Atonement Debates

When I was a seminary student the atonement battle, as we were taught it, was between CH Dodd, who turned propitiation (the wrath of God pacified) into expiation (the sin of humans removed), and LL Morris, whose dissertation was published and republished and republished as The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Morris was a strong defender of propitiation and the atonement as an act in which God offered a substitutionary sacrifice that absorbed the punishment due to humans. Leon Morris’ work was then recaptured in John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. This atonement theory is at the core of how many evangelicals understand the gospel itself. I have myself weighed in on this debate with some elbowing for expanding our view of the atonement so that one metaphor does not dominate the whole show.

Recently Al Mohler told the story of how this same debate was at work among the Southern Baptists with different personalities and that defending penal substitution was part of the conservative resurgence. Three major thinkers were Theodore Clark, Frank Stagg and Fisher Humphreys:

In its earliest phase, modern theological liberalism developed open antipathy to the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, rejected the claim that the death of Christ is substitutionary or vicarious. Christ did not die in the place of sinners, bearing the wrath of a righteous God, Schleiermacher insisted. Instead, Christ’s death and resurrection demonstrated God’s love so that human beings might rightly love him. Albrecht Ritschl proposed a similar form of the moral influence theory of the atonement—Christ died as a revelation of the depth of God’s love toward sinners.

As theological liberalism spread to the United States, the Protestant liberals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries adopted the German model, rejecting any substitutionary or vicarious understanding of the atonement and proposing variations of the moral influence theory. Others, following the pattern set by Rudolf Bultmann, proposed existentialist understandings of the cross and resurrection. Most of the adherents to these theories denied the wrath of God against sinners at the cross, which was presented as a political act with a great moral lesson. Many of them denied as mere myth the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

While the vast majority of Southern Baptists resisted the temptation to revise the faith in order to meet the demands of the modern liberal worldview, some within the Southern Baptist academy were doing their best to shift the denomination to a more liberal position. Ground zero for this effort was New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary in New Orleans was by no means the most liberal of the Southern Baptist seminaries, but its faculty included a trio of professors who attempted to shift Southern Baptists away from the advocacy of penal substitutionary atonement. These three men, over the course of three successive generations, influenced a host of young seminarians and many pastors beyond the seminary’s campus….

Most students studying in Southern Baptist seminaries today would likely be shocked to know that these issues had ever been the focus of debate within the Southern Baptist Convention. But they were. As Baptist historian Jason Duesing has noted, the Humphreys/Patterson debate at New Orleans in 1987 reminds us that “the primary motivation and the occasion for a conservative movement were rooted in real and crucial theological concerns.”

There were indeed real and crucial theological concerns. And, by no coincidence, crucial refers to the cross.  As these examples reveal, the debate over the atonement is not new—even within the Southern Baptist Convention. This debate has stretched well beyond the SBC as theologians continue to defend or deny the meaning of  the cross, specifically its penal substitutionary nature. The Conservative Resurgence in the SBC sought a theological recovery in the denomination and a rejection of the inroads that theological liberalism had made within its schools. A denial of penal substitution was the goad; the goal was its recovery as the Bible’s central message about the cross of Christ.

At stake was the New Testament’s central concern in revealing a theology of the cross: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). At stake is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the central message of the Scriptures, whenever the penal substitution accomplished by him is questioned, much less denied.

"Over at the website of First Things I have read comments by Catholics who say ..."

To Change The Church: Interview With ..."
"I completely agree with AHH that we need to rid ourselves of ‘false and un-Biblical’ ..."

Rich Mouw, Israel, The Palestinians, The ..."
"I agree that the Palestinians are ill served by their political leaders.I do not know ..."

Rich Mouw, Israel, The Palestinians, The ..."
"I think a lot of our problems on this issue arise from the simple but ..."

Rich Mouw, Israel, The Palestinians, The ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’ve recently read from a few writers here and there (mostly Christians, but even a few Jewish commentaters of the New Testament as well), who advocate a quite different view from the usual. If I understand correctly, their view has Jesus’ death be a sacrifice for sins only for those ‘under the Law’, i.e. only for Israel. (Since the Gentiles weren’t under the Law to begin with, the sacrifice is not for their sins.) Gentiles are then included in God’s plan for Israel by trusting in this Jesus who, as Israel’s messiah, is the exalted Lord above all. this includes repenting of their own sinful behavior. (I suppose the lack of necessity for a sacrifice in order for Gentiles to receive forgiveness could be comparable to the Jonah pushing to Nineveh? They simply repented in the face of the message, no sacrifice necessary.)

    Has anyone else heard of this view before, and if so, how new is it?

  • Gary in FL

    Thanks for this post, Scot. Do you or any commenters know where Gerhard Forde’s theology might engage this debate? Having read “Justification by Faith: A Matter of Life and Death,” and “Where God Meets Man,” I don’t think he agreed with penal substitutionary atonement. But he definitely couldn’t be put in the Moral-Influence category. My guess is his position may have been closer to existentialist, but then again, might it also be that it represented a truly different alternative?

  • AHH

    It would seem to be anachronistic and parochial to attribute all Christian atonement views other than substitutionary penal to modern Protestant liberalism, as Mohler appears at times to do here.
    Now, if he is really only talking about differing views within the SBC, then he might be right in that limited context; I don’t know the history.

  • Phil Miller

    Reading stuff Mohler writes is enough to raise my blood pressure…

    Not everything can come down to a conservative/liberal dichotomy. And actually when we’re talking about the atonement, I don’t think it works very well at all. For one thing, you have whole groups of Christians who are pretty conservative who don’t see the atonement as primarily something dealing with God’s wrath. I just think Mohler likes to present the narrative is such a way because it gives him a way to marginalize those who disagree with him.

  • scotmcknight


    Over the years it has become obvious to me that our theological debates are wildly parochial at times, though we present them as if it is all that matters in theology. A genuine theological discussion of atonement has to consider what the Orthodox teach, what Catholicism, teaches, what mainliners and what evangelicals … and then let’s get clear here: we need to add how the atonement is understood among all sorts of groups — African American, Latin American, womanist, feminist et al… then we have the spectrum. But isn’t it the case that we equate “us” with the whole and those who deviate in our group are the ones we focus on? Or we simply think the others unworthy of being at the table… yikes.

  • Yes, Andrew Perriman’s narrative-historical approach view atonement in this light. I think his perspective is one effective way to get beyond much of this liberal-conservative, left-right approach.

  • John L

    Yes! and I would go farther and suggest that the cross was never meant to have a fixed “meaning” but is a living, perennial, ever-new reality that provokes us to keep asking bigger and better questions, to keep expanding our boundaries, until we can finally embrace those farthest from the tribe – those who despise “us” – those who are hardest to love.

  • Jean

    This is the first I’ve heard of this view. I’m not sure it is consistent with 1 Cor 15:3. “[O]ur sins” apparently refers to Paul’s brothers and sisters (v. 1) in the Corinthian church, who I understand are primarily gentiles.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Mohler conveniently leaves out that the penal substitution theory didn’t even exist for Christianity’s first thousand years.
    I see a lot of people try to have their cake and eat it too by saying that “well, the different theories can complement each other; the cross has several layers of meaning etc.” But I don’t think that really works; appeasing God’s wrath/honor posits a very different God and meaning of Jesus than what is meant through the moral influence theory or Christus Victor (I see those two as very inter-related and they are also older), thus their conflicts.
    PS has sustained itself for many reasons, notably IMO because:
    -It is the backbone of much of Reformed theology and the many Protestant strands that arose from that wellspring. Thus many communities carry on what they were taught (tradition)
    -It’s (relatively) easy to preach and conveys sentiments easy for the laymen to understand. I think many pastors are drawn to it b/c it posits a nicely structured framework of Christianity: original sin-old covenant-still sinning/rebelling-substitutionary death-saved by faith. It’s neat and tidy.
    -It’s a powerful and emotional message. When you think of someone dying in your place and think about the sins you’ve done in life; there is a strong emotional feedback.
    -For those who want their God powerful and “sovereign”, it gives them what they see as a satisfying explanation for a crucified God.

    Unfortunately, PS runs into MAJOR logical hurdles and constraints when one seriously delves into it, both philosophically and biblicaly. In my opinion, it seriously disenfranchises Jesus’s earthly ministry and message and in its place puts forth what are ultimately esoteric musings about God from the Middle Ages and attributes worldly attributes attributed to human kings (especially in terms of “honor” in the legalistic sense) to God. In following, I see it as a serious distortion of the Gospel message.

  • Timothy Stidham

    This article slants debates in terms of liberal (non-biblical) vs conservative (biblical). Furthermore it claims that Penal-Substitution is the only view presented in the New Testament. Neither perspective is accurate. There may in fact be liberals who deny any substitutionary view. But the real debate is about championing ALL views of the atonement, which are present in the New Testament vs ONLY honoring ONE. How can one claim to be biblically conservative, yet not proclaim the fullness of the Bible’s message on the atonement? NT Wright and even McKnight have written extensively on this. I don’t get why this got premium blog space.

  • scotmcknight

    Because it’s worth talking about…

  • Timothy Stidham

    OK. It just didn’t seem to leave any room for that. I’m all for dialogue. I felt like the article proposed to end all possibility of talking about it. Did I miss something?

  • Hi Scot,

    are there Evangelicals out there who defend an alternative to penal substitution?

    The idea of God creating certain rule of justice and having to kill Himself for fulfilling them is kind of weird. Muslims often as. But why could he not decide to forgive us merely for having violating His rules?

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Excellent points!

  • An excellent biblical scholar (PhD from Bob Jones U.) who had taught at a conservative Bible college several years before leaving for secular work, Ken Pulliam, had compiled a large store of resources on what he termed “PST” on his blog before his sudden death in fall of 2010. It’s the largest such collection of resources, pretty well categorized, that I know of, listing both pro and con resources. They are indexed, and here is the link to just the main index (of a few):

    The blog is varyied in subjects, but Ken had focused mainly on atonement theories in the last year or so… posting up to and even a bit after his death (no, not from the other side, but by pre-scheduling). He was working on (or at least toward the possibility of) a book on the subject, I believe… and from the anti-PST perspective.

    If you want to pursue any of the many details and historical work, reasoning, etc., on the subject, this is an excellent resource!

  • Rob Bradford

    It might be instructive to recall that the first “Christians” were not gentiles a la Paul, but Jews following Jesus. The first group of Jesus followers were called the Ebionites or Nazareans, depending on which scholar’s argument you ascribe to. The Ebionites had no concept of an “atoning” death of Jesus, whether substitutionary or otherwise. Their main focus was on the resurrection of Jesus; the cross had no importance for the Ebionites.
    Perhaps we should take a lesson from the earliest Jesus followers in understanding the work of Jesus and not from Paul who was too eager to include the gentiles and make following the Christ an “easier” road that Judaism.

  • Yeah, my fist thought was it seems to require a very selective reading of ‘we’ or ‘us’ or ‘our’ statements made in the epistles.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well, Paul was a Jew himself and I think the wide majority of scholarship would support that the Jerusalem Church led by James did give Paul their blessing to preach to the Gentile communities. That said, I do agree from what we can gauge there were some differences (perhaps some significant differences, although we can only speculate) between the Christianity of the Jerusalem Church of Jewish Christians and the theology Paul developed. For starters, Paul never knew Jesus and so Jesus’s ministry was not his focal point; it was (his perceived) cosmic implications of the Crucifixion/Resurrection event. Paul was also likely much more educated in Greek philosophy than the leaders of the Jewish contingent (James and Peter).

  • Rob Bradford

    Perhaps, in the context of this conversation, we have begun with the wrong question. Instead of varying theories of atonement, why not begin with biblical anthropology? Could It be that humanity’s need for atonement is, in part, answered by examination of the human condition? I would like to have opinions.

  • Samuel Burr

    A book that helped me a lot is S.Mark Heim’s Saved From Sacrifice subtitled A Theology of the Cross. I recommend it for anyone who is troubled with PST. Here is a link:

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Yes, there are evangelicals who defend an alternative to penal substitution. For example, my book: Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012). This book offers a thorough, critical examination of penal substitution from a biblical-orthodox perspective and presents an alternative view of the cross much more in line with that found in the early church.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Agreed! If you want to see a systematic critique of penal substitution from a biblical-orthodox perspective, see my book: Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).

  • That’s very interesting, that’s a pity it is not yet available as an audio book 🙂

    I already knew that Greg Boyd opposed penal substitution, but I thought he was an exception in the Evangelical world.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son