Penal Substitution or Penal Non-Substitution (Responding to Paul Sloan) by Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton

“Rejoinder to Paul Sloan” by Joshua R. Farris & S. Mark Hamilton

Online discussions often encourage fascinating and passionate disagreements. At times these disagreements are linked to misunderstandings. Other times, it seems, they are genuine disagreements. The present discussion is an instance of both misunderstanding and genuine disagreement, and for that which we might learn as a result, we are grateful to Dr. Paul Sloan (Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University) for offering a thoughtful and interesting response to our “Why So Dissatisfied with Satisfaction?”.

In our original post, our primary intent was to challenge the assumption often made in many evangelical circles–especially in neo-Calvinist circles—that penal substitution is either the heart of the gospel or that it is the gospel itself. Professor Sloan agrees and is quick to point this out in his response. The gospel, about which we all agree, is not reducible to one theory of atonement. And yet, Sloan disagrees with the benefits approach to our modified Anselmian satisfaction theory of atonement. It is in this part of his response that there is perhaps some misunderstanding, along with what may be genuine disagreement. Let’s first consider what might be misunderstood.

Most of the misunderstanding have to do with background issues to this sort of theological conversation. Let’s take three misunderstood background issues to illustrate. All too frequently, when biblical and systematic theologians discuss the merits and use of certain passages of Scripture, there is an almost inevitable tendency to speak past one another. No doubt, this is part of our challenge. Second, there is an underlying tension, it seems, in our hermeneutic with Sloan’s hermeneutic. Sloan, so far as we can tell, is not explicitly indebted to the Reformed tradition. Of course, this means that, the Reformed tradition does not function as the fertile context for his reading of Scripture. Nor does it appear, as it does for us, to be a guide in his reading of this or that text of Scripture. Third, and perhaps most important to this exchange, the context of our post was in part a response to exaggerated claims found in broader evangelical circles, and neo-Calvinist in particular, specifically (with Kevin DeYoung as one such representative) with the hope of giving some exposure to what we think is an altogether live-option and otherwise underappreciated evangelical theory of atonement.

The first two background issues seem present in Sloan’s “stalemate” concern. He states: “what could I put forward that would possibly convince them? If I argue from Scripture (and I shall), will they be able to say simply: the data is too complex to conclude thus. 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?” Sloan is right to press this point and we certainly agree that arriving at the “true” (or something near it) theory of atonement is desirable and potentially attainable. However, we remain dubious about the successes of pure tradition-less exposition of key passages of Scripture as the ground for making determinative the truth of this or that theory. Similarly, we are not sure that a simple appeal to this or that tradition will determine the truth of this or that theory of atonement. That said, for the sake of the argument (contra DeYoung), being prompted by the sort of benefits approach in DeYoung we took the opportunity to point out some of the benefits (many of which are non-controversial in the literature) of Anselmian satisfaction in conversation with penal substitution atonement. That was simply the dialectic move we thought would most encourage discussion of this issue. We did not thereby to suggest that the truth of the matter was somehow unattainable.

In answer to Sloan’s question: “what is the basis of their argument?”, we propose two answers.  First, the basis of the argument in the original article was to point out the benefits of one version of the Anselmian satisfaction theory. Again, it was a “benefits approach” sort of argument. That said, we think he probably means something more like: “what is the basis for developing a theory of atonement?”, and the answer to that question is much more complicated. Second, an answer to what Christ does on the cross in making atonement will depend on several inter-related sources of theological truth, including: Scripture (and the interpretation of it), tradition (in our case both catholic and Reformed), reason, and experience. Of course, much more could and needs to be said here, but moving on to the more direct response to the discussion on the benefits of this theory or that theory will take up the remainder of our response to Sloan.

Sloan takes issue with all four of the benefits we lay out. However, two of his issues are simple misunderstandings. The other two are likewise misunderstandings, but seem to require a more substantive response. In what follows, we will take them in reverse order, beginning with his objection to the fourth benefit first. According to Sloan, “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. However, once again, 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.’” As a way of responding, we were not intent on establishing the truth of this or that theory so much as we were intent on offering up a benefits approach, according to which (at least in this case), various theories are weighed for some or all of their benefits, the result of which helps us determine the surest and fullest account of Christ’s work. Following this approach, we offered up an alternative theory “within” the Reformed tradition that satisfies what we might think of as certain Reformed desirables in a way that is perhaps better than PS, and even has some support within that tradition, despite what some evangelicals and neo-Calvinists have claimed in the past.

In answer to Sloan’s another issue, we may have assumed more of our audience than we should. There is a longstanding and recurring objection from the so-called “legal fiction” of penal substitution that comes in a variety of forms. Our point was simply that Anselmian satisfaction does not face that challenge precisely because the demands of divine justice are met based on the credit that Christ’s atoning work generates. Nevertheless, Sloan argues that, “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.” To this specific point of contention, we maintain that as Christ assumes a human nature—one which is susceptible to death, which is the result of the curse—then Christ most certainly can suffer the penalty (taken somewhat loosely; or the curse that befalls humanity in general) for sin. The question is whether he suffers the penalty of others. According to our modified satisfaction theory, he doesn’t. He does suffer a penalty though, because he suffers somatic death. But so do we. If the penalty for the curse is death, which it is, then we can no doubt affirm that his death had some penal aspect to it, as does ours. We all suffer somatic death as a result of the curse. No one, however, can suffer our somatic death. If this were so, those who are united to Christ would not die in body.

Responding (at length) to the second benefit of our proposed theory, Sloan states: “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.” Sloan then points to a number of passages of Scripture that plainly assert, “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).” To this we have several responses. For the sake of brevity, let’s consider only two. First, we certainly agree that Christ died, motivated by love for those for whom he died; but as a by-product, not a prime-product. Yes, “God loved the world, in this way, that he gave up his only Son” (John 3:16). We can all agree with that. But there are other texts beside this one—ones like Romans 15:7-8, which shows that Christ came both to confirm the faithfulness of his promise-keeping Father and so that those outside the covenant might glorify him (both of which seem to be clearly directed at solving vertical problems)—that seem to point to motives in the God-man that are signally directed toward the Father. Our point is this: that while the love of Christ for humanity is demonstrated in his sacrifice for humanity it is also demonstrated by an underlying motive—one which no one appears to be talking about, which is nevertheless theologically essential to this and every other Christian doctrine—to love and honor his Father. In other words, Christ demonstrated his love for his Father in this sacrificial act well before he loved us, which is the only reason he might love us, unworthy as we (i.e. enemies of God; Romans 5:8) are to be loved. Second, and more succinctly, we can joyfully affirm with Sloan that Christ’s work solves the problem of our condemnation and the wrath we are due. Our point is that he simply doesn’t absorb that condemnation and wrath in his death. He defers it until the judgement, whereupon he will execute his retributive justice on those who do not know his Son.

Now let’s look at Sloan’s objections to our first claim, which is similar in part to the second claim. Here Sloan responds to our claim that penal substitution is not motivated by divine love as much as divine retributive justice, saying: “It fails to distinguish, I think, between the motivation for an action and its purpose. Advocates of [penal substitution] 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.” Here again are two points of disagreement, ones for which we still maintain that penal substitution advocates have yet to answer satisfactorily. In terms of the purpose of the atonement, it was our intent to show that on penal substitution, defenders of the doctrine appear to have less than the full picture of the Scripture’s judicial economy in mind. This, we think, is simply because the purpose for which Christ’s atonement work is undertaken has to do with the solution it presents only for God’s retributive justice. No one that we are aware of has explained how penal substitution solves the larger problem of God’s rectoral justice (of which retributive is a derivative problem). On our view, it is the problem of God’s rectoral justice that Christ’s atonement solves, which consequently solves the problem of divine retribution. In terms of motivation, we tried to show the God-centeredness (to use some common, Reformed, evangelical phraseology) of our view over and above penal substitution. On our version of the satisfaction theory, Christ’s atoning work is principally concerned with restoring honor to his Father. In other words, Christ came for his Father’s sake first and foremost. Why? Because he loves his Father, and he loves him more than he loves us and he desires us to enjoy the love he shares with the Father. On the penal substitution theory, it seems that, if we can speak of love, the love that motivates Christ to make atonement is primarily a love for the people for whom he endured the suffering of the cross, and all this is a background to the atonement in Christ’s overarching mission. That said, there is a point of departure here when Sloan compares one theory to apples and the other to oranges. The challenge with this comparison is less than one of the benefits of Christ’s atonement being greater on one theory than another. The challenge with this comparison is more along the line of: can Christ’s atonement be a penal substitute and not a penal substitute? This, in Sloan’s terms, seems like a “false binary.”


I, Joshua, am grateful to my friend, Paul, for all the discussions we have and continue to have on the atonement. This all started prior to the present online discussion as an informal discussion surrounding the following topics: the nature of penal substitutionary atonement, the tendency to throw around the name penal substitution as an umbrella term for any and every atonement theory, and the soteriological benefits that follow from Christ’s atonement. I look forward to future conversations with Paul on these and related topics.

No doubt we have all benefited from these discussions. I, and we, are looking forward to continuing that discussion. While I (Joshua) am also encouraged by Paul’s move away from penal substitutionary understandings of the atonement, and his move in the direction of early Christian atonement theories (for prior to Calvin penal substitutionary atonement just isn’t present as a developed theory, and is likely not even present in seed form).[1] That said, I am still unsure what (and Mark concurs), in fact, Christ is doing in the atonement on Paul’s variation of “penal representationalism”. It sounds like his theory does little more than some variant of the “incarnation theory of atonement”, but does not quite map on to the early Patristic model of the atonement. But we (Mark and Joshua), await additional details in a future post.

[1] Several atonement scholars have argued quite strongly and persuasively to this end. See just two examples: Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 362. More importantly, Ben Meyers, “The Patristic Atonement Model,” in Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).


Joshua R. Farris (PhD, University of Bristol, UK) is a Visiting Fellow at The Creation Project, Carl F.H. Henry at TEDS (Spring 2018). Joshua is a chief editor (with Charles Taliaferro) of the Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology (Ashgate, 2015). He is co-editor (with S. Mark Hamilton) of Idealism and Christianity: Idealism and Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016), co-editor of Christian Physicalism: Philosophical-Theological Criticisms(with R. Keith Loftin). Additionally, he has co-edited Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation. He has published his monograph, The Soul of Theological Anthropology: A Cartesian Exploration and An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine (Baker Academic, forthcoming Fall 2019). He is co-editing (with Benedikt Paul Gocke) Rethinking Idealism and Immaterialism: A Historical and Philosophical Study. Joshua is also co-editor of Re-envisioning Reformed Dogmatics series (with Cascade) and the international advisor/editor for Perichoresis, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, and the European Journal of Philosophy of Religion. Joshua has written numerous articles and reviews for both philosophical and theological journals. He serves as a referee for Philosophy Compass, Philosophia Christi, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Perichoresis, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies and Oxford University Press, Associate editor for JBTS, and advisor for Perichoresis. Joshua has also presented at various academic conferences on inter-disciplinary studies, philosophy, theology, and ethics.


S. Mark Hamilton (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam, NL) is author of Jonathan Edwards on Spirit Christology (Routledge, New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies, forthcoming, 2020), co-author (with Joshua Farris) of Re-envisioning Substitutionary Atonement: Toward a Reformed Anselmianism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, Re-envisioning Reformed Dogmatic Series, Vol. 1, forthcoming 2020) and author of A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards, Continuous Creation, and Christology, foreword by Oliver D. Crisp (JESociety Press, A Series of Treatises on Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, 2017). He is also a contributor to and co-editor (with Robert Boss and Joshua Farris) of New England Dogmatics: A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity by Maltby Gelston, foreword by Kenneth Minkema (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2018), contributor to and co-editor (with Marc Cortez and Joshua Farris) of Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation, foreword by Michael Horton (SCM Press, 2018, and a contributor to and co-editor (with Joshua Farris) of Idealism and Christianity: Idealism and Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016). He has also published in various periodicals, including: International Journal of Systematic Theology, Irish Theological Quarterly, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, Perichoresis, Scottish Journal of Theology, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Jonathan Edwards Studies, Saint Anselm Journal and the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies.