Janowski (The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources) traces modern doubts about vicarious substitution back to Kant, who argues that guilt, being an “intrinsic personal feature” cannot be transferred. Guilt is not like a financial debt, which can be paid by someone else, but, Kant says, “the most personal of all liabilities, namely a debt of sins which only the culprit, not the innocent, can bear, however magnanimous the innocent might be in wanting to take the debt upon himself for the other” (Kant: Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 89).
Janowski recognizes that there is a particular view of personhood involved here, and notes that “the biblical tradition goes another way and poses the problem differently.”
According to his account, “the biblical experience of guilt is the poverty of not being able to go on under one’s own power, because the guilt which keeps the guilty living in the past is too heavy and makes life unbearable” (72). It is not a “something” that can be detached from one and given to another. “Place-taking” happens rather then someone “steps in between us and our past and makes us once again bearable for God and the world – and therefore also for ourselves” (72, quoting Christian Link).
Janowski applies this to Isaiah 53: The passage “has unfolded this procedure of place-taking in all its drama and has disclosed its trouble as well as its liberation side. It is trouble, because an innocent one lets himself be struck without striking back and takes all the violence upon himself in order to break its power. The principle that violence breeds violence exhausts itself on this one who is unconditionally ready for peace. . . . Yet this procedure is also liberating because it is not simply left as it stands: the ‘we’ recognize their own guilt by it. The guilty recognize that they are guilty: that is the beginning of change.” In the encounter with the Servant, Israel is shocked into self-knowledge, shocked by “an impulse ‘from outside’” (73).