Penal Substitution in Perspective

By Patrick Franklin
View profile for: Dr. Patrick Franklin

It is no secret that, in recent times, the doctrine of penal substitution has fallen into disrepute. It is accused of being outdated and irrelevant to contemporary culture, degradingly anthropomorphic in its view of God, and morally reprehensible in its social implications. While there is a degree of truth to these charges, they fundamentally misunderstand and misrepresent the penal substitution view. What they attack is a crude caricature, not the genuine doctrine as articulated by its best proponents.

In contrast, penal substitution is a legitimate and relevant representation of the biblical doctrine of atonement. The problem with this metaphor is not primarily its formulation (although certain qualifications need to be made), but its application. In particular, problems arise when the penal substitution metaphor is viewed in isolation from other atonement metaphors, when it becomes a dominant or controlling metanarrative, or when it is converted mechanistically into a methodology for evangelism. Essentially, each of these errors leads to gospel reductionism. In order to develop the above points, the paper first examines the doctrine of penal substitution as it is articulated by one of its best advocates, Charles Hodge (though it also interacts with other important voices); second, it discusses and evaluates some of the objections that are commonly raised against it; and third, it offers a critique of the applications of the doctrine that are erroneous and reductionistic. As part of this critique, the paper will consider several insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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This is a peer reviewed Article

Article in McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry
Volume #: 10
Pages: 22-52
Year: 2008-2009

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