… 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” . 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.
An 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 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 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