Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Contract and Debt


In response to the notion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) there are a few ways to look at responsibility and consequences:

A) Groups of individuals simply facing the consequence of another’s action.

B) Groups of individuals being held culpable for the actions of another since they are somewhat responsible or involved.

C) Groups of individuals being treated as if they were culpable for the actions done by another for which they were neither responsible nor involved.

PSA for the most part depends on the notion of imputation, which first comes into play in the doctrine of original sin. Original sin, as held by many in the Reformed movement, teaches that we are treated as guilty for the actions of another. Thus the notion of imputed guilt, which is used in the manner of (c). It could only be just if a satisfactory relation between the first individual and the group is established. Or one could posit that morality is ultimately voluntaristic [anything at all that God could decide it to be]. But I don’t see a satisfactory relation between Adam and humanity to allow for such an imputation. And this first imputation of guilt, is the template for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us on this view. Romans 5:19 is often used as a supporting verse ”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”

So Original Sin only works if one believes one of the following:

1) Me and Adam are the same person, since guilt is a personal property that cannot by swapped around “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” (Ezekiel 8:20)

2) I inherit it at birth because evil is a substance. And I’m given Adam’s *evil* stuff at birth. Which I think is problematic. And confuses what is properly attributed to nature and what is attributed to persons.

3) God just says that these imputations happen, in order to allow for the substitution to occur, for his justice to be satisfied. Nominalism. In name only/Voluntarism.

In order to defend PSA, the analogy of a loan guarantor or debt incurred by marrying someone who had a loan is sometimes given. In each instance the person is said to be taking on a debt which they did not incur and were not involved with. But due to their marriage or guarantor contract are still charged with having to pay the debt. So by virtue of union with Christ, this imputation is not a legal fiction or arbitrary.

As someone I know described it “When I cosign for a loan, I am not responsible in any kind of moral sense for my brother’s bad decisions. I am responsible in a financial sense, because I chose to unite myself with him legally. This plays directly into Dabney’s distinction between actual and potential guilt. Christ took on our actual guilt (meaning the legal consequences for sin), but He did not take on our potential guilt (the reality of having personally committed sins). Dabney shows that it is very possible for someone (especially the offended party) to take on the actual guilt of an offender without ever sharing the potential guilt.”

I don’t think that those are examples of imputation in the way the PSA needs it be. A non PSA advocate can say that Christ faces the legal consequences incurred by others, without imputation. One doesn’t even need a contract as perquisite for that, as I’ll later demonstrate when talking about what a loan requires for satisfaction. But even if we were to say there is legal contract in place, it would not be describing the situation of PSA and imputation. In particular I would distinguish between the culpable guilt of a thing and the liability/consequences that it may incur. So the guarantor of the contract loan is liable but not culpable seen in any way culpable. But that is precisely the picture of PSA that the some advocates, by virtue of the loan/debt analogy are trying to paint in order bypass charges of it being a legal fiction. It is what my friend tries say R. L. Dabney is teaching by his distinction of actual and potential guilt. As he goes on to say to me:

“You think imputation means that God looked at a sinless Person (Christ), and said to Himself, “Today I am going to imagine that Christ is a sinner.” 

This is not what happened. No one thinks that. We say that Christ bore the legal verdict against sinners, and the accompanying penalties. He was not guilty, and God knew it. Yet He chose to bear the curse on behalf of His people in order to fulfill the sentence of justice (as Cyril said) while also fulfilling God’s love toward them.

Dabney’s “actual guilt” is not merely “the consequences for sin.” It is the legal declaration of “guilty” that goes along with the consequences, just as when I am held as a surety for my brother’s debt, the judge will declare, “debtor.” And regardless of whose metaphorical hide it comes out of, payment is rendered, and the sentence is fulfilled. God knows and sees our potential guilt (the fact of having committed sin). But that becomes irrelevant once the *legal* consequences of sin have been born. It’s not about God pretending anyone is anything they’re not. It’s about Christ entering into a relationship with us such that our moral debts and His moral surplus can transfer.

The fact that the Bible uses the analogies of debt, marriage, and adoption should be huge, bright orange flags here.”

But I don’t find the language of debt, marriage and adoption to be a problem for my theology. I don’t however think it is sufficient to teach the doctrine of imputation. It says a lot more than mere transfer of consequences but of personal standing. So on this view humanity doesn’t just corporately suffer from Adam but each person is said to be held individually as guilty. That’s not the same thing. Unless all suffering of consequences is conflated with moral guilt. So we are saying the same thing, in one sense but then imputation requires far more than mere consequences. In fact I find that marriage imagery to be more in line with the participatory notions of the atonement like Christus Victor. Plus going back to the ABC situation given, I think contracts fall under B, whilst imputation requires C.

More important to this post however, I’ll dissect the contract and debt imagery and show why imputation requires a lot more than what is being said there. Since the contract imagery is supposed to correspond to union with Christ by which He is made liable for our transgressions. And I will show why it is still in my opinion very much a nominalistic view of the atonement. As well as what some of the implications of that would be.

In the contract/loan analogy, paying of the debt made by the loan requires a payment which is not intrinsic from my person. Money. So whether someone is in contract or not, or whether the cash originates from me or not it doesn’t matter. So long as cash is given. In other words, money is fungible. Which Webster’s dictionary defines as “being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account Oil, wheat, and lumber are fungible commodities.”

So in this instance, it is possible to divorce the consequences from the person bearing the potential guilt. For another to satisfy the consequences doesn’t actually require them contract to be in contract with me. Since I could just as easily, say ask a willing non contract member with money to pay it. Even to sign on a contract committing one to the consequences, isn’t actually the same as an imputation of guilt. Not in the PSA sense.

Per the PSA, paying back the debt made by sin requires punishment/suffering which is intrinsically tied to the guilty party. Imputation however divorces the punishment and suffering from the person and their guilt/culpability (potential guilt) and attaches it to an abstraction of their potential guilt, the declaration, to form actual guilt. So actual guilt on this schema is the declaration (abstraction) imputed + consequences. A third party is then said to bear it by God. It treats suffering in the abstract as fungible. Since it is immaterial who suffers, so long as suffering happens and it is enough to satisfy the wrath of God. Which in part on this schema is why the substitute had to be a God-Man, since it is said only the God man could satisfy the wrath of God. Though it does bring up the question, since it is the created human works done under the law that is imputed to all,couldn’t a created person’s perfect work have been imputed to all ? If the guilt could be imputed then why not the righteousness? Probably because it is said that a human or created person wouldn’t have been able to satisfy the wrath of God. Which brings up a host of other questions that we will probably look at on another post.

So back to imputation. Given the description of actual and potential guilt, imputation does not consist of the entirety of actual guilt, but refers to the abstraction/declaration which is said to allow for Christ to endure the consequences (wrath), since the consequences are concrete while imputation itself is wholly nominal and forensic. And it is the necessary perquisite without which the consequences can’t follow. If you aren’t following, remember that “actual guilt” is not merely “the consequences for sin.” It is the legal declaration of “guilty” that goes along with the consequences. And before that it was said “Christ took on our actual guilt (meaning the legal consequences for sin), but He did not take on our potential guilt (the reality of having personally committed sins).” So it is not the entirety of the legal consequences (actual guilt) that is said to be imputed, since death and wrath are not imputed and they form part of the actual guilt, as per described.

So it is slightly misleading to say to say that actual guilt is imputed as opposed to potential guilt. What is actually imputed is an abstraction of potential guilt. The status of potential guilt. This abstraction is the declaration, which is said to make one liable to endure consequences and only then in that sense they are said to have actual guilt.

So in the first case, there is Loan of money, debt problem incurred with potential guilt, the satisfaction requires repayment of money, the consequences. Satisfaction is not tied intrinsically to that individual. Money coming from their pocket, stranger, friend, person backing the contracting is irrelevant. Only the money counts.

In the second case of PSA there is the law, debt incurred by sin potential guilt, the satisfaction requires suffering of guilty individual, the consequences. Imputation then means satisfaction of suffering gets divorced from both the individual and their culpability/potential guilt, but instead becomes tied to an abstraction and placed on another by God.

The abstraction itself now becoming the primary object/focus of wrath, with the individual bearing it (which needed not be the one who incurred the wrath) as a secondary/indirect object (this is what allows for a denial of hatred being directed towards Christ personally). Meaning that suffering in and of itself, in the abstract becomes the goal of God’s wrath. Since suffering is then like currency/cash per the loan analogy, which is required to satisfy God. And like money, suffering is no longer tied to a specific individual so long as the quota is filled.

Not only is this counter to the end of justice that we would espouse, which on this schema now makes suffering as the telos in and of itself. But it is suffering in the abstract, made possible by imputation which makes the primary object of wrath an abstraction of guilt. Switched about from person to person the by the will of God. So the Cross is turned into primarily a problem with God’s inner tension of on the one hand a will/telos for suffering and the on the other hand a will/telos for salvation (a tension which we would deny since God’s divine energies cannot contradict as they are God manifest. Or as any position of divine simplicity would deny, lest introducing parts in God since God cannot be opposed to Himself) and it is all accomplished by abstractions and mental relations in God’s mind which are divorced from concrete objects.

For more on the relationship between God’s justice and suffering, see this post dealing particularly with Orthodox/Catholic views of the afterlife.


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