Penal Substitutionary Atonement in this Sunday’s I4HG conference

A good while back, Richard Sherlock wrote,

“Finally, Ostler develops a richly nuanced view of the atonement, somewhat different from the standard in Mormon thinking. He rejects most of the classical theories of the atonement that have deeply influenced common Mormon thought and writing. He is especially critical of the line of thinking that starts with Anselm of Canterbury (1033—1109) and reaches its apex in Calvin. Known technically as the penal substitution theory, it will sound familiar to many Latter-day Saint readers.16

The theory is this: Humans have sinned and need to be punished, but the punishment that we deserve is too heavy for us to bear. So our elder brother volunteers to accept the punishment we merit. In so doing he clears our debt with God so that God can give us his love abundantly. Given common expression in stories such as that of the brother who repays the father the money stolen by the sibling, the theory has a certain cachet. But for Ostler it is deeply flawed. Several reasons are given on this point, but for our purposes here we may focus on the two that are crucial in Ostler’s view. First, the theory is unjust, and as created moral beings with a conscience, we know it. What moral sense does it make to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty? Would we accept such a view in any other context? Would a guilty person be thought righteous because someone else served his prison sentence or was executed in his stead? Of course not, says Ostler. Listening to our internal moral voice will reveal that this makes no sense. Nor does the position of some Mormon authors that Christ actually became guilty in our stead fare any better.17 In an attempt to save the principle of punishing only the guilty, some have argued that Christ actually became a sinner. For Ostler, such a view is simply nonsense. It entails that Christ was guilty even though he did nothing wrong. This view is wrong in the same way as the notion of original sin—that is, it involves imputing the guilt of one to another. If we reject the idea that we can be held guilty of the sin of another, Adam, then why would we accept the same flawed principle of imputed sinfulness in the case of Christ?

Ostler’s view has something in common with Abelard’s theory of Christ’s moral influence in turning our hearts to God.18 But Ostler’s compassion theory goes much farther. “The purpose of the Atonement,” he writes, “is to overcome our alienation by creating compassion, a life shared in union where we are moved by our love for each other” (2:235). Christ comes to be with us and suffer like us, to break through the alienation that we have created by our own sin. Christ suffers for us by being mortal, and in so doing he offers us his love freely to bridge the gap between him and us that we have created by our own self-deceptive turning away from him.

By being with us, Christ enables us to freely choose to walk back into God’s loving embrace. “He will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh,” writes Alma, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). This is a teaching that is at the core of Ostler’s theory of the atonement. To be reconciled to us, Christ must understand our plight. Thus he must come and suffer with us to be moved by our condition. For us, the atonement softens our hearts and enables us to choose a loving relationship with Christ.

The grace of Christ’s love, manifested in his life and way of being with us, works in us to persuade us to soften the hardened exterior that we create to protect our tender hearts. When we truly realize that God himself has become what we are and that he loves us so much that he is willing to be in relationship with us even though it causes him extensive and intense suffering, we can be persuaded by his compassion for us to soften our hearts and open up to receive him. (2:240)

That is the essence of the compassion theory that Ostler sees as a unique teaching of Mormonism.”

Hmmm . . .


Friends, you are all invited to the second IDAHO4HISGLORY mini-conference at Bethel Baptist Church in Rigby, Idaho this Sunday, August 24, 2008.

Here is the schedule:

  • Session 1, 4 PM – The topic is Imputation by Pastor Jason Ehmann
  • Session 2, 5 PM – The topic is Penal Substitution by Pastor Todd Wood
  • Session 3, 6 PM – The topic is Justification from a Historical Perspective by Pastor Chris Leavell


  1. On #2, please read Jonathan’s two page article, The Devil’s Favorite Domino, starting on page 26.

  2. And the blackreformingkid on wordpress (hey, teenagers, read this kind of stuff, that is good) . . .

    motivated me to reread Packer’s article.

    I find this paragraph by Packer worthy of renewed consideration:

    Rationalistic criticism since Socinus has persistently called in question both the solidarity on which substitution is based and the need for penal satisfaction as a basis for forgiveness. This, however, is ‘naturalistic’ criticism, which assumes that what man could not do or would not require God will not do or require either. Such criticism is profoundly perverse, for it shrinks God the Creator into the image of man the creature and loses sight of the paradoxical quality of the gospel of which the New Testament is so clearly aware. (‘When man justifies the wicked, it is a miscarriage of justice which God hates, but when God justifies the ungodly it is a miracle of grace for us to adore [Prov. 17:15; Rom. 4:5].) The way to stand against naturalistic theology is to keep in view its reductionist method which makes man the standard for God; to stress that according to Scripture the Creator and his work are of necessity mysterious to us, even as revealed (to make this point is the proper logical task of the word ‘supernatural’ in theology); and to remember that what is above reason is not necessarily against it. As regards the atonement, the appropriate response to the Socinian critique starts by laying down that all our understanding of the cross comes from attending to the biblical witnesses and learning to hear and echo what they say about it; speculative rationalism breeds only misunderstanding, nothing more.

  3. Todd, I haven’t read up on Blake Ostler’s theory of the atonement, so I don’t know how different it is from mine. If you have read his and read mine, you can let me know if they are fundamentally different or if we are both reading from the same page. Blake calls his the Compassionate Model of the Atonement, whereas I call mine the Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement, so I suppose there are more similarities than differences. At any rate, I reject the other models out there, such as penal substitution, etc., as they really don’t add up to the revealed word of God.

  4. Nope, Todd, I didn’t cover Isaiah 53. I thought that what I had written was sufficient, but perhaps I should take up the text of Isaiah 53…

    Although Buck admits that his was not “an appropriately organized and coherent blog post,” it made its point well enough.

  5. The “moral influence” theory goes back at least Peter Abelard who advocated it, probably in reaction to the Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory (of which “penal substitution” is a variant), which itself only dates to the eighth century.

    I find it highly ironic that the Reformers took over Anselm’s position lock, stock, and barrel even though it is late and clearly represents a major shift from an earlier position which dominated in the early centuries of the Church.

    I hesitate to post this link, since this article is pretty polemical, but it a)explains and outlines an iteration of the classical “Christus victor” position and b)it provides a good critique of Anselm and the (pagan) understandings upon which he drew or which he presupposed.

    Forgive me if the polemical tone offends, but please try to read past the polemics.

  6. Todd, the issue with Anselm, Luther, Calvin, et. al., is not the issue of substitution, or vicariousness. In reconciling us with the Father, Christ obviously does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

    In the following, from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, Augustine is quoted as writing the following:

    “Men were held captive under the devil and served the demons, but they were redeemed from captivity. For they could sell themselves. The Redeemer came, and gave the price; He poured forth his blood and bought the whole world. Do you ask what He bought? See what He gave, and find what He bought. The blood of Christ is the price. How much is it worth? What but the whole world? What but all nations?” (Enarratio in Psalm xcv, n. 5).

    In this passage, Augustine clearly endorses a variant of Christus victor. (It should be noted, however, that Christus victor does not require that Satan be accorded any rights. The main point is that, by entering our fallen condition and voluntarily experiencing it to the point of an unjust death, the Divine Word destroys the power of Satan, sin, and death on their own turf, so to speak, and provides for the healing (most literal translation of “salvation” ) of the human condition, the expiation of sin. Christ’s sacrifice is first and foremost expiatory and then, secondarily, propitiatory, in the sense that God is propitiated (“satisfied” ) by the expiation (“cleansing” ) of sin.

  7. LDS A,

    “I Stand All Amazed”

    This must be an LDS song on LDS penal-substitutionary atonement.

  8. Todd, the LDS are not homogenized in their thoughts or beliefs. Some favor one theory over another and write songs according to their understanding, which others then sing in church. They are free to think as they please and write songs as they please and we are free to sing them as we please. None of this adds credibility to the penal substitution theory. Only the scriptures (the canonized, Standard Works) can be used to measure it up, and when measured by the scriptures, I find that that theory comes up short.

  9. Greg, if you ever put a quotation mark right next to a finishing parenthesis, you will always get an obnoxious winking smiley face.

    It’s so (“annoying”), but there it is.

    The solution is to either word it differently, or simply put a space between the two symbols.

    (“like this” )

  10. LDS A, so it seems the current LDS prophet and apostles have not thought through whether they consider the penal-substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ to be appropriate or not?

  11. Greg, what of this translation on Augustine’s words near the end of his life?

    Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, trans. J. F. Shaw. Henry Paolucci (Chicago: Regnery, 1961, 1966), pp. 51,52.

    He was called sin [2 Cor. 5:21] that he might be sacrificed to wash away sin. For, under the Old Covenant, sacrifices for sin were called sins [i.e. the sin-offering of Leviticus (Hos. 4:8)]. And He, of whom all these sacrifices were types and shadows, was Himself truly made sin. Hence the apostle, after saying, ‘We pray you in Christ’s stead be ye reconciled to God,’ forthwith adds: ‘for He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him . . . That is, [God] hath made Him a sacrifice for our sins, by which we might be reconciled to God. He, then, being made sin, just as we are made righteousness (our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Him); He being made sin, not His own, but ours, not in Himself, but in us, showed by the likeness of sinful flesh in which He was crucified, that though sin was not in Him, yet that in a certain sense He died to sin, by dying in the flesh which was the likeness of sin; and that although He Himself had never lived the old life of sin, yet by His resurrection He typified our new life springing up out of the old death in sin.

  12. Seth, thanks for the heads up. Inappropriate smileys popping up is just weird.

    Todd, can you fix my last comment, to get rid of the smileys? If you can, I would appreciate it.

    Todd, the very first sentence here is the key: “He was called sin that he might be sacrificed to wash away (that is, expiate) sin.”

  13. Todd, I don’t think you understand how the LDS church functions. All LDS, including prophets and apostles, are bound to the canonized scriptures. Anything that is stated above and beyond the scriptures is opinion, plain and simple, whether it comes from me, an apostle or the prophet himself. All words spoken in or out of the church must be measured by the church (the members) using the canonized Standard Works. This is the Berean principle. Anything that is harmonious with the scriptures, or at the very least, does not conflict with the scriptural principles, may be believed by LDS, whether a majority or minority believes it. This is why there is such a variance of belief among the LDS, including among the apostles. Don’t think for a moment that all 15 ordained apostles are united in what the correct interpretation of all parts of the scriptures is. One favors one theory, another another theory. No single apostle, nor a majority of them, can interpret officially the scriptures. They each give their opinion as to what they believe the scriptures to mean and it is up to the church (the members) to determine whether that opinion, using the scriptures and Holy Ghost to guide them, is correct. Some LDS hang on every word of the apostles and consider all that they say to be canonical scripture. That is their right and privilege. If they want to add to their personal canon, they can. But this is personal canon, not canon binding upon all members of the church. LDS are only bound to what is contained in the canonical works, the Standard Works. And only the First Presidency can officially interpret scripture. Not the 12, not any one of the apostles or even a group of them, but just the three men who make up the First Presidency, acting as a First Presidency, with all three names signed under the document that contains the interpretation. They have done this on very few occasions, such as interpreting “hot drinks” to mean tea and coffee and interpreting “interest” to mean income, etc. This is their right and that interpretation is binding upon the church. No one else can make official scriptural interpretations that are binding upon the church. Again, any member is free to bind themselves, personally, to any other member’s interpretation, including to any of the apostles’ words, but that is a personal thing, and not a general thing.

    The apostles, all of them, regulate the church (the members) and attempt to keep the core doctrines pure. They make corrections if they see members espousing beliefs that are PLAINLY contrary to the revealed word of the Lord. Sometimes, though, doctrines or theories creep into the church which are contrary to the revealed word, but which aren’t so plainly discernible, and which remain in the church over generations and time and thus become ingrained. It all depends upon how familiar the church (the members) are with their scriptures and whether they have taken the Holy Ghost as their guide.

    New revelation and doctrine can be added to the scriptural canon, of course, but only if it is accepted by the church through common consent vote as binding upon them. No revelation can be forced upon the saints. All things must be done by common consent in the church. So, if a new revelation is revealed by the prophet and presented to the church for a vote, if the church rejects it, it is not binding upon them. It doesn’t matter that both the First Presidency and 12 apostles are in agreement that it is a bona fide revelation of God, if the church rejects it, it is set aside.

    So, back to penal substitution. There are a lot of members who believe this theory. There may be a lot of GA’s and other leaders who also believe it to be true. As a result of these beliefs, it is often taught from the pulpit. Heck, sometimes these beliefs even make their way into church manuals and other publications. But that I know of, the First Presidency have not come out and stated that penal substitution is the official interpretation as to how the atonement of Jesus Christ works. Thus, one person or even a majority holding to this theory does not make it binding upon the church. And thus, many church members believe in other theories, making a variety of beliefs concerning how the atonement works.

    In fact, generally, most speakers on the atonement by GA’s will say that they don’t know how the atonement works. And that’s okay. They are entitled to their belief, as well as their ignorance.

    As an example of the variety of opinions among LDS concerning how the atonement works, check out this post.

  14. And only the First Presidency can officially interpret scripture.

    Thanks for clearing this up for me.

    I am surprised that the other apostles don’t have that official authority.

  15. Greg, what do you think of Gregary the Great? Didn’t he emphasize somewhere in his Moral Discourses of Job that “guilt can be extinguished only by a penal offering to justice.”

  16. He may well have, Todd. However, no one father is infallible. What we look for is consensus, and in the West, the consensus on this question shifted with Anselm. It never shifted in the East.

  17. Thank goodness we are not bound by everything an apostle says on Gospel topics. A lot of them had some interpretations that were really out in left field.

    When an apostle writes a book, I take it seriously, of course. But I view it more as rabbinical commentary on the scriptures than anything else. It might be odd, it might be persuasive, it might be uplifting, it might even be in harmony with the canon of scripture. But I do not consider myself “bound” by “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” I do not consider myself, or anyone else in the Church “bound” by “Mormon Doctrine” either.

    Of course, I have a lot of respect for Bruce R. McConkie, and his work with the scriptures is very worthwhile and valuable. I’d be foolish to ignore his books, or treat them lightly. But I don’t consider myself bound by them.

    This is a religion where you have to test the input you are getting.

  18. Greg, I have more quotes by Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339), Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368), Athanasius (c. 300-373), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-390), Ambrose of Milan (339-397), John Chrysostom (c. 350-407), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Cyril of Alexandria (375-444), Gelasius of Cyzicus (fifth century), and Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), etc.


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