Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Which sins did the Day of Atonement atone for? - More Problems with Penal Substitution

Protestants are fond of quoting Hebrews 9:22 against Catholicism, since they think the phrase "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins" means that Penal Substitution is required for sins to be forgiven. But the first half of this verse shows the shedding of blood served a different function, a cleansing one, saying: "under the law almost everything is purified with blood," and why the very next verse (9:23) says, "Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these." Aside from the fact 9:23b uses the plural "sacrifices" when speaking of the New Testament, and thus supporting the notion the Mass is a sacrifice, I came across a very interesting verse in this same chapter a while back that I think further strengthens the Catholic case against Penal Substitution. 

The verse is Hebrews 9:6-7, which says: "6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people." Verse 7 is talking about the Day of Atonement, the one day each year when the High Priest goes into the Holy-of-Holies and stands before the Ark of the Covenant to perform the sacred duty of making atonement. What is interesting about verse 7b is that it says the High Priest makes atonement for the "unintentional sins" of the people. The Greek word for "unintentional sins" used in 9:7 is agnoema, meaning literally sins done without knowledge (negated-knowledge, where the word "agnostic" comes from). Those who have read other posts of my "Problems with Penal Substitution" series will see why this is significant, but I'll do a quick recap here.

If the Levitical Sacrifices were intended to model Penal Substitution, then we'd expect to see something akin to a person deserving of the death penalty transferring this punishment to an animal, and this animal ends up getting the death penalty in place of the sinner. But if the person did not do something worthy of the death penalty, then it hardly makes sense to say the death penalty was transferred to an animal. In the case of "unintentional sins," it hardly makes sense to say God demands someone die. This is important to keep in mind as one seeks to understand not only the Levitical Sacrifices, but especially the book of Hebrews. This is not to say that the Cross only deals with unintentional sins, since the Cross has the power to forgive any and all sins, but only to show that the Old Testament framework was not that of Penal Substitution. 

Recognizing the 'danger' to the doctrine of Penal Substitution this poses, one Reformed apologist countered my claim by saying six other verses use this same Greek word but they uses it synonymously with sin in general. Here are the verses: 
  • Genesis 43:13, Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the top of your sacks; perhaps it was an oversight.
  • Judith 5:20, So now, my master and lord, if there is any oversight in this people and they sin against their God and we find out their offense, then we can go up and defeat them.
  • Tobit 3:3, And now, O Lord, remember me and look favorably upon me. Do not punish me for my sins and for my unwitting offenses and those that my ancestors committed before you.
  • Sirach 23:2, Who will set whips over my thoughts, and the discipline of wisdom over my mind,
    so as not to spare me in my errors, and not overlook my sins?
  • Sirach 51:19, My soul grappled with wisdom, and in my conduct I was strict; I spread out my hands to the heavens, and lamented my ignorance of her.
  • 1 Maccabees 13:39, We pardon any errors and offenses committed to this day, and cancel the crown tax that you owe; and whatever other tax has been collected in Jerusalem shall be collected no longer.
Looking over these verses, there is no indication that this term means sin in general. Genesis 43:13 and Sirach 51:19 don't even mention sin, clearly referring to ignorance or oversight in general. The other passages plainly distinguish 'unintentional sins' from sin in general (esp Tobit 3:3), strongly suggesting they are not the same. The only alternative is to argue they are to be taken in parallel or tautologically, but I think that's assuming too much.
What is interesting to note is that none of these verses are from Leviticus, leaving us having to make an educated guess as to what Hebrews 9:7 was speaking of. I believe the answer rests in texts like Numbers 15:27-31, since they explicitly say unintentional/minor sins can be atoned for, but deliberate/grave sins cannot (and that these cut one off from the covenant). This is confirmed in texts like Leviticus 4:2; 22; 27; 5:15; 18, which use the same Hebrew term "unintentional" as Numbers 15:27. And from here, looking up Leviticus 5:18 in the Greek OT (the LXX) shows it uses the Greek word agnoia, which is a nearly identical word as that used in Hebrews 9:7. Also, the LXX word for "unintentional" in Leviticus 4:2, 22, etc, is akousios, which is a negated form of "voluntarily" (kousios, hekousios), literally meaning involuntarily, and thus confirming the unintentional sin interpretation. Further, the term hekousios is used in Hebrews 10:26, referring to no sacrifice being available for voluntary/deliberate sins, which confirms the this argument but from the opposite perspective.


Anonymous said...


I think your argumentation here is based on a false understanding of the Reformed view. This was the section I thought was problematic for your point:

“But if the person did not do something worthy of the death penalty, then it hardly makes sense to say the death penalty was transferred to an animal. In the case of "unintentional sins," it hardly makes sense to say God demands someone die. This is important to keep in mind as one seeks to understand not only the Levitical Sacrifices, but especially the book of Hebrews.”

To my understanding, Reformed Theology teaches that we deserve Hell for all of our sins. That is, as God’s image bearers, we were made to be imitators of Him, and thus every sin is worthy of eternal punishment because it is an explicit denial of our perfect and holy creator.

The WCF puts it this way, “Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”

Nick said...

Hello Anonymous,

I don't know how I missed your message.

It makes sense to say our sins are deserving of hell, but my point was that the Levitical model shows that transferring punishment was not what Atonement and Sacrifice was understood as in the OT. Thus, it makes little sense to think Jesus was the Sacrifical Lamb that was damned to hell in our place.