The Atonement Debate…

The Biblical Revelation of the Cross… rumbles on in evangelical circles, recently resurrected by Chris Tilling kindly citing my “recent and spunky” (Chris’s words) review of Norman McIlwain’s The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. Norman is opposed to the concept of penal substitution and drew his conclusions completely independently of the ‘Chalkegate Affair’ that stirred up evangelicals a few years ago. That’s no guarantee, of course, that either Norman or Steve Chalke are correct in their assessments, but it does, I think, tend to lend some extra weight to their arguments.

Norman has now generously made his entire book freely available online: it’s a superb resource for anyone concerned by the accusations levelled by Don Carson and others that people such as Chalke have “largely abandoned the gospel” [1]. To the contrary, Norman’s work shows that it is perfectly possible to remain entirely faithful to scripture — to the gospel — and yet deny penal substitution as a model for understanding atonement.

The Wondrous CrossAn excellent book presenting the other side of the debate is Stephen R. Holmes’ The Wondrous Cross: review here.

Personally I found Stephen’s case less than convincing, but whichever side of the debate we come down on, I think the important thing is to hold these conversations in a tone of mutual respect: each of us, as Paul exhorts his Philippian readers, considering others better then ourselves (Philippians 2). I have to say that I was appalled at the lambasting and abuse Steve Chalke received from many evangelicals  when his book The Lost Message of Jesus hit the big time: who, I wondered, had lost the plot here?

The Atonement DebateThe amount of literature around this topic is vast, of course, but two recent titles that certainly ought not to be missed are Zondervan’s The Atonement Debate, which brings together most of the papers presented at the Evangelical Alliance (EA) / London School of Theology (LST) Symposium on the Atonement held back in July 2005; and Stricken by God?Eerdmans’ Stricken by God? which includes contributions from N T Wright, Miroslav Volf and Rowan Williams, amongst many others. Zondervan have made the first twenty pages of The Atonement Debate available for download (pdf, 123kb) — well worth grabbing to whet your appetite.

The beauty of both books is that they offer a range of different voices and viewpoints, inviting readers to think the issues through for themselves: there’s no spoon feeding or dubious indoctrination here.

Finally, for anyone reading who may be wondering what all the fuss is about, that’s a very good question. Seems to me that God’s grace — whoever or whatever we conceive God to be — is far greater than anything we can think, dream or imagine. Grace: God’s radical action changes everything. That’s the message of the cross, the enigma of Christ crucified: that God was in Christ reconciling humanity to God. Arguing and splitting hairs over how, exactly, that was achieved simply achieves the very opposite of reconciliation.

1. Don Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, p.186

3 thoughts on “The Atonement Debate…

  1. The content of your last paragraph is well stated by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (latest edition) pp.53-54 – too long to reproduce in full here, but here’s a bit: ‘The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.’

    He goes on to make the analogy that we can eat a meal and benefit from it without needing to know precisely how the proteins & vitamins achieve that benefit for us.

    It’s a nice thought to set against the latest 500 page book on the subject, anyway.

  2. I’m not familiar with these arguments, and I’m debating whether I should read these books just to find out. Could you possibly offer a brief explanation of penal substitution?

    • Penal: penalty/punishment
      Substitution: in place of

      It’s the belief that when Jesus was crucified, he was being punished instead of us, that he died in our place — a bit like an older brother might protect his younger brother from the wrath of their father by saying he broke the garage window when it was actually the youngster who did it … only in this case, because it’s God who’s the father-figure, he knows full well who’s guilty and who’s innocent, but goes along with the scheme anyway, and the whole business gets a bit more brutal than having to pay for a broken window. The upshot is Jesus dies and you & I get off scot free, theoretically forgiven but in practice there’s no forgiveness necessary because someone else, namely Jesus, has taken the punishment — a very convoluted way of thinking, to say the least, but most evangelicals seem to manage it somehow.

      If you’d like a longer explanation, check out J I Packer’s 1973 essay, The Logic of Penal Substitution:

      The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.

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