My Comments on Atonement

In lieu of a proper post for today, as I probably won’t have time, I present here a selection of comments which I have made on other blogs over the last few days, in response to the ongoing debate on the penal substitutionary atonement, and relating to my own post about Packer’s view of the Atonement.

First I must go back a week to a comment I made at Dave Warnock’s blog 42:

Steve Chalke has not “label[led] penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse”“. Read what he actually did say, such as:

John’s Gospel famously declares, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son” How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his Son?

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his son for an offence that he has not commited ….

Nearly a week later Ben Stevenson responded to this, not at Dave Warnock’s blog but at the unrelated Adrian Warnock’s:

I think you need to read Steve Chalke’s article “Redeeming the Cross”.
In a comment on Dave Warnock’s blog you said that:
“Steve Chalke has not “label[led] penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse” “.”

Steve Chalke writes:
“In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark ‘unmasking’ of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology.”

I can understand why people would want to defend Steve Chalke – he has said much that is helpful in the past. But we have to accept that what he is now saying is simply indefensible.

In response I wrote:

Ben, thank you for the link to Chalke’s excellent article. My own position is close to Chalke’s.

Have you read my post on the same talk by Packer which you link to? It is clear that Packer’s concept of penal substitution does not consist of “a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed“. Perhaps I should have written that Steve Chalke has not labelled the doctrine of penal substitution held by Packer, and others before him including Jonathan Edwards, as “cosmic child abuse”. In fact Chalke explicitly defines “penal substitution” as Hodge’s doctrine: “a righteous God is angry with sinners and demands justice. His wrath can only be appeased through bringing about the violent death of his Son.” The only disagreement here is on terminology. Packer and I are using a less precise definition of “penal substitution” to include some much more acceptable theories like Packer’s one, which does not include the Father punishing the Son. Indeed, as I wrote in my own post of Packer’s version of the theory, “I wonder if it really justifies the same name or use of the word “penal”.” Probably Chalke would agree with me that Packer’s view is not really penal substitution of the kind which he rejects so strongly.

Don Sands had a follow-up question to which I responded:

Don, I don’t have inside information about what Steve Chalke means. But it seems to me (and I think to Adrian from his comments on another thread) that what he has heard and rejected is an unbalanced presentation of PSA. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have heard a balanced one. Packer’s presentation is perhaps an example of a balanced one. The main question, it seems to me, is whether Packer’s nuanced view is the correct version of PSA or not true PSA at all. In any case what is preached far too often is the unbalanced version, including such concepts as that the Father punished and killed the Son, and not the balanced one that the Father and the Son worked together, in a way which we don’t fully understand, to deal with, propitiate if you like, the problem of sin and the wrath of God caused by it.

Meanwhile I clarified my position in a new comment on Dave Warnock’s blog:

For some reason which I don’t understand, Ben Stevenson made a comment not here but at Adrian Warnock’s blog which showed that my comment above “Steve Chalke has not “label[led] penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse””” was not quite accurate. Ben quotes Steve Chalke as follows:

“In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ …”

See my reply to Ben on Adrian’s blog, in which I point out that Chalke seems to be using a different and much narrower definition of penal substitution from authors like Jim Packer, and from the definition which I was tacitly working from.

Adrian in fact seems to have agreed with me, in a comment here, that “what is happening is that people are hearing a non-nuanced and unbalanced presentation of PSA and then rejecting it“. See my discussion of what must be a nuanced and balanced presentation of penal substitution, by Jim Packer. But, despite Packer’s insistence on the terminology, I am still unsure whether the real doctrine of penal substitution is Packer’s version, which barely deserves the word “penal”, or the version popularised by John Owen and Charles Hodge among others, which Chalke and I reject and even Packer has serious reservations with.

I have alluded also to another comment thread, on Adrian’s interesting post about The Resurrection Empowered Life in which he shows how even some of his “Reformed” heroes have neglected the doctrine of the Resurrection. In the comment thread I wrote:

Adrian, it is interesting that you, and Spurgeon before you, have come to a similar conclusion to Steve Chalke about how the doctrine of the resurrection has been neglected. Chalke wrote here (thanks to your commenter Ben for this link):

If we follow Hodge’s understanding of the atonement it is Jesus’ death, no more no less, that becomes our ‘good news’. This reductionist approach shrinks or ‘down grades’ the whole gospel to a single sentence: ‘God is no longer angry with us because Jesus died in our place.’ Indeed, that is exactly why evangelistic presentations based on penal substitution often don’t even bother to mention the resurrection, because for them it serves no direct purpose in the story of our salvation.

In this context it is hardly surprising that John Owen, one of the originators of the doctrine of penal substitution, barely mentioned the resurrection. For those who consider this to be the only important part of the gospel, there is no need for the resurrection. Indeed it is perhaps an embarrassment: if Christ had stayed dead, there would have been less basis for the criticism that a three day death is an inadequate punishment for sin.

So, Adrian, I am very pleased that you are focussing on the resurrection, and I hope this focus will lead you to a balanced view of Christ’s work which goes beyond “it is Jesus’ death, no more no less, that becomes our ‘good news’.

And in a follow-up I wrote:

Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that John Owen, or anyone else, did not believe in the resurrection. Surely he took it for granted. But often the doctrines which teachers and preachers neglect are those which they take for granted but which also don’t play an important part in their theology, and sometimes even ones they are a bit embarrassed about. Another example is the work of the Holy Spirit, often ignored, rather than rejected, by non-charismatics, who tend to mention the Holy Spirit only in Trinitarian formulae!

0 thoughts on “My Comments on Atonement

  1. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » More on the Atonement

  2. Yes, we can get really tangled! That’s why I decided not to get involved in your Participatory Bible Study discussion. I don’t think you need to reject the use of legal language (as a model) for justification to have serious doubts about PSA.

    But I suppose I might ask whether, in legal terms, someone who has been “justified” is more like someone who has been found guilty but their penalty has been paid or more like someone who has been acquitted. PSA implies the former. I would understand “justified” as meaning the latter – that the sinner is found “not guilty” despite having broken the law, but without any injustice being done.

    If I relate this to modern law, I might suggest that a mechanism would be that the sinner is acquitted on a legal technicality. But perhaps in suggesting this I am committing the same error as those who modelled PSA theory on 16th century justice.

    Is this a profound observation? I’m not sure.

  3. Thank you, Michale. Yes, that is a good question whether justification is more like the penalty being paid or more like acquittal. I think I would agree the latter, but it is then a mystery how we can be guilty and acquitted without God being unjust. I don’t like the idea of a legal technicality, but perhaps there is no easy comparison.

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