Update on Steve Chalke and The Atonement Debate

Update on Steve Chalke and The Atonement Debate November 17, 2008

Somehow I missed a book published earlier this year by Zondervan called The Atonement Debate. The book was described to me as a “cool-headed” approach to the whole debate on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) that has been raging in evangelicalism since Steve Chalke popularized attempts to dismiss it as a form of “cosmic child abuse.” It is essentially an edited and expanded publication of some papers from a theological debate which took place under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance and the London School of Theology.

To be honest, when I heard this book was going to be “cool-headed” I was already concerned about it. I’m not sure the atonement is a subject that it’s possible to be terribly cool about. That’s because another word for cool is lukewarm. Jesus hates us to be lukewarm about crucial issues, even threatening to spit the lukewarm from his mouth (Revelation 3). I much prefer interacting with someone who is either hot or cold about important issues like this.

The truth is, there could scarcely be a more important subject. On the one side are people like Chalke who genuinely believe that many evangelicals today are teaching a barbaric pre-Christian lie that is destroying the Church’s witness. On the other hand are those of us who believe that if we were to deny that Jesus took the punishment that was due us for our sin, turning aside the wrath of God by bearing it in himself, quite simply there would be no gospel left.

I can’t see how people who really believe either of those two positions can just agree to disagree and work together as fellow evangelicals. One group must be wrong. Whichever group is right are also clearly quite correct to be very concerned about the opposite group who are, by their false teaching, distorting the gospel and preventing people from coming to a true knowledge of what Jesus has done for them. There are some issues on which we can compromise. This is not one of them.

Accordingly, the first chapter, which tried to set the scene, concerned me greatly. It was written by a believer in PSA who acknowledged that the crafters of the UK Evangelical Alliance’s Statement of Faith had clearly intended to include PSA in that statement. Minutes of the meetings and the living memory of those survivors failed to explain why, in the 1970’s, the word “penal” had been dropped from early drafts of the statement. The writer seemed anxious to stress, however, that in his view it would have been wrong to insert the word penal back into the statement in its most recent revision as that would have been seen as targeting an individual. To be honest, I find such a reluctance baffling. I believe that clarity is exactly what is needed in this debate. Can people really work together in an organization with such diametrically opposed views as I have outlined above?

For some reason it fell to me to become more involved in the debate that had been ongoing within UK evangelicalism than I ever expected. It was a great surprise to me to find myself in the position where I felt obliged to break the story that the separation of Spring Harvest and Word Alive had not been entirely amicable. What soon became clear was that this was not only an argument between Chalke and those who held to PSA. Almost more importantly, there was a disagreement between those who said that they hold to PSA about what should be done when a leading member of many evangelical organizations like Steve Chalke criticized their prevailing teaching so strongly. Many plead, “Can’t we just all get along and agree to disagree?” For more information about the controversy please see the links found in the following posts from my blog “Atonement Wars” and “More Atonement Wars.”

It would seem that The Atonement Debate is published with a desire to help evangelicals understand the debate and then move on from it. Indeed, the tone of most of the papers is conciliatory, and I suspect that one could easily come away after reading it wondering what all the fuss is about. I had assumed that Steve Chalke’s relative silence on the issue meant that he too had come to the conclusion that this didn’t really matter as much as both his original rhetoric and that of his detractors had led one to believe. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as we will see tomorrow when I continue to blog on this subject.

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