Punishment As Communication

It is easy for evangelicals to lose sight of political meanings inherent in many Christian doctrines, I think. One such example is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Of course, evangelicals who have studied theology will want to affirm this teaching, but not all of them have reflected exactly on what it means for something to be penal at all. This is a lesson I learned from studying the work of Oliver O’Donovan on political theology and philosophy. Here’s a helpful quote from his work The Ways of Judgment:

We propose as our thesis, then, that punishment is best understood as a judgment enacted on the person, property, or liberty of the condemned party. The following comments help to explain this.

(a) Punishment is judgment, in saying which we presuppose all that has been said about judgment up to this point: it is an act of moral discrimination, that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context. A rational act of condemnation, it is neither irrational, like impulsive revenge, nor inactive, like reflective disapproval, but an “expressive act” or “communication.” It is not a private act, but an authorized act undertaken in the defense of the order of society, an act of social definition. When we speak of God’s own “punishing,” we are speaking of his judgment within the quasi-political context of his covenant faithfulness. Divine punishment is executed, as in Jeremiah’s prayer, bemishpat ”with judgment” (Jer. 10:24), and so is contrasted with God’s absolute wrath, which will “bring me to nothing.” It is God’s disclosure of himself as our good, revealing the truth of our wrong. For this reason Christians have always found it necessary to speak of divine punishment in connection with the Atonement, for the Atonement is the supreme demonstration of God’s covenant-faithfulness.

(b) Punishment is judgment enacted, not an additional act subsequent to judgment. The misconception of punishment as an “extra,” a level of retaliation that goes beyond the enactment of justice, is encapsulated in the negative sense of the adjectives “punitive” and “vindictive.” It may possibly derive from the medieval theory of penitential satisfaction, which distinguished between satisfaction for reatus and satisfaction for culpa as two successive levels of punishment; or it may merely be a recurrence of the same intellectual mistake, which is to treat aspects of an action as though they were incremental: as though the unlawfulness of the offense and the lawlessness of the offender were two different things that had to be set right in two successive ways. The judge punishes when he sentences or awards damages. The punishment is not something else that must be done as a supplement to the judgment; what follows the giving of the sentence is merely the carrying out of the sentence. (107-8)

The fact that all punishments are communications can explain why it is right to say God would “wink at sin” if he did not punish it in some way, for this would also be an act that communicated something, namely, that God did not think sin was serious enough to cause serious pain in response as a communication of how evil the sin was. Further, this explanation of punishment as communicative act explains how divine punishment can simultaneously be divine self-revelation: by communicating how wrong wrong really is, it inversely shows how far from the true good of all creation, God, sin really is.