This is the second, and final part, of my brief series of posts on the penal substitution theory (PST) of the atonement. The series is looking at the arguments presented in Brent Kyle’s recent article “Punishing and Atoning: A New Critique of Penal Substitution”.
As noted in part one, the atonement is pretty central to Christian thought. If there is one thing that could unite Christians — and I’m not sure that there is — the belief that Jesus’s life, death and/or resurrection somehow managed to solve (or ameliorate) the problem of sin looks like as good a candidate as any. The PST claims that this happened when Jesus was crucified. For it was through his crucifixion that he received punishment for the sins of mankind. The basic argument for the PST looks something like this:
- (1) In order to solve the problem of sin it was necessary/optional for God to punish the sinful (normative premise)
- (2) Through the crucifixion God punished Jesus, and Jesus voluntarily received this punishment on behalf of the sinful (factual premise)
- (3) Therefore, the problem of sin was resolved through Jesus’s death on the cross (PST)
Kyle’s critique is aimed at the second premise of this argument. He adopts what, in part one, I called the “necessary condition” critique. Proponents of this critique try to locate the necessary conditions for punishment, and argue that these conditions do not hold in the case of Jesus’s crucifixion. There have been many such critiques over the years. In this post, we’ll see which necessary conditions Kyle finds absent in the case of Jesus.
To that end, the remainder of the post is structured as follows. First, I lay out the essential elements of Kyle’s critique. Second, I consider Kyle’s defence of his critique from a variety of objections. And third, I look at how Kyle claim that another theory of the atonement — Anselm’s satisfaction theory — avoids his critique. I think this claim is probably correct, but trivial since Anselm’s theory is itself vulnerable to very similar types of criticism.
1. The Belief-Responsibility Condition
Locating the necessary and sufficient conditions for different concepts is somewhat of a mug’s game. A particular concept — say the concept of “chair” — is put before us; then a necessary condition for the existence of a chair is proposed — e.g. it must have four legs; at which point a counterexample is introduced which defeats that necessary condition — e.g. a stool with only three legs; and so a new set of necessary conditions is proposed; and so on. This process can cycle on indefinitely with ever more precise accounts of the necessary conditions of chairhood being proposed, and ever more complex counterexamples being introduced to defeat those accounts.
I say this is “somewhat of a mug’s game” because I’m not at all convinced that conceptual analysis of this sort is a fruitful exercise. Still, it is the game that Kyle and other like-minded critics of the PST wish to play, and for the time being we need to play along.
Consider the following example:
Smacking the Child: A father comes home from work one day tired and frustrated. He decides to vent his anger on his child by smacking her repeatedly, even though he knows that she did nothing wrong.
Question: Did the father punish the child?
Kyle argues, plausibly enough, that the father did not punish the child. To be sure, the father performed an act that constitutes a widely recognised form of punishment, but for all that he still failed to punish the child. This argument works because of the distinction between the primary and secondary sense of the word “punishment”, which were discussed in part one.
Assuming we accept Kyle’s contention that the father did not really punish the child, the question then becomes “why not?” Which necessary conditions for punishment were not met in this particular example?
As a first pass, Kyle suggests that the most obvious thing that is missing is that the child has not performed any sort of moral transgression. But, he argues, this is not in itself a necessary condition for punishment. Suppose the child had done something wrong earlier in the day, but the father knows nothing about it. Would it then be fair to say that the father punished the child? Kyle suggests that it would not.
So what is necessary for a successful instance of punishment (in the primary sense)? Kyle’s offers the following:
Belief-responsibility condition: In order for S to successfully punish P, S must believe that P is (at least partly) responsible for some offence.
A couple things about this condition. First, note that believing that P is responsible for the offence is not the same thing as saying that P committed the offence. P could, for instance, be an army commander who would have command responsibility for actions performed by his or her troops. This is presumably going to be of some comfort to a defender of the PST since I imagine they don’t think that Jesus committed any sinful acts.
Second, Kyle supports this belief-responsibility condition in an interesting way. Primarily, he supports it by reference to thought experiments such as the “smacking the child” one. But he also supports it by arguing that it is preferable to the stronger “knowledge-responsibility” condition. He does so on the grounds that a knowledge-responsibility condition would not allow for the possibility of punishing the innocent, which he thinks is logically possible.
Now, as it happens, this point is not essential to Kyle’s critique. His argument would work even if the stronger, knowledge-based condition were imposed. Nevertheless, I find it interesting because I think it arguably blurs the lines between the primary and secondary senses of punishment. It seems like one could punish the innocent in the secondary sense, but I’m not sure that one could punish the innocent in the primary. Certainly, punishment of the innocent is a classic moral objection to consequentialist theories of punishment: the very fact that they seem to allow for this possibility is thought to show that they are unacceptable. Perhaps it does the same for any proposed account of the necessary conditions for punishment.
2. Kyle’s Argument
Let’s leave some of these tricky conceptual points to the side for now and focus instead on Kyle’s actual objection to the PST. Taking advantage of the belief-responsibility condition for punishment, Kyle is able to make the following argument against premise (2) of the PST argument.
- (4) In order S to successfully punish P, S must believe that P was (at least partly) responsible for some offence.
- (5) God could not possibly have believed that Jesus was responsible for an offence.
- (6) Therefore, God did not successfully punish Jesus.
Premise (5) is defended largely through a priori claims about the nature of God and Jesus. God, being omniscient, cannot have any false beliefs. Jesus, being perfectly innocent, could not have been responsible for human sin. Therefore, God could not have believed that Jesus was responsible for human sin. In addition to this, there are theological consideration, arising from the doctrine of the trinity, that support premise (5). If God and Jesus are different parts of the same being, then God would have to have believed that he himself was responsible for human sin. This seems absurd (though note Kyle’s argument does not rely on this understanding of the trinity — even if God and Jesus were completely separable the problem of belief would stand). This then is the cornerstone of Kyle’s critique.
Another point Kyle makes in defending this argument is that objections to it typically run foul of the distinction between the primary and secondary senses of “punishment”. Indeed, this is perhaps the main point that Kyle makes in his article. The PST, he contends, only seems plausible because people confuse the two senses of punishment. While it is true to say that Jesus underwent a recognised form of punishment (secondary sense) when he was crucified, it does not thereby follow that he was punished (primary sense). The latter is what is needed for a defence of the PST, not the former.
3. Objections and Replies
Kyle examines three major objections to his argument. The first is what might be called the “transference of responsibility” objection. According to this objection, God could have honestly believed that Jesus was responsible because the guilt of humans was transferred onto Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. Certainly, this notion of transference is central to the PST (it is the “penal substitution theory” after all), but this doesn’t give it a free pass. We still have to ask: is it plausible to say that responsibility was transferred to Jesus?
Kyle suggests that there are two forms of transference that might be at play here: literal and figurative. If there is literal transference, then it is actually true that Jesus is responsible for all human sin at the time of the crucifixion. There are two problems with this. First, it seems conceptually impossible for someone to transfer their responsibility to another. If I break your car window with my errant tee-shot in golf, my friend may choose to pay for the repair on my behalf, but that doesn’t make him responsible for breaking the window. Second, there is a theological problem with supposing that Christ is literally responsible for all human sin, namely: Jesus’s perfect innocence is often singled out as the key trait that makes him a fit subject to atone for human sin. If we accept these replies, then we are left with the possibility of figurative transference, according to which Jesus is punished as a scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. Kyle argues that figurative transference still runs afoul of the belief-responsibility condition. It would be like the father smacking the child when he really wants to smack his boss who he genuinely believes to have done something wrong. The father may use the child as a scapegoat, but he doesn’t honestly believe in that case that the child is responsible.
The second objection to Kyle’s argument has been foreshadowed already (to some extent). It is simply to provide counterexamples to his account of punishment. In other words, to point to cases in which somebody is successfully punished, despite the fact that they were not believed to be responsible for an offence. The strategy here is akin to that in my early example of someone objecting to the four-legged account of chairs by pointing to a three-legged stool. It is an exercise in intuition-mongering: seeing whether intuitions about necessary conditions are really shared. It is possible that some people’s views of punishment do not demand belief in responsibility. For example, consequentialist theories might view responsibility as something that is a throwback to a retributive view, and not really compatible with their theory at all.
Kyle’s response here is to fall back, once more, on the distinction between the two senses of punishment. So, he argues that people only think the father is punishing the child because they conflate the primary and secondary senses of “punishment”. To overcome this problem, he argues for a replacement test which enables us to see whether the intuition about the belief-responsibility condition really is shared by participants to the debate. The replacement test holds that if, for whatever counterexample you propose, you replace a widely-recognised form of punishment with another form of harsh treatment which is equivalently harmful, and your view of the case remains the same, then you are tapping intuitions related to the primary sense of punishment. If not, then you are conflating the two senses. Thus, in the case smacking the child, if you replace the smacking with equivalent harsh treatment (say mocking or ridicule), you must ask yourself: is it still punishment? Kyle seems to suggest that it is not. But I have to say, I’m not convinced that the replacement test helps in this instance. I think someone who originally thought that smacking the child was a genuine case of punishment would still think this after the replacement test. Thus, I’m not sure that I buy the replacement test.
The final response to Kyle’s argument is to consider an alternative necessary condition for punishment, which is intuitively as well-supported as Kyle’s one, but which does away with the belief-responsibility condition. One such account is Boonin’s “reprobative condition” account. According to this, punishment necessarily involves disapproval of the general type of offence for which the punishment is imposed. This condition is compatible with the possibility of someone being punished even if they are not believed to be responsible for an offence. Thus, Christ’s death on the cross could be a genuine instance of punishment because it involves the expressed disapproval of human sin, even if Christ is not himself believed to be responsible for that sin.
On the face of it, this is not a hugely promising objection. Suppose the reprobative condition is necessary for punishment, it does not then follow that the belief-responsibility is not. They both could be. In addition to this, as Kyle argues, the reprobative condition may not be necessary for punishment. Imagine a town in which the mayor is arrested for the possession of marijuana. The local judge is a former beatnik who approves of marijuana use, and always gives out lenient sentences in these cases. Still, holding the mayor to a higher standard, the judge decides to give him a moderate sentence. In this instance, it seems like the mayor is genuinely punished, but there is no disapproval of the type of offence. Thus, the reprobative condition looks to flawed (possibly an easier critique is to say that the reprobative condition leads to moral absurdities, but I’ll ignore that here).
If all this is right, and there are no further objections, Kyle’s critique of the PST looks to be in pretty good shape.
4. Conclusion: The Anselmian Satisfaction Theory
With his critique of the PST in place, Kyle concludes his article by looking at a rival theory of the atonement, the Anselmian Satisfaction theory. I don’t know much about this theory, so I’ll just try to faithfully reproduce what Kyle says. According to him, the Anselmian theory rests on a disjunctive normative claim:
Satisfaction Principle:In order to solve the problem of sin, it was necessary/optional for God to either (a) punish the sinful or (b) receive compensation for sin.
Now, if the preceding critique works, then it is not possible for Jesus’s death to count as punishment. But that leaves open the possibility of Jesus’s death compensating God for sin. Kyle argues that this might be the case. Indeed, Jesus is supposedly the ideal candidate for this. Ordinary humans cannot compensate God for their sin because they already owe him everything. They have nothing left to give. Jesus, on the other hand, is innocent and partially divine. He can compensate God for sin.
The major advantage of the Anselmian view from Kyle’s perspective is that it avoids the problems raised by the belief-responsibility condition. In order to compensate someone, you don’t yourself have to be responsible for any wrongdoing. Although I would certainly concede this point, I’m pretty sure that the Anselmian view runs into lots of other problems. What is the mechanism of compensation here? Why is death needed for compensation? If God and Jesus are the same being, then how can God compensate himself by killing himself? I can’t compensate myself for the injuries I suffer through someone else’s negligence, can I?
It seems the debate would have to continue.