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The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement Paperback – March 30, 2008
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From the Back Cover
Recent days have seen a debate among evangelicals over how the death of Christ is to be interpreted. When a popular British evangelical leader appeared to denounce the idea that God was punishing Christ in our place on the cross as a "twisted version of events," "morally dubious," and a "huge barrier to faith" that should be rejected in favour of preaching only that God is love, major controversy was stirred. Many thought the idea of penal substitution was at the heart of the evangelical understanding of the cross, if not the only legitimate interpretation of the death of Christ. Yet for some time less popular evangelical theologians had been calling this traditional interpretation of the atonement into question. So, is the traditional evangelical view of penal substitution the biblical explanation of Christ's death or one of many? Is it the non-negotiable heart of evangelical theology or a time-bound explanation that has outlived its usefulness? What does the cross say about the character of God, the nature of the law and sin, the meaning of grace, and our approach to missions?
The public debate which resulted was often heated. In order to act as reconcilers, the Evangelical Alliance and the London School of Theology called for a symposium in which advocates of the different positions could engage with each other. The symposium, which was attended by some 200 participants, was held when the July 7th bombings took place in London and drew together many of Britain's finest evangelical theologians. This book contains the collection of papers given at the symposium, supplemented by a few others for the sake of rounding out the agenda, and grouped in convenient sections.
About the Author
Derek Tidball (PhD, Keele University) has been principal of the London School of Theology since 1995. Previously Derek served as pastor of two Baptist Churches, as a tutor at LST, and as head of the mission department of the Baptist Union. He is currently chair of the UK Evangelical Alliance Council. He has authored numerous books including Skilful Shepherds: An Introduction to Pastoral Theology, previously published by Zondervan. He edits The Bible Speaks Today: Bible Themes series for IVP and has contributed the volumes on The Message of Leviticus and The Message of the Cross himself. He is married to Dianne, a Baptist pastor. They have one son.
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Chapter 12 contained what I found the most helpful summary of the penal substitution theory along with its problems (although the writer, Oliver D Crisp, did not find these insurmountable). However the arrangement of the book felt so piecemeal that it was difficult to find much overall coherence. This book would serve better as something to dip into rather than read through (as suggested in the introduction).
Joel B Green pleads in his paper "...that we remind ourselves, often, that debates regarding the appropriateness of penal substitutionary atonement as an exposition of the saving message of the cross of Christ comprise an intramural conversation and not one that can serve to distinguish Christian believer from non-believer or even evangelical from non-evangelical." The very next essay by Garry Williams comments "I cannot see how those who disagree [with the penal subsitutionary view] can remain allied without placing unity above truths which are undeniably central to the Christian faith." In some ways this characterises the tone of this book - a handful of articles by those looking outside the traditional evangelical view of penal substitutionary atonement, interspersed with a far larger number of articles from those upholding the view and attempting to counter the arguments from the other side. Although generally couched in polite language the overall feel of this book was of people on either side of a divide shaking their fists at each others' inability to see the 'truth' of their position.
Derek Tidball's paper is the final one in the book and, as such, apparently provides a conclusion to all the debate (and comes down on the side of penal substitutionary atonement). This reader felt that many of the points made on both sides weren't answered by the opposing view and, as such, the book didn't particularly move the debate on. Tidball does, however, state "I do not believe that penal substitution atonement is the only legitimate interpretation of the cross, or that it says all that needs to be said about the cross"; it's just a shame, when reading this book, that few others seem to hold with this view and that the overall feeling is one of conflict and disagreement.
Do you think that such a notion is a "twisted version of events," or "morally dubious," or a "huge barrier to faith"?
Do you think that the doctrine of penal substitution, God punishing Christ in our place, is a form of "cosmic child abuse"?
Did you know that there is an ongoing debate among some in the evangelical camp who are embarrassed and even hate the truth claim that Jesus' death was a divine wrath-bearing event?
A brand new book by Zondervan brings forth part of this discussion, focusing on the controversy as it appeared in the UK in the Evangelical Alliance. The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement is a collection of papers from a symposium held by the Evangelical Alliance and the London School of Theology.
The undermining of penal substitution is not new. Attacks and redefinitions of this core doctrine have been around for ages. However, in recent times, it was the book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalk that sought to take away the doctrine of propitiation while at the same time claiming a place at the evangelical table.
The Atonement Debate is a response to Chalke and others within the EA. It is long (360 pages), substantial, and contains chapters by numerous authors, including Chalke himself. Sections include "Biblical Foundations," "Theological Contributions," "Historical Perspectives," and "Contemporary Perspectives." In other words, biblical, systematic, historical, and contemporary apologetic angles are all addressed in this book.
Make no mistake, mixing up and altering the doctrine of the atonement is an offense against the gospel itself. This is a doctrine of first-order importance. The Bible is clear that sins must be atoned for, and it is equally clear that we cannot make that atonement for ourself. Only a sinless savior can become the "curse" for sinners. Only Christ's atonement can fulfill the work of both substitution and satisfaction. He substituted himself on behalf of sinners. He satisfied the demand of divine punishment (wrath, propitiation). And all that was done by Christ in suffering for us was done as a work of Trinitarian harmony.
Pastors, we must especially deepen our understanding of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, as well as the historical and contemporary attacks on it. This will involve diligent study and hard work. But the reward is found in knowing and defending and preaching a gospel that truly leads to life and salvation.