The Case of the Purloined Parable

Penal substitutionary atonement, as complicated as it might sound, is actually a very simple doctrine.  It is simply the understanding that when Christ died on the cross, he was paying the penalty for our sins.  It was a penalty which we should have paid, but which Christ paid in our stead.  Because of the death of Christ, those who put their faith in him have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sin.

This doctrine is taught in hymn after hymn and contemporary song after contemporary song.  Just a few of the hymns and contemporary songs which represent this teaching in their lyrics are:

How Great Thou Art
In Christ Alone
Amazing Love, O What Sacrifice
To God Be the Glory
What a Wonderful Savior
He Is Lord
Praise Him!  Praise Him!
Join All the Glorious Names
One Day
Hallelujah, What a Savior
What Wondrous Love Is This
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
The Old Rugged Cross
At the Cross (Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed)
Calvary Covers It All
Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness
Nothing But the Blood
There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood
Wonderful Grace of Jesus
Arise, My Soul, Arise
Grace Greater Than Our Sin
And Can It Be
Rock of Ages
Jesus Paid It All
The Church’s One Foundation
Revive Us Again
I Lay My Sins on Jesus
Just As I Am
My Jesus, I Love Thee
My Faith Has Found a Resting Place
My Hope Is in the Lord
Victory in Jesus
It Is Well with My Soul
I Will Sing of My Redeemer
My Savior’s Love (I Stand Amazed)
He Lifted Me
I Will Praise Him
Glory to His Name
O, How I Love Jesus
Jesus Loves Me
How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
Lord, I Life Your Name on High
He Paid a Debt He Did Not Owe
For the Cross
Behold the Lamb
Christ Is Risen, He Is Risen Indeed
The Power of the Cross

For the last two millennia, tens of millions of saints have sung this great truth.  They have preached it, heard it preached, and worshiped and glorified God on account of it.  They have gloried in the cross, the place where their sins were borne by their Savior, where Jesus died to procure redemption and forgiveness for those who would put their faith in him.  They have been amazed by what Christ has done for them, along with the apostle Paul, who marvels in Romans 5 that Christ would choose to die for sinners.  Christians have been amazed at this love, even mystified by it.  But they have never had much of a problem understanding the logic of it.

Over the last few decades, however, many have raised what they consider to be valid logical objections to this teaching.  They consider it illogical to believe that Christ could pay the penalty for our sins, but that we should at the same time refer to this as God forgiving our sins.  They reckon that if someone actually pays for our sins, then we cannot also say that the sins are actually forgiven.

They consider the idea that God would have his Son die on the cross for our sins to be an instance of “divine child abuse.”  They even think that a good portion of the child abuse that occurs in our day is a direct result of the belief that God would ask his Son to die for our sins.  Additionally, they argue that everything wrong with our penal and correctional systems is the result of the church’s acceptance of the teaching of penal substitutionary atonement.

They think it is entirely unjust for God to ask an innocent person, his Son, to die a judicial death on behalf of those who are not innocent.  Even though the apostle Paul declares the cross to be a remarkable display of God’s righteousness and justice, they deny that we should refer to this as an act of justice; rather it is an act of incredible cruelty and injustice.

Unfortunately, a number of this doctrine’s detractors engage in what I can only refer to as “Scripture twisting.”   When dealing with passages that have traditionally been understood as teaching this doctrine fairly clearly, they will often appeal to the least likely interpretations of these passages in order to explain them away.  At the same time, they will “over interpret” other passages, and then proudly exclaim, “See, no penal atonement here!”

In this article, I want to talk about one of the strangest of these attempts at over-interpretations.  I call it, “The Case of the Purloined Parable.”  It comes from Robin Collins, Professor of Philosophy at Messiah College in Pennsylvania (click on the first link on the page: “A Defense of Non-Violent Atonement”).  I don’t believe he is the first one to try to use the Parable of the Prodigal Son to argue against the idea of penal atonement; but he may be the first one to rewrite the parable in order to do so.  In order to show the “perverseness” of the penal atonement doctrine, he re-tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son from what he considers to be a penal atonement perspective.  Here is his retelling.

There was a man who had two sons.  The younger said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.”  So the father divided his property between them.  Not long after that, the younger son went off to a distant country, squandered all he had in wild living, and ended up feeding pigs in order to survive.  Eventually he returned to his father, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me one of your hired servants.”  But his father responded: “I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men.  You have insulted my honor by your wild living.  Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would be against the moral order of the entire universe.  For ‘nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a son to take away the honor due to his father and not make recompense for what he takes away.’  Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid.  My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.”

“But father, please. . .” the son began to plead.

“No,” the father said, “either you must be punished or you must pay back, through hard labor for as long as you shall live, the honor you stole from me.”

Then the elder brother spoke up.  “Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him.  Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.”  And it came to pass that the elder brother took on the garb of a servant and labored hard year after year, often long into the night, on behalf of his younger brother.  And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.

Of course, Collins’s argument is that, if penal atonement were really true, then this is the form the parable should have taken.  But the parable sounds “perverse” when told like this; therefore, this shows us that the doctrine of penal atonement can’t be true.

Now there are so many problems with this argument (as well as with the retelling of the parable)  that it is hard to know where to begin in order to demonstrate the fallaciousness of the reasoning.  And I can’t deal with all the problems; after all, this is a blog post, not a dissertation.  So, I’ll only deal with three.

(1) The first problem is that this line of argumentation completely misunderstands the way parables work.  For a long time, interpreters of the parables tended to treat them as if they were allegories.  Then, in the early twentieth century, recognizing that parables shouldn’t be treated as full-blown allegories, scholars began to argue that any particular parable has only one main point, and the various details in the parable are there only for the sake of the story, and shouldn’t be expected to necessarily carry a symbolic function.  Now, more recently, and more correctly, scholars have recognized that the one-main-point theory is too restrictive, and the pendulum has swung a good bit back toward the middle, but not all the way.  Parables are not full-blown allegories, and they should not be read that way.

The setting for the telling of this parable, as well as the two parables that precede it, is given in the first few verses of Luke 15.  Jesus is conversing and dining with tax collectors and sinners.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law are upset with Jesus for associating with sinners.  Jesus takes notice of this and then tells three parables to highlight the problems with the Pharisees and teachers’ concerns.  The parables are about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (or, rather, two last sons).  The first two parables start off the same way: “Suppose a shepherd loses a sheep . . . does he not?”;  and “Suppose a woman loses a coin . . . does she not?”  The answer in both cases is, “Of course!”  If a man loses a sheep, of course he goes out to find it.  If a woman loses a coin, of course she searches diligently for it.  But the third parable doesn’t start off with this “suppose” situation.  And the reason Jesus doesn’t start this third parable off with a “suppose” is because the answer would not have been “of course.”  If a man’s younger son insulted him by asking for his half of the inheritance (when the father is very much alive!), went off to a far country and wasted the entire inheritance in a wild spending spree, and then came back to either rejoin the family, or to simply secure a position on the father’s servant staff—well, there just isn’t any “of course-ness” about it.  Indeed, the much more likely scenario is that the father would have had the younger son beaten and then told him to leave and never come back again.  But Jesus, immediately after having set things up by telling two “of course” parables, tell this third story to demonstrate how wrongheaded the Pharisees and teachers’ attitudes really are.  Aren’t sons worth more than sheep?  Aren’t sons worth more than coins?  Then the Pharisees and teachers of the law should change their minds about the value, in God’s eyes, of tax collectors and sinners.

This is what Jesus is teaching in this parable.  He is teaching that even the hated tax collectors and sinners have value in God’s sight.  And he is teaching how amazing the love of God is, that he would be willing to forgive those who had lived lives that could only be seen as insulting toward God.  Jesus tells the parable to demonstrate the “what” of God’s forgiveness, not to demonstrate the “how” of God’s forgiveness.  To expect Jesus to “overload” the parable allegorically to tell us every single thing there is to know about God’s forgiveness is simply to expect too much.

(2) The second problem is related to the first problem, but still distinct from it.  The second problem, to state the obvious, is simply this:  The Parable of the Prodigal Son is twenty-two verses long.  To put that another way, to read the story out loud, at a leisurely pace, should take no more than three minutes.  To put that another way, the story comprises approximately .0007 percent of the entire Bible.  Does Collins think that everything the Bible has to teach us about God’s forgiveness can be contained in this single twenty-two-verse section?  Does that mean that the rest of what’s contained in the Gospel of Luke, or the other gospels, or Paul’s epistles, or the rest of the New Testament, and the entire Old Testament, are simply so much fluff and superfluous?  “I listened to Jesus tell a three-minute story about God’s love and forgiveness, and he didn’t once mention penal atonement.  See, it must not exist.  The Bible doesn’t teach it!”  The line of argumentation here is simply incredible.

(3) Finally, the third problem, again, is related to the first two, but still distinct from them.  Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Collins’s logic is actually cogent.  But even if it is, then the problem is that it actually proves too much.  Collins hasn’t simply gotten rid of penal atonement; he has actually gotten rid of any atonement!  There is no atonement at all in the parable.  There is no death of Jesus in the parable.  In fact, there is no Jesus in the parable!  There is no atonement.  There is no death of Jesus.  There is no Jesus.  There is no incarnation.  There is no Holy Spirit.  And the only God there is in the parable is the father, who, unlike the shepherd in the first parable, or the woman in the second parable, doesn’t even go looking for the lost son!  He is not a pro-active father, but one who simply stays home, in case the younger son decides to show up one day.

At the last supper, after Jesus takes the cup and give thanks for it, he says this:

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  (Matt 26:28)

And the apostle Paul, in Ephesians 1:7, tell us about Jesus, that,

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins . . .

I would hope that, based on these two passages and many others like them, Collins would be prepared to acknowledge that Jesus’ death has at least something to do with the forgiveness of sins.  I understand that he doesn’t believe in penal atonement.  But does he believe in any atonement that is connected with the death of Jesus?  Would Collins be prepared to argue that since the Parable of the Prodigal Son does not mention either Jesus, or the death of Jesus, that Jesus’ death is irrelevant to when it comes to forgiveness?  But by Collins’s own logic, for God to forgive us, the death of Jesus is unnecessary.  For that matter, Jesus is unnecessary, period.  Surely, Collins has tried to prove too much.  A parable has been purloined from Jesus and forced to try to do something it was not designed to do.

Now, in the rest of the article, Collins tries to show why the arguments for penal atonement don’t work, and why his own incarnational/participatory theory of the atonement does work.  In this article, I do not wish to engage these arguments except to note the following: the arguments are not just weak; rather, they are extremely weak, replete with non sequiturs, cavalier dismissals of the arguments of other scholars, false dichotomies, and exegesis that is simply not very carefully and responsibly done.  Perhaps I’ll come back to these another time, and I would be more than willing to dialogue with Collins about them.  But my focus in this article is on the misuse of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In what I assume is an earlier draft of his published article, but one which is still available on the website, not only does Collins provide the “perverted” version of the parable from a penal atonement perspective; but, near the end of the article, he also provides another retelling of the prodigal son parable, but this time from the perspective of his own incarnational/participatory theory.  Here is how he retells the parable in order to make it line up with his own theory.

There was a man who had two sons.  The younger son said, “Father, give me my portion of the estate.”  So he divided his property between them, and the younger son went off to a far country. Eventually, after many years, the father heard that his younger son had squandered his inheritance in wild living and was barely surviving at a job feeding pigs.  Knowing that his son was so destitute and ashamed that he probably would never be able to return on his own, the father thought to himself: “I will go and seek out my lost son.”  So the father laid aside his venerable robes, took on the garb of a servant, and set out to find his son.

When the father finally found his son, the father’s appearance was so changed that his son did not recognize him.  So the father took a job feeding the pigs alongside his son.  He was determined to stick by his son and gain his trust and love no matter what it cost, even if it meant starving to death with him in the pigpen.  After several years of being together in the fields and suffering through hard times, they had shared many things together and an intimate friendship was established between them.  Finally, the father revealed who he really was.  The son at first couldn’t believe it was his father.  But, eventually he came to really understand how much the father really loved him, and that he did not need to do anything to earn his father’s forgiveness. And when they finally arrived back home together, his father ordered his servants to kill the fatted calf, saying “Let us celebrate, for my son who once was lost, is now found.”

Now, as I noted, Collins, to my knowledge, has not incorporated this retold parable in any published paper.  I don’t know if it was because he noticed the obvious problem with his logic in this retelling, or for some other reason.  In any case, there is, indeed, a huge, glaring problem.  Perhaps you have already noticed it.  In his earlier retelling of the parable from what he considered to be the penal atonement perspective (which, by the way, no penal atonement advocate I know would own), his point was that this was not the way Jesus told the parable.  But, then, near the end of the article, when Collins provides his own revised version of the parable, in line with his own theory—well, frankly, this isn’t Jesus’ version of the parable either.  Collins has attempted to pull off a theological sleight of hand.  He retells the parable not once, but twice.  But neither of these retellings are Jesus’ version of the parable.  If his argument is that the penal atonement theory should be considered wrong from the perspective of how Jesus actually told the parable; then he cannot legitimately retell the story from the perspective of his own theory, without noting that Jesus’ original parable doesn’t entail Collins’s theory either.  In other words, Collins’s retelling of the story doesn’t constitute an argument for his theory.

Now, if I wanted to, I myself could retell the Parable of the Prodigal Son from a penal atonement perspective that would not look like the perverted one that Collins tells.  Indeed, I think it would look very beautiful.   I am not going to do so here; but I’ll just give a quick clue as to what it would like.  The great twentieth-century theologian, Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, in vol 4.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, repeatedly makes use of a motif from the prodigal son parable.  As Barth begins to get into the heart of his discussion, he has two consecutive chapters which bear the following titles: “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country,” and “The Judge Judged in Our Place.”  Of course, you should recognize that the title of that first chapter takes its rise from that place in the parable where the prodigal son goes off to a “far country.”  Barth, however, uses this phrase (over forty times) to refer to the mission of redemption on which God sends his firstborn Son, who obediently, but voluntarily, goes off into the far country to bring back the prodigal son.  Where Collins would retell the parable so that the Father goes into the far country, which still leaves Christ out of the retelling, Barth’s version, if he had written one, would have had the Father sending his firstborn Son into the “far country” to rescue the prodigal and bring him back to the Father.  And, then, of course, taking that second chapter title into account, the story would have told how this firstborn son, while in the far country, would have become the “Judge Judged” in the prodigal son’s place.  The Son makes his way “into the far country, in fulfillment of His obedience in our place, in His self-offering as the Judge who is judged and as the Priest who is sacrificed.”  The Son of God dies in place of the prodigal son, and then rises from the dead to redeem the prodigal and lead him back to the Father.  I do believe this prodigal son story could be retold from a penal atonement perspective that would bear little, if any, resemblance to the “perverted” version that Collins came up with to discredit the penal atonement theory.  Rather, it could be told in such a way that the beauty and glory of the penal atonement doctrine would shine through brilliantly.

However, as much as I believe this could be done, responsibly and beautifully, frankly, I think the better course of action would be to just return the purloined parable back to Jesus, and let the parable serve its original purpose, rather than trying to make arguments either for or against any theory of atonement based on what the parable does not say, or trying to come up with things that the parable should have said.  For my part, I am very comfortable with leaving the parable as is, just the way Jesus told it.

So, if you happen to hear a sermon, a lecture, a presentation, or read in a book or article that the Parable of the Prodigal Son in some way demonstrates the wrongness of the doctrine of penal susbstitutionary atonement, I hope you’ll remember this article and be able to recognize how impoverished this kind of argument is.  You cannot use what a parable does not say to negate the rest of the biblical revelation and what that revelation does say.

There’s an old gospel song, written by Elizabeth C. Clephane, entitled, The Ninety and Nine.  You’ll be able to recognize from the title that it is based on the first of the parables in Luke 15; but it bears implications for how we might understand the prodigal son parable as well.  The song, as a whole, is not one of my favorites, and the tune that Ira Sankey came up with on the spot while leading the singing at a D. L. Moody evangelistic meeting is not one of my favorites either.  However, there is one verse  from this gospel song which is absolutely masterful:

But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
Ere he found his sheep that was lost.

The beautiful and glorious doctrine of penal atonement is not a doctrine to be ridiculed from a perverted retelling of the prodigal son parable.  The doctrine of penal atonement is not a cold, clinical account of a financial or judicial transaction.  Rather, it is the biblical story of the way of the Son of God into the far country, and the incredible love this Son had for both his Father and for us, a love which compelled him to become the Judge judged in our place.  And for this, Jesus is to be worshiped, adored, and greatly loved.  Amazing love, O what sacrifice!

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  (1 John 4:10)

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood . . .  (Rev 1:5)

“You are worthy . . .
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.  (Rev 5:9)

Jerry Shepherd
April 16, 2015