Lewis Defends Penal Substitution–David Lewis, that is

I really have no reason to have any negative thoughts about David Lewis.  He is a great philosopher and seems rather level-headed, even if we might disagree on some major points.  Nonetheless, I must admit that when I was about to read his Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?, I expected the worst.  I thought he would caricature penal substitution and then utterly annihilate the strawman he had just erected and finally pronounce how illogical Christianity is.  David Lewis proved me wrong.

His article is a brief six pages, so if you have time I would recommend reading it.  Nonetheless, I will also summarize and discuss his article a bit.  But first, let me praise David Lewis a bit for he deserves it.  The article is very sensitive in its treatment.  By this, I do not mean that he worries about the feelings of Christians or not for I think people tend to be too sensitive today and are merely trying to get offended, but I instead mean that he makes sure he understands what he is critiquing instead of building strawmen.  Now that might not sound like anything amazing, and it certainly isn’t, but I think the fact that I am surprised by that shows the atmosphere that is current nowadays. Instead of trying to understand a position and then give an argument against it, we tend to misunderstand the position and utterly slaughter strawmen left and right. That might make us look alright and feel good, but it isn’t very productive. So I’m glad David Lewis understands what he is talking about when he chooses to talk about a subject. We should certainly emulate him on that matter.

On to the article itself, so his basic premise is summarized at the very end of the paper.  To quote:

If the rest of us were to make so bold [sic] as to rebuke the Christians for their two-mindedness, they would have a good tu quoque against us. A tu quoque is not a rejoinder on behalf of penal substitution.  Yet neither is it intellectually weightless.  It indicates that both sides agree that penal substitution sometimes makes sense after all, even if none can say how it makes sense.  And if both sides agree to that, that is some evidence that somehow they might both be right.

So Lewis’ paper argues that even non-Christians actually hold to penal substitution.  He attempts to do this discussing other people paying someone’s fines. He says that a person might try to say that penal substitution is still wrong and yet it is impractical to somehow get rid of this form of penal substitution and so that’s why we do it.  The problem with this, Lewis says, is that if we were so against penal substitution, then we would find this whole practice abominable and enforce some other form of punishment that could not have a use of penal substitution. Here I think Lewis is particularly on point since we see no moral outrage to other people paying a person’s fines. The only objection seems to come after we inform them that this is a form of penal substitution.  Their objection, then, seems to be grounded in the fact that they want to avoid affirming penal substitution instead of anything like applied ethics or consistency.  For if it were applied ethics, then the case is pretty clear cut and they should have realized it all along; if it were consistency, then Lewis’ conclusion follows just as naturally and so the matter cannot be decided.

I have read people object to Lewis’ example on the matter and they might be right on that front.  They tend to say that the law still says that the person who owes the fine is liable for it.  But Lewis never argues otherwise and that’s his whole point: the person ultimately paying isn’t actually guilty, but they are bearing the penalty.  However, we could always concede the point just for the sake of argument in that others have said that automobile insurance provides an even better example.  And that can be a topic for a different blog post.

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