Debating the Meaning of Atonement

This section includes a number of articles offering perspectives on the debate about atonement that developed in evangelical circles around Steve Chalke and Alan Mann's book, The Lost Message of Jesus between 2004 and 2006. In that book one short section raised questions about the legitimacy of the 'penal substitution' view of atonement (although it did not explicitly refer to this view). This provoked a storm of protest from conservative evangelicals, including both reasoned theological arguments and vilification of the authors.

The role of the Evangelical Alliance

The Evangelical Alliance, having been challenged to exercise discipline over the supposedly heretical views of one of its most high-profile leaders, decided to host and organise a public debate on the subject in October 2004. Although several other evangelical leaders had already dissented from penal substitution, they had done so in more measured tones and in less popular books. It seems that Steve Chalke was too prominent to be allowed such leeway. The debate, which attracted several hundred people, was an opportunity for Steve to present and defend his views and for those who disagreed with him to explain why. The Evangelical Alliance did not regard this debate as in any way open-ended: it was made clear penal substitution would remain the doctrinal position of the Alliance, even though its statement of faith did not make an explicit commitment to this.

The debate continued after this public airing of views, with strong language being used on all sides and with some individuals and organisations 'coming out' publicly on the issue for the first time, and in July 2005 the Evangelical Alliance organised a theological symposium on the subject. Speakers holding diverse views participated but the level of interaction between them was disappointing (this was an evangelical rather than Anabaptist way of dialoguing!). A large majority of those present unsurprisingly reaffirmed penal substitution as a crucial doctrine and the central model for interpreting atonement.

After a period of reflection the Evangelical Alliance quietly issued a further statement early in 2006, placing this on its website and in its journal Idea. This asserted that the position of the Evangelical Alliance was that its new statement of faith, which like the previous one did not explicitly affirm or require a belief in penal substitution, implied penal substitution. It urged all those who signed up to the EA statement of faith to do so 'with integrity'. This statement appears to have been an attempt to draw a line under the issue and to discourage further discussion.

The involvement of the Anabaptist Network

The Anabaptist Network was drawn into this debate and was named on several occasions as one of the groups that was expressing dissent from the traditional position of the Evangelical Alliance on penal substitution. As a non-membership network we could not, of course, take up any official position on the subject, but several members of the steering group (and others) engaged in some form of dialogue, publicly or privately, about the meaning of atonement and the helpfulness or otherwise of penal substitution language to explain the work of Christ.

Stuart Murray Williams was asked by Steve Chalke to speak alongside him in the October 2004 debate, and both Stuart and Lloyd Pietersen (a trustee of the Network) participated in the July 2005 symposium. Jonathan Bartley, representing Ekklesia, was also heavily involved in reporting and reflecting on the debate - often in ways that caused concern to the Evangelical Alliance.

The articles in this section reflect the perspective of various members of the Network who participated in different aspects of this debate. They should not be understood as the official position of the Anabaptist Network (for we have no such position), but they highlight some of the issues that some Anabaptists have been concerned about in relation to this issue and the way it has been handled.

There is no univocal approach to atonement within the Anabaptist tradition. David Hilborn, who is the head of theology for the Evangelical Alliance and was deeply involved in the whole debate, addressed the South London study group of the Anabaptist Network in 2005, arguing that Anabaptists should be able to support penal substitution. Some undoubtedly do. But there are others writing from within the Anabaptist tradition who dissent strongly from this position - not least J Denny Weaver in The Non-violent Atonement. For a helpful article on the position of the early Anabaptists, see Frances Hiebert: 'The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology'. Within the steering group of the Anabaptist Network (drawn from several denominational backgrounds) there is general agreement that penal substitution is problematic both theologically and ethically.

This is not a subject on which the Anabaptist Network wants to become fixated, although some of us regard it as important and suspect that evangelicals will need to return to it again before too long. We recognise that the Evangelical Alliance wishes now to discourage ongoing debate on the subject and we do not intend to challenge this by making further public statements. But we do want to record here our unease at the way in which the debate has been handled and especially at the wording of the Evangelical Alliance's recent statement. We accept (following private conversations) that the intention of this statement is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, but we regard the wording as unfortunate. The Network is not, however, a member of the Evangelical Alliance and so we leave any further dialogue over this issue to those who are members.

Conclusion - for the time being

Two things have become very clear to us over the past few months:

1. Many more evangelicals than we had realised dissent quite strongly from penal substitution - but several fear to say so publicly for fear of how others will respond. We hope that in time a more open atmosphere will allow for free discussion of this subject without fear of reprimand.
2. Many evangelical churches teach a very crude version of penal substitution - nothing like the more nuanced version that the July 2005 symposium advocated. If this more nuanced version is the one the Evangelical Alliance is defending, we would encourage them to do much more to ensure it is taught in evangelical churches.

The forum in this section remains open for further comments, but we do not intend to feature further articles on this subject on this website or in our newsletter for the time being. But we look forward to further conversation at some point about models of atonement that are theologically and ethically more integrated than we find penal substitution to be and about appropriate ways of talking about the work of God in Christ in contemporary culture.