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.

Debate focuses on Justice, God's wrath and the Atonement

By Robert McGovern and Tim Nafziger


If you'd like to share your own perspective on the debate we'd love to hear it. Just go to the Lost Message of Jesus Debate discussion forum.

It's not every Wednesday evening that you find a thousand Christians together, passionately debating theological concepts, but the 7th of October was one of those evenings. The Emmanuel Christian Centre was nearly filled for a debate on Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus, sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance.



The main thrust of Chalke's book is that the radical messages of Jesus have been lost over the years. While it is wide-ranging in its examination of Jesus' message, it is Chalke's views on atonement that has caused the most controversy. In chapter 10, Chalke looks at the message and meaning of the cross and indirectly discusses penal substitution, or the idea that the purpose of Jesus' death was to placate a wrathful God who can only be satisfied by the sacrifice of his own son.



The evening was an attempt by the Evangelical Alliance to respond to the controversy in a constructive way, by bringing both sides of the controversy together for a conversation. The evening was divided into two halves. The first half was a panel presenting their cases for and against. On that panel were Rvd Steve Chalke and his secondary Dr Stuart Murray Williams. On the opposing side it was Dr Simon Gathercol, seconded by Rev Dr Anna Robbins. The second half of the debate was a chance for people from the floor to ask questions which had been submitted on paper between the halves.



Chalke opened the evening by emphasizing that The Lost Message of Jesus was not just about atonement, the issue that his critics have most seized on, but also about rediscovering Jesus' call to radical discipleship and peace. He admitted that his book had gaps as it was not meant to be an academic or even theological book. “I wrote this book for those who don't know Christ yet,” he said, “We [Christians] are considered to be guilt-inducing and judgemental.” Our focus on penal substitution is part of that problem, he said.



By focusing simply on God's wrath and appeasement through the cross we paint a distorted picture of Gods character. We portray him as a someone bent on retribution rather than someone who loves us deeply but who is upset by our actions. Furthermore, Chalke said, penal substitution perpetuates the myth of redemptive violence.


Chalke clarified that he does believe in substitutionary atonement on the cross but not penal substitution. He also outlined the notion of Christus Victor which sees Christ's life, death and resurrection all together as victory over the powers of evil, both spiritual and earthly.



Gathercol responded with an assessment of a number of areas. First he felt that the book was too one sided and needed more balanced discussion. He said that Chalke's renderings of the Gospel made the future life a pale second best to now. “My concern with Steve's view is that it has very little to do with saving us for eternity,” said Gathercol, “[Jesus] does talk a heck of a lot about the final judgement.”



Responding to Chalke's critique of penal substitution, Gathercol made the point that it was Father and Son working in unison undertaking to bear weight of sin that we alone cannot. He suggested that it was not a unilateral decision on God's part to have Jesus go to the cross. He quoted on Mark 10:45 and said that the story of Jesus and the cross are biblical and inspiring and that Jesus is paying a ransom for us, arguing that you cannot simply get rid of a doctrine just because it was badly treated by some.



Gathercol echoed the concerns of many Evangelicals when he suggested that Chalke relativizes Jesus' message too much. “Steve has gone to town on what sounds good in our context,” he said. “Jesus anticipated that people weren't always going to lap up the message.” He went on to argue that the book is a serious revision of Jesus' message that does not fit with the picture of the “rescue mission” that is portrayed in John 3:16.



Chalke responded to Gathercol's criticism by saying that his message was not simpy “God loves you so take it easy.” However, at the other extreme he called on the church not to reduce Jesus' message to the “sinner's prayer” as a key to heaven. “In the end, if you believe in penal substitution, the cross is not primarily about God's love, but about God's anger,” he said.



Murray Williams opened his statement with a review of the early history of the church, noting that the early Christians had no real theories of atonement and it was only when they became associated with Constantine that they began to create theories of atonement. Until then, the focus of Christianity was on Jesus as an example and a teacher, not as a sacrifice. Murray Williams noted than many of the early teachings of Jesus became troublesome to a church that was becoming powerful, wealthy and had to look after an empire. Ideas like "love thy neighbour" took on a personal aspect but had to be "forgotten" on national levels. In the Nicene creed, Murray Williams pointed out, Jesus' influence has been reduced to his birth and death, leaving out the importance of his life. He outlined his six main problems with the penal substitution model. (see Murray Williams' statement for more details)


Robbins also echoed fears of cultural relativism and criticized what she described as the rebranding of atonement. She cautioned that this could lead to a Christ of human creation in the misguided attempt to fit in with the “Spirit of the Age.” She also said that it is important the penal substitution is rightly understood and pointed to J.K Mosely's work in 1915.



God demanded justice, Robbins said, but he also provided a way that justice could be met. “He must see a penalty exacted for sin,” Robbins said, “Otherwise, justice is not done.” She went on to argue that penal substitution is essential to a Christian social ethic because, she said, “It allows us to be able to love even when we can't on our own strength.”



All but one of the ten question from the floor clearly disagreed with Chalke. Many challenged him with verses about God's wrath, his punishment, fear of God and penal substitution. The questions did not reflect a sympathetic viewpoint, which judging by the audience, was also present.



Joel Edwards ending the evening by affirming the commitment of the Evangelical alliance to the penal subsitution model of atonement, despite what appears to be a commitment only to "subsitutionary atonement" in its official literature.

Photos courtesy of the Evangelical Alliance

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.

The Lost Message of Jesus

Update: You can now read our Report on the Lost Message of Jesus Debate as well as Stuart Murray Williams statement from the evening or share your own vies in the Lost Message of Jesus Debate discussion forum.

We are pleased to announce a public debate sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance to explore the issues raised in The Lost Message of Jesus, a new book by Baptist minister Steve Chalke, which suggests his thinking is becoming increasingly ‘Anabaptist’. His book invites readers to take Jesus seriously and questions interpretations of the life and death of Jesus that imply God condones the use of violence for redemptive purposes.

You may also want to read the first chapter of The Lost Message of Jesus which is available on the internet here.

Stuart Murray Williams will be taking part in this debate and other members of the Anabaptist Network are planning to be there. If this is of interest to you, book a place.

Evangelical Alliance Press release

The Evangelical Alliance has arranged a public debate on issues raised by Steve Chalke's controversial new book, The Lost Message of Jesus. The Alliance has received a lot of correspondence about the book, both negative and positive, and has organised the meeting so that key points of disagreement can be addressed in a constructive way. As well as Steve Chalke himself, speakers will include Simon Gathercole, Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, Stuart Murray, Chair of the UK Anabaptist Network and author of Post-Christendom, and Anna Robbins, Lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at London School of Theology. The meeting will be chaired by David Hilborn, the Alliance's Head of Theology. Discussion will focus on the atonement, and will also cover the doctrine of God, sin, salvation, and the relationship between church, kingdom and mission.

Looking forward to the event, David Hilborn said, "We are keen to see the important questions raised by Steve's book tackled in depth by people well qualified to do so. We also feel it right to give Steve the opportunity to respond to the considerable criticism which he has received since the book appeared, as well as to suggest why it is selling so well. Rather than relying on second-hand opinions, we want people to read the book and then come to the debate, so that they can formulate their own view."

In addition to formal presentations by the speakers, there will be a panel discussion with questions from the floor.

The 'Lost Message' Debate will take place on Thursday 7th October, 7.30pm at Emmanuel Christian Centre, Marsham Street in Westminster, London. Tickets £3. Booking is advised, as places are limited. To reserve a place, contact Julia Murphy on 020 7207 2114 or email acute@eauk.org. To pre-pay, send a cheque marked 'Evangelical Alliance' to Julia Murphy, 'Lost Message Debate', Evangelical Alliance, Whitefield House, 186 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BT. The Lost Message of Jesus is published by Zondervan (£8.99). It is available at amazon.co.uk, and at selected booksellers.

The Lost Message of Jesus Debate

Having made a round trip of 400 miles in order to attend The Lost Message of Jesus debate, I would now like to comment on both the debate and what Steve Chalke has written. Firstly, I think it is unfortunate that in his book Steve chose to describe the penal substitution theory of the atonement as "cosmic child abuse". Like me, Steve has grown up in the evangelical sub-culture and must have known what the effect would be of using such emotive language. If he didn't then, he certainly does now. Sadly, in the resulting storm of controversy other important themes, not least Jesus' teaching on non-violence, have been side-lined. I would have preferred that Steve had made a much more thorough biblical and theological case against penal substitution before he decided to open Pandora's box.

However, to be fair, writing in the September issue of "Christianity" magazine, Steve has latterly made a cogent case against penal substitution, drawing attention to its neo-pagan origins whilst at the same time giving a good thumb-nail sketch of the alternative Christus Victor understanding of the atonement, acknowledging for example the work of Gustav Aulen. (Fortunately, Bishop Aulen's seminal work, "Christus Victor", was reprinted in paperback in 2003 by Wipf and Stock and so is easily available for those who wish to read it for themselves.)

Turning to the debate itself, it is clear to me that those who spoke against Steve Chalke and Stuart Murray Williams do not seriously wish to examine the philosophical, theological and political origins of their favoured model of the atonement, nor its ethical implications. This in turn has serious implications for those Christians who do wish to and there will be members of the Evangelical Alliance's constituency who may well need to reconsider their position as supporters of this organisation.

The Wondrous Cross: book review

The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History
Stephen R. Holmes, 144 pages, Paternoster Press (1 May 2007), £9.99

Review by Stephen Dintaman

First of all, this book is delightfully readable. The Wondrous Cross fills a niche that is too often ignored by academic theologians. Having digested a large corpus of biblical, historical and cultural material pertaining to the atonement, and specifically the penal substitution theory of the atonement, he presents what he has learned in a manner that is accessible to the non-professional reader, and that even is, at times, inspiring.

Holmes embraces the idea that scripture has no normative theory of atonement, but employs a wide variety of metaphors and analogies, none completely adequate, to illuminate the meaning and power of the cross. The Bible is very clear that the cross saves us, but less clear on exactly how it saves us. Chapter 3, ‘Come and See the King of Love’ explores eight different metaphors for atonement used in the New Testament. Each of these cries out to be developed more fully, but given the limits of this book, he does an adequate job.

The remainder of the book is given to exploring the biblical and historical backgrounds for the development of the penal substitution theory of atonement, and the various modern criticisms of this theory. He identifies John Calvin as the first theologian who systematically developed the idea that on the cross Jesus bore the penalty, death, that a righteous God and the law requires. He argues that the penal theory, correctly presented, is at least useful in illuminating the seriousness of sin, and the costliness of forgiveness. It becomes problematic only when it is presented as the normative explanation under which all other aspects of the biblical witness are subsumed, and when it is presented in a way that divides the trinity and pits a punitive, vengeful God against a loving, merciful Jesus. His own reconstruction of the theory (pp.96-99) uses the concept of ‘corporate responsibility’ to explain how one man, though innocent himself, can take on the guilt of others. This is motivated totally by love, not by a punitive God’s need to punish someone.

This book is a response and a guidebook to a controversy raging throughout the evangelical world on the appropriateness of the penal substitution model. Various critics see it as out of date, as suggesting that God is cruel and vengeful, based on unacceptable ideas about transference of guilt, that it encourages punitive views of justice, and that it even promotes the idea of “divine child abuse”. Holmes maintains a very irenic tone throughout his discussion of these criticisms. To the critics he says penal substitution presented well is not as destructive as they make it out to be. To its defenders he makes the case that the penal approach is not the normative biblical model, indeed that scripture does not even unambiguously teach this view. Where it is made the standard model other aspects of the cross are eclipsed and its power diminished.

Yet his defense of the doctrine is a remarkably weak one. On pages 42-43, he says things like, “Much of the language about the atonement in the New Testament could be understood in penal substitutionary terms if we had good reason to do so, but equally could be understood in other terms”. Or later, “It might be right, but the New Testament does not, as far as I can see, demand to be read that way…”. If the idea is not clearly affirmed by scripture, we might wonder if it is really worth the bother to come to its defense. I suspect Holmes’ defense of it is more out of respect for how deeply it is imbedded in evangelical piety than any real passionate zeal for the idea.

Holmes is very Pauline in his passionate affirmation of the saving power of the cross, but fairly un-Pauline in that he addresses all parties in the controversy in a respectful patient way. Early on (p.4) he summarizes the controversy by saying some interpreters believe that penal substitution is necessary to faith, while others “equally faithful” believe the idea dishonors God. His desire to keep the peace is admirable, yet there also comes a point where we might have to judge that some interpreters in their zeal to discredit penal atonement reject any idea of Christ’s death as the God willed provision for our salvation and thus rob the cross of its saving meaning and power.

Why did Christ die? Symposium Report

On 6-8 July 2005 nearly 200 people were involved in a theological symposium held at the London School of Theology and organised with the Evangelical Alliance to follow up the debate in October 2004 sparked by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus. Two members of the Anabaptist Network were there – Lloyd Pietersen and Stuart Murray Williams. Stuart presented a seminar on the subject of ‘Penal Substitution and the Myth of Redemptive Violence’.

Papers from the symposium are available on the Evangelical Alliance website (in the Theology section): see www.eauk.org. These were generally of high quality, arguing persuasively for or against penal substitution as the central or at least a necessary understanding of atonement. Some explored exegetical issues, especially in relation to Isaiah 53, Romans and Hebrews. Others investigated the place of penal substitution in the history of evangelicalism (arguing that it has always been present but has been challenged at various stages) and the doctrinal statements of the Evangelical Alliance (with a tortuous analysis of the current, but soon to be updated, statement from which ‘penal’ was omitted at the last minute for reasons not fully explained). Other papers examined the theological, ethical and missional issues involved in our interpretation of atonement.

The atmosphere of the symposium was generally warm and friendly, with courteous contributions and disagreements, although there was a detectable undercurrent from certain quarters that broke surface in the penultimate session with a public call for evangelicals who reject penal substitution to repent of ‘grave and serious error’ and endorse the doctrine. While many involved in the symposium seemed uncomfortable with the attitude and language of this session, a straw poll of participants indicated that a large majority of those present regarded penal substitution as a vital and foundational understanding of atonement.

Perhaps the most significant paper was a keynote address by I Howard Marshall, in which he presented a statement of penal substitution around which he hoped the great majority of evangelicals could unite. It may well be that this is the way forward that the Evangelical Alliance will choose in order to hold together the broad network of evangelicals they represent. His paper was certainly an attractive, carefully nuanced presentation that minimised the objections that some present had to penal substitution. However, there were three aspects of his paper that left some of us wondering:

• Was he really describing penal substitution as this is taught and understood in most churches and by at least some evangelical writers? It sounded more like substitutionary atonement than penal substitution. Those of us who are happy to endorse substitutionary atonement but resist the notion of penal substitution (for various reasons) may be drawn to this formulation, but we may remain suspicious that this presentation airbrushed out aspects that most evangelical scholars and certainly most evangelical Christians include within their notion of penal substitution. If Marshall is right in his interpretation, there is a huge gap between scholarly and other expressions of penal substitution! This needs urgent attention. But is he right? Or was this a non-representative presentation of penal substitution?
• Marshall insisted that penal substitution was not only one valid understanding of the atonement alongside other equally biblical and significant models, but the underlying, central and vital understanding that integrated all the others. Even if his interpretation of evangelical understandings of penal substitution is correct, some of us would still baulk at ascribing this model such centrality.
• The paper made no connection between the death of Jesus and his human life and teaching. In response to a challenge on this point (from Lloyd), Marshall accepted that the life of Jesus was significant but explained that his task was to expound the theology of atonement. This is exactly the point that continues to cause some of us concern: is it legitimate to discuss the theology of atonement in isolation from the life of Jesus? Isn’t this one of the problems with penal substitution – that it does not relate to the life and teaching of Jesus?

Other issues raised for some of us by this symposium include:

• How should we respond to the groundswell of support expressed for those who have challenged penal substitution over the past few months? Whatever the outcome of this symposium – and it seems likely that evangelicals will be urged to unite around the new Evangelical Alliance statement of faith that, like the previous one, implies but does not explicitly affirm penal substitution – in many churches we know there are Christians who feel deeply uncomfortable with this theology of atonement (especially if it is taught as the central model). However, they feel unable to challenge their leaders on this issue for fear of censure. We know of people who have been effectively excommunicated for even daring to question penal substitution (let alone rejecting this).
• How do we continue to address the ethical and missional issues that for us are caught up with our theology of atonement? Only Joel Green’s paper raised in a plenary context at the symposium the issue of violence and in seminars where these issues were raised there was reluctance to explore them in any depth. So what can we do to ensure that the key ethical and missional dimensions of this debate are not submerged under exegetical discussions? Perhaps this is an area where Anabaptists can continue to challenge conventional ways of thinking.
• How do we encourage people to wrestle with hermeneutical as well as narrow exegetical questions? The most vociferous proponents of penal substitution at the symposium wanted exegetical issues to be at the forefront, but surely there is a prior question about our hermeneutics. How do we read the texts? What are the connections between the life of Jesus and theological explanations of his death? Is Scripture flat or is Jesus the focal point? What difference does a Christocentric Anabaptist hermeneutic make to this discussion?
• How can we find ways of discussing issues like the theology of atonement that are truly multi-voiced and participative? One of the disappointing features of the symposium was the lack of space for interaction and dialogue. There were opportunities for questions and comments after plenary speeches, but these were very short; there was no significant opportunity to hear speakers engage in dialogue together; and the programme was so full that there was little time even for informal discussion. The symposium appeared to be stereotypically Reformed/evangelical in its structure and ethos: authoritative presentations with limited interaction. How might Anabaptists have structured it?
• There were statements during the symposium to the effect that the event was not a consistory court with power to discipline recalcitrant participants, or that this was not an occasion for the evangelical ‘thought police’ to operate. While grateful for this assurance, it left some of us wondering about when those who organised the symposium felt such activities might be appropriate. Given the accusations of heresy against some participants in the penultimate session, has the evangelical constituency entirely broken free of the Christendom mindset and the inherent tendencies to coercion and persecution that characterised the Reformed tradition out of which evangelicalism emerged? While we do not suspect the organisers will attempt to exercise discipline in the way suggested during the penultimate session, Anabaptists are perhaps more sensitive than many traditions to this issue. How can we foster an ethos of gracious dissent and open-heartedness to fellow Christians who disagree with us?

We welcome comments from others who participated in the symposium or who have read the papers. Please also see the atonement survey on this website and register your convictions there.