The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement

By Derek Tidball, David Hilborn, and Justin Thacker, eds.
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2006). 365 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 282-285

The catalyst which brought about the July 2005 symposium on the theology of atonement hosted by the Evangelical Alliance (EA) and the London School of Theology (LST) was the “stark critique of penal substitution presented by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in their book The Lost Message of Jesus” (17). Papers from this symposium became the nineteen chapters of the book. It unveils the diversity of teaching on and the feelings about penal substitutionary atonement (hereafter PSA). The chapters are divided into 5 categories, namely, introduction, biblical foundations, theological contributions, historical perspectives, and contemporary perspectives.

Derek Tidball, respected pastor, educator and evangelical leader in the UK, wrote both the preface, and also the final chapter which he entitled “Penal Substitution: A Pastoral Apologetic.” It stands as a critique of the less than truly evangelical viewpoints encountered in some of the preceding chapters.

Chalke, already well known for his comment of God being guilty of cosmic child-abuse, obviously does not favor PSA (19, 34). Thus, his chapter, the second one, will probably receive the bulk of attention from readers, but he is not alone in his understanding; others at the symposium agreed with his ideas. He still makes startling observations: “[T]he greatest theological problem with [PSA] is that it introduces us to a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution for sin that flows from his wrath against sinners” (39). The violence shown against the Son by the Father means that God does not practice what He preaches. Hear Chalke’s words: “If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetuated by God towards humankind but borne by His Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil” (40).

Was any understanding of God having planned the cross, the death, and resurrection of Christ before the foundation of the world given even minimum consideration? One wonders if redemption, reconciliation, and propitiation were given any prominence in discussing the atonement. Apparently not. The church’s inability to shake off this great distortion of a vengeful God presented in the substitutionary theory has cost the church dearly, so Chalke opines. Society’s concept of retribution and of bearing guilt will determine its response to this doctrine. Indeed, PSA is culturally sluggish, unable to relate to the thinking of the present day. That a flawed hermeneutic is the problem here is reflected in the observation that theology must be informed by the Bible while at the same time theology must be creatively alert and related to the modern-day cultural context (41). The 8th-century B.C. prophets, he accepts, were already moving beyond the concept of a propitiatory blood sacrifice (39, no examples cited). To defend PSA from isolated texts ignores the “resonance of Scriptural witness, overall flow of the narrative, and the unraveling story of salvation” (39). No examples are given, nor is a description of this “resonance and flow.” What does it all mean then? Are these texts valueless?

I. Howard Marshall’s chapter fortuitously follows Chalke and basically sets him straight although without mentioning him by name (34-45). Marshall argues that PSA is well-founded in Scripture, and then lays out the terminology for judgment and condemnation, of destruction and death (51-52). He also gives attention to the holiness and righteousness of God, and rightly so (57-59). By the end of Marshall’s argument, one begins to wonder if Chalke has not placed himself outside the pale of evangelicalism.

Joel Green remarks that the focus of PSA on deflecting divine wrath from sinful humanity onto Jesus is “logically deficient and exegetically problematic” (164). PSA finds itself indicted for portraying a misshapen view of God! (159). PSA has no basis for a thoroughgoing soteriology. What a surprising and unwarranted evaluation! The final plea is to keep the atonement debate intramural. Do not use it to distinguish believer from non-believer or evangelical from non-evangelical. Can it really remain as an at-home discussion? Expository preaching and systematic Bible study will bring it to the fore.

Fortuitously, Garry Williams chapter immediately follows Green’s, and, in effect, sets it straight (172-90). Proponents of PSA , Williams advises, are charged with advancing “a biblically unfounded, systematically misleading and pastorally lethal doctrine” (188). Strong words! The chapter treating Rom 3:25-26 represented acceptably the more conservative and evangelical position, and forthrightly observed: the cumulative emphasis in Paul’s epistles almost irresistibly gives evidence of a God of amazing love who gave Christ as a penal substitute. Williams well adds, “A rejection of penal substitution is a rejection of the heart of the Pauline gospel” (129). Certainly, that constitutes being outside the pale of evangelicalism!

The three chapters making up the section “Historical Perspectives” are informative with a remarkable amount of data squeezed into the summaries of the atonement as understood at various times since the death of Christ. However, exactly what the politics of colonial England of the past has to do with the understanding of the atonement escapes this reviewer. Why must the cultural situation influence a change in the way the atonement is viewed? Is this not contextualization “gone wild?”

“Contemporary Perspectives,” the final category in the book, is quite instructive in making the reader aware of the extent to which writers will go in reinterpreting a doctrine to bolster their very different viewpoints. The logic of PSA allegedly has many problems with which to deal, such as: [1] critical questioning of divine love, forgiveness and mercy in relation to divine wrath (40, 54-59, 61, 121, 299), [2] the transferability of sin, guilt, and righteousness (222-23), [3] the inexorability of divine justice (209-10, 219, 221 ), [4] the resulting anemic nature of soteriology (159-60), [5] the portrayal of a malevolent God stemming from a lack of sensitivity in communication (36, 41-44, 210-11), and [6] the apparent failure of God, who being a vengeful Father rather than a forgiving one such as portrayed by Jesus in the story of the prodigal son, does not practice what He preaches (39-40).

The final chapter by Tidball is refreshing to read after working one’s way through this book, doggedly at times. The closing paragraph of the preface emphasized that all participants agreed on the central significance of the death of Christ to the Christian faith, the varied richness of the NT’s interpreting of that death, and the urgent need to communicate the message of the cross. Such a message must be true to the Scriptures yet simultaneously meaningful in the contemporary world (14). Given the diversity of opinion on how to define and explain PSA, obtaining such an agreement on the surface is quite impressive.

Some chapters have not been commented upon, but suffice it to say that in a full-scale review article they would doubtlessly receive attention and critical response. This reviewer does see some value in the book, since (1) it is an eye-opener to the different hermeneutical rules obviously governing the approach to the text by those rejecting or redefining and amending PSA, and (2) it might be worth studying in an advanced hermeneutics seminar in which the centerpiece for critique would be “contextualization.”