/most christians don’t believe in the PSA with the rigour of you Southern Baptists, I have tried to make it clear that I don’t mean that they reject it either. It is a more fluid and less theologically defined thing.

So your arguments are like water off a duck’s back to me because the issue isn’t as important or clearly defined to me as it is to you – I believe in the atonement but I don’t really care about the PSA. You didn’t answer my question about who you are aiming at, so I’ll just have to assume you are not aiming at me. : )

Well, I too appreciate the courteous dialogue. I think I have one more post left in me, after you confirm (if you are willing) the question I asked in 2 above. Then I think I can sum up. Thanks again.

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chuck May 10, 2010 at 3:21 am

UncleE you are a regular christian who holds Divine Comman Morality as his highest ethic. I find this to be a mistaken moral philosophy. You are really no different in principle to the American christians you think you differ from.

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unkleE May 10, 2010 at 4:52 am

UncleE you are a regular christian who holds Divine Comman Morality as his highest ethic.I find this to be a mistaken moral philosophy.You are really no different in principle to the American christians you think you differ from.  

Well Chuck, thanks for explaining what you think. It was quite a surprise to me:

(1) I don’t know that I said anything about morality, and certainly not DCM.
(2) I’m not even sure I know what you mean by it, and I didn’t know what it meant at all until I looked it up at this site – http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/christian-ethics/divine-command-theory/
(3) I don’t actually believe it as I find it stated.

So there you go. Perhaps some other things you think about me are wrong also???

But thanks for at least clarifying what you think.

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Chuck May 10, 2010 at 5:03 am

UncleE your rhetorical question to Ken regarding how one might find worth in unquestioned obedience to god is Divine Command Theory. It is a shame that a person professing his faith on a public board is unaware of the theological ground which affords him that profession.

And you wonder why many of us have difficulty trusting the truth of god claims?

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unkleE May 10, 2010 at 5:33 am

UncleE your rhetorical question to Ken regarding how one might find worth in unquestioned obedience to god is Divine Command Theory.It is a shame that a person professing his faith on a public board is unaware of the theological ground which affords him that profession.And you wonder why many of us have difficulty trusting the truth of god claims?  

I’m sorry Chuck, but you’ve got it wrong again. I never said that and I don’t believe it. Please read the post again and see what I actually said. If you can’t do that, I don’t think I will reply again. Sorry.

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chuck May 10, 2010 at 5:51 am

Your words UncleE

“My point here was simply that it sometimes makes sense to trust authority, especially if we don’t understand the matter in question.”

AKA Divine Command Ethics

You might want to re-read what you wrote and revise “your point” if you wish not to be mistaken.

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Ken Pulliam May 10, 2010 at 7:03 am

Eric,
Thanks and I agree we are getting to the end of the road in this exchange. Nevertheless, I appreciate the dialogue.

1. Yes, we are agreed that one is justified in accepting the testimony of authorities as long as one has sufficient reasons to believe that the person(s) is an authority on the subject under question. I don’t find sufficient reasons to believe that the Bible speaks authoritatively for God. I believe it represents the musings of primitive man about his religious experiences. The Bible is not unique in recording such musings.

When I said, “if God’s ways are beyond our comprehension, how can we say anything definitively about God?” I meant that one cannot know if what they are saying about God is true or not because he is so far above our comprehension. We may think that we have some partial truth about him, but when that partial truth contradicts other partial truths, the Christian “punts” to the idea of mystery and God’s ways being higher than man’s ways. This is precisely what is happening, in my opinion, when it comes to the PST of the atonement. Part of what we know from “revelation” is that it is unjust to punish an innocent person and yet another part of what we know is that God did this with regard to Jesus. To me, its a clear contradiction. To the Christian, its a mystery.

2. Yes I thought some about the philosophical arguments and about the historical evidence but not in a questioning way but rather as just further confirmation of my faith commitment. For a period of time, I never questioned my faith. I figured that anyone who was critical of the Bible was unsaved and did not have the Spirit of God and could not understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 21:14). They were blinded by the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4).

3. You ask: does our lack of understanding of something equate to an argument against it?. No, but as I pointed out before, I do understand what is happening here, at least according to the NT. God is pouring out his wrath on an innocent person so that the guilty can be forgiven. Since I am convinced that punishing an innocent in place of the guilty is not just (and I am not alone here, I think virtually every person on earth would agree), then I can only conclude that (1) God is somehow just even though I can’t understand it; or (2) the rules don’t apply to God, or (3) God is not just. If (1) is correct, then we need to change our definition of what is just and right and realize that our moral intuitions have been wrong all along on this matter and we should start allowing the innocent to die in the place of the guilty. If (2) is correct, then our concepts of “just” and “right” don’t apply to God. If (3) is correct, then God is not a righteous God.

4. I realize that there are other views of the atonement but I think that the PST is clearly taught by Paul and Peter and therefore to jettison it, is to jettison their writings. I think some have very creatively come up with ways to harmonize their teachings with other views of the atonement, but I don’t find them convincing.

If this matter of the atonement, were the only problem I had with evangelical Christianity, I might not have deconverted but it is really the tip of the iceberg. I have a host of irresolvable problems which I am systematically addressing on my blog.

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unkleE May 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Your words UncleE“My point here was simply that it sometimes makes sense to trust authority, especially if we don’t understand the matter in question.”AKA Divine Command EthicsYou might want to re-read what you wrote and revise “your point” if you wish not to be mistaken.  

Chuck,

Thanks for going back and checking. Yet somehow you didn’t notice these differences:

(1) I said “it sometimes makes sense to trust authority” and “if I have reason to believe an apparent authority”. You suggested I had advocated “unquestioned obedience to authority”, “submitting to authority whether one finds it morally sensible or not” and “unquestioned obedience to god”.

Do you notice the difference between “reasons” and “sometimes makes sense” vs “unquestioned” and “sensible or not”?

2. I was talking in each case about belief – how we know things (in this case, how we can know about the atonement). You keep saying I’m talking about ethics. Again, I’m sure you can see the difference between belief and ethics. (Yes they are related but they are not the same.)

So let me conclude two things from this little discussion.

(i) I do not believe in DCM as I currently understand it from the reference I gave you. I think the New Testament teaches against it.

(ii) Somehow you seemed to have formed the view that all christians believe in DCM. You seem to have applied that stereotype to me, ignored what I actually wrote and resolutely refuse to take my word for it that I don’t believe it. There is a little “moral” in this for you I suggest.

As (I presume) an atheist, you probably believe in basing everything on evidence and reason. Yet in this case your preconceptions have apparently led you to faulty reason based on misinterpreted evidence.

I suggest to you that this is not the only time you may do this. Perhaps many other of your beliefs are similarly based on faulty reason and misinterpretation of evidence, but your preconceptions don’t allow you to see it. Doubtless you will deny this, but I’ll leave you to think about it.

Best wishes, and thank you for allowing me to make these points.

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chuck May 10, 2010 at 1:24 pm

UncleE, I don’t see any contradiction in what you’ve stated and DCM. How do you question god when surrendering to his authority? Is there a celestial peer review process? In your analogy with physicists the authority I might defer to does not hold information beyond the scope of human intelligence, god does. The only way you can defer to god’s authority on issues like salvation (a moral concern) is to submit with unquestioned obedience. You obey god as an authority with no mechanism to question that authority. Hence, unquestioning submission to authority. You can play with words and start parsing things like belief etc . . . but you’ve already adnitted when faced with an event that is confusing to your moral sense you defer to the god is right strategy. You can say you don’t follow DCM but sure as heck sounds like you do.

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unkleE May 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Ken,

Yes, I think it is time for me to summarise what I have learnt and how I respond. Thank you for your courtesy and willingness to answer my questions. It has been interesting, albeit a little sad from my perspective, to hear of your journey.

(a) I find your whole approach to christian doctrine, especially the atonement, to be somewhat black and white and unrealistic. I presume this is a result of your former beliefs (Southern baptist evangelicalism seems to be a bit inflexible) but I am surprised that after a PhD and loss of faith that you retain this.

You seem to be treating doctrine and the Bible as if they were scientific truths about things we can fully understand – you talk of the reformers formulating the doctrine in “systematic fashion”, “logical deduction” and the Bible being “true” in some over-literalistic sense, and quote from Scripture as if our understanding of God can be linear and complete, etc. But as I’ve already said, it is obvious that our knowledge of God must in many senses be analogical, and this surely applies to the atonement.

Therefore we must expect the explanations we are given to be nuanced, with different analogies used to teach different aspects of the truth. A small parallel is the Physics understanding of light as sometimes analogically seen as particles and sometimes as wave energy. Or of atoms as solid nucleii surrounded by orbiting electrons, again an analogical picture of a mathematical “reality”.

I’ll try another analogy. Some years back I went to an exhibition of Monet paintings which included dozens of pictures of a haystack, exploring the effects of different light. Same haystack, but different look, each showing something slightly different. If you treat the Bible teachings about God a little more like that, which is eminently reasonable, you wouldn’t fall into such misunderstanding as you have done.

Once you recognise this, the finer points of arguing one view of the atonement against another or against human concepts of justice can be seen as folly and pointless. Not because the PSA or any other formulations aren’t true in some sense, but because theologians with hubris try to systematise things by eliminating some truths and over-define others. The surprising thing is that you continue this approach even after you don’t believe any of it!

Thus your polemic against the PSA might be relevant to a pedantic southern Baptist evangelical (but unlikely to impact on them) but is irrelevant to me and (I suggest) most christians.

(b) You said in your first post that: “I deconverted from Christianity in 1996 because of inconsistencies within Christian doctrine ….. [including] that Jesus Christ died for sinners.” I probed this a little and you have now said: “If this matter of the atonement, were the only problem I had with evangelical Christianity, I might not have deconverted but it is really the tip of the iceberg.” and ” thought some about the philosophical arguments and about the historical evidence but not in a questioning way”

Obviously I cannot say with any certainty, but it seems to me that your loss of faith was caused more by it being poorly based in the first place. I am not blaming you for that – if you are taught to believe without good reasons and then question your beliefs without fully considering the reasons, you are likely to end up where you did. But I think it points again to your argument from the atonement being irrelevant to belief – it is other arguments that really matter.

(c) It seems from your answers to my questions that you jumped from a fairly fundamentalist belief to no belief, and didn’t really consider other options (another example of what seems to be a binary black and white approach). You haven’t presented any real justification for this. From the outside, it looks like your defection from the faith was as little based on reason as your faith was. (I can’t say what the truth was, just how it seems from your comments.) Perhaps you have firmed up your reasons since then, just as your fellow southern Baptists will have firmed up their faith, but just as there may be an element of self-fulfilment about their conclusions, I am left with the impression that may also be true of you.

(d) So it all comes down to the evidence and reasons for belief or unbelief. We haven’t discussed that, and now isn’t the time to start. But again, you seem to show a black and white approach.

You look for the philosophical arguments to provide certainty (you want them to “firmly convince me that a god must exist”) when they can only provide probability – and do so well in my opinion.

Likewise, you accept the historical evidence for the basics of Jesus’ life and the early belief in the resurrection, which ought to be enough to confirm that the gospel writers were interested in reporting truth, yet the lack of certainty apparently leads you to a view that you can’t trust them, and hence, implicitly, to explanations of the historical facts that are less believable than the christian belief.

Finally, you seem able to forget some of your deep life experiences (“Upon my conversion, my life changed drastically”) in favour of basing your life on doubting things you can’t understand.

I think your unbelief is on what appears to me to be very shaky grounds. There is nowhere in this life the certainty that you seem to want, but I suggest there are good reasons to believe you have jumped right across the truth from one mistaken view to an even more mistaken view.

I am truly sympathetic to the difficulties of your earlier life and subsequent defection, and I would dearly like to help you find what I believe is truth way beyond where you started and where you finished. But that is up to you. But may I suggest focusing on your misunderstandings and doubts about the atonement is not the best place for you to be. Please consider giving God, via the evidence and reason of philosophy and history, another opportunity to show you a better way.

I hope I haven’t been too direct or personal here, but when you critique something which I hold dear, you may expect me to critique your views in return. I hope I have been as courteous as you have been to me.

Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to respond to your two “sermons” with one of my own! : )

Best wishes.

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unkleE May 10, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Chuck,

You are a persistent person! But I am pleased to see that you are now trying to engage with me rather than tell me what I think. That is progress. Thanks.

But you seem to have a poor understanding of christianity (at least as I see it) and you are still making some unfounded assumptions. Let me explain my view (for what it’s worth):

“How do you question god when surrendering to his authority?”

Firstly, it is you who have raised the issues of questioning God and unquestioned obedience, I haven’t. But let’s talk about them since they are important to you.

You have to realise that talking of questioning God is a bit of a misnomer. We are not face-to-face with God to question him. What we are actually doing is questioning whether something is actually from God or not. And the Bible tells us to do this. 1 John 4:1: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God”

CS Lewis said something similar, to the effect that, if God and truth seem to be in different directions, follow truth, and you’ll find that was where God was all along.

“The only way you can defer to god’s authority on issues like salvation (a moral concern) is to submit with unquestioned obedience.”

This is logically quite incorrect. It is possible to question whether revelation carries God’s authority, to form a reasoned conclusion on that matter, and then to accept the teaching thoughtfully. That is very different to what you have said and that is what I try to do. There are doubtless other ways one could feasibly respond as well. Your strong statement seems to me to be an assumption, without foundation.

“You obey god as an authority with no mechanism to question that authority.”

So you see this is quite wrong. I obey what I believe on reason to be God and I am told to question and test that belief. Quite the opposite of your repeated assumptions.

“you’ve already adnitted when faced with an event that is confusing to your moral sense you defer to the god is right strategy”

I’m sorry, but wrong again. I use reason to assess and I seek for my moral sense to be “right”. I defer to what I believe is God if that “advice” passes the tests and seems both reasonable and in keeping with other truths. But I am willing to defer when reason tells me to.

“You can say you don’t follow DCM but sure as heck sounds like you do.”

I am not contesting that it seems like that to you, but I am saying that you seem to have allowed a fixation on this teaching to prevent you from reading what I am actually saying. Let’s go over it.

(1) The definition at the Philosophy of Religion website says: “According to divine command theory, things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands.” I do not believe that.

(2) You speak of “unquestioning acceptance” but I believe we should question.

(3) You have spoken of “sensible or not” whereas I believe we have to apply reason.

So, do you think you can finally find it in yourself to give up this fixation and accept that I do not indeed believe in DCT and all that you think follows from that. You have made a lot of statements as if you know what I believe, but almost everyone has been quite mistaken. You have allowed your assumptions to get in the way of the evidence.

May I again suggest two thoughts to you:

(1) How do you know you haven’t approached your atheism in the same way, finding what you wanted to find rather than what the evidence indicates?

(2) Your experience and rejection of christianity seems to me to be based on unrepresentative and not very thoughtful versions. What if, in your eagerness to believe atheism, you have overlooked the truth of true christianity?

I hope that we can leave this matter here now. “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.”

Best wishes.

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chuck May 10, 2010 at 11:56 pm

UncleE

Do you believe punishing the innocent for the guilty is just?

That is what Christ’s propitiate sacrifice entails.

If you don’t then why not?

Your entire argument rests on analogy whereby God’s choices must resemble those of physicists for us to accept their counter intuitive claims. It is a poor analogy because doubt with difficult human knowledge is balanced by things like peer review. When God commands certain counter intuitive truths there is no such mechanism. One either accepts one’s intuition or, blindly obeys God. You have said as much when you appealed to analogy in illustrating God’s ultimate knowledge with your argument from ignorance pertaining to physics. Just because you can’t comprehend certain theories of physics does not mean they can’t be comprehended. Not so much with God’s dictates (which you admit. ) How does your reason navigate your confusion when moral contradictions demand a distinction between your intuition and God’s commands? You told us, you give over to God’s authority much like you give over to the physicists. Which is right and proper in regards to what Christianity teaches. It is also a clear illustration of Divine Command Morality. God says so so it is so. Your need to quote the Bible is further proof that you believe this theory.

I have to say that I do follow Lewis’ advice and have concluded that Christianity is not what it claims.

Also, your entire defense of your faith rests on your idiosyncratic definition of Christian. Ken rightly states that to follow your interpretation of PST invalidates all of Paul and most of Peter.

I’d say that zken and I both have a much clearer understanding of the religion you profess than you.

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unkleE May 11, 2010 at 1:01 am

G’day Chuck, let’s do one thing at a time. I have said repeatedly that I do not believe in DCT as outlined in the page I quoted. I have explained how I don’t think several things you have been sure I did believe. Before we go any further, do you now concede that these are in fact my views and you have wrongly assumed something else? Thanks.

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Chuck May 11, 2010 at 3:45 am

unkleE,

I can only determine what you believe by your arguments and your defense of your faith betrays your denial of DCT.

We have a saying here in the States, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, odds are it is a duck.”

I’d suggest you do a deeper study of the faith you wish Ken and I would examine and better understand the meta-ethical implications of deferring to supernatural agency as the ultimate good.

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unkleE May 11, 2010 at 5:32 am

Well Chuck, I guess this is the end. If I can tell you what I think and you won’t believe me because you have a preconceived view of what I should think, then there is no purpose in even discussing. I did suggest right from the first that discussion might not get anywhere, and it seems that I was right. Farewell.

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chuck May 11, 2010 at 5:38 am

unkleE

I’d suggest you check yourself and recognize the ideas your arguments imply. A gentleman says what he means and means what he says. I find your refutation of your philosophy for the sake of your faith incoherent and prideful. Your hubris dangerous.

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Ken Pulliam May 11, 2010 at 6:17 am

Eric,

Thanks again for the dialogue. You said: Thus your polemic against the PSA might be relevant to a pedantic southern Baptist evangelical (but unlikely to impact on them) but is irrelevant to me and (I suggest) most christians.

Yes, my arguments are from within the conservative evangelical worldview and are an attempt to show that within that particular view, the PST is internally inconsistent.

I fully realize that if one is not within that particular view, the arguments will not be as effective. I do disagree with you, however, that my arguments are irrelevant to most Christians . They are definitely relevant to the majority of evangelical Christians, in my opinion.

As far as the search for “truth,” I have not given up. I doubt that any form of Christianity holds the truth, however, and I am skeptical that metaphysical truth can be attained by humans in any definitive way.

Thanks again and best wishes to you.

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unkleE May 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Thanks Ken, I wish you all the best.

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Ken Pulliam May 11, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Eric,

I just came across an article which I think illustrates my point about the PST being crucial to evangelical Christianity. It is written by Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is certainly not a typical American fundamentalist. Yet he says:

But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if we
do not believe that Christ has in his death exhausted the punishment that we would otherwise face, then we cannot be certain of escaping the consequences of our sin
.

The Cross and Substitutionary Atonement

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unkleE May 11, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I just came across an article which I think illustrates my point about the PST being crucial to evangelical Christianity.

Thanks Ken. It is good you have raised this because it does allow some clarification. I don’t think I found anything there that I disagree strongly with, though I may have missed something on first reading. Without wanting to re-engage, let me make clear three points I had tried to make previously but may have been unclear.

1. I believe strongly in the centrality of the atonement to my faith and to christianity. So I agree with the writer: “the centrality of the atonement to Christian doctrine requires that we continue to preach it and teach it”

2. I do not believe the explanation or theological model is nearly as important. In fact I believe that much of what we know about God is analogical due to our finite minds, and that the many different explanations (substitution, propitiation, ransom, demonstration of love, example, defeating evil, etc) all add nuances to our understanding rather than compete with each other.

I note that the author of the paper agree with this:

“The focus here will be on the aspect of the atonement usually termed “substitution”
“penal substitution does not push aside other models of the atonement”

3. I believe our human limitations require us to be humble about our ability to understand this doctrine. Therefore I am uncomfortable with those who seek to limit christian thinking to one teaching (or one analogy), or are overly prescriptive in giving explanations that go way beyond the revelation we have, or are overly dependent on analogies to human culture. Again the author agrees with some of this:

“penal substitution does not push aside other models of the atonement”
“Weston objects that over-use of emotive illustrations often leads the hearer away from the biblical text”

This means that I agree with CS Lewis , who took a similar line to my #1 & #2, and I disagree with those US evangelicals who take the path I reject in #3. So it also means I disagree with you who also takes the same path, yet from a disbelieving viewpoint.

So thanks for the paper. I think it actually takes a similar line to what I was (obviously imperfectly) taking, and is contra your line. But the clarification is hopefully helpful for both of us.

Thanks again.

PS Just curiosity. What does a PhD Bible teacher do when they lose faith? You obviously couldn’t go on teaching. Bart Ehrman stayed a NT scholar, John Loftus seems to be trying to make a living from writing, and another ex-pastor I know is now training as an English teacher. What did you end up doing?

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Ken Pulliam May 12, 2010 at 2:33 am

Eric,

Thanks. The only thing I would add is that while the PST might not be the ONLY model for the atonement in Scripture, most everyone agrees that it is at least ONE of the models. If even ONE of the models is in error, then that creates problems with the accuracy of the revelation, in my opinion.

I would be curious what you might think of one very left-leaning evangelical scholar whom I know who says that the PST was an accommodation by God to the mindset of 1st century man. It should not be taken in a literal sense just as he does not take Gen 1-2 literally. He agrees with me that the PST is very problematic and he rejects it BUT he admits that it is taught in Scripture (although not the only model taught)/

Regarding my vocation, yes that was a problem. I continued in the ministry for a couple of years with very serious doubts. The last six months, my faith was completely gone. I didn’t know what to do. I had a wife and two children and no marketable skills. Fortunately, my brother in law approached me during this time (he was unaware of my doubts) and suggested we go into business together. It worked out well. I now have my own business doing the same thing–executive recruiting.

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unkleE May 12, 2010 at 4:08 am

Ken

Thanks for your further thoughts. I feel it is pleasant and useful to continue discussing a little longer now we have both made our positions clear.

Yes, I agree it is one of the models, perhaps even the most important one. (I can’t say very definitely because I haven’t studied the matter all that much, my interests are in apologetics, historical Jesus and practical mission, helping people, etc.) But your comment ” If even ONE of the models is in error” is illustrative of where I disagree with what I see as a black and white approach. If (as I am suggesting) the various models of the atonement are each incomplete but add to our understanding, then each must also fail to fully represent the reality. But it is a mistake to take one view of the doctrine and make it the whole reality, as if San Antonio is nothing more than the Alamo.

As for “error”, that is your word, but what you are describing is not an error but something you cannot understand, and which, because you over-emphasise the parallels with human justice, you unfortunately (IMO) misrepresent. So that’s how I see it.

“I would be curious what you might think of one very left-leaning evangelical scholar ….. “

I think the atonement is just the tip of the iceberg – how should a christian interpret the whole Old Testament? I have only given this matter a little thought and very little study (though I’m hoping to get a book soon to help me a little), but it seems to me there is a range of views a thoughtful christian could take, from complete acceptance on its face value, God is boss, get used to it, right through to it’s all legends. In the middle of those views are two that seem most consistent to me, namely progressive revelation (it’s all from God but develops) and the one you mention (it’s all from God but he adapted himself to the times, like an adult talking to a baby).

I don’t feel able to make a choice about that matter yet. But the OT sacrificial system would then be the beginning of God’s unfolding revelation, either what he planned all along (first option) or what he found most appropriate for the situation (second option). But either way, the sacrificial system would still have something to teach us today. I believe the NT teaches that the entire OT law is no longer in force for anyone who wishes to enter the kingdom (Luke 16:16), so it has teaching value but isn’t operative.

This bears on the atonement, and I think you can see how my views hold together there.

I’m glad you found work and have a successful (presumably) business. You would have been under two conflicting ethics, to be honest and to care for your family, and that would have been a hard place to be.

Best wishes to you.

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Chuck May 12, 2010 at 4:51 am

unkleE,

Can you explain to me how your theology is not an exercise in ad hoc rationalization arguing from ignorance?

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Shakma August 22, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I believe the NT teaches that the entire OT law is no longer in force for anyone who wishes to enter the kingdom (Luke 16:16), so it has teaching value but isn’t operative

What about Matt 5:18? Don’t the laws of the Old Testament endure? Thats what that seems to be saying. Leviticus 23 seems to be pretty clear regarding its rules: “it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.” Seems pretty eternal. Even Luke 16:17 seems to contradict Luke 16:16.

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unkleE August 24, 2011 at 3:58 am

G’day Shakma,

I think you have misunderstood me (perhaps I wasn’t very clear). The OT laws do endure, they are “statutes forever”, but my point is that they are only applicable to those under that covenant. As a christian, I am not under the covenant with the Jews, and even Jews have a choice of covenant, as Luke 16:16 makes clear. And God made it clear which covenant he wants for us when the temple (necessary for the old covenant) was destroyed in AD 70. I am happy with that, because the old covenant didn’t work so well, as Jesus and Paul make clear, but the new one is wonderful. If you want to read more, check out The Old Testament law and christians. Best wishes.

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