Today I was listening to the “Unbelievable” broadcast from this past Easter weekend in which Steve Jeffrey (co-author of Pierced for our Transgressions) and Alan Molineaux debated the penal substitution view (theory? metaphor? it wasn’t clear) of atonement. Halfway into the discussion Molineaux, who objected to penal substitution, centered in on one of the central objections: the concept of guilt imputation is incoherent. I have typed up a transcript for Jeffrey’s reply, followed by Molineaux’s rejoinder and Jeffrey’s final response to this section. For those who want to hear the exchange you can advance to 40:42 into the podcast and begin listening.
Jeffrey: “What we need to figure out is how is it just for God to punish Jesus for my sins. Granted that the biblical material says Jesus was punished, how is that just? This is something that evangelicals in the last forty or fifty years, underemphasized. Uh, by underemphasizing this theological connection they’ve opened the door, we’ve opened the door, to this kind of question and misunderstanding. And many people have rejected penal substitution for this reason so its worth explaining. The Bible says that Jesus is not a distinct and separate third party. It’s not that God blasted somebody who had nothing to do with us. Quite the contrary. Jesus is one with his people. He is the head and we are the members. He is the vine and we are the branches. He is the foundation and we are stones in the temple. He is the husband and we are the bride. We are one with him. And that connection means that we’re not distinct and separate people. It’s not like you going to prison for my parking fines that [are] unpaid …. It’s not like that cause you and I are not connected in this way. Jesus, however, is one with us. And therefore, quite contrary to any human law court it is perfectly just for him to stand in as our representative because we were in him and he was in us.”
Molineaux: “Just by joining together the fact that Christ and I are now one is not enough to say that my debt has been met in Christ when he was the innocent one … because … whoever takes my place, you cannot transfer guilt to that other person. It’s impossible to do that. They didn’t do it. Justice has not been done. You will not find an example that fully satisfies that justice has been done in that context. Impossible to do.”
Jeffrey: “You will not find an example among people precisely because that relationship isn’t there. There’s something unique about the relationship between the head and the members of the body, Christ the husband and his bride, the Church.”
Jeffrey is a very articulate and informed defender of penal substitution. That makes the sheer vacuity of his response to Molineaux’s challenge on this specific point all the more disappointing.
Vacuous? Yes indeed. vacuous. adj. “without contents; empty”.
And Jeffrey’s response really is empty. The simple fact is that despite all his verbiage he simply has no answer whatsoever to the objection that guilt imputation is an incoherent concept. More particularly, he has no answer apart from saying “Our relationship with Jesus is unique.” This, of course, is completely at odds with the long list of metaphors he piles up as putative explanations from various directions of that in which our relationship with Jesus consists. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with the nature of the problem. Molineaux’s critique would have been stronger if he would have presented an analogy to illustrate the problem. Consider this illustration I use in my 2011 article “The Death of Jesus, the rape of a woman, and a concept called ‘Imputation‘”. Here I’ll quote it at some length:
Tragically enough, a terrible illustration of the problem [with the concept of guilt imputation] surfaced this week. On Maundy Thursday Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued what appears to be a heinous decision on the guilt of six men in a gang rape. The precise details of their decision are not our concern. But this is: the evil event in question occurred in 2002 when a young woman in Pakistan was sentenced to be gang-raped as punishment for the crimes of her brother. You heard me right. Her brother committed some sort of indiscretion. And as punishment, his sins were imputed to her so that she was sentenced with gang rape.
Think about that. But don’t get preoccupied with the issue of rape. In fact, imagine for a second that instead of being sentenced to gang rape she was sentenced to a brutal crucifixion. Oh and also imagine that she willingly accepted her fate for the love of her brother. She agreed that she should be crucified for his indiscretions.
How you would raise a moral voice of protest to the notion that the sins of a brother could be imputed to his sister. You would consider that a moral absurdity. Even if his sister willfully accepted the blame for his sins you would protest. Why? Because she didn’t commit the sins. If she is not guilty she cannot be punished for them, whether the punishment for the crime is gang rape, crucifixion, or a year’s probation. The guilty party must be responsible for their own crime.
I offer this not as a blasmphemous [sic] attempt to lampoon popular piety but rather as a reasoned appeal for Christians the world over who appeal to penal substitution every good friday [sic] to rethink the logic of what it is they are commemorating on this, the most holy of days.
This is the nature of the problem. We recognize immediately that it is wrong to crucify a young woman for the sinful actions of her brother precisely because the guilt of one individual cannot be imputed (or credited) to another. Consequently, if a woman were willingly crucified for the sins of her brother, this would not constitute a satisfaction of justice. On the contrary, it would constitute yet another atrocity.
So then how does guilt imputation (i.e. our sin imputed to Christ) make sense as an explanation of the atonement?
Let’s go back to Jeffrey’s opening statement. He is no novice when it comes to defending penal substitution and so he is quite aware that challenges to the coherence of guilt imputation will arise. His explanation begins with an air of confidence that the objection has arisen from the failure of evangelicals to emphasize something. But what, exactly? Jeffrey never makes this clear (or at least as clear as I’d like) but as best I can surmise the alleged problem is that evangelicals have failed to emphasize oneness in Christ (or union with Christ). (The phrase en christo or en Kurio appear dozens of times in the Pauline and Johannine writings.)
So how is it right to punish Christ for our sins? Because as Jeffrey explains: “The Bible says that Jesus is not a distinct and separate third party. It’s not that God blasted somebody who had nothing to do with us. Quite the contrary. Jesus is one with his people.”
In this passage Jeffrey is apparently making a claim that Jesus is not a distinct agent over-against the human persons with which he is united. But what can this possibly mean?
Here’s one possibility. Let’s say I ask you whether you know Dave the mathematician. You say no, but you do know Dr. Green the mathematician. I then reply, “But Dave the mathematician is identical to Dr. Green the mathematician. They’re the same guy.” Then it would follow that whatever Dave did Dr. Green did because Dave just is Dr. Green.
Surely this cannot be what Jeffrey means. So what could he possibly mean when he says Jesus is not a distinct and separate third party? His explanation, such as it is, ultimately comes in the statement that “Jesus is one with his people.” Then he goes on to provide four analogies, presumably to explain what this means: Jesus is the head and we are the parts of the body. He is the vine and we’re the branches. He’s the foundation and we’re the stones. He’s the husband and we’re the bride.
I don’t need to tell you that none of these provides any explanation at all as to how affirming that Jesus is one with his people could make guilt imputation coherent. Indeed, the first three are non-starters as analogies because none of them appeal to agents. Heads and body parts, vines and branches, and building stones do not act as moral agents and thus as a means to illumine the concept of guilt imputation each is a complete misfire. The only one that has any hope of providing illumination is husband and wife. And of course this too is a complete failure for nobody thinks it makes sense to execute a wife for her husband’s crime.
Molineaux rightly sees that this long, rambling and yet surprisingly confident “explanation” of guilt imputation is really smoke and mirrors, and says as much.
Incredibly Jeffrey then effectively concedes the point by reiterating in his final response: “There’s something unique about the relationship between the head and the members of the body, Christ the husband and his bride, the Church.” At this point he tacitly admits that these are not explanatory analogies at all. Rather, they are biblical descriptions of something-we-know-not-what.
Frankly, this kind of response frustrates me for it seems disingenuous. It seems like Jeffrey tries to get the listener to believe he has some informative analogy for guilt imputation and then when challenged concedes that he really doesn’t, at which point he simply punts to mystery.
Punt to mystery if you must, but at least be upfront that this is what you’re doing at the outset. And then we can have a good discussion about the epistemology of mystery and whether this really is a justified appeal to mystery. In short, that would consist of a discussion of which of the following is true:
(1) we can’t see how guilt imputation could be true.
(2) we can see that guilt imputation can’t be true.
We can indeed debate (1) and (2). But let us not pretend, as Jeffrey does, that we have a third option:
(3) We can see that guilt imputation can be true.
because as this exchange makes eminently clear, no third option presently exists.