Penal Substution Theory and Concern for Human Suffering

I’ll say what I said Monday again: These beliefs and practices can be examined by psychologists and, while such scholars know the difference between correlation and causation, the recent study of Kristen Hydinger and Stephen J. Sandage (Boston U), Peter Jankowski (Bethel U),and Shelly Rambo (Boston U), called “Penal Substitionary Theory and Concern for Suffering: An Empirical Study,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 45 (2017): 33-45, examines if there is a correlation between those who believe in penal substitution (PSA [this theory as it is defended today focuses on the cross as propitiating the wrath of God) are more or less empathic and concerned for those who suffer.

Their abstract, reformatted for ease of reading:

The present study tested a hypothesized model of the degree of belief in PSA predicting a negative association with a sense of responsibility for reducing pain and suffering in the world.

Gender complementarian beliefs were hypothesized as a mediator of this association based on theological frameworks within the “New Calvinism” movement connecting PSA, gender views, and the positive spiritual significance of pain and suffering.

The sample (N=225) was comprised of masters-level students at an Evangelical seminary in the Midwestern United States.

Results supported a mediating role for complementarianism in the negative association between PSA and responsibility for reducing pain and suffering in the world. [SMcK: see the conclusion below that states those who believe in PSA and complementarianism are less likely to see the need to reduce suffering.]

Implications of the findings are discussed in terms of theologies of suffering in connection with social ethics. This study highlights the potential interdisciplinary value of empirical research on specific theological views.

Hydinger and Sandage et al have a solid and nuanced understanding of atonement and PSA in particular, quoting some (like Denny Burk) who say both PSA and gender complementarianism are watershed or central theological beliefs. Thus, many connect PSA and a father’s discipline of children (eg Piper).

To read on the theological debate, I recommend:

Roger Olson, Against Calvinism

Michael Horton, For Calvinism

The measures included the Calvinist-Arminian Beliefs Scale (CABS; Sorenson, 1981), Colaner and Warner’s complementarian gender role beliefs scale, and the Faith Maturity Scale – Short Form (FMS-SF; Benson, Donahue and Erikson, 1993; Hui, Wai Ng, Ying Mok, Ying Lau and Cheung, 2011; Piedmont and Nelson, 2001). They also examined the data through univariate skewness and kurrosis etc.

Conclusion, reformatted:

We support for a model of belief in PSA predicting a negative association with responsibility for reducing pain and suffering in the world. Gender complementarianism mediated the association.

Results therefore support ideological points of convergence involving the value of physical punishment, relational hierarchy, and the redemptive spiritual benefits of accepting pain and suffering.

The primary implication seems to be on advancing an empirical theology, and specifically, the first empirical study to focus on the specific belief in PSA (i.e., professed theology) and the descriptive associating with “lived or operative theology.”

We recommend further interdisciplinary research on differing views of the atonement, relational images of God, and social ethics.

Again, the research is not claiming PSA and complementarianism cause less concern for suffering but there is a higher correlation between the two than with other theological beliefs. I have said for years that a person something like this: a person with less empathy for suffering would be attracted to PSA and complementarianism.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.