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.