Robin: A few thoughts on a new argument for particularism


"]Oliver Crisp is a fabulous contemporary analytic theologian in the Reformed tradition. Recently he published an article in response to a universalist critique of non-universalist Augustinian (the Reformed tradition is a sub-set of Augustinianism).

Oliver Crisp, “Is Universalism a Problem for Particularists?” *SJT *63.1 (2010) 1–23.

Now Crisp is very clear that traditional Augustinianism is logically compatible with universalism. God could, if he wanted, choose to save all people.

This, however, raises a problem of evil for traditional Augustinians who deny universalism (i.e., almost all of them) because

In the past, a fair few Augustinians have sought to handle this problem by claiming that both the glory of God’s justice and wrath and the glory of God’s mercy and grace need to be displayed in creation. So, the argument runs, to display the glory of justice and wrath God *has *to punish some in hell with the infinite punishment that their sins deserve.

But, the problem here is that the cross of Christ — on the penal substitutionary view of atonement defended by those Augustinians who deploy this argument — perfectly displays God’s justice and mercy. So, in fact, God can perfectly display the glory of his justice and wrath in creation (on the cross) without the need to send anyone to hell. So, as it stands, this argument seems to provide no requirement for God not to save everyone.

Crisp has suggested a response to this defeater. He calls it the “strict justice condition.” It runs as follows:

I offer a few reflections here upon this attempt to defeat the defeater.

First, if God has to display the glory of his wrath by punishing at least one deserving sinner in hell then this argument only shows that God has to punish one sinner in hell. That should be enough to display the required glory. So in terms of the original argument particularists would still be left with a problem of evil if any more than one person was sent to hell. I am assuming that most particularists imagine that there will be more than one. So, unless there is an argument as to why God has to punish some/many/most in hell to show his glorious justice, this argument will not do as much work as particularists may hope. (Crisp does have another argument which, if I have time, I’ll blog on in another post).

Second, and this may not worry Crisp, I simply do not accept the premise that God must display his wrath in creation. I think that it is, at best, pure speculation. Worse, to my intuitions it just seems implausible. The implication of such an idea is that God could not create any world that did not contain sin, because, to be true to himself, in all worlds he creates he must display the glory of his wrath and that requires that he create a world in which there is sin so that he can punish it. Perhaps that is the sober truth but it does seem less than obviously true. Is God only capable of creating worlds containing sin? Is it not enough that God be just and that he display his wrath *if *there is sin? But, perhaps the Calvinist will simply say that they have different intuitions here.

Third, the Crispian defence appears to me to potentially problematize the notion of penal substitution. The doctrine of penal substitution (should one wish to embrace it) has to be stated with great care because it can so easily fall into deep problems. One classic objection to the doctrine is this: the claim that God satisfies his justice by punishing Jesus for our sins instead of punishing us is absurd. To punish an innocent person instead of the guilty person does not satisfy justice. In fact, it is downright unjust.

Now, I may be mistaken but it seems to me that the only hope of making a doctrine of penal substitution plausible is to forget “legal fictions” and to seek to make a case for some kind of strong ontological union between Christ and human sinners. Christ is ontologically identified with sinners in some strongly realist sense (the details of which I will leave to others). So when Christ suffers in our place he is not innocent. He may have been sinless but, through union with sinners, he “became sin for us.”

So I would imagine that the suffering of Christ must have “the right kind of [ontological] connection to desert” or penal substitution would not work at all (and Calvinist Augustinianism would need to do some major systematic rethinking). So why is the cross not sufficient? Why is it not rightly connected to desert?

When Crisp speaks of Christ’s sufferings not having the right connection to desert I suppose that he refers to an *epistemological *connection. Maybe it is not clear to creation that the cross is about punishment on sin because no one will ever have seen Christ sin. So to make this *clear *God has to punish someone in hell to display the glory of his justice. In other words, maybe the cross “embodies” the glory of God’s justice and wrath but does not “display” it clearly enough. Interesting suggestion. But would not a prophetic explanation of the cross do the trick in terms of overcoming this epistemic gap? God could explain what sinners deserve and what Christ is suffered on their behalf. The Spirit could open our eyes to perceive the display of divine justice in the cross. If that is possible then the cross could do the job not simply of being the manifestation of divine wrath on sin par excellence but it could also be recognized as such. The glory would be displayed perfectly and none would have to be in hell.Interesting comments on his blog in response to it.


I wondering what Robin’s take is on I Peter 3:18:

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:”

ETA: I posted a comment on Robin’s blog asking this question.


Hi Dondi:
That “punishing an innocent person instead of the guilty person does not satisfy justice. In fact, it is downright unjust.” need not in any way be seen as threatened by the statement that Jesus died “for” our sins.
The word “for” simply does not necessarily mean substitution (though certain that is a possible meaning.)

1 in support of or in favor of (a person or policy) : they voted for independence in a referendum.
2 affecting, with regard to, or in respect of (someone or something) : she is responsible for the efficient running of their department | the demand for money.
3 on behalf of or to the benefit of (someone or something) : these parents aren’t speaking for everyone.
• employed by : it was a good firm to work for.
4 having (the thing mentioned) as a purpose or function : she is searching for enlightenment | the necessary tools for making a picture frame.
5 having (the thing mentioned) as a reason or cause : Aileen is proud of her family for their support | I could dance and sing for joy.
6 having (the place mentioned) as a destination : they are leaving for Swampscott tomorrow.
7 representing (the thing mentioned) : the “F” is for Fascinating.
8 in place of or in exchange for (something) : swap these two bottles for that one.
• charged as (a price) : copies are available for only a buck.
9 in relation to the expected norm of (something) : she was tall for her age | warm weather for this time of year.
10 indicating the length of (a period of time) : he was in prison for 12 years | I haven’t seen him for some time.
11 indicating the extent of (a distance) : he crawled for 300 yards.
12 indicating an occasion in a series : the camcorder failed for the third time.

To me then the best way to understand “for” in the larger context of the Atonement and what God was all about in that act is better understood by definitions #3 and #5 above. And I too wait to hear Robin’s response…

By the way, I made this very point (that punishing an innocent person instead of the guilty person does not satisfy justice. In fact, it is downright unjust and is not allowed under any legal system) over in Bob Wilson’s section in his critique of Penal Substitution.

And Alex, Thanks for directing us to this interesting post of Robin’s