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Part 13: A Response to Terrific Feedback on the Cross

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 12, 2015)
The following is the thirteenth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

Dear "Jack" and "EJ,"

Thanks so much for the tremendous, in-depth dialogue that you appended to the fifth installment of my series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. I have to say that in all of the years that I have been writing articles for this website, yours was the most impressive set of comments that I have ever read: thoughtful, mutually respectful, and penetrating — a model of how good theological dialogue should take place among faithful Catholics.

Jack, your underlying concern with what I wrote about the Cross was that we need to understand Christ's work of atonement not as Christ being "punished" in our place, but of Christ "making amends with an offering of love": in other words, you are happy with what is usually called a "satisfaction" theory of Christ's saving work (that by His life and death Christ offers a gift of love to the Father that compensates for sin) but not with any theory of "penal substitution" (in other words, that Christ pays the penalty for our sin by taking on Himself the punishment we deserve). As you could have guessed, however, I tend to agree much more with what EJ wrote on this matter:

The Atonement is multi-faceted and not just a matter of satisfaction. The Atonement is: Sacrifice; Ransom; Satisfaction; Penal Substitution. The Satisfaction model of Atonement has never been officially declared by the Church as "the" official model, nor has Penal Substitution been officially declared to be heretical. Certain elements of the Calvinist [version of penal substitution] are heretical... but the Church has never officially declared that Satisfaction is "it" and Penal Substitution is "off-limits."... There is nothing inherent in satisfaction that rules out punishment.

So, for you the Atonement involves satisfaction, not penal substitution — for me and for EJ, it includes both.

The Catechism, however, seems to suggest that both penal substitution and satisfaction are involved in the mystery of Christ's saving work on the Cross:

By his obedience unto Death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering servant who makes an offering for sin when "He bore the sin of many, who shall make many to be accounted righteous, for He shall bear their iniquities." Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father ... (615).

Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But in the redeeming love that always united him to the father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point where he could say in our name from the cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Having thus established himself in solidarity with us sinners, "God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all," so that we might be "reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (603).

I also like the quote that EJ offered from Father Joseph Koterski, SJ, of Fordham University about Catechism entry 603:

He [Christ] took our nature and was willing to take our punishment for us, even though He did not deserve it. That punishment includes the sense of alienation or distance from God, which is something that we deserve. It is this distance or alienation that alone (led) Him to say "My God, why have you forsaken me" as part of a psalm that is actually a psalm of trust.

In your responses, Jack, I felt that you repeatedly attributed to me a particular understanding of penal substitution which I do not hold, and did not express in my articles. You wrote:

There isn't some abstract balance of sin and suffering where for each sin, someone, somewhere, has to be subjected to a certain amount of suffering over and above what the natural effects of sin are, and that's what Jesus volunteered to do. That's not how God's justice works ... . It is not about God's demand that someone, somewhere, suffer His full unmitigated wrath! ... What I don't see any strong reason for affirming is that the mechanism by which Christ's suffering and death delivers us is as follows: the Divine Justice requires that the sum total of punishment that could justly be imposed on all of the sinners of the world must be imposed on someone; that punishment is imposed on Christ; so now it can be remitted for us ... . That model that ... Dr. Stackpole seems to be so keen to have everyone adopt is that justice demands that the punishment of sin be borne by SOMEONE, so if they are to be removed from us, then they have to be inflicted on Jesus ... . That is not how Christ restores or satisfies justice, and would in fact be a mockery of justice ... . Christ taking on the punishments that come to us because of our sins (physical and internal suffering; death) is about his unity with us and entry into our condition, not a Divine demand to punish someone in order to forgive someone else ... .

Notice what I highlighted, above. That is not really what I said in my articles, nor how I expressed the idea of penal substitution. Here is what I actually said in articles 4 and 5:

We know very well that a mere human person cannot justly be punished in place of, and for the crimes of another. But Jesus Christ was not a mere human person; He is the divine Son of God in human form — and we do not know that it is unjust for our Creator and Judge to take upon Himself the burden and penalty of our sins.

Imagine a judge in a court of law who pronounces a verdict of "guilty as charged," and justly sentences the accused and his family to pay massive reparations for their crimes — reparation payments so huge that the family will have to pay off the debt for the rest of our lives. Then imagine the same judge, out of mercy and compassion for that family, coming down from the bench and offering to "foot the bill" to clear those payments, even at terrible cost to himself. Here we have an analogy (albeit an imperfect one) of what our Judge and Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us ... .

And it is certainly not the case that we have an angry Father of Justice who needed to be bought off by a loving Son. The Father and Son are both persons of the Blessed Trinity, so they both share the divine attributes of infinitely perfect Justice and infinitely perfect Love ... .

In short, God loved us so much that God Himself, in the Person of His Son, bore the burden and penalty of our sins on the Cross, removing our debt to Divine Justice so that we might find forgiveness, and so that the sanctifying grace of God might be poured out upon us. In doing all this for us, the divine Son of God, Jesus Christ, manifested both His perfect justice, and His merciful love for us, at one and the same time. ...

And remember, as we showed in previous articles in this series, Jesus did not only die for our sins: He offered to His heavenly Father a whole life of loving obedience, from cradle to grave. All in all, this was an offering to Divine Justice that more than made up for our sins. It was a "superabundant" sacrifice for our sins that merited for us a whole ocean of graces ... .

In short, Jesus made up for our misspent past, and bore the penalty that we deserve on the Cross. He also merited for us by His life and death all the sanctifying graces that can heal us and set us free from sin's power in our lives. That's not just some cold, impersonal, judicial transaction. It's a wonderful gift of His mercy that sets us free from the penalty and power of sin! All we need to do to receive that gift is to open our hearts to Jesus more and more by repentance and faith.

So, I do not think I am importing Calvinist heresy about the Cross into the Catholic faith. Calvin offered a truncated and distorted picture of penal substitution, to be sure (his view, as I understand it, was much like the one you accused me of teaching: that God's justice required that He punish SOMEONE, anyone, so Jesus volunteered to take the rap, or had it "imposed" on Him). And I did not say that "John Calvin was basically saying the same thing as St. Anselm," as you claim. Indeed, I said something rather more nuanced than that toward the end of article #5:

There are several different ways to work out the details even of the "satisfaction" and "penal substitution" dimensions of Christ's saving work. The way St. Thomas Aquinas worked it out was not exactly the same way that St. Anselm, St. Bernard, or John Calvin understood this mystery. Nevertheless, I am convinced that common to them all is a central, gospel truth: that Jesus, the divine Son of God, paid [or removed] the penalty for our sins on the Cross (i.e., He compensated or satisfied divine commutative justice for our sins) so that when we are united with Him through repentance and faith (nurtured in us especially by Baptism, sacramental Confession, and Holy Communion), then the merits of His sacrifice are fully applied to us.

Jack, the point of my series on the Cross was not to compare and contrast satisfaction and penal substitution theories of Christ's saving work. Rather, it was to argue that Catholic theologians need to preserve and proclaim a basic aspect of the gospel message that underlies all such theories: that God in Christ removed the penalty (or punishment) due to us for sin by His sacrifice on the Cross — He died for all, but its benefits can only be received by those who are united to him through true repentance and faith: "There is now no condemnation for them that live in union with Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). Christ's atoning work in His life and death, I said, is a "multi-dimensional mystery" — but one of those dimensions must include the doctrine that Jesus Christ removed our moral debt to God's commutative justice by His death on the Cross.

In fact, the way you expressed the satisfaction theory shows that you share this underlying belief too. Like St. Anselm, you just prefer to stick with "satisfaction" as a way to explain it, and not include elements of "penal substitution." Next time I will clarify why I think we need to have both.

Next week: The Doctrine of the Cross — Encore!

Read the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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Joey Henry - Apr 20, 2015


Dr. Robert,

I am so glad to have read your article. I have myself written an article about Psub amd its legitimacy in RC theology. See link above.

Joey Henry

E.J. Cassidy - Mar 30, 2015

Jack, you have stated that you believe that our Lord, as the Lamb of God, took upon Himself all the sins of humanity. You then stated that He experienced grief over these sins.

I want to challenge your assertion. He experienced much more than grief. I should have brought this up sooner.

If He took all the sins of humanity onto Himself, that would include mortal, or grave, sins. The Catechism states: Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. (Paragraph 1472)

Would He not experience this deprivation of communion with God? Would He not experience this privation, this “eternal punishment” of sin?

His cry from the Cross was not a cry of grief over sins. It was this cry of privation or deprivation. The mystery of all this is that He never lost His union with the Father, His union of love. This is why John Paul II calls it a “mystery.”

“Theological tradition has not failed to ask how Jesus could possibly experience at one and the same time his profound unity with the Father, by its very nature a source of joy and happiness, and an agony that goes all the way to his final cry of abandonment. The simultaneous presence of these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects is rooted in the fathomless depths of the hypostatic union.”

It would be easy to explain or understand if this was only a grief over the sins He imputed to Himself. One can experience communion with God and grieve over the sins of another, or one’s own sins. But John Paul II has gone much further than saying it was grief.

He says that these two aspects are “seemingly irreconcilable” which puts it in another category. We don’t have to plumb the “fathomless depths of the hypostatic union” to understand grief over sins. We do have to if we are talking about communion and abandonment at one and the same time.

Robert - Mar 30, 2015

Oh dear: just one more clarification. I just noticed that in your last posting, Jack, you attributed to me an analogy for penal substitution that I do not believe I ever offered or pressed:

"You propose an analogy: 'it's as if a sovereign had at first justly sentenced his guilty subjects to death, but carried out the sentence against his innocent son who freely took their place, so that he could pardon his guilty subjects but still carry out the sentence'."

I did not use that analogy because I do not think it a very good one (although St. Alphonsus uses it). Rather, I proposed as the best analogy we have the one of a judge who offers to pay the bill for a family of debtors--irresponsibly in debt and rightfully convicted of evading creditors let us say!-- even at terrible cost to himself. I chose that one because (a)it was discussed and to some extent defended in the Oxford collection of essays in philosophical theology that I recommended to our readers, and (b) because it is one of the few instances in our human system of justice, and moral sense of justice, when we do not think it immoral or unjust for someone to act as a "kind of" penal substitute for someone else.

E.J. Cassidy - Mar 30, 2015

I am beginning to think that the Jesuits include penal substitution in their theology of the Cross (penal substitution from the Catholic point of view, not the Calvinist):

From Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits editor, Michael Harter, SJ

Prayer for Compassion

Teach me how to be compassionate to the suffering, to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the lepers; show me how you revealed your deepest emotions,
as when you shed tears, or when you felt sorrow and anguish to the point of sweating blood and needed an angel to console you.

Above all, I want to learn how you supported the extreme pain of the cross, including the abandonment of your Father.

Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (1907-1991, Former Superior General of the Jesuits)

Robert Stackpole - Mar 28, 2015

Dear Jack and EJ,

Just one final note here--not to take the debate further for now, but to clarify the perspective of The Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, which you have been discussing. It so happens that where I teach Theology, we read Sheen's classic Life of Christ as a textbook, and in fact, I was going to quote him at the very end of this whole series of articles! Suffice it to say here that, whether the quote provided by EJ clearly shows this or not, Archbishop Sheen clearly combined elements of both Satisfaction and Penal Substitution in his expositions of the mystery of the Cross. Just one example, from chapter 39:

"Sinners can show a love for one another by taking the punishment which another deserves. But our Blessed Lord was not only taking the punishment but also taking the guilt as if it were His own."

Great saints and Fathers of the Church have sometimes disagreed with each other on precisely how to piece together the mosaic of Christ's saving work. Among the ancient Fathers, some taught that Christ paid a ransom the the Devil to set us free, while others disagreed. St. Anselm held that if God wanted to save us, then He had to become incarnate and die on the cross to make satisfaction for sin. St. Thomas Aquinas held, to the contrary, that God could have chosen to save the world without making satisfaction, and in some other way. So I am not too worried about finding The Ven. Sheen and St. John Paul II not entirely of a common mind here on precisely what Jesus experienced and accomplished for us at the moment of His cry of abandonment on the Cross. Maybe there is a sense in which they are both right--but they are clearly not saying exactly the same thing, and seem at least to disagree on the point.

Jack - Mar 26, 2015

To EJ,

Well, what do you think of this quote from St. John Paul II, who interprets the cry of dereliction in much the same way as Abp. Sheen, as you yourself have quoted earlier in our dialogue?

"What confers on substitution its redemptive value is not the material fact that an innocent person has suffered the chastisement deserved by the guilty and that justice has thus in some way been satisfied (in such a case one should speak rather of a grave injustice). The redemptive value comes from the fact that Jesus, out of pure love, entered into solidarity with the guilty and thus transformed their situation from within."

That quote from St. John Paul II pretty much sums up where I'm coming from, and seems useful as a lens for interpreting what he says elsewhere about the suffering of Christ in solidarity with sinners.

You keep sending me quotes about how Jesus descended into the depths of the human condition--which I have never disputed--and writing as though they supported penal substitution, which they don't. In summary, I'm nonplussed.

To Robert:

Yes, I went a bit overboard on the last one. And you were again quite a gentleman about it, which I appreciate! So I apologize and retract my attribution to you of a doctrine of complete incomprehensibility, which was unwarranted. The line, "we don't KNOW that it is unjust for..." [emphasis mine] and reiterations of that sentiment are, however, punts at best, and I don't see a good reason to follow them.

More to the point, when you say that all analogies break down at some point...yes! I totally agree with that! That's my point, really. But it plays out differently for me here than it does for you. We need to be clear on what the analogy is and what the facts are. The facts are, "Christ's incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection have brought us salvation from the consequences of our sins." You propose an analogy: "it's as if a sovereign had at first justly sentenced his guilty subjects to death, but carried out the sentence against his innocent son who freely took their place, so that he could pardon his guilty subjects but still carry out the sentence".

I would say, "That kind of language could be useful because it is one case of an innocent person's suffering benefiting a guilty person. But we would be careful not to reify the analogy that we have created. It breaks down because God, who is just, would not punish the innocent, and anyway Christ did not suffer the eternal death that we actually deserve, and it finds little if any support in the Church Fathers." I would also say that I don't think that the language is worth using, precisely because of the way that exactly that abstraction has been reified since the time of the Reformers (and, very occasionally, before that). But reasonable people can of course differ on that.

So we part ways on what to do when the analogy of Penal Substitution stops reflecting any meaningful conception of justice. I want to say, "OK that's the limit of the analogy; all analogies have them, after all". You seem to want to stick to the analogy even when it carries us into strange and terrible places. Or maybe you think that Christ as a penal substitute is the fact and human acts like one person paying another's fine are the analogy. In that case, I think you have things way backward, and no wonder we are going in circles!

That's all from me for now. I'll plan on waiting for the next two installments.



Robert - Mar 25, 2015

Well, Jack, I hardly know what to say. When we started this dialogue you accused me of importing Calvinist heresy into the Catholic doctrine of the Cross, and now you have "connected the dots" in your mind and line me up with the Muslims!I can't win :) !

I can only assure you that I do not believe that "God's justice and goodness are inscrutable" or that "God is so radically different [from us] and incomprehensible that we should not hesitate to attribute to God acts that are unjust, or that we should "drastically sacrifice reason" in our talk about God, etc. Nor do i think that anything I wrote in my previous posting implies such an extreme position.

As you probably know (but our readers may not), St. Thomas Aquinas taught that in most respects our speech about God must be "analogical": when we speak about God's "justice" or His "goodness," we can do so neither "uni-vocally" (as if the words just and good applied to God mean exactly the same thing that they do when we apply them to ourselves) nor "equivocally" (as if God is so utterly transcendent and incomprehensible that when we apply the words "just" and "good" to God we really have no idea at all what they mean in His case). Analogy-speak for God is the middle way between these extremes: God's"justice" and "goodness" is kind of like human justice and goodness, but goes way beyond ours. That is why such statements must always be tagged with what St. Thomas called a "mode of signification": i.e., to be precise, God is infinitely good and infinitely just. Anyway, I try to stay with St. Thomas on this one--as I bet you do too. But even if I have (inadvertently) slid over into the camp of the Scotists here, that would hardly mean we cannot communicate with each other and enrich each other on the issues under discussion...for even the Scotists do not hold the kind of doctrine of radical divine incomprehensibility that you attributed to me.

When I said in my last posting that all analogies break down at some point, and can never fully or completely describe the infinite God and His acts in a finite world, I neither stated nor implied that they are completely useless or merely "equivocal" or that some analogies are not better than others in applying them to the mysteries of the Faith. That is why I offered the best one I could for Christ's saving work on the Cross in article #13. Such analogies are essential to our (albeit limited) understanding of God and His acts in the world.

Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. St. Augustine's famous social analogy for the Trinity (A lover, his beloved, and the love between them) has been very popular in the Catholic theological tradition, but it breaks down too (for one thing, because the Holy Spirit on this analogy seems less than a full person: he is merely a quality-of-relationship between the other two). If I recall correctly, St. Augustine actually offered about 15 different analogies for the Trinity in his great work, De Trinitate, analogies which to some extent serve to complement and correct each other.

The analogy I offered for Christ's sacrifice on the Cross (the Judge who pays a debt in place of a convicted family of debtors) is also imperfect, because on the Cross Jesus did not just foot a bill in our place, he was actually executed in our place. Still, I think the analogy is a good one because it shows that even in our everyday human system of justice and law, we do not think it immoral for someone voluntarily to act as a "kind of" penal substitute by footing a bill owed by another. With regard to God, He is in a unique relationship with all human beings, because He is not only our Final Judge, but also our Creator. It is precisely for this reason that I think we can say that God may be able justly to bear an extreme punishment in the place of His creatures, and for their sake, whereas it would be wrong for one mere human being to bear such extreme punishment in place of another. I don't think that makes God's justice and goodness utterly incomprehensible and inscrutable.Like any good analogy, it comes close to the mystery and illuminates it, without fully capturing and exhausting it.

So, in the fullest sense, only God can become "incarnate", and in the fullest sense, only God incarnate can act as a "penal substitute.". But given the analogies that we can come up with we can begin to understand what these mysteries mean. We can also see that they do not necessarily involve any logical contradictions. For on what grounds would we say that God's essence is such that He cannot assume all of the limitations of a human life without ceasing to be God? And on what grounds could we say that--despite God's unique relationship with creatures as their Creator and Judge--it would necessarily be unjust for Him to take upon Himself, in our place, the penalty for sin that we deserve?

For further reading and reflection: two good essays on this very subject re penal substitution appeared in a book entitled "Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, volume I: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement" edited by Michael Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Peace to you in Christ, Jack- this dialogue is kind of lop-sided at the moment, with both me and EJ weighing in on our side. But I intend to give you the final word when the last article (#15 in the series) appears. Meanwhile, number 14 is soon to go online!

E.J. Cassidy - Mar 24, 2015

Hi Jack,

Would you please read this quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen and tell us what you think of it? He is commenting on the words of Jesus from the Cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me"?


This is the hour of darkness. Suddenly out-of its blackness, the silence is broken by a cry-so terrible, so unforgettable, that even those who did not understand the dialect remembered the strange tones: "Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani." They recorded it so, a rough rendering of the Hebrew, because they could never get the sound of those tones out of their ears all the days of their life.

The darkness which was covering the earth at that moment was only the external symbol of the dark night of the soul within. Well indeed might the sun hide its face, at the terrible crime of deicide. A real reason why the earth was made was to have a cross erected upon it. And now that the cross was erected, creation felt the pain and went into darkness. But why the cry of darkness? Why the cry of abandonment: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It was the cry of atonement for sin. Sin is the abandonment of God by man; it is the creature forsaking the Creator, as a flower might abandon the sunlight which gave its strength and beauty. Sin is a separation, a divorce- the original divorce from unity with God, whence all other divorces are derived.

Since He came on earth to redeem men from sin, it was therefore fitting that He feel that abandonment, that separation, that divorce. He felt it first internally, in His soul, as the base of a mountain, if conscious, might feel abandoned by the sun when a cloud drifted about it, even though its great heights were radiant with light. There was no sin in His soul, but since He willed to feel the effect of sin, an awful sense of isolation and loneliness crept over Him-the loneliness of being without God.

Surrendering the divine consolation which might have been His, He sank into an awful human aloneness, to atone for the solitariness of a soul that has lost God by sin; for the loneliness of the atheist who says there is no God, for the isolation of the man who gives up his faith for things, and for the broken-heartedness of all sinners who are homesick without God. He even went so far as to redeem all those who will not trust, who in sorrow and misery curse and abandon God, crying out: "Why this death? Why should I lose my property? Why should I suffer?" He atoned for all these things by asking a "Why" of God.


Jack - Mar 20, 2015


You are correct about two things. One is that I don't dispute, and in fact intended all along to support, the "central gospel message". The other is that the paragraph that you call attention to is at the heart of our miscommunication. It amounts to an admission that in order to argue for penal substitution, you are willing to say that God really isn't just or good in a way that is comprehensible to us; that when we describe God as 'just' or 'good', we mean something fundamentally different than when we describe a human person as just or any created thing as good. God, on this view, is so completely inscrutable to us as to be utterly inaccessible to reason. People from my side of this philosophical fence might argue that while a person from your position may call God 'just' out of pious sensibility, it is philosophically akin to calling the Queen of England 'bright purple', on the grounds that we don't know what 'bright purple' might mean when applied to a queen.

The view that I attribute to you--and that you may deny holding yourself--is the mainstream view in Islam and Protestantism (Luther and Calvin held it); although it's kind of marginal in Catholic thought it is also not far from the doctrine of the Scotists. The latter did not embrace penal susbtitution; but pretty much every community that embraces penal substitution does have a view of God's justice and goodness as being inscrutable, whether or not those dots are connected.

So you're right. If your argument hinges on approaching God with the attitude that God is so radically different and incomprehensible that we should not hesitate to attribute to God acts that are unjust as we understand and use the word justice and then qualify that "we don't KNOW that those acts are unjust for God," then no, I won't follow.

This is an old division in theism and it's difficult for people on opposite sides of it to communicate effectively with each other. As I said, it's closely related to the division between Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, for example. That doesn't mean we can't have good will towards each other, of course, but we should be realistic about how much we will end up influencing each other, and the answer is, "not much". You might disagree that the line of argument that you take entails such drastic sacrifices of reason; I maintain that any such argument implicitly does.

Nonetheless I do look forward to the next two articles. I hope that people benefit from the back-and-forth, even though you and I will probably go home without having changed our minds about anything. I'll still think that Penal Substitution is an imposition on the way that the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the Theologians discuss the suffering of Christ; the idea will continue to bring you great comfort, I'm sure.



Robert Stackpole - Mar 18, 2015

Dear Jack,

So glad you are back in the dialogue! I feared that I made you wait so long for my response that you may have given up and gone away!

Just a heads-up to you and EJ: I actually wrote three articles in response to your debate--this present one (#13 in the overall series of articles on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice) is just the first one. So I encourage you both to wait until after you read the next two: that will make your final reflections more fruitful.

One key thing to remember along the way, as I said in this present article: I did not write the series to argue that every good Catholic theologian MUST uphold penal substitution alone to be considered an orthodox Catholic. I have been arguing in this series primarily for the necessity of a FAMILY of perspectives, with, as I said, " a central gospel truth common to them all: that Jesus Christ paid (or removed) the penalty for our sins on the Cross (i.e., He compensated or satisfied divine, commutative justice for our sins)" so that, as St. Paul wrote, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in union with Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). In expressing my understanding of this "central gospel truth" in articles 1-5, I included language suggesting both "satisfaction" and "penal substitution" theories of how to work it out--and I expressed dismay that so many of even the best Catholic theologians today, when they discuss the atonement, do not seem to clearly articulate this "central gospel truth." In arguing for "satisfaction, but not penal substitution,” Jack, you are still upholding the main point of articles 1-5 of my series--you are just asking for further refinement, which I am happy to explore, for the sake of our readers.

For now, as I ponder your latest contributions to the dialogue, Jack, I continue to feel that one reason that you do not understand where EJ and I are "coming from" (that is, in addition to our inadequate capacities for written expression!) is that you are reading-past the first two sentences that I re-quoted from article #4:

"We know very well that a mere human person cannot justly be punished in the place of, and for the crimes of another. But Jesus Christ was not a mere human person; He is the divine Son of God in human flesh--and we do not know that it is unjust for our Creator and Judge to take upon Himself the burden and penalty for our sins."

That is why, when I offered an analogy for the penal substitution of the Cross (the analogy of a judge who steps down from the bench and offers to pay a just penalty in the place of convicted debtors) I said "Here we have an analogy, (albeit an imperfect one) of what our Judge and Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us." Indeed, all analogies by definition break down at some point: they are not an exact copy of what they are describing. And where this one breaks down is precisely where I indicated: "a mere human person cannot justly be punished in the place of, and for the crimes of, another." Thus, no analogy for the Cross drawn from the human justice system will ever completely work, because no mere human being could ever justly "take the rap" for another. So your dissection of the analogy (a judge cannot be justly executed in place of another person), while it shows where the analogy breaks down, still misses the point: “a mere human person CANNOT justly be punished in the place of, or for the crimes of another; but Jesus Christ was NOT a mere human person..." I think one key to understanding the penal substitution theory begins here.

Anyway, the impossibility of finding an entirely adequate, merely human analogy in this case should hardly surprise us--and is hardly a unique situation in Theology. Consider the mystery of the Incarnation. The ancient Fathers looked for analogies for how one person could have both a divine and human nature in the fact that one human person can have both a soul and a body. And using narrative analogies, Kierkegaard compared the Incarnation to the story of a king whose love for a peasant girl moved him to become a peasant himself for a time in order to win her love. But all such analogies for the Incarnation break down at some point, because a mere human person cannot add a new nature to his own without abandoning his old one. God is the only one who can assume a limited human nature without abandoning the infinite perfections of His divine nature. The uniqueness of divine action in the world--as the Infinite acting in the finite realm--can only be expressed in analogies with limited application, whether we are talking about the Incarnation, or the Atonement.

Also, for now, to respond to one of your secondary points (and because it won't be discussed in the upcoming articles): you mention the fact that the ancient Jewish priests used to be said to "bear the sins" of the people in offering their animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple, and this you take to be evidence that the phrase implies no element of penal substitution on their part, nor in Isaiah 53:12 or in the use of that phrase in the Catechism. It seems to me this is a non-sequitur argument. Yes, in one sense the Jewish priests were said to bear the sins of the people when offering their sacrifices, but surely in Is. 53, the Suffering Servant is said to do so in a way that goes way beyond what the priests were held to be accomplishing in the Temple. Isaiah 53:4-10, says he was "stricken, smitten by God and afflicted" and "wounded for our transgressions," and "upon him was the chastisement that made us whole," and that "he makes himself an offering for sin," and "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." In other words, this priest uniquely is also the victim, and vicariously suffering for sinners. The use of Is 53:12 in the Catechism, therefore, in the context of the Catechism's mention of “the substitution of the suffering servant" seems to me to be much more welcoming of a penal substitution aspect of Christ's work on the Cross than you are willing to admit.

Anyway, maybe I will succeed in convincing you of that in the weeks to come--or maybe not. But at least I hope that our readers will benefit from deeper exploration of the mystery of the Cross from my next two articles, and from the responses I will get from both you and EJ, in the weeks of the run-up to Good Friday!

Pax Christi,


Jack - Mar 15, 2015

Dr. Stackpole,
First of all, I misspelled your name in the comments. Sorry about that! You were very gracious about it. You're a real gentleman!
Second of all, thanks for the response. I'm looking forward to the next article on this.
Third, to E.J., thanks so much for this dialogue.
I will also say a couple of things that I hope contribute to a fruitful next article.
First, I don't really see penal substitution in the CCC quotes. I don't see how you would read that into quote 1, where the suffering servant is said to "make an offering for sin". Unless maybe you are reading "to bear sins" to mean "to have sins somehow imputed to one" or "to suffer the penalties of sins"; but that isn't what it means in the OT. The priests of the Old Covenant are said to "bear sins" when they offer sacrifices, but I hope that everyone here knows that atonement was not made under the old covenant by priests suffering the penalties due to the sins for which they were offering sacrifices. The second quote doesn't talk about a "penal substitution" either as far as I can see. And neither does the quote from Fr. Koterski is talking about penal substitution: people, even Christians in the state of Grace, still feel alienated from God so if the goal of Christ's sense of abandonment during his Passion were for Jesus to suffer that punishment in our place and thus to satisfy the demands of justice and liberate us from having to suffer that punishment, then we would have to conclude that it didn't work. The same can be said, by the way, of his death, as we will all soon learn.
Second, between Paragraph 1 and Paragraph 2 of the material that you quote from your previous articles, you switch gears from penal substitution to satisfaction as soon as you begin to ostensibly defend penal substitution. The two paragraphs are for that reason a non-sequitur; a judge could indeed accept the payment of a fine or debt by a third party just as easily as he could offer to pay it himself; he could not justly have himself electrocuted to death and claim this as a reason to set a condemned prisoner free any more than he could accept an offer from an innocent third party be electrocuted in exchange for the judge setting a condemned prisoner free. What the judge does in your quoted material is OK, but it's not relevant to penal substitution as such, and it isn't relevant that it is the judge himself doing it.
In light of this, and since the upcoming article will include material about why it is good to include penal substitution in our understanding of the atonement--and I'm looking forward to it--I would love to see a clear statement of what you mean by "penal substitution". It usually means something along these lines: the punishments that we deserve for our sins are suffered by Christ in our place, and so retributive justice has been satisfied vis-a-vis our sins and we can consequently have those punishments remitted to us. If you merely mean that Jesus did in fact suffer all of the hardships--culminating in death--that came on the human family as punishments for sin, then that's obviously true, but I don't see why you would call that "penal substitution". And if you merely mean that Jesus compensated Divine Justice for our sins, then once again that's obviously true but it has no clear or necessary connection to penal substitution. I'm interested to hear your defense of the idea; I write this to say that I think that it will be most useful if you explain carefully what you are defending in penal substitution, and be sure that your defenses hit that target.


E.J. Cassidy - Mar 13, 2015

Thanks for the gracious comments, Dr. Stackpole! I enjoy friendly debate/discussion of these issues. Because of your comments, I know I'm on the right track.