Part 13: A Response to Terrific Feedback on the Cross

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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