Saturday, November 26, 2005

Thoughts on Atonement

In recent years there has been reflection in the evangelical community about the notion of substitionary atonement and specifically the idea called penal substitution. As one might surmise, substitutionary atonement in its simplest form is that Christ died for our sins in our place. Penal subtitution is the notion that he paid for sin in our place. (I am stating this in highly simplified terms, please grant grace here.)

The ideas of substitution and penal substitution have been central to the evangelical take on the meaning of the gospel. In the last decade or so, some evangelicals have questioned whether these doctrines are true. Some have gone so far as to assert that they paint God as a divine child abuser.

I have a middling view the issue. I think substitution and penal substitution are both biblical doctrines. BUT -- there is much more to the atonement than these pictures paint. If they stand alone they can present a distorted picture. On the other hand, if they are rejected a distorted picture of another kind emerges.

N.T. Wright put a post on his blog about these notions that captures my take very nicely. He writes:

QUESTION: There has been some recent debate over a controversial book by Steve Chalke which you have endorsed. Chalke has warned that some versions of penal substitution can reduce God to a “cosmic child abuser.” Would you agree with his analysis and do you see that as a danger?

ANSWER: There are some ways of preaching and expounding penal substitution which do indeed reduce it to the crude terms of God demanding that someone suffer and not caring much who it is. This is an attempt to put the vast ocean of God’s saving love into the small bottle of one particular category. When you track penal substitution from its NT statements (Mark 10.45, Romans 8.3, etc etc) back to its roots in Isaiah 53, you discover that in its proper form it is part of a much larger theme, which is God’s vindication of his justice and saving love and his demolition of pagan power and authority. Sometimes evangelicals haven’t wanted to embrace or even notice the larger themes and so have falsely accentuated the sharp edge of penal substitution in isolation from them. I think Steve is reacting to that kind of skewed presentation. Think of it like this. In a musical chord, the ‘third’ (in a chord of C major, this would be the note E) is the critical one that tells you many things, e.g. whether the music is major or minor, happy or sad. That E is vital if the music is to make the sense it does. But if the player plays the E and nothing else, the E no longer means what it’s meant to mean. Likewise, substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel. Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be. But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether...

Go here to read this on his website

No comments: