Reuben continues to review "Pierced for Our Transgressions"

Reuben has posted the second part of his review of Pierced for Our Transgressions. I have already discussed the first part of his review. Here I discuss the second and final part of his review.

For once Reuben is quite positive about chapter 6, the introduction to the second part of the book “Answering the Critics”. But his positive attitude soon melts away when he comes to chapter 7, “Penal substitution and the Bible”. He concludes that:

Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have demonstrated the opposite of what they sought to show. They intended to defend their position against objections on biblical grounds, but instead they have failed to. … If this chapter was intended to silence their critics, the authors have instead earned more criticism here.

Nor is Reuben impressed by chapter 8, “Penal substitution and culture”. As for chapter 9, “Penal substitution and violence”, Reuben notes that the authors

fail to defend against the objection that PS draws on an inaccurate understanding of the sacrificial system.

Then he moves on to Chalke and Mann’s infamous “child abuse” comment. At least the PFOT authors insist, as Packer, Stott and Carson do, on a point which is so often lost in popular presentations of PSA, that (in Reuben’s words) “Jesus went to the cross of his own volition”. On the issue of whether God actually caused Jesus’ death, the PFOT authors’ position, as reported by Reuben, surprises me:

it must have been because an atonement of PS was required. Arguing from this assumption, they claim that God was in some sense willing Jesus’ death because God obviously let it happen. They use the idea of “God’s sovereignty” (by which they mean “control over his creation”) to argue that “in some sense God caused Jesus’ suffering and death.” (p231) Finally, they bring in the idea of predestination to complete their case that “God foresaw, planned and was in full control of the death of Christ” (p232). None of this is at the heart of this objection to PS, though, for this objection is made on different grounds; God willing Jesus to suffer specifically for the purpose of being a penal substitute (not for some other, valid reason) does not accord with the biblical revelation of God’s character and moral code. Hence, the authors have only partially defended against this objection, and the core of the objection remains unaddressed.

Indeed. There is a world of difference between “God foresaw, planned and was in full control of the death of Christ” and “God punished and killed Christ”. If the authors would not accept the latter formulation, then they are in fact not refuting but agreeing with Chalke and Mann in rejecting distortions of PSA.

As for the rest of the objections in this chapter, Reuben notes that the authors have only tackled small parts of them. He concludes that

A casual reading of this chapter may leave the reader thinking that the objections have been successfully refuted. Yet in fact the authors have attacked very minor aspects of these objections, and left the heart of these objections unaddressed.

(Reuben likes the word “unaddressed”, but my spelling checker doesn’t!)

Reuben moves on to review chapter 10, starting by dealing with the complex response to the objection that “guilt and punishment simply cannot be incurred by one person and transferred to another”, in which he notes several logical weaknesses. The authors then discuss in detail theories of retributive punishment, but Reuben seems to consider their arguments here confused and inconsistent. And he notes that the authors simply fail to answer the objection that “Penal substitution implicitly denies that God forgives sin” – an issue which I have noted in relation to apparent denials that God forgives from some PSA supporters, suggesting that there is a real weakness here in the PSA arguments. Reuben rightly dismisses the authors’ attempt to defend the indefensible doctrine of limited atonement, indefensible because directly contradicted in the Bible. He concludes that

this chapter presents another disappointing effort to deal with common objections to PS.

I was surprised by Reuben’s dismissive reaction to the first objection in chapter 11, “Penal substitution implies a division between the persons of the Trinity”:

This objection is based on a misunderstanding of the Trinity, and few who understand the Trinity and disagree with the centrality of PS would do so on the grounds of this objection. The authors correctly explain why this is an invalid objection. (p279-285) The 6 pages taken in response seem excessive here, but nevertheless the rebuttal of this objection is largely coherent and well made.

There is a very real issue here because some presentations of PSA do imply that God the Father has a separate will from Jesus the Son of God. It is just these presentations which Steve Chalke has objected to. Indeed John Stott and JI Packer both stress the need to avoid dividing the Father and the Son when presenting PSA. The answer to this objection to PSA must surely be to present the doctrine properly, as the Father and the Son working together to deal with the problem of sin.

Reuben also dismisses somewhat too quickly two objections related to the anger or wrath of God. There are a number of serious issues with the idea of God being angry, not least that it is inconsistent with his classic attribute of impassibility. Of course the Bible does teach of God’s anger at sin, but this anger has to be understood very carefully, not as an uncontrolled emotional response but as a consistent and just attitude. Also there is a real objection, one that I have made, to certain presentations of PSA in that they imply that God is constrained by an outside force, for “God cannot simply forgive sinners, because “justice” does not allow it”; this objection is not answered by pointing out that the God of the Bible is not constrained by some external concept of “justice”.

Reuben seems to come back to life when he looks at chapter 12, “Penal substitution and the Christian life”. On the first section he writes:

Yet throughout five pages of their response, the authors devote most of the discussion to irrelevant side-issues. Like magicians, they spend most of their effort in distracting the reader from the core of this objection.

Then on the next section:

By appealing to other atonement theologies, the response here also implicitly admits that the objection carries weight – the PS is indeed deficient in this important area.

And on the third objection:

Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach fail to address the real issue behind this objection.

A few more minor objections are dealt with, but Reuben, like myself, is surprised to find that “there is no summary or concluding chapter”. There is an Appendix “A personal note to preachers” which Reuben finds unrealistic, but nevertheless it is important that the first of seven important points listed here is that preachers should

Not deny the active, consenting involvement of the Father and Son

But Reuben does conclude his review of Part II, as follows:

While the intent of this part is good, the quality of the arguments is poor. Many of the objections are over-generalised or mistaken for other ideas, and the underlying issues are not addressed, some of the objections to PS are even strengthened by their responses. In cases where the objections have been addressed, invalid assumptions, faulty logic, and ignorance of alternative interpretations dominate their arguments. The response of the authors here leaves most of the strong objections to PS in full force.

The biggest problem with this Part, however, is how limited in scope it is. The authors only address objections to PS as an interpretation of what occurred on the cross. The theological system in which PS plays a central part is largely ignored. Yet many strong objections to the system of PS can be made, bearing a weight of evidence from the New Testament authors and early Christian fathers. These objections bring into serious doubt the centrality of PS in early Christian theology, yet they were not even mentioned here.

In short, it is unlikely that this part of the book will silence the objections being made to both the specific doctrine of PS, and the theological system in which it is central. Despite the authors’ frequent assertions that their responses will silence their critics, this poor defence of PS will likely give them even more cause for criticism. Most discerning critics of PS will be not be persuaded by the responses here. At the start of this part the authors “invite readers to make up their own minds” (p206), and no doubt readers will. It seems likely that whatever the opinion of readers prior to reading this part, it will not be changed.

0 thoughts on “Reuben continues to review "Pierced for Our Transgressions"

  1. Peter, I’ve found these posts really interesting, although I have to confess to a certain bafflement at the way some people elevate PSA so much. Even if there is value in it as a useful preaching model (about which I go back and forth -does ease of misunderstanding and distortion cause too much of a problem) why is it put forward so often as the understanding, when arguably other models are at least as (if not more) dominant in the NT

  2. Good question, Doug. Of course those who promote PSA would say that it is because PSA is central to the biblical understanding of the atonement. This has clearly not been proved by this book, as Reuben showed in the first part of his review. They would also say, and this is probably the real reason why they give it such importance, is that this is the model which was preached above all others by the Reformers and the Puritans who they value so highly, and is enshrined in statements of faith like the Westminster Confession. In other words, for them it is the tradition of the church (even if they would shy away from this “t” word), and one which they are very reluctant to abandon. Unfortunately Jesus had very harsh words for those who kept to tradition when it went against the actual word of God.

  3. Having read through Reuben’s critique, and referred to the relevant page’s that he gives as reference, I have found that he leaves out much that does not support his criticisms. In fact I find his criticisms only have merit if you support his viewpoint in the first place. If you don’t, then their lack of real substance becomes readily apparent.
    I haven’t finished the book yet, but find his outlook on the book unsubstantiated by what is actually there in what I have read to date.

  4. Pingback: Incarnation and atonement (art. II) » Metacatholic

  5. Peter:

    Thanks for your thoughts on my review. It would be a little strange of me to review your review of my review of the book, so I won’t =)


    Here is my view. Penal Substitution is often put forward as THE model of atonement because it is central to the salvific system often taught. In other words, common presentations of the gospel have a theological system in which PS plays a central part (along with ideas about our sinfulness, God’s nature, and the role of belief, trust and acceptance in Jesus’ work on the cross). PS is considered the central atonement model because is really is central to popular presentations of the gospel. If it was so central to the early Christians, it is surprising that their writings don’t indicate that it was.


    I like hearing from people who disagree with me. Would you mind noting what specific material you felt I left out which doesn’t support my conclusions? I may well have missed things, and I’d like to know what they might be.

    It is quite common for the reasons people give for their views to be seen as good ones by only people who already agree. I could say exactly the same about Pierced for Our Transgressions, because I didn’t already agree and didn’t find their evidence compelling, yet I am aware of many people who already agree with their views who think it makes a great case. But again, I’d be really interested to understand the ways in which you think my criticisms lack real substance, so if you’ve got time please elaborate.

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