Does penal substitution contribute to oppression?

I received this email today-

I read with interest your article on Steve Chalke and The lost message of Jesus? posted on Sunday November the 21st 2004.

I am currently doing a dissertation for my theology degree…..and came upon this article during some research. My dissertation is about the atonement theory and whether the theory of penal substitution is necessary to Christianity. You seem to feel extremely strongly that the idea that Jesus’? death as an atonement for our sins is essential to you faith.

I have been doing a lot of reading of feminist, black and liberation theology and a lot of writers such as Delores Williams (Sisters in the wilderness) and Rita Brock (Journey’s by heart) and they often point to the fact that viewing Jesus’? death on the cross as Jesus accepting death to atone for our sins often leads to oppression. An example of this is that it encourages people to accept their suffering as Jesus did on the cross rather than encouraging them to be pro active about their situation. Coming from a Catholic background (although I have subsequently left the Church) I think it is fair to say that the idea of penal substitution is almost impossible to remove from the Church, but just wondered what your opinion is on the idea that it encourages oppression of those marginalised by society.

If you have any thoughts on this or any ideas of other places I could look it would be greatly appreciated; sorry if this is a bit vague but I am in very initial stages and just trying to make sense of my own ideas.

Well, what I will say straight away is that the practical effects of any doctrine should not be our first port of call in examining it. It is vital that we identify exactly what the bible says. Then, in comparing this to what people have said it means we may actually discover that any negative effects of a doctrine are not actually negative effects of that doctrine, but of it misunderstood.

A reading of Isaiah 53 and the new testament verses that quote or allude to it is surely a good place to start in any study of this.

I would also love it if some of my more theological readers could help us out with more thoughts on this matter. I promised at the beginning of the year that what I termed “neo-liberalism” would feature heavily in my blogging this year and it has.

It is of some disappointment to me that there hasnt been more interest from other bloggers in this matter. It may not be very hot in the USA yet, but it will be. For once we Brits seem to be leading the way with a major theological disagreement. The outputs of a recent theological symposium on the subject of the atonement certainly deserve to be poured over by as many of us as have time- I regret that thus far I still havent had time to do so myself.

This debate could lead to the end of evangelicalism as we know it. It is important for us to study it well.

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