The Governmental Theory of the Atonement

By John Miley

(John Miley, D.D., 1813-1895, was a Methodist theologian and professor of systematic theology at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey.  These series of artices are taken from Chapter 8 of his work, "The Atonement in Christ", originally published in 1881)

|Preliminary Facts| |Public Justice| |Theory and Necessity for Atonement| |Theory and Scripture Interpretation|

II. Public Justice

We have previously treated justice in its distinctions as commutative, distributive, punitive-tbe last being a special phase of the distributive. We also named public justice, but deferred it for discussion in connection with the Rectoral theory of atonement. We have now reached the proper place for its treatment.

1. Relation to Atonement.

Any theory of atonement embodying enough truth to be really a theory must take -special account of divine justice. The relation between the two is most intimate; so intimate, indeed, that the view taken of justice must be determinative of the theory of atonement. This we found to be true of the theory of Satisfaction. It is not only in accord with the principles of justice asserted in connection with it, but is imperatively required by them. They will admit no other doctrine. If justice must punish sin simply for the reason of its demerit, penal substitution is the only possible atonement. So the Governmental theory must be consistent with the doctrine of justice maintained in connection with it; and, to be true, must accord with justice as a divine attribute, and in all its relations to sin and to the ends of moral government.

As in the Satisfaction theory, so in the Rectoral, the sufferings of Christ are an atonement for sin only as in some sense they take the place of penalty. But they do not replace penalty in the same sense in the schemes. In the one they take its place as a penal substitute, thus realizing the office of justice in the actual punishment of sin; in the other they take its place in the fulfillment of its office as concerned with the interests of moral government. It is the office of justice to maintain these interests through the means of penalty. Therefore, atonement in the mediation of Christ must so take the place of penalty as to fulfill this same office, while the penalty is remitted.

Such being the office of atonement in the Governmental theory, it is clear that for a proper exposition of the doctrine we require an exact and discriminating statement of public justice, or of penalty as the means of justice for the conservation of moral government. We shall thus secure a right construction of the doctrine, and, also, obviate certain objections which have no validity against the doctrine itself, whatever force they may have against defective forms of it. No ground will remain for objecting either that the theory makes light of the demerit of sin, or that it transforms justice into mere benevolence, or that it regards the substitution of Christ in suffering as a mere expedient, in place of which some other provision would answer as well.

2. One with Divine Justice.

Public justice is not a distinct kind of justice; not other than divine justice. It is divine justice in moral administration. God is moral Ruler only as he has moral subjects. Therefore, in the eternity anteceding their creation he existed without any rectoral office of justice. Their creation gave him no new attribute, though it brought him into new relations. In these new relations to moral beings his justice, an essential and eternal attribute of his nature, found its proper office in moral government. In the fulfillment of this office. it rules through the means of reward and penalty. So, in the moral system, public justice is the one divine justice in moral administration.

3. One with Distributive Justice.

In principle public justice is one with distributive justice. Subjects differ in moral character. Some are obedient to the law of duty; others, disobedient. This makes a difference in character. The difference is real and intrinsic. So the law of God discriminates the two classes. And in this our moral reason is in full consent with the divine law. In the profoundest convictions of our moral conscious-ness we are assured of the reality of moral obligation, and of an essential ethical difference between obedience and disobedience; and equally, that the former has merit or rewardableness, and the latter, punitive desert. So in moral administration God deals with men according to their conduct, rewarding their obedience, and punishing their sin. The fact does not require exact or full justice in the present state of probation. It is the law of our responsible being. But this, in essential principle and in rectoral office, is simply public justice, or justice in moral administration. All its use of reward and penalty, and for whatever reason or end, is in the view of moral character in the subjects of gov-ernment. Public justice is, therefore, no law of mere expediency, or of mere expedients; in essential principle and in office it is one with divine justice, one with distributive justice.

4. Ground of its Penalties.

Within the realm of the divine government the sole ground of the penalties of administrative or public justice lies in the demerit of sin. The fact is not other, nor in any sense modified by any or all the ulterior ends or utilities of penalty in the interest of moral government. All penal infliction falls upon the demerit of sin as really and restrictedly as though its punishment were the sole thing in the di. vine view. This is justice, and this only. Public justice has no other ground for its penalties. Nor may it, except on such ground, inflict any penalty for any ulterior end or interest, however great and urgent. This truth cannot be too deeply emphasized.

We are speaking of divine justice in moral administration. Any thing qualifying the administration of justice in human government arises, in part, from a want of punitive prerogative over the intrinsic demerit of sin; in part, from an inability to know in any given case what the real demerit is. We may infer the guilt from the apparent motive. We cannot search the heart. Hence, in dealing with human conduct, our rightful use of penalty is not really to punish sin as having intrinsic demerit, but to protect society from its injury. The former is the divine prerogative. God searches the heart. He knows all the secret springs and motives of human action. He knows all the sinfulness of such action. It is his sole right to punish it, simply as such. In all the universe, and for any and all purposes, he has nothing but sin to punish.

On this ground public justice is one with distributive justice, one with divine justice; and as wrought into a proper Rectoral atonement even more rigidly adheres to the principle than the purely retributive justice as wrought into the theory of Satisfaction. This theory equally asserts the same principle, but departs from it in the futile attempt to separate guilt from demerit, to carry it over by imputation to Christ, and so to have the merited penalty inflicted upon him, while the sinner and the sin are left behind. This is a real departure from the principle. We may technically distinguish between sin and guilt, taking the former for personal demerit and the latter for answerableness in penalty. We go further, and say that on such distinction there may be personal demerit without guilt-as a soul graciously forgiven still has such demerit but not such guilt. But the converse, that there may be guilt apart from demerit-guilt as an amenability to penalty-does not follow and is not true. Yet it is the very-truth of this converse that the scheme of Satisfaction requires as vital to its doctrine of atonement by penal substitution.

We emphasize the principle, that in moral government personal demerit is the only source of guilt, and the only ground of just punishment. If there be any thing valid in the imputation of another's sin, it must transfer the demerit before guilt can arise or the punishment be just. And whatever in the providence of God, whether from the constitution of things or by immediate interposition, transcends the limit of demerit, ceases to be punishment. Without such a principle punishment has no possible rationale.

On this principle all divine penalties, whether executed or only uttered, and in the utterance as in the execution, at once express both the divine justice and the demerit of sin. Hence the execution is not really necessary to that expression . The use and value of the fact will come directly. And we shall find with it a sure basis for the Governmental theory.

5. End of its Penalties.

We have not a full exposition of justice simply in its relation to the demerit of sin. In this demerit we have the real and only ground of punishment. But in making the retribution of sin the sole office of penalty we deny all distinction of a proper public justice. There is no such justice. Penalty has no reformatory purpose respecting the subject of its infliction, no exemplary character, no office as a deterrent from sin. With such functions of penalty we have a public justice. Also, we have weighty reasons for punishment beyond the demerit of sin. Any doctrine of justice which omits such facts, or holds it simply to the retribution of sin, is very narrow, and utterly fails to measure its vast sphere. Justice, as concerned in moral government, must deeply regard all legislation, that laws be in accord with the obligations, rights, and interests of subjects; that the sanctions of reward and penalty, while equitable, be wisely adjusted to their high rectoral ends. In all moral administration it must be supremely concerned for the promotion of virtue, and the protection of the rights and interests of all. Thus we have profound reasons for penalty beyond the demerit of sin. Nor has penalty any rational account simply as retributive. It does not so answer to the common moral judgment respecting it, nor to the severe denunciations of Scripture against criminal injuries, nor to the many appeals therein to instances of divine retribution as a deterrent from sin. And for a right exposition of justice we must take large account of its strictly rectoral ends. Advocates of the Satisfaction scheme feel the force of this truth, and are ever tacitly confessing it. This is manifest in a common practice of maintaining the necessity for an atonement from a necessary office of penalty in the interest of moral government.

There is another extreme view, even more impotent, if possibly so, for any philosophy of penalty. It is in making the strictly rectoral ends of punishment the whole account of it. This omits the proper retributive element. Punishment thus becomes an injustice. No interests of government, however great and urgent, could render it just. Only demerit in the subjects of its infliction can do this. Besides, such a view denies to penalty all capacity for service in such interests. Except in the most restricted measure, such service can be rendered only through a right moral impression. Unmerited punishment never could make such an impression. The moral nature never can respond in loyalty to injustice. And however such punishment might influence outward action, it would ever turn away the heart into rebellion rather than win it to obedience. "Take away from punishment this foundation of justice and you destroy its utility; you substitute indignation and abhorrence for a salutary lesson and for repentance, both in the condemned and in the public; you put courage, sympathy, all that is noble and great in human nature, on the side of the victim; you rouse all energetic souls against society and its artificial laws. Thus even the utility of punishment rests upon its justice. The punishment is the sanction of law, not its foundation." All this is as true in the divine 225 government as in the human sphere. And, whatever temporary service might be rendered in the latter case, in the divine government, the consequences would be fatal: for here only the loyalty of the heart will answer. This never could be secured by a measure of injustice from which it must revolt. And personal demerit, as the only ground of justice in punishment, is absolutely necessary to all the service of penalty in the interests of moral government. A true doctrine of public justice never departs from this principle.

We thus combine the two elements in the exposition of public justice. Only thus have we a public justice. Omitting the rectoral element, justice is purely retributive, having regard to nothing except the punishment of sin. Omitting the retributive element, justice is injustice. Holding the distinction of justice as retributive and rectoral, and combining the two elements in the one doctrine, we free the question of punishment from the perplexity which its history records. The distinction 226 is valid. There are the two offices of justice. But they must never be separated. Penalty, as a means in the use of justice, has an end beyond the retribution of sin. But, whatever its ulterior end, it is just only as it threatens, or falls upon, demerit. And only thus can it fulfill its high office in the interests of moral government.

It is in the failure first properly to discriminate the two offices of justice in the punishment of sin and the protection of rights, and then to properly combine the two elements in the one doctrine of punishment, that the Rectoral atonement exposes itself to really serious objections, which yet have no validity against a true construction of the theory. And it is against such an erroneous construction that objections are chiefly urged. They are specially urged against it as embodying, or as assumed to embody, that view of justice which makes its strictly rectoral ends the sole account of penalty. "It is on this false principle that the whole governmental theory of atonement is founded. It admits no ground of punishment but the benefit of others." We represent no such a theory. We 227 discard it as fully as Dr. Hodge, or any other advocate of the Satisfaction atonement. Our previous discussions so certify. Hence the objection which the quotation implies is utterly void against the doctrine of atonement, as we construct and maintain it.

It is in the same line of objection that we have cited a story of an English judge who once said to a criminal, I You are transported, not because you have stolen those goods, but that goods may not be stolen.'" We would not defend the propriety of such a delivery. Indeed, we think it very 228 injudicious. A criminal should feel that he deserves the penalty inflicted upon him; otherwise, his punishment can have no tendency toward his amendment. An impression of such desert should also be made upon the public mind, as necessary to the public benefit. But in neither case can the necessary salutary impression be made where all mention of punitive desert is omitted, or where any reference to it is entirely to dismiss it from all connection with the punishment inflicted. Yet there is a deep sense in which such an utterance is true. It is clearly so in human jurisdiction. Nor is the view either novel or rare. "The proper end of human punishment is not the satisfaction of justice, but the prevention of crimes." "As to the end or final cause of human punishments, this is not by way 229 of atonement or expiation for the crime committed-for that must be left to the just determination of the Supreme Being-but as a precaution against future offenses of the same kind."230

There is really no error here. And all is consistent with the doctrine of punishment which we have maintained. Demerit is still the only ground of punishment. Penalty falls upon sin, and upon that only. But prominence is given to its exemplary or strictly rectoral function. It is inflicted for the sake of its governmental ends, yet only on sin as deserving it. Against such a doctrine of punishment the adverse criticism of Dr. Hodge is utterly nugatory. And the same principles are valid in respect to the divine administration. While divine penalty falls only upon sin, the supreme reason for its infliction is in the rectoral ends with which moral government is concerned. Nor is the penal infliction a moral necessity apart from these ends. And this distinction between the ground and end of penalty, together with such a connection of the two that penalty is never inflicted for the sake of its end except on the ground of demerit, gives us the true philosophy of punishment.

With such principles it is easy to show the fallacy and impertinence of another objection urged against the Governmental atonement. It is, that the theory of penalty which the scheme represents would justify the punishment of the innocent in case the common welfare could thereby be the better served. "If the prevention of crime were the primary end of punishment, then if the punishment of the innocent-the execution, for example, of the wife and children of a murderer-would have a greater restraining influence than the punishment of the guilty murderer, their execution would be just." An advocate of the Satisfaction scheme should be a little cautious how he charges 231 upon even a hypothetic penal substitution of the innocent, lest he suffer in the recoil of his own objection. Certainly he will find trouble in the matter of self-consistency, for his own principles render the supposed instance admissible, so far as justice is concerned. But why the supposition of so impossible a thing? Dr. Hodge well knows that such a benefit, by such means, is utterly impossible. And neither the attainableness nor actual attainment of such a result would render such penal substitution just. This follows from our doctrine of justice, as it does not from that of the Satisfactionists. In ours, only personal demerit is a ground of just punishment; while in theirs mere guilt, apart from demerit, and carried over by imputation to another, constitutes in him a ground of just punishment. But we need not further answer to the arraignment in the quotation given above, for whatever weight the objection which it urges may have against the doctrine of others, it have no validity against our own.

6. Remissibility of its Penalties.

There is no sufficient reason why sin must be punished solely on the ground of its demerit. The forgiveness of the actual sinner as a real remission of penalty, at the time of his justification and acceptance in the divine favor, is proof positive to the contrary. And, all other ends apart, retributive justice may remit its penalty. It may do this without an atonement. Indeed, it does not admit of an atonement in satisfaction of such remission. It is here, as noticed before, that we part by a fundamental principle with the theory of Satisfaction. It denies the remissibleness of penalty, as due solely to the demerit of sin, on any and all grounds. Hence, it requires for any discharge of the actual sinner a vicarious punishment in full satisfaction of a purely retributive justice. We maintain the proper retributive character of divine justice in all the use of penalty in moral administration; but this retributive element of justice does not bar the remissibility of its penalties. The law of expediency determines the measure of divine penalties within the demerit of sin. And from their ends in the interest of moral government, they are remissible on such ground, but only on such ground, as will equally secure these ends. This principle is fundamental with us, and determinative of our theory of atonement. But our previous discussion of the question respecting the remissibility of divine penalty supersedes the requirement of further treatment here.232

7. Place for Atonement.

Thus the way is open for some substitutional provision which may replace the actual infliction of penalty upon sin. The theory of Satisfaction, as we have seen, really leaves no place for vicarious atonement. Its most fundamental and everasserted principle, that sin as such must be punished, makes the punishment of the actual sinner an absolute necessity. Its own admission, and maintenance even, that sin as a personal demerit is untransferable, has this inevitable logical sequence. Nor is there any escape through a technical distinction between demerit and guilt, and an alleged transference of the latter to Christ as a sufficient ground for the just punishment of sin in him. The sin, with all its demerit, and all, therefore, that is punishable, is still left behind with the sinner himself. This fact thoroughly blanks all attempt so to escape. And the scheme of Satisfaction is inseparably bound with the logical consequence, that if sin, as such, must be punished, then it must be punished, and can only be punished, in the actual sinner. But as penalties are remissible so far as a purely retributive justice is concerned, so, having a special end in the interest of moral government, they may give place to any substitutional measure equally securing that end. Here is a place for vicarious atonement.

8. Nature of Atonement Determined.

The nature of the atonement in the sufferings of Christ follows necessarily from the above principles. It cannot be in the nature required by the principles of the Satisfaction scheme. In asserting the absoluteness of divine justice in its purely retributive element, the theory excludes the possibility of a penal substitute in atonement for sin. And, therefore, the sufferings of Christ are not, as they cannot be, an atonement for sin by penal substitution. But while his sufferings could not take the place of penalty in the actual punishment of sin, they could, and do, take its place in its strictly rectoral ends. And the atonement is thus determined to consist in the sufferings of Christ, as a provisory substitute for penalty in the interest of moral government.

|Preliminary Facts| |Public Justice| |Theory and Necessity for Atonement| |Theory and Scripture Interpretation|