19 February 2010

That Galatians Paper

After complaining about the trouble I was having toward the end of last semester with that essay on Galatians 3:13, I forgot to post you all a link to it. Whether or not any of you faithful readers will be impressed by it I cannot say, but it turns out that the Prof. in question was sufficiently pleased. And that's the important thing, after all, isn't it? ;-)

Oddly enough, it seems that google.docs was able to handle the Hebrew characters, but not the Greek ones, so please just ignore that strange garbled column near the beginning of the essay, and trust me that it looked quite normal on the paper version that I handed in.

So, without further ado:

"Made a Curse for Us"

Martin Luther and St. Thomas Aquinas
on the Interpretation of Galatians 3:13

In their attempt to establish the biblical foundation for the Reformed doctrine of penal substitution, the authors of a recent apologia for penal substitution appeal (among other things) to St. Paul's words in the Letter to the Galatians, where he writes that, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree'" (Gal. 3:13). Referring to the same verse, another defender of penal substitution even poses the rhetorical question, "Could substitution be expressed any more clearly?" In fact, Martin Luther's most powerful exposition of his doctrine of penal substitution may be found in his commentary on precisely this verse. Though it surely does support such a doctrine to some extent, it is a real question whether this text really "proves" penal substitution. A careful look at the text together with a comparison of the respective interpretations of Martin Luther and St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that there is little grounds for using this verse as a "proof-text" for penal substitution, nor indeed, for any particular theory of the atonement.

Read on via the link on the sidebar.


big daddy said...

Is the "penal substitution" understanding of atonement a necessary component in the attempt to undermine the sacramental system whereby the fruits of Christ's sacrifice are able to be appropriated by the believer? In other words, is this a purely academic exercise, which allows a budding theologian to demonstrate his ability to read the New Testament in a sufficiently sophisticated manner, or does it effectively throw back one of the bricks the Reformation lobbed at the Catholic understanding of the grace of salvation? Not that there isn't some value in budding theologians being able to demonstrate such sophistication.

John said...

Well, to be quite honest, this particular exercise was more or less purely academic, if you want to call it that.

Prof.: Write 10 pages on some verse from Rom., Gal., or Heb.

Student: Okay. Hmmm. There you are.

It is my opinion, however, that "penal substitution," if one intends that term in a technical sense to mean the typical Protestant doctrine of the atonement as worked out especially by John Calvin, does constitute a component of the Prot. version of salvation, in which, of course, there is no room for a sacramental system.

The trouble is that there is something penal, i.e. painful about Christ's death; and there is a sense in which he is our substitute on the cross. Penal Substitution with capital letters, though, implies more than that, and is really quite simply the flip-side of justification by faith alone:

The merits of Christ are imputed to the believer who is thus regarded as just, and therefore also receives the reward of justice (salvation). The demerits of sinners are imputed to Christ who is thus regarded as the greatest sinner, and therefore also receives the reward of sin (death... and damnation?).

big daddy said...

Of course, but the issue would seem to me more of why Christ's salvific action (however the mechanics of its operation are understood) is imputed to the particular Christian. The Catholic would say, even given the Penal Substitution understanding, that it is participation in the sacraments, particularly Baptism, Confession and the Eucharist, that allows God to impute righteousness and merit to the otherwise undeserving sinner. If Baptism doesn't "cause" God to impute righteousness to the sinner in the Protestant system, what does? And Luther, for one, maintained belief in the necessity of Baptism and the Real Presence. What about the doctrine of Penal Substitution would allow him to denounce the Roman understanding of these sacraments, and the efficacy of the others?

John said...

Well, I'm just speculating here, but I think the problem might be that for the Catholic, participation in the sacraments is nothing other than participation in the Passion of Christ.

In the P.Sub. understanding of the cross, there is little to no room for participation: i.e. if Christ on the cross is "going to hell so that we don't have to" there is no sense in saying that we are saved when we go to hell with him.

If, however, Christ on the cross is satisfying for sin in the sense of offering a painful act of charity (valued positively by God) to make up for our sins (valued negatively by God), then it is precisely when we participate in that act of satisfaction (through the sacraments) that our individual sins are made up for and we merit salvation.

It's hard for me to see, anyways, what kind of participation in the passion could be possible on the P.Sub. account. You just have to believe that Christ did this for you, and he did. Perhaps baptism and the Lord's supper are retainable because they are easily seen as mere professions of this faith, whereas the other sacraments don't make much sense outside of a granting of participation in the Passion.

Just thinking aloud here, though, so feel free to punch holes in any of that without fear of provoking an identity crisis :)

big daddy said...

To oversimplify, Christ endured our just punishment for sin so that the sinner could (would) be freed from that punishment. Let us ignore the view (held by some Protestants and even some Catholics) that this means that everyone is freed from the punishment of Hell. If I am a Protestant, there must be some means whereby God decides that Christ's satisfaction is imputed to some (the Christian) and not to others. The issue is not whether there is some satisfaction imputable to all or some (the question answered by the Penal Substitution theory), but HOW the satisfaction is imputed to those to whom it is in fact imputed. The Catholic says the sacraments; if not the sacraments, per Protestant understanding, then how? Does Penal Substition implicitly deny the imputability of Christ's satisfaction by means of the sacraments?

I don't dispute that Catholics differ with Protestants over the means whereby the cross of Christ accomplishes remission of sins. I just don't see that one view of the atonement necessarily denies efficacy to the sacraments whereas another view does not.

John said...

Well, I think that your opening line summation of the atonement is in fact an oversimplification.

If one is looking for whether or not a different understanding of the redemption might entail a different understanding of the application of the fruits of that redemption, then oversimplifying our understanding of the redemption so far as to obscure the difference entirely is hardly helpful.

If one says that, "Christ endured our just punishment for sin so that the sinner could (would) be freed from that punishment," the question upon which Catholic and Prot. soteriologies diverge is, Which punishment?

Calvin says, The punishment that we should / would have received had satisfaction not been offered.

Aquinas says, The punishment that we should / would have offered in satisfaction.

John said...

To pick up another point:

I don't really see the relation in Reformation theology as one of: "Redemption was accomplished in this manner (P.Sub.), and therefore applied in that manner (by faith alone)."

It seems much more to be the case that sola fides is the lynchpin of the whole system, of which two of the consequences are: not having a place for the sacramental application of grace, and interpreting the cross as a matter of penal substitution.

If the question is whether these last two are related to each other directly or only through their mutual relationship to sola fides, I'd have to say that I'm not entirely sure, but I can offer again the observation that if Christ is doing / enduring something so that I don't have to do / endure it, then there isn't much sense left in my wanting to participate in his action. I'd much rather just be grateful for it and reap its fruits from a safe distance.

big daddy said...

So, Calvin says that the punishment we would have received - Hell - is not inflicted on us because of Christ's atoning sacrifice (He endured it instead). Aquinas says that we would have had to do something in satisfaction; in the old covenant it would have been to offer sacrifice (and hope that we had offered enough sacrifices, I guess); in the new covenant Christ is the satisfying sacrifice each of us is able to offer by our participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Is this a fair, if overly simplified, statement of the difference?

John said...

I think that's fair, but I would stress harder on this point: that for Aquinas, satisfaction only works if the one who sinned is the same as the one who satisfies.

The doctrine of the Church as the mystical body thus takes on a central role, for vicarious satisfaction works only if, and to the extent that, the sinner is united to Christ on the cross - only if they are one mystical person.

On this account, the sacraments are the means whereby one is united to the person of Christ in his passion, such that a real participation in his act of satisfaction is given.

Sorry, I know that I'm not getting to the bottom of what you're driving at, still stuck as I am at the level of distinguishing what are two very similar accounts of the atonement.

It does seem reasonable to me that different views of the objective redemption will almost certainly have correspondingly different views of the subjective redemption, but whether P.Sub. necessarily excludes the Catholic sacramental system... I'm not really sure.

Perhaps not, since at least one famous Catholic author with pretty orthodox views on the sacraments held to it (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

big daddy said...

Of course, a great deal of the difficulty I may have with this is: whether P. Sub or Vic. Sat., I don't see any Scriptural justification for any means of applying (imputing) Christ's merits to the believer other than a system that includes Baptism and the Real Presence. That may also be because I don't see the sacraments as "works" in the sense that it seems to me Scripture uses the term.

John said...

Exactly. And if Scripture has the application of the merits of the passion through baptism, which is a participation in the passion (Rom. 6), then there is a scriptural advantage for Vic. Sat. over P.Sub.

big daddy said...

I'm sure this discussion has gone on long enough, but that's where we might differ. Whether one's notion of atonement is application of merit (Vic. Sat., Catholicism) or imputation of righteousness (P. Sub., Lutheranism), we need a reason why God would apply merit or impute righteousness to any specific person. The sacraments answer the purpose for the Catholic in either case; there must be some reason other than the view of atonement that underlies the Protestant objection to the sacramental system. It seems to me.

John said...

Oh, indeed, I don't think Luther's idea of the atonement underlies his objection to the sacramental system; in fact, quite the opposite.

I think his sola fides doctrine combined with an understanding of the sacraments as "works" led him to reject them as instruments of salvation. This seems to be where we agree.

It seems to me that where we differ might be as to whether his sola fides doctrine also underlies his doctrine of the atonement. It seems to me that it does...