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Packer on the Nature of the Atonement: Penal or Pecuniary

February 14, 2007

Packer on the difference between a civil and criminal legal suit with regard to the atonement of Christ:

The Truth about the Reformers to be this They habitually spoke of atonement in the language of legal representation. Christ, they said, personam nostram sustinuit at the bar of God, enduring the penalty of the broken law in man's place. But they did not distinguish the two possible ways in which the notion could be developed, nor opt for one rather than the other. The transaction as they described it could be thought of after the analogy either of civil or of criminal law. In the first case, Christ would have paid our debt, the second our penalty. In the first case, his righteousness would be imputed to the believer in its effects: to say that Christ's righteousness is reckoned his would then be merely a way of saying that he receives the benefit of legal immunity and as a result of Christ's intervention on his behalf. Christ paid the debt; therefore he himself need never pay it. Such a conception, is simple. But if the transaction were interpreted in the second way, as a case of penal substitution, the idea becomes more difficult and the pitfalls more numerous. This way in fact the main strand in the Reformers' thought. On the first view, the ground of the sinner's acquittal from liability to punishment (i.e., his justification) is the fact that Christ paid the debt he had incurred. On the second view, the ground of justification is God's attribution (imputation) of Christ's obedience and suffering to the guilty sinner. The notion is Biblical, but demands careful statement, which in the early days of Protestant theology it did not always receive. In those days, the two lines of thought existed side by side in the minds of the some men without any awareness of inconsistency. Both served to illustrate the position which it was the Reformers' supreme concern to demonstrate and defend, that the sinner's justification is secured, not by his own work, but by his faith in the work Christ did on his behalf. To illustrate this point yet further, they sometimes permitted themselves to speak as if Christ became a sinner in fact at Calvary, and as a man becomes righteous in fact when he believes. During the century which followed, Protestant theologians devoted themselves to the task of systematizing, polishing and defending the Reformers' teaching. One of the results of these analytical labours was the discovery of inconsistency between these two lines of thought concerning Christ's satisfaction for sin . Hence arose controversy concerning the nature of imputed righteousness.

James I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: A Study in Puritan Thought, (Ph.D diss.,University of Oxford, 1954), 276-277.

David: This is really important. What Packer describes here clarifies what we have been saying regarding the commercialist or pecuniary categories inherent in the Owenist atonement schema. I would agree with Packer in principle, but disagree in particulars. I can totally agree that in Calvin and the first generation reformers, the two lines of thought were present. But in this way: when Calvin speaks of the expiation as a payment, the application is conditioned by faith, and it was a payment made for all following the Lombard formula. Calvin uses this language as he feels he is following the language of Scripture. However, when Owen uses payment language, it no longer is couched in conditioned-application language. The payment in and of itself infallibly secures remission for all whom it was made. The only "condition" for Owen is the simple delay in application. (He said that the elect are actually reconciled at the time Jesus died. I can cite this if anyone is interested in seeing it. Thus Owen comes as close as he could in asserting a pre-faith justification of the elect upon the cross.)

Owen and that line of thinking clearly followed the pecuniary approach just as equally as they spoke in terms of penal categories. I don’t think it was probably not until the time of Edwards, C Hodge and others that the lines of thought were properly set out and distinguished in Calvinist circles. What is happening now is that with the republication of Puritan works, modern 21st century readers are once again conflating the two lines of thought in the way they conceptualise the expiation. And it is this that is causing so much confusion today. What was gained by Edwards and the early Princetonians (including Dabney and Shedd) is being submerged and lost.

We can see this in the simple comparison between two southern Baptist systematicians, John Dagg and James Boyce. Dagg, who was educated independently of the Princetonian theology of C Hodge, et al and who was more influenced by the hypercalvinists of the preceding century, basically reproduced the pecuniary line of thought by positing an expiation of Christ as so much suffering (as payment) for so much sin. Had Christ died for more sinners, he probably would have had to suffer more. On the other hand, Boyce, who was educated under C Hodge, rejects this and presents a version of the expiation much closer to that of C Hodge, and a truer representation of a penal substitution. Yo can see this by checking Boyce in his Abtract of Theology.

Comments, questions, challenges: all welcome.


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