Peter Ould on the Penal Substitution / Atonement debate

In a post that starts out as a review of the book “Pierced for Our Transgressions,” Peter Ould provides a summary of and includes some of his own commentary on the Penal Substitution debate that has been going on in various parts of the Anglican world (especially the CoE) and the Anglican blogosphere in recent months:

Penal Substitution is the name give to the explanation of what Jesus did on the cross that is favoured by Evangelicals and mainstream Anglo-Catholics. The doctrine, drawing chiefly but not exclusively on passages in Isaiah, John, Romans and Hebrews states that Jesus’ death on the cross pays the penalty that would otherwise go to us for our sin. When you accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour it’s as though your “bad slate in front of God” is transferred onto Jesus. You are left perfect in the eyes of God while Jesus takes the full penalty for your sins – hence “Penal Substitution”.

In the past few years the doctrine has been attacked publicly twice, with attendant media attention, first in the church press and then in the national papers. The first recent criticism was by Steve Chalke in his book, “The Lost Message of Jesus”. In the book Chalke criticised the doctrine as “a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.” More recently, Jeffery John (of St Albans Cathedral) used a BBC Lent talk to say that the doctrine made “God sound like a psychopath” and the doctrine “worse than illogical .. insane”.

Yes, some people have a problem with penal substitution, but often their problem comes from not getting the proper picture of penal substitution. For example, Chalke criticises the idea of a father punishing a son for things he hasn’t done. But such a criticism fails to remember that the labels “Father” and “Son” in the god-head are not biological descriptions but rather limited human language God has used to help us understand who he is. In penal substition God takes upon himself the punishment for our sin – the fact that the Father places it upon the Son is not the point here – human understanding of those words should not limit us in accepting what the Bible says is true.

Peter’s full post, including various background links, is here.

This elf has been trying to follow some of the various blog articles and discussions on the Atonement recently. Over the past few days, I’ve pulled together several posts on this topic. Stay tuned for more on the theme of the Atonement today and tomorrow.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, - Anglican: Commentary, Atonement, Theology

4 comments on “Peter Ould on the Penal Substitution / Atonement debate

  1. Br. Michael says:

    God speaks to people where they are. Both the OT and the NT had to speak and relate to the people of their time. 1st Century Palestine was well familiar with the Temple, Temple practices and the concept of sacrificial atonement for both sin, though not a high handed sin, and for ritual uncleanness. The concept of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice flows naturally from the theology of sacrifice and would have been perfectly comprehensible to the people at that time.

    God speaks to us today, but we have to bridge the cultural gap and understand what God was saying to Jews and Christians in the 1st Century and then bring that understanding into todays world. What we should not do is read our 21st Century agendas and 21st Century culture back into the text so that we remove its original meaning.

    If the concept of an atoning sacrifice is hard for us to accept then we have to work harder at understanding it, not at rejecting it. We rebel today at the very idea of sin and we reject the idea of God hating sin, yet that is the continuous Biblical story. We may not like the way God chose to deal with sin, but then He is God and we are not.

    Penal substitution, it seems to me best describes, the Biblical story and evidence, and it explains what happened on the Cross. The resurrection validates it.

  2. David Keller says:

    Br. M–The bigger problem is that TEC has eviscerated the whole faith. Episcopalians don’t understand atonement, or far that matter basic Christianity, because they haven’t been taught it for several generations.

  3. libraryjim says:

    The reason we have a hard time understanding the atonement is because of the atonement we don’t need sacrifices anymore, so it’s really outside of our ‘experience’. If we lived in a society that still practiced sacrifice, then it would be a different matter.

  4. Alice Linsley says:

    I always enjoy reading Peter’s thoughts. Penal atonement is central to the Christian faith and has been taught from the beginning. The Church Fathers taught this. Consider this from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem: “For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness.”

    This is the very heart of the Gospel and herein rests our only hope as Christians. Take this out and Christianity will ultimately drift into nihilism.