Stuart Murray Williams on the Lost Message of Jesus

This is the text of Stuart Murray Williams' statement at the debate on Steve Chalk's book The Lost Message of Jesus sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance on the 7th of October, 2004. You can also read a report on the debate from Anabaptist Network members.

For nearly 300 years, following the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians were on the margins. They were multiplying and spreading across the ancient world, but they were a powerless and counter-cultural community, which every so often the authorities decided to persecute.

For nearly 300 years, these Christians were committed to taking Jesus seriously, not only as their saviour but as their teacher and example. In the Alpha or Christianity Explored courses of their day, enquirers and new converts were taught, not just the meaning of Jesus’ death, but the meaning of his life and his message.

For nearly 300 years, these Christians were uninterested in developing theories of the atonement. They knew Jesus had died to save them, they preached ‘Christ crucified’ and they celebrated his resurrection triumph over the spiritual and political powers that oppressed them. They drew on various images the New Testament uses, but they did not insist on one formula or explanation. Certainly not penal substitution, of which there is little trace in the early centuries.

For nearly 300 years, the church grew rapidly, lived distinctively and witnessed graciously. This was by no means a perfect church, but it was a church inspired by the life and message of Jesus.

Then, very unexpectedly, early in the fourth century, the emperor decided to become a Christian and to make Christianity the imperial religion. Taken by surprise and with little time to think through the implications, the church accepted Constantine’s invitation to move from the margins to the centre.

In an astonishingly short period, the church became powerful, wealthy and influential. Free from the fear of persecution, no longer a powerless and deviant minority, they celebrated the triumph of the gospel over the empire. Christendom had arrived!

But there was a price to pay. Power brought corruption. The church became violent and coercive. Biblical teaching was distorted. The counter-cultural and non-violent life and message of Jesus was very awkward in this new context. And the political dimension of his death – crucified by the same Roman state that had now adopted Christianity – was profoundly embarrassing.

So the fourth-century Alpha course changed dramatically. Precisely defined doctrine became more important than faithful discipleship. The social, political and economic implications of the life and death of Jesus were abandoned. His message was ignored or domesticated to support the new status quo. The great fourth-century creeds ignored his life and message and moved straight from his birth to his death (the Nicene Creed, for example, moves from the statement ‘was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man’ to the statement ‘and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’). No mention of the life and message of Jesus!

In fact, the price the church paid to move from the margins to the centre was that the message of Jesus was moved from the centre to the margins.

The Lost Message of Jesus: Steve’s book has prompted tonight’s dialogue. The focus so far has been on how we understand the atonement, the saving work of Jesus on the cross. This is really important – but most of the book is actually about the message of Jesus.

When was this message lost? Answer: during the fourth century, when the church compromised with the empire and exchanged faithfulness for power.

Ever since then, Christian movements on the margins of the church have tried to recover this lost message, to encourage each other to take Jesus seriously again. The Anabaptist tradition in which I stand is one such movement.

Previously such recovery movements have been crushed by the mainstream church, which still finds Jesus’ message very threatening. But the end of Christendom and the return of Christians to the margins in western societies are provoking more and more attempts to recover the message of Jesus. And this is vital for our mission or even our survival: in a culture that has rejected institutional Christianity but is still intrigued by Jesus our only hope is to recover and live out his revolutionary message.

Steve’s book is saying absolutely nothing new. It draws heavily on the careful scholarship of Tom Wright, a leading evangelical New Testament scholar, but it is rooted in the tradition of recovery movements calling the church back to the message of Jesus.

I hope we don’t get so caught up in debating theories of the atonement that we fail to respond to this challenge. There’s too much at stake.

But what about our understanding of the atoning work of Jesus? Is penal substitution the only interpretation of the death of Jesus that evangelicals can endorse? Is it the best way to read the relevant biblical texts? Is it good news in contemporary culture?

Let me say four things.

First, that I understand why many people – on both sides of the debate – feel strongly about this issue.

Some of you have found it liberating to discover that there are other ways of understanding the life and death of Jesus and you are here to register your support for what Steve and several other evangelicals are saying about the atonement.

For others, the notion of moving away from penal substitution seems to threaten the heart of the gospel and you are here to register your deep concern. For many years I accepted and taught penal substitution. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of other ways of interpreting the death of Jesus. And even when I discovered other interpretations I saw them as (at best) subsidiary ideas: penal substitution was what it was really all about. I no longer believe this, but I respect those who do and I understand why any critique of penal substitution is so worrying.

Second, in no way do I want to downplay the seriousness of human sin, the reality of divine anger or the wonder of Jesus dying on the cross as substitute and sacrifice.

But I am simply not persuaded that penal substitution is an appropriate way of interpreting or integrating the biblical teaching on these issues. I find it theologically and ethically problematic. However I have heard it explained (and there are different versions of it among evangelicals), it leaves me with serious concerns, many of which Steve has already outlined. Let me mention six of these concerns:

1. Punishing an innocent man – even a willing victim – is fundamentally unjust.

2. Biblical justice is essentially about restoration of relationships rather than retribution.

3. Penal substitution is inherently violent and contravenes central aspects of the message of Jesus.

4. Penal substitution raises serious difficulties for our understanding of the Trinity.

5. Penal substitution fails to engage adequately with structural and systemic evil.

6. If penal substitution is correct, neither the life of Jesus nor his resurrection have much significance.

I have heard and read responses to these points, but I have not found these responses persuasive. No doubt we will continue to examine some of them this evening.

Third, in light of what I said earlier about Christendom, about the centre and the margins, about the impact of where we stand on what we believe, I simply note that those who have objected most strongly to penal substitution are those who have felt marginalised by church and society – Black Christians, feminist Christians and Anabaptists.

For them it has not seemed good news. In fact, it has enhanced their experience of powerlessness and victimisation. I think we need to listen to these brothers and sisters and ask how we explain the death of Jesus to those on the margins, the abused, the victims, the sinned-against, in a way that brings hope and liberation.

Fourth and finally, how does our understanding of the atonement equip us to engage with crucial contemporary challenges? Two sample questions:

In a world threatened by religious, political and ideological divisions, and by deep mutual distrust, what understanding of the cross will equip followers of Jesus to be peacemakers?
In a world where revenge, retribution and the myth of redemptive violence have hugely increased suffering and insecurity, what understanding of the cross can offer alternatives to the present unimaginative and disastrous policies in relation to Iraq, the Middle East and terrorism and break the vicious circle?

Penal substitution – a relative newcomer among attempts to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death – has captured the allegiance of most evangelicals. But it is rooted in the Christendom system, in imperial and coercive Christianity, in a church colluding with the powers rather than offering a prophetic challenge or an alternative vision of justice and peace.

As Christendom unravels, I believe we will need to look again at many deeply held convictions which are less biblical than we think and more influenced by a fading and oppressive culture than we realise.

Maybe this dialogue will be just one among many as evangelicals sift carefully the Christendom legacy and rediscover other aspects of the lost message of Jesus. May God give us the grace and courage to follow Jesus into this challenging but exciting new environment and to hold on to one another as fellow pilgrims.