New SBJT defends classical view of atonement from contemporary attacks

Communications Staff — July 25, 2007

The cross of Christ has been under attack since the day Jesus hung between two thieves on a hill outside Jerusalem, but there is a surprising new category of opponents who are attacking the traditional view of the death of Christ: evangelical Christian scholars.

Essayists in the Summer 2007 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT) interact with both evangelical and non-evangelical scholars who reject the penal substitutionary view of the cross, and contributors defend the historic orthodox view of Christ’s atoning death in the place of wrath-deserving sinners.

The classic, biblical view of penal substitution as taught in such biblical texts as 2 Corinthians 5:21 argues that Jesus Christ bore the full wrath of God—the penalty that every sin deserves because of God’s infinite holiness—at Calvary as a substitute for sinful men, thereby acquitting them of guilt and reconciling them to God.

Journal Editor Stephen J. Wellum summarizes the numerous alternative views of the atonement in his editorial and shows that it is not just secularists or liberal Christians who are seeking to revise the meaning of the death of Christ. Wellum serves as professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Sadly, some of the standard objections to penal substitution outside of evangelical theology are creeping their way into evangelical treatments of the cross,” Wellum writes.

“[Some evangelicals] are embracing a typical, yet awful caricature of penal substitution, by arguing that a substitutionary view of the cross does not present us with a loving God but a sadistic one who delights in the abuse of his Son—a kind of divine child abuse. All of these criticisms are groundless and usually reflect a caricature of substitutionary atonement as well as the impoverishment of the critic’s own theology and understanding of Scripture.”

Three Southern Seminary professors and two additional evangelical scholars attack the issue from all sides, examining the atonement from Scripture, theology and church history.

Gregg Allison, who serves as associate professor of Christian Theology at Southern, unpacks the history of the doctrine of the atonement, beginning with the early church and concluding with modern theories of the atonement, while covering points in between such as the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation.

Allison concludes that church history teaches modern Christian three lessons regarding the atonement.

“First, we should resist attempts at reducing the multifaceted wonder of Christ’s atoning work to any one particular element of it,” he writes. “Still, a focus on the penal-substitutionary element has strong biblical warrant.

“Second, theologians should be encouraged to continue the development of this doctrine, recognizing that one reason for the proliferation of theories of the atonement has been a general failure to construct the doctrine within its proper biblical-theological framework.

“Third, all Christians and churches should give great praise and thanksgiving to God for the gracious and costly work of atoning sacrifice by the God-man, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, on behalf of us created yet fallen human beings.”

Peter J. Gentry, who serves as professor of Old Testament interpretation and director of the Hexapla Institute at Southern, examines Isaiah’s fourth servant song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Gentry analyzes each stanza of the song before concluding that Isaiah depicts the work of the Servant as multifaceted and varied.

“The Servant is a figure both Davidic and royal,” Gentry writes. “He is Israel and restores Israel. He endures enormous suffering as evil is heaped upon him by his own people and by the world. But the description is more specific than this generality. He dies as a restitution sacrifice to pay the penalty for the offenses, sins, and transgressions of the many. This brings the forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.”

Barry C. Joslin, who serves as assistant professor of Christian Theology at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Seminary, looks at the atonement of Christ in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Joslin surveys the doctrine of atonement in the Old Testament and argues that substitutionary atonement as seen in the animal sacrifices in Leviticus find their New Covenant fulfillment in the death of Christ.

“What emerges from Hebrews is the picture of Jesus Christ, the New Covenant mediator, whose blood inaugurated the promised eternal New Covenant and cleansed his people from the impurity of their sins,” he writes, “granting divine forgiveness, and thereby placating the all-consuming fire of the righteous wrath of God.”

The SBJT also includes atonement-related essays by Derek Tidball, principal and senior lecturer in sociology of religion at London School of Theology, and Simon Gathercole, senior lecturer in New Testament in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Participants in the SBJT Forum discuss “The Atonement Under Fire.” Panelists include Southern Seminary professors Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware along with D.A. Carson and James Hamilton. For more information or to subscribe to the journal, please e-mail journaloffice@sbts.edu.

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