Substitutionary Atonement Theory: Fresh Debate

I think most of the people who are reading this will know what an atonement theory is, and what this one in particular says, but I will give a brief explanation anyway.

Atonement theories are theological ideas about the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross. This one in particular, the substitutionary theory, claims that Jesus death on the cross was him taking the punishment, God's wrath, for our sins, thus buying us forgiveness, allowing God's justice and mercy to be satisfied at the same time. I hope that does justice to it; if you want to read up on it somemore there are lots of good sites on the web. (here is a reformed theology page for example, took me 30 sec to find, looks decent, my thoughts on reformed theology notwithstanding :)

It has been a long time since I began to have doubts as to the importance evangelicals proscribe this theory of the atonement. How many evangelicals even know that, without going into actual detail, there are three major areas of atonement theories? (Christus Victor, Substitutionary, Moral Influence) We neglect teaching any kind of historical options as to this integral part of theology, and I think that must have consequences. Soon after I started questioning this particular theory of the atonement, I found out I was far from the only one who was dissatisfied with it. For example, C.S. Lewis didn't like it, to throw out a name that is held high in evangelical circles :)

I have intended, for quite some time, to do some serious reading and thinking on the issue, but I have not got to it yet. I think the time has come. This isn't really a decision out of the blue though; the time has come because the debate is already raging in public circles. Steve Chalke has ruffled quite a few feathers with his new book "The Lost Message of Jesus" which is a popularized challenge to this atonement theory, following in the footsteps of several others in the alliance tradition (most recently
Hans Boersma). You can read the reaction here, Steve's response here.

I read the verses that the Alliance references in their challenge, and I have to say they are not that convincing. Some of them, i.e. 1 John 4:10, are closer than others. Still, I am reserving any conclusions until further study. If there is anythign I have learned from reading people like Wright, Thiselton, and many many other biblical commentators (it was my degree after all), its that you can't take one verse and read it out of context, put it together with multiple other verses, adn come up with a theory of the atonement. I hope to read some of the new books that are causing the controversy, as well as the older stuff from the originators of the theories. Feel free to offer any suggestions.

On another note, in the same issue, it is interesting that the alliance denies any causal connection between the penal substitution theory and being viewed as harsh and judgemental.

"It may be true, as Steve has claimed, that Evangelicals are often perceived to be harsh, censorious and ungracious, and that this can hamper evangelism. However, we do not accept Steve’s assertion of a causal or necessary link between affirming penal substitution and being harsh, censorious and ungracious."

The reason I find this interesting is as follows: Atonement theory has, among other things, been called the "cornerstone of all theology." Its importance is not denied by many, and if we stop to consider for a moment what this theory is about (the meaning of the death of Jesus), we should not have to pause long before acknowledging its central import. Combine this with another thing. We, as Christians, are supposed to be trying to be like Jesus, like God in other words, to imitate him in our actions and character. If the most important piece of our theology portrays a God who could not just forgive, but had to sacrifice his son in order to do so, should we wonder at all that Christians are known as judgemental and unforgiving?

Now, before you say anything that last questions was stacked. Basically, that question shows one of the centre points of this debate. What does the penal substitutionary theory of atonement teach us of the character of God? Some people have called it 'cosmic child abuse'... as inappropriate as that term may be, we have to consider this question.

Until I do more research, I am staying in the middle position, which is that we cannot truly or fully understand the death of Jesus on the cross. Each theory of the atonement is just that, a theory. It does not answer all the questions, nor does it give us the whole picture. They are all valid; and it is beneficial for us to know them all to some degree. Sound pluralistic? I guess it is, somewhat. This is just my position of being undecided :) I know I don't like some of what I see as the implications of the substitutionary theory, but I know there is much I don't know of these things.

So what do you think? What does the substitutionary atonement theory teach us of the character of God? is there a problem here?

Perhaps the question I wanted answered most, for starters, is this: How many theories of the atonement have you heard of?


Anthony said...
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Anthony said...

let me try that again.

stephen prothero wrote a book called american jesus, which i am reading now (and you should read tomorrow, i mean its all narrative and chronigically historical, but thats what you get.)...and he talks about the history of sin and salavation amongst the american evangelical movement, from the wrathful jehovah of edwards to the morew friendly ariminasm (sp) of stowe, and how american evangelicals rejection of calvinsim spread throughout the world, that this was the most radical change in the view of atonement (i am also reading mormon power--and he basically says the same thing about smith, the burnt over region and the history of american evangelical theology)

so i wonder if chalke is just following that pattern ?
what i also wonder is where did punishment, wrath, etc go in contemparary atonement theories, where did the hard stuff go--didnt chesterton talk about this in orthodoxy ? (i just qouted chesteron, you can kill me now or later)

Anthony said...

also, perhaps we can now get rid off all of those creepy washed in the blood of the lamb hymns/references ?

Superman said...

Are you two actually questioning subsitutionary atonement? I hope you enjoy waiting in a state of limbo, because you're going to be a long time in pergatory. I'll save you a spot.

Anthony said...

i am forever in a "permanant state of limbo", i expect the afterlife to be no different.

Anonymous said...

Have to post anonymously, blogger won't let me sign in right now.. grrr

This is Andrew :)

Anthony: I don't know about this person you speak of, and I don't know what was written.. but from what you say, I have doubts. I was unaware that there was an official body of american evangelicalism that could reject calvinism, and further, as far as I have ever known the majority of those denominations which fit into the general umbrella of Evangelicalism have doctrinal statements which are open enough to allow for Calvinism or Arminianism. There was no rejection of Calvinism, but a rejection of the reformed stance that calvinism was the only way.

Drew: We are indeed questioning substitutionary atonement, what do you think of all this?

Anonymous said...

I posted my thoughts on this question on my blog, let me know what you think.

Andrew said...

Mr. Anonymous

I would love to check your thoughts on your blog.... just let me know who you are, or where your blog is :)


Andrew said...

anonymous guy
Unless you are not superman, I found your blog.

If you aren't superman, my previous questions still apply