An argument about the Atonement

by Richard on May 30, 2006

My friend Dave Warnock looks in on an argument about the Atonement at Adrian Warnock’s blog, giving me the excuse to repost a few thoughts on that very subject.

I’ve had to write this piece. I promised. But I can’t say that I’ve found it very easy. Systematics is not really my thing — I’m more your “jobbing parson” than I am theologian. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

I headlined penal substitution as a doctrine, though that isn’t strictly a true designation. The doctrine is “atonement” — Jesus saves! All Christians agree on that. Penal substitution is a theory which attempts to explain how Jesus saves. That’s much more controversial.

The Theory
Penal substitution is a development of the thinking of the medieval church leader Anselm. He lived in a feudal society, and his thinking reflected that. For Anselm, sin represented an offense against the honour of God. A dishonoured monarch demanded satisfaction. The sacrifice of Jesus was the means by which God’s honour is restored and forgiveness is made possible. The Reformers (Calvin, Luther and all that crowd) took Anselm’s thinking a stage further. In their scheme of things, sin is not an affront against God’s honour but rather a debt which has to be paid. The punishment due to the crime must done before restoration can be offered. God in Christ pays the penalty himself and makes atonement possible. That’s it, I think, in a (very small) nutshell.

The issue
Because of its origins with the Reformers, the penal substitution theory has been central to the faith of many evangelical Christians, hence the controversy about Steve Chalke. For example, in the statement of faith of UCCF we find

Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God

and Adrian Warnock wrote recently:

There is no doubt that this view of the atonement as primarily a judicial matter, ie there being a real penalty for sin that God exacts from Christ, is the theory that evangelicals have always held dear. The wrath of God against sin is very real and needs to be turned away.

My problem with penal substitution is not with the theory itself, which has proven its worth as a way into an understanding of the reconciliation which has been won by Jesus. My problem is that it seems to me that what should be one theory among many (or at least several) has been raised up to a place that makes it the only acceptable way to understand Jesus and his Cross. Rather than being treated as a metaphor, the model of penal substitution has been given an objective reality which does not belong to it.

An understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus has to seen in the context of the Jewish sacrficial system. As Keith Ward rightly points out in “What the Bible Really Teaches”, the function of sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures does not remove the need for punishment of offenders. Sacrifices are principally about submitting to the will of God. The sacrifice is not effective because a literal transaction is being done, it is effective because God says it is. Nothing in the animal on the altar or the blood which spills from it is of itself effective. The scriptures are clear that when sacrifices are offered without true devotion to God they serve no purpose. A sacrificial understanding of the Cross does not have to imply the satisfaction theory in the way that is often thought.

The penal substitution theory breaks down completely when it is pressed too far. If Jesus is a “ransom”, to whom is he paid? But seen as a metaphor rather than an entirely objective understanding there is no need to press it to those limits. It serves us as one of a range of ways into an understanding of the Cross.

We should approach this as the writers of the New Testament did. They did not begin with a theory of human sin and the way it would need to be addressed. No one was reading Isaiah 53 and saying, “When this Suffering Servant comes along to die on our behalf, all will be well.” No, the New Testament is written knowing that “the answer” is Jesus. Those first Christian communities knew themselves to be saved. They experienced God’s grace through Christ. So in a real sense they work back from the answer to a statement of the question, a statement that is bound to be incomplete, or at least metaphorical.

To ask questions of “penal substitution”, as dear as it is to evangelicals, is not to question the fundamental fact of the power of the Cross. I think Steve Chalke has done us all a favour by raising the issue and making it clear that the Cross of Christ cannot be reduced to a single theory but is an eternal mystery beyond our comprehension and before which we can only fall to our knees in worship.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }


Pam 05.30.06 at 4:49 pm

I think that, theologically, it has always been clear that penal substitution is one theory amongst many. Speaking as someone raised hyper-conservative evangelical (not Methodist, I hasten to add!), I have certainly met a number of people who have rejected Christianity because they were told that this is the only way to see the atonement. Because they could not accept the violence of God implied in this image - which violence I sometimes suspect is the real thing that is held dear - they walked away from Christianity. Because Chalke’s book has got so much publicity in evangelical circles, it may open up a door for some people who have walked away from the church. I admire him for sticking his head above the parapet.

The problem is that many people believe that penal substitution is the same thing as atonement-in-itself because the theory has been so well communicated.


Eugene McKinnon 05.31.06 at 3:40 am

There are a variety of theories of Atonement not just one.

Christus Victor which was the Classic Theory of the Atonement in which Jesus’ Incarnation (pardon the expression) kicks some demon ass, you can read about it in Gustav Aulen’s 1930 work Christus Victor.

Substitionary — Anselm, Luther (who Aulen argued was CV see above), Calvin.

Subjective — Abelard (When I survey the Wondrous Cross).

Feminist/Womanist — Jesus identifies with suffering women, they call it divine child abuse and prefer the community concept. Sometimes even refer to him in the feminine Christa.

Liberation — very incarnational. Jesus identifies with the oppressed.

I could go on, but its late and I need to get to sleep.

Eugene McKinnon

P.S. I am a Christus Victor/Substitutionary atonement believer myself. And that ransom theory. That’s been debated for years. Gregory of Nazianzus thought it was abhorrent that Jesus pay Satan or offer up blood to God.


Kim 05.31.06 at 11:11 am

I feel bound to put in a word here for the the much maligned - and misrepresented - Anselm.

First of all, Anselm was not the author of the model of “penal substitution”. The theory of “satisfaction” sketched in Cur Deus Homo presumes a different intellectual framework from that which allowed Calvin to develop a model of penal substitution. Calvin’s notion of the transfer of penalty requires a Roman view of criminal law absent in the feudal jurisprudence of Anselm’s feudal culture. Indeed Anselm explicity opposes satisfaction to punishment (aut poena aut satisfaction). So the Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes is quite right to state (in Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement [1989]) that, in fact, “Anselm rejects a view of ‘penal substitution’; Christ is not punished in our place, but releases us from punishment through satisfaction.”

Second, most commentators are much too glib in their dismissal of Anselm’s notion of this “satisfaction” of God’s “honour”, particularly when they suggest that God is bound to his honour as if it were a higher power rather than God’s own honour, and, further, as if God’s honour were some sort of ego trip, the atonement propelled by a dissed deity. As the Reformed theologian Colin Gunton reminds us (in The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition [1988]):

“The fact is, however, that the opposite is the case, and Anselm will not be understood unless this is appreciated. It was the duty of the feudal ruler to maintain the order of rights and obligations without which society would collapse. Anselm’s God is understood to operate analagously for the universe as a whole: as the upholder of universal justice. . . The point is that God does not demand satisfaction for sin because he is in some way personally affronted or offended by transgression. What is at stake is ‘the order and beauty of the universe’, for which God is responsible.”

In other words, for Anselm God acts out of love, not pique, to save humanity from going down the cosmic plughole of its own. Although there is transactional component to his theory, it is not a legal transaction, and it is entirely subservient to God’s act of unmerited grace.

Finally, the Orthodox theologian David Bentlley Hart (in his recent tour de force The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth [2003]) corrects a few further misconception about Anselm. For example that he stands in discontinuity with patristic theology - he doesn’t: “Indeed, in the end Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: recapitulation” (Irenaeus). Or that it is Christ’s suffering that is redemptive - it isn’t: it is Christ’s innocence. Or - the most egregious libel of all - that Christ’s death effects a change in God’s attitude towards humanity: on the contrary, “God’s attitude never alters; he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandom them even to their own cruelties.”


Kim 05.31.06 at 11:27 am

Sorry, I cut myself off there.

I was simply going to conclude that I am not suggesting that there are not problems with Anselm’s theory even in its own terms. What I am suggesting is let those terms be his terms, i.e. don’t turn Anselm into a straw man easily torched. And don’t saddle him with the misappropriations to which he has been subject in the subsequent history of atonement theory.


Pam 05.31.06 at 3:16 pm

Kim: Excellent posts, thank you. I’m not sure whether your posts refer to mine or to Richard’s original post (I’m especially confused by the fact that you have linked back to this blog!) I agree with everything you have said and I apologise if you think I’ve raised a straw-man.

Perhaps we need a whole new term. These are the points that I’d make, however.

1) In my experience, people talk about ‘The wrath of the Father against sinners (not sin) needing to be satisfied’ and ‘Jesus paying the price demanded by the Father.’ I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people sincerely explain to me that God’s wrath had to be assuaged because of ‘justice’.
2) Those who know enough to put a name to this approach call it ‘penal substitution’.
3) I have heard many people claim that this is he mechanism by which God saves us rather than a theory of atonement.
4) Belief in this theory is what ‘belief in Christ’ is deemed to look like.

As someone more interested in pastoral theology than in systematic theology, I think that people’s behaviour is more determined by what they think the theory is than what it actually is. So perhaps the two-fold task is to correct people’s impressions about what PSA actually is as well to note that theories of atonement are, at the end of the day, theories and not mechanisms.


Kim 05.31.06 at 4:07 pm

Hi Pam,

I was referring to Richard’s post, not yours. I agree with everything you say. Though I think that any separation of pastoral theology from systematics (like the separation of ethics from systematics) can only be nominal. Think of the horrid pastoral theology that issues from bad evangelical atonement models (not taking grace seriously enough) - and the insipid pastoral theology that issues from liberal (i.e. subjective) atonement models (not taking sin seriously enough; cf. my comments on “spirituality”).

One thing is for sure: God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all. Any suggestion in atonement theory that God, in his anger, inflicts violence on Jesus, even though it be “for us”, is sub-Christian. The idea that God will not/cannot forgive until his Son has been tortured to death would make a liar of the one who told the parable pf the Prodigal Son.


DH 05.31.06 at 4:54 pm

How can it be an analogy when the bible says “Without the shedding of blood there canbe no remiscin (spelling) of sin.”? I would agree we shouldn’t take it overboard but to say that Jesus wasn’t actually the way seems strange.

Kim, you mention violence. One must define violence. In the OT it required sacrifice oflambs and goats for forgiveness of sin. To me this is violent but righteous violence or when Sodom and Gommorah were judged for their multiple of sins and perversion. That too was violence but righteous violence. This violence were people who had no heart toward God at all andthat God knew would never accept Christ or the onetrue God (pre-NT). So the prodigal son thing doesn’t work in that God knew the heart of the prodigal and accepted the reaching out to the “Father”.

Even the Bible says “Be angry and sin not.” Righteous indignation for sin is all over the bible. However, it is the heart that determines the reaction. If a heart of Pharoah the response is more harsh than with a child who sassed his parents if you get my drift. Many people are so hard to God that he has to deal with them harshly to “wake them up”. Some when faced with this do “wake up and unfortunately others don’t and face judgement. God is the God of multiple chances but if the person will never desire Christ and the heart is hard Godcan’t force him and may judge him onearth if it leads more people astray.


Pam 05.31.06 at 5:24 pm

Hi Kim:

Although I think that any separation of pastoral theology from systematics (like the separation of ethics from systematics) can only be nominal.

Smile. I was wondering if you were going to say that. I agree with you on this. However, in the past, I have had conversations along the following lines: Me: ‘People think X about theory A’, Someone else: ‘People don’t think that because it’s not a correct definition of theory A’; Me: ‘Nonetheless people think it.’; ‘No, they don’t think it because it’s incorrect.’ etc. etc.

One thing is for sure: God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all.

Agree. And that sounds like one of my favourite theologians, James Alison.


Kim 05.31.06 at 5:53 pm

Hi DJ.
Great to hear from you; I was about to put out an a.p.b.! I have a sense of déjà vu on the subject of God and violence, so as they say over here in the House of Commons, “I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave before.”

Hi (again) Pam.
I too am a great fan of James Alison (who is, of course, dependent on Girard on sacral violence). His essay “Unpicking Atonement’s Knots” in On Being Liked (2003) is a little diamond. Perhaps you were thinking of it. Do you know J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (2001)? As it examines not only the classic theories but also black, feminist and womanist thinkers on the subject, it should be a great resource for you.


Pam 05.31.06 at 6:25 pm


I’ve not got round to reading ‘On Being Liked’ yet; in fact it’s the only one of his books I’ve not started; I’m slowly working my way through ‘Faith Without Resentment’ at the moment (slowly because I’m finishing off theology college ATM and have to read what I’m told! ;-)) I’m fairly certain he used the phrase in ‘Raising Abel’.

I’m intending to do my MA dissertation on Alison’s theory of atonement and whether it resonates with people today, which is about all I’m prepared to say ‘in public’. (I don’t have a fixation with atonement theory, it’s just that I love Alison and needed to narrow my topic down).

Someone else has just told me about Denny Weaver, so I will look into it. I’ve also jus read Miroslav Volf’s ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ which I’ve found fantastic.

Strange, I’ve just met, ‘in real life’ someone else who is a fan of Alison and Weaver.


Bene Diction 05.31.06 at 7:35 pm

It would be nice to go back to the pastoral now - there are so many systematic theological blogs about - and while grand theories and big words are tossed passionately about like a soccer ball, they tell me very little about God’s love for us, or how that love changes us, disciples us and moves us into the sacred of the every day.

I do read the discussion, blogs are a bit of a classroom, but at the end I often find myself just weary. Not joyful, grateful, in awe, worshipful, but weary.
A reader needs to remind themselves that by their fruit you shall know them - not by how many books we’ve read, how well we can parse a fine point, which dead or living apologist or theologican we hold in highest regard. I’ve yet to see a life changed by many of these lofty discussions.
When a discussion degenerates into shooting matches or flame wars, anyone with common sense has to walk away.

While it is good to understand the roots of penal substitution (and part of that love is to learn) I see some of this broader debate as an easy way out, a way to hide behind intellectualization.
And I understand those in training need very much to sort out their thoughts and integrate them into the everyday that will be their job someday.

I do wonder though. Do we get so busy defending God we forget that really is not our responsibility? So many people search the web looking for - see how they love one another - or - is He here> not what systematic theological debate can I romp through today.

So Richard can do systematic theology. Good for him, he is a man of many talents.:^)

What I can appreciate is those who can put systematic theology into language most of his readers can digest without a headache.
Dave Warnock is also able to do that and I have great appreciation for many other bloggers that can. They have no need to prove they can hold their own intellectually with Dr. Warnock or any other brethern. How refreshing for the rest of us - we - the church.


Dave Warnock 05.31.06 at 8:22 pm

I have heard that Dave Warnock can only do that because his systematic theological understanding is so limited. But don’t tell him :-)


Kim 05.31.06 at 9:30 pm

Well, BD, when faith-thinking, i.e. theological discussion, makes one “weary” rather than (literally) ethusiastic; when it is hasty and nasty rather than patient and peaceful; when it doesn’t plant seeds of joy and thankfulness that blossom into a harvest of love and justice in the everyday - well, it’s not just sad, it’s sinful. It is good to be reminded of our theological “responsibility”; a purely academic thelogy, like military intelligence, is a contradiciton in terms. Thank you for your impatience, your “Earth to Reverend/Professor Bloggs, come in, please.”

On the other hand, don’t mistake rigour for “intellectualization”, apologetics for “defending God”, or just-the-right-words for “big” ones.
Hemingway mocked Faulkner for using “ten-dollar words”, boasting of his own simplicity - but they both won the Noble Prize. Karl Barth, often accused of dogmatic over-elaboration, towards the end of his life preached in only one place - Basel Prison. Conversely, have you read any of Martin Luther King’s sermons? Talk about stretching the minds of the good folk of Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta! These Church leaders knew that Christians are called to out-think as well as out-love our pagan neighbours, as we share with them the open secret of God’s loving-kindness for all.

Is that fair? Not that you come over as the type - definitely not - but the sentiments you express are often exploited by “Aw-shucks” Christians, the kind who would rather croak than cogitate - may they rest in peace.


Bene Diction 05.31.06 at 11:15 pm

It is fair.

It is as you say - not an anti intellectual tirade and I am aware anything can be exploited.

I’m a journalist Kim, I’m well acquainted with the love of words. I suspect I get along well with ministers because you love words also. I am well aware of our shared weakness for too many of them.:^)

I do not always mistake rigour for intellectualization, certainly not in this thread - or I wouldn’t have popped in.

…and I think there is enough intelligence here and respect for the disciplines to prevent exploitation on either end of the spectrum.;^)


Bene Diction 05.31.06 at 11:31 pm

Oh. Sorry. Yes. I have read MLK.
Read one of his sermons (new to me) the other night. Er, more than once.
Challenging, soul stirring, humbling, life changing, put you on your knees in prayer kind of stretch.
I just don’t find a stirring need to blog about mind and spirit being called to such love, or my need to dig deeper into US history, Baptist theology or north/south culture, or fight about his words with others…
Seems the best place to take what I learn from a MLK sermon is first to the cross.


Kim 06.01.06 at 12:26 am

By the way, BD, I have done some journalism too, both print and radio; of course I also teach and preach and lead groups at church and university; and I’ve worked on liturgies, local and national, and published quite a few hymns now - i.e. I’ve worked in a range of genres on behalf of the church. Each has its own idiom and grammar, its own audience, its possibilities and temptations, “successes” (in inverted commas) and failures (no inverted commas needed!). The church promised to keep me poor; they’ve exceeded themselves by keeping me humble too.

And the conversation we’ve just had - might it not be a small example of an exchange between fellow Christians which could prompt webbers to say, “Look, they do love each other after all”!


Bene Diction 06.01.06 at 2:21 am

“And the conversation we’ve just had - might it not be a small example of an exchange between fellow Christians which could prompt webbers to say, “Look, they do love each other after all”!”

We can hope.


Richard 06.01.06 at 9:17 am

“I am well aware of our shared weakness for too many of them”

Now what can you mean by that? ;)


Kim 06.01.06 at 10:35 am

By the way, in retrospect, an interesting coincidence. I was having a coffee yesterday in Costa’s, reading a book as I am wont to do. A guy at the next table asked me about what I was reading (theology - I explained), what it was about (it was a biography of St. Augustine - I explained), etc. The guy was very pleasant - and interested - but he commented, “Don’t you have enough people to talk without reading books by/about the dead?” I said, “Do you have a half-hour?!”

I wish, however, I’d said what I’ll say now: that in the church there are no dead people; that “tradition is only democracy extended through time” (Chestertyon); and that it’s important to read folk like Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin and Wesley, Bultmann and Barth, not only because they were the intellectual (not just theological) giants of their day, but, more simply, because they knew God - and it’s important that Christians compare notes about their knowledge of God - indeed it is very risky when they do not. The love of God so easily turns into self-love.


Brett 06.07.06 at 1:57 pm

The concept of substitutionary atonement is absolute objective truth that is taught in scripture. I am a real historical person with real historical sins. Symbolism and metaphors and theories are not enough to pay the debt we all owe.

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