Is Anselmian Satisfaction an Improvement on Penal Substitution? by Paul Sloan

First of all, I want to extend my thanks to Stephanie and Jonathan – the curators of this fair blog – for the opportunity to respond to the esteemed Drs. Farris and Hamilton. I myself am a friend and Houston Baptist University colleague of Joshua, though I’ve not had the opportunity to meet Mark (if I may). I very much enjoyed their recent post on the dissatisfaction with satisfaction, and I interpreted their closing paragraph as an invitation to dialogue. Though the reader will soon discover that I disagree with some features, material and otherwise, of their post, I want to make clear at the outset that I agree with one of their fundamental themes: giving up penal substitution is not giving up the gospel. That would be akin to denying that certain foods nourish because one does not affirm or understand how such foods nourish. To be sure, negative consequences of misunderstanding nutrition may obtain (thus how much more so the cross?), but I affirm with my kinsmen according to the faith that to trust Jesus is not synonymous with affirming penal substitution. For the gospel is not a description of how Jesus’ death (and resurrection, ascension, and enthronement) rescues the world, but that it does so. Said differently, in loose parity with a favorite teacher of mine: the gospel is not a theory or advice, it is news.

In my brief response, I hope to describe quickly areas of agreement and disagreement, raise some questions, and, in a subsequent post with Blogos, to put forward an alternative understanding.

But I should add one important note before beginning: their post targets penal substitution (PSA), not necessarily penal representation (PRA), and the latter is partially what I advocate. Though there is certainly a distinction between substitution and representation, I think that the issues they’ve raised apply to both. For example, they target PSA’s focus on the “assuaging of wrath;” however, “assuaging of wrath” is an element of PRA as well. So though I advocate more of a representational view, I feel at liberty to discuss the points they make about a substitutional view because a few, but not all, of their critiques about PSA equally apply to my view of PRA. So without further ado, I begin with agreements.

First, I agree that there is more to “atonement” than the assuaging of God’s wrath.

Second, I happily agree that Jesus’ love for the Father motivates His mission of salvation. I would perhaps say more than that, but not less.

Third, I concur that Jesus’ life provides a model or example of “how to love and honor the Father.” (I do not think, however, that such an affirmation is a strike against PSA/PRA any more than affirming the goodness of oranges cancels out the goodness of apples. Nonetheless, to quote that favorite teacher once more: their point is good as far as it goes).

Fourth, I agree that PSA is not the uniform view of the early Fathers, nor even the uniform Reformed understanding. Consequently, I agree with their suggestion (or perhaps their plea?) that Christians (particularly of the Reformed variety) should be able to “happily co-exist under the guise of one Reformed theological tradition” without affirming identical articulations of the atonement.

But you didn’t open this post to read about our agreement. So let me turn to my issues of disagreement in hopes of continuing the dialogue.

First, I found it difficult to ascertain the grounds from which their argument was being put forward. The early stages of the post question the capacity to argue “for the truth about the atonement” from the biblical data. The amount of biblical data is too great, they claim, and its articulations too varied, to come to defensible conclusions. And they disparage (I don’t think the word is too strong) recent attempts to argue from Scripture by reducing such attempts to “assertions” and “pastorally enthusiastic exposition” of certain key texts. I’m not quite sure that’s a fair description of the best of what’s available (even at the popular level). Their second move was to question the ability to argue from tradition. Fair enough – the tradition is varied indeed. (Though I note once more their tendency to describe the efforts of those who argue for the presence of PSA pre-Calvin as “assertion”). Finally, they turn to personal experience. They rightly question the capacity of the latter to function as a meaningful basis by which to adjudicate the truthfulness of a given atonement theory. But this left me curious: what is the basis of their argument? Is their post a claim to be the most satisfying exposition of Scripture? Of tradition? Of personal experience? Is it a claim to be a “truthful” articulation of Christ’s work? I, of course, don’t mean to suggest they haven’t thought of such questions; I simply couldn’t tell what it was from the post.

Moreover, it left me wondering: what could I put forward that would be regarded as a meaningful, or even convincing, argument? If I argue from Scripture (and I shall), will they be able to say simply: the data is too complex to conclude this? If I demonstrate major voices from tradition who affirm PSA in some form, pre-Calvin (as I think I could), will they simply point to tradition that doesn’t conclude thus in effort to arrive at a stalemate? I won’t appeal to experience so we needn’t go there. But at a basic level, I wonder: have they put forward a falsifiable argument? And if it’s not falsifiable, is it defensible?

To be sure, they have aimed their post toward popular articulations of PSA, so, again: fair enough. In this internet age (these days are evil), one can’t defend every written word floating in the ether, and so I won’t.

I now turn to perhaps more savory and salient points of disagreement, particularly by questioning whether the Anselmian model “has some benefits not naturally at home with penal substitution.” I am not sure that’s accurate, though I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

The first benefit of their view, they argue, is that it centralizes love rather than wrath. In particular, the love of the Son toward the Father motivates the Son’s mission of salvation, and this is judged to be in some way superior to PSA’s focus on the Son’s assuaging of wrath. They say: “Given that his work is to absorb wrath to eliminate anger, it’s difficult to ascertain how it is that love is at the center and the motive for making atonement.” This statement seems to draw a false binary. It fails to distinguish, I think, between the motivation for an action and its purpose. Advocates of PSA do not focus on wrath more than love; they simply centralize different purposes, and consequently talk about love as the motivation for the accomplishment of that different purpose. Said differently and more specifically: advocates of PSA diagnose the plight not simply in terms of the “honor owed to God,” but in terms of the negative realities that overshadow the world: enslavement, death, and God’s covenantal wrath and condemnation that justly hang over Israel and the world. Thus Jesus solves those plights (purpose) and is motivated fundamentally by love (the Father’s love: John 3:16; Rom 5:8; Jesus’ love: John 13:1; 15:13; Gal 2:20). Thus this benefit is hardly distinct to their view, and in fact, some of the New Testament’s most powerful statements on “God’s love for the world” or “Jesus’ love for His people” (motivations) arguably fit more comfortably within a PSA/PRA model (purpose). (More on this below).

The second benefit they claim to be present in their theory, but not in PSA’s, is that their view “provides a model of how to live life for God’s honor and glory.” And for that reason, “some version of the satisfaction theory appears to be superior to penal substitution on this score.” Once more, this seems to be a false binary. I dare not argue against the notion that Christ’s life provides a model for how to live for God’s glory. It certainly does. But that is not an argument against PSA, as I’ve already suggested, any more than affirming the goodness of oranges somehow cancels the goodness of apples. Moreover, I would not suggest, as they seem to imply, that Christ’s death is something other than the climactic embodiment of the very life He lived. Indeed it was, and this seems to be the very point John makes when describing Jesus’ love for His people: having (already) loved them (throughout His life), He loved them to the end (by giving up His life for them). In fact, John seems to make the opposite point of their post: in His dying for them (not, it seems, in this context, “for God”) Jesus demonstrated the greatest love (John 13:1; 15:13).

Now, regarding my last two paragraphs, my interlocutors might protest, “But we’re talking about Jesus’ love for the Father, not Jesus’ love for His disciples.” Well and good. But when several texts explicitly focus on Jesus’ obedience to the will of the Father (presumably out of Jesus’ love for Him), the event in question seems to be Jesus’ death, and the benefit subsequently described is that of rescuing His people from condemnation and wrath (Rom 5:18-19; Gethsemane). Moreover, several texts could be adduced that characterize a disciple’s mode of life as one of self-denial and consequent submission to God, metaphorically described with the language of being “dead/crucified to your former way of life” (Rom 6:11–14; Gal 5:24; Col 3:5), or “carrying one’s cross” (Luke 9:23–24), or “putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:12–13). Moreover, these very texts claim that “death” to those behaviors is necessary because such behaviors are the reason for the “coming wrath of God” (Rom 8:12; Eph 5:4–5). To be sure, “resurrection” too becomes a metaphor to describe the renewed, Messiah-shaped human behavior in anticipation of the day we receive (non-metaphorical) resurrection bodies, though I wouldn’t pit this against death, even death as “debt for punishment,” in discourse about obedience. For “the punishment” in question (the curse of Adam and the Law) is also, it seems, God’s will; thus submitting to that punishment seems capable of being understood as “submission to God’s will,” a.k.a. obedience.

The latter logic, for example, seems to motivate much of Jeremiah’s exhortation to Israel: submission to the curse of the law in the form of submission to Babylon is the form that obedience takes in that context. For this idea see Jeremiah 21:8–10; 24:1–10; 38:1–4; 42:1–19.[1] Indeed, I think this point may serve as a constructive bridge between our otherwise distinct views, for all obedience is contextual. That is, if God has decreed that Israel is under the curse, then Israel’s submission to the curse is the form obedience takes; the latter submission is the positive obedience that Jesus offers to God as Israel’s messianic representative.

Third, they claim their view doesn’t face the legal fiction objection. I won’t argue that their view does indeed face that objection, nor will I suggest that every articulation of PSA is free from it. So, before I proceed, let me be clear: they may have a particular author or tradition in mind when making this objection (Kevin DeYoung?), and if so, I do not want to talk past my patient interlocutors (and they have been patient with me!) by putting forth a position that they wouldn’t regard as representative of that which they reject. But to the extent that the objection of “legal fiction” applies to my view, I offer the following.

The soundness of this objection will depend on how one articulates the plight that Christ enters and assumes. Their view states that a debt of punishment can only be assumed by someone who actually violated the Law, and as Christ himself did not, he cannot be subject to, and therefore, cannot satisfy, the debt of punishment. But luckily for me, this is not the necessary articulation of the plight that Christ enters and aids. I’ll preserve the fullest articulation of my understanding for the next post, but let it suffice presently to say that the logic of the covenant curses (i.e. the “punishment” I take Jesus to have exhausted) hanging over Israel answers this objection quite easily. For the covenant curses (exile, death, subjection to hostile forces; Deut 28; Lev 26) were dispensed in response to Israel’s corporate breach of the covenant. According to Daniel 9, this state of Israel “under the curse” was dramatically extended (it wouldn’t be Jeremiah’s “70 years” but rather “70 sevens”). Thus an Israelite born into the covenant people during this time frame would simply be born into the corporate people for whom the present covenantal reality was: curse of the Law. This seems to be Paul’s understanding in Gal 3–4, in which Christ was sent as one “born under the Law in order to redeem those under [the curse of] the Law.” But more on that later.

Finally, they claim their view “satisfies the desirables in the Reformed tradition. . . e.g. sola gratia, sola fide, sola Christus, along with the emphasis on justification alone.” Once again, fair enough. I do not disagree. However, this doesn’t mean PSA doesn’t hold these benefits, nor does the fact that their view satisfies such conditions qualify their view as “true.” But that leads me back to my first objection: what is the basis for their claim that their view is true (if that is indeed their claim)? Scripture? Tradition?

But let me close with an agreement with their general thrust, which is no small point to them or me. Giving up penal substitution is not giving up the Gospel. To the extent that the latter point is a substantial motivation for their authoring that post, I want to be clear I that I agree.

Well then, here we’ve objected but not constructed. Thus in the next post, I’ll offer arguments from Scripture in defense of a PSA-esque model. But already I must qualify: my view is not exclusively PSA. In fact, I’m not even convinced of the S in PSA. I hold rather a view of penal representation as part of that which describes Jesus’ death on the cross, plus Christus Victor as a description of His death and resurrection held together, plus a Levitical, High-Priestly-model for that which he accomplished at His entrance into the heavenly sphere with His renewed human body. All this is to say that we shortchange ourselves by reducing the concept of “atonement” to that which Jesus accomplished by the cross. The cross is more than a death, and atonement is more than the cross. Nonetheless, I affirm much of what classical PSA affirms, it’s just that I want to affirm more than that. But not until next time.

[1] Thanks to Adam K. Harger for discussion of Jeremiah and resulting references.



Paul Sloan (Ph.D., University of St Andrews) is Assistant Professor of Theology in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas. His research includes the literature of the New Testament and 2nd Temple Period, Leviticus, the sacrificial system, sacred space, and the reception of these motifs in 2nd Temple texts.