An Uncontrolled Rant on the Topic of Discussing the Atonement

I have been studying Ruth today followed by the DFC prayer meeting this evening. Later, while soaking in the bath I was having a few random non-Ruth cogitations. I thought I should write them down to help me process them. I have done no research or checking. These are just off the top of my head and probably need correction. But hey! This is a blog, right? Just a conversation between guys, OK?

To business. There is a big kerfuffle going on about the atonement stimulated, it seems, by Steve Chalke and his book The Lost Message of Jesus. I read it and wrote on it some time ago. Lots of people are still writing about it, not least because the emergent church cool guys have latched on to it, as have the NPP not-so-cool-but-influential guys since N. T. Wright wrote some blurb for it.

In the book Chalke has some trouble with the idea of penal subtitution theory of the atonement (i.e. that Christ was our substitute in taking the penalty that we deserved for our sin). This is of course a red rag to the evangelical bull. Penal substitution has long been held to define the essential character of the atonement. James Packer played a key role in nailing this with his seminal paper at the The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture in 1973.

Now I have a problem to do with the way evangelicals are characterised in the debate. I want to come at it from a couple of angles. The first is this. I am an evangelical. I believe the Bible. Now, I have almost finished preaching through the second half of John’s gospel. There, Christus Victor is a strong theme (e.g. key verse in 12:31). Substitutionary atonement is also there in the Passover lamb motif etc etc. Overall, when I look at Scripture, I have no problem as an evangelical affirming Christus Victor, ransom theory, even some kind of moral influence of the atonement. As someone said, these are all notes in the work of Christ. However, pen-sub is essential, because it has to do justice to God’s holiness and our depravity.

Here’s the second thing. I was converted when I was about 17 and have been in evangelical churches ever since. Yes, penal substitution has been taught. So has Christus Victor. So has Christ’s death as ransom, sacrifice, redemption. Now the problem I have is one of personal orientation in the debate. Those who I have read on this debate (and by that I mean Chalke’s views and the inferences drawn from NTW’s blurb) in blogland (and I am primarily thinking of Al and John – there are others but these I know best) set up their arguments by characterising evangelicals as pen-subs-only, teeth-gnashing, gum-grinding anathematising banshees who will not countenance other threads of thought. This I do not recognise from where I come from. The problem with this for me is:

a) What do they mean by ‘evangelical’? Nowadays it can mean almost anything! Who on earth are they talking about? Describe them. Name them! Finding out someone is an ‘evangelical’ these days is like asking the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?” and getting the answer, “Food”. Duh.

b) I have not met anyone who is like these funny ‘evangelicals’ that John and Al describe. It’s just not my experience. So maybe I’m not one after all! But I thought I was one. I’m disorientated!! (NB: this is satire – I know what I mean by evangelical!)

Or maybe their characterisations, being so general, are just not adequate. I have a funny feeling there is a lot of straw man building going on, followed by steam-rollering. Yes, evangelicals have deep concerns about Chalke’s writings. Yes, evangelicals (like me) want to defend penal-substitution. But no, evangelicals, as far as I can see (I admit there may be some out on the thin branches) do not deny other ‘notes’. And they can be quite nice. Let’s get things in perspective.

Let the counter-rants begin (but I’m off – exams).

UPDATE: I have amended the post a little from the original because I did not represent Al‘s views fairly, for which I apologise.

I have also added a link to the Packer paper for one’s perusal.

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An Uncontrolled Rant on the Topic of Discussing the Atonement

9 thoughts on “An Uncontrolled Rant on the Topic of Discussing the Atonement

  1. Call Me Ishmael says:

    Penal substitution is the hub. The other aspects (Christus Victor, etc.) are the spokes. The wheel is the atonement. N.T. Wright? He’s one of the thumb-tacks in the road.

  2. Alastair says:

    I have met the type of evangelicals that I am writing about. They are not as rare as you might think.

    I am also disappointed that you speak of me as siding with Chalke. I disagree with Chalke on the issue of penal substitution. Strongly. My positions on the subject can be found online. I have nothing to hide. What I am arguing for is some perspective in the debate.

    I am arguing for a culture where we can listen carefully to the criticisms of someone like Chalke without immediately whipping up people into a frenzy. I am arguing that there may be something in Chalke’s criticisms that we could benefit from hearing, even though they are largely unhelpful and deeply problematic. We need to ask why such charges have been raised by many who have been in evangelical circles for a long time.

    I am also arguing that evangelicals have an overemphasis on penal substitution over other models of the atonement. I am arguing that their doctrines of penal substitution have problems that invite many of the criticisms that have been raised. I am arguing that there is a troubling gap between the beliefs of many evangelicals in the pews and the more balanced and considered defenses of penal substitution presented by someone like I. Howard Marshall. I am arguing that, even in many of the more scholarly presentations, evangelical doctrines of the atonement are often unbalanced.

    I am also arguing against the anathematizing culture in some quarters of evangelicalism. I am arguing against those who construct vast conspiracy theories and present Wright as an enemy of the doctrine of penal substitution just because he recommends a book that criticizes a popular misconception of the doctrine in a few sentences.

    I am not arguing against the doctrine of penal substitution.

  3. Johnhttp://john.pettigrew.org.uk/blog/ says:

    My problem with penal substitution per se (i.e. leaving aside the extreme versions that were Chalke’s actual target) is not the model itself – it has some good things to say. My issue is when this model is set up not as a model of the Atonement but as the way the Atonement actually works – in other words, when it moves from being a metaphor to being the one true description.

    Personally, I happen to think that the flaws in the penal substition model make it a weak model that runs a permanent risk of misrepresenting God, selling the Atonement short and making our role in the process entirely passive (even to the extent that it becomes a process that doesn’t involve us at all). Other models have their own flaws, which is why we need several.

    The basic issue is that God didn’t send us a model of the Atonement. God sent us His Son who died for us and reconciled us to God. Because there were many aspects to our estrangement from God, there are many different ways to see this action as having been effective. None is a total description.

    And as for who these “evangelicals” are that I and others talk about in this context – they are the self-defined group who get in a huge strop because Chalke dared to criticise a piece of theology. They are the group who say that acceptance of this model is required to be an evangelical (or even to be a Christian). And, given the noise this affair generated, there seem to be quite a lot of them! 🙂

    pax et bonum

  4. Stephen says:

    Al,
    I apologise to you. I realise that you do not side with Chalke. I will amend the post.

    I mixed up two things (I thought there would be trouble posting late at night!) – view of the atonement and attitude to evangelicals. I dislike the way you characterise ‘evangelicals’, whatever they are.

    I suppose my plea to you is that you say who you mean instead of using broad damning brush strokes.

  5. Stephen says:

    John,
    But who do you mean? I can be against any kind of so-called self-defined group who gets into a strop about all kinds of things that I dislike. It does not mean that such a group exists until I name who it is.

    Once you have done that, then we can see whether it is worth caring about.

    And even then, how would you decide they are in a ‘strop’? From written statements? Blog posts? How do you exegete ‘stropiness’ from such sources? I suggest until you see the whites of their eyes you are on shaky ground and likely to generate more heat than light.

  6. Johnhttp://john.pettigrew.org.uk/blog/ says:

    I’m not quite sure what you think I’ve written about Chalke-gate. I’ve just checked and I’ve only got one post that refers to him directly, and only a few that refer to the atonement. I’ve not written anything that mention specific groups as far as I can work out.

    Insofar as there is a lot of noise about Chalke-gate, I don’t think I need to name names. A simple perusal of the blogosphere will produce a huge array of results, and the EA’s own real-world debate that it organised with Chalke demonstrated the majority reaction against his views (and the emotionals involved in merely questioning penal substitution’s excesses). TBH, I think that the evidence plainly shows that evangelicalism in its public face (the EA and many individual leaders) reacted harshly against what Chalke suggested. That many evangelicals have a more sensible and moderate understanding doesn’t mean that this huge public reaction didn’t occur.

    As I said, though, my personal issue isn’t with people who think that penal substition is a good model – it’s with those who proclaim it as the only valid model and that it must be accepted.

    pax et bonum

  7. Ian says:

    You say that people, characterise “evangelicals as pen-subs-only, teeth-gnashing, gum-grinding anathematising banshees who will not countenance other threads of thought.”

    But if someone makes PSA essential even if they don’t make it exclusive it amounts to the same thing. If I am declared outside evangelicalism because I do not accept PSA then your caricature is exactly what is happening. You also fail to distinguish between a Subsitutionary theory of the atonement and Penal Substitution.

    PSA is a model, a description that expresses some, but certainly not all, aspects of the atonement. There have been many in history who have not accepted PSA but in the end did not seem to have a faulty understanding of the work of Christ.

  8. Stephen says:

    John,
    I am not sure if you have written anything about Chalke-gate, but you have sided with Steven Harris who has, and you have a habit of characterising evangelicals in a particular way.

    You say there is a lot of noise about Chalke-gate and that I should search the blogospher. I did a quick search on technorati on “The Lost Message of Jesus” and came up with a long list of posts in order of age. I looked at two or three pages of the list and did not find a single blog post raising concerns about the book. They all loved it.

    That’s not to say there have not been concerns in the past. I wrote several posts about it listing some of the problems I had with it. Some others did too. And yes, many opposed Chalke at the EA meeting. I note that you refer to the emotions involved. Were you there? Or were you referring to the ekklesia report. If the latter would take their inference from that with a pinch of salt for two reasons:

    1) ekklesia is pro-Chalke. Both of these parties are concerned about ‘lack of love’ amongst evangelicals by which they mean the ‘tone’ of things. Thereby they are prone to missing the point.

    2) People can be passionate, can’t they? The world would be a sad, humourless place without some energy in it. The last thing we need is a silent, confused, chin-stroking, brow-furrowing church that has no passion. Don’t hold emotion against evangelicals.

    Finally, you take issue with those who say that pen-sub must be accepted. The question is how ‘must’ is used. If someone were to say ‘you must believe it to be saved’, I would disagree. The content of a valid profession for a new Christian is surprisingly small. However, if someone were to say, ‘you must believe it to be biblical and faithful to God’, I would agree.

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