INTERVIEW – Liam Goligher on the Crisis in Evangelicalism, Part Three

INTERVIEW – Liam Goligher on the Crisis in Evangelicalism, Part Three May 2, 2007

In the first post of my interview with Liam Goligher we focused on the distinctives on which he and I differ. In the second post we discussed some important challenges facing the church today. We now turn to an issue which is never far from my blog — the atonement.

Perhaps because it is most topical right now, and perhaps because he has already written a popular book on the subject (The Jesus Gospel), the atonement seemed to arouse the most passion in Liam as we spoke. Liam’s book should, in my view, be seen as occupying the middle ground between C. J. Mahaney’s Cross Centered Life and the recently published Pierced for Our Transgressions (PFOT). Unlike Mahaney’s more devotional book, The Jesus Gospel engages directly with the current debate prompted by Steve Chalke, but is neither as long nor as deep theologically as PFOT. Liam is glad that his book can fit into a spectrum which means that every Christian can access vital teaching on the atonement, and he strongly welcomed the publication of the new longer work — of which he is one of a very long list of evangelical endorsers.

Liam is very disappointed at the reluctance of some leading figures within UK evangelicalism to define the limits of what is acceptable in an evangelical’s understanding of the atonement. As far as Liam (and me, for that matter) is aware, Pete Broadbent (by implication) and N. T. Wright are the only key figures who have gone on record supporting the right of someone to describe views of the atonement (which the majority of evangelicals hold dear) as “cosmic child abuse” and still maintain that they are “evangelical.” By contrast, there is a very long list of names who have endorsed PFOT very strongly, so there seems to be a very strong sense of the vital importance of the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. There seems to be very few key figures in evangelicalism who have been willing to go further and to say publicly that the ideas popularised by Steve Chalke are unacceptable within the evangelical community — two notable exceptions are, of course, Wayne Grudem and John Piper.

I asked Liam how he came to write his book on the atonement. He described the strong feelings he and other Keswick trustees had felt about Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus, when it first came out. It was of great concern to him that these views condemning penal substitutionary atonement were coming from Steve Chalke, one of the most influential members of the evangelical movement in the UK, who sits on the boards (as Liam described them) “of almost every major Christian organisation in the UK” and is part of the Spring Harvest leadership and speaking team. Liam feels very strongly that PSA is central to the very heart of the Gospel. Sitting in a coffee shop in Keswick, where strong concerns were voiced around, a friend said, “If one of you guys don’t do something about this, who will?” Liam explained, “I took that as a word from the Lord to me, and from that moment knew I had been commissioned by Him to write a book on the subject of the atonement.”

<iframe style="WIDTH: 120px; HEIGHT: 240px" align="right" hspace="20" vspace="20" src=" begins The Jesus Gospel by describing how he found a book many years ago, written in the 19th century, in which there was a clear distaste for the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and the concept of the wrath of God. It advocated exactly the same beliefs that are being publicised now, and was clearly written in response to a culture hostile to the Gospel. The modern views are, to Liam, exactly identical to those of the original 19th century theological liberals and 20th century modernists. Once again the drive is to be culturally relevant, which must not be allowed when it comes to doctrine. The only difference is, far from happily calling themselves liberals, modern exponents of these teachings are trying to retain the description “evangelical,” and even painting historic evangelical positions as somehow “sub-biblical” and “un-Christian.”

I asked Liam if he could enlighten me as to what the detractors of PSA believe actually happened on the cross, since I find them hard to pin down. He agreed that it is far from clear what many of those people actually believe, and that often it seems almost as if they are saying that the cross was merely a display to the world of how much God loves us. Liam said, “It’s a bit like a boy saying to a girl — ‘Look how much I love you!’ — and then jumping straight off a cliff. That’s an absurd way to view the cross.”

Continued in part four . . .

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