There will be decidedly different reactions to the main topic of this article. Some readers no doubt think that the Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is of utmost importance. Others, however, think that such a doctrine is wrongheaded and should be opposed. So, which side is right?
The Emphasis on PSA
The emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has been prominent in Protestant theology for nearly 500 years now. That theory of the atonement, however, has come under more and more scrutiny in recent decades
Some Protestants even reject the idea of PSA. Wm. Paul Young, about whom I wrote in my June 25 blog article (see here), is just one such person.
Because of the growing opposition to the idea of PSA, last month the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming “the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race.”
That strong emphasis on PSA probably expresses the position of the majority of conservative evangelical Christians.
But other Christians disagree.
In addition to Young’s contention that the core element of PSA might be thought of as a “lie” believed about God, there are contemporary theologians who seriously question the PSA on biblical and theological grounds.
Of many who might be cited, let me mention only two Mennonite theologians: J. Denny Weaver and Ted Grimsrud. Weaver (b. 1941) is now Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bluffington University. He is the author of two important books about the atonement: The Nonviolent Atonement (2nd ed., 2011) and, secondarily, The Nonviolent God (2013).
Grimsrud (b. 1954) served as a professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite University until his early retirement in 2016. He is the author of Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (2013).
Both of these theologians reject the traditional doctrine of PSA, emphasizing that violent retribution, such as by Jesus’ crucifixion, was not necessary in order for humans to be saved from God’s wrath. Rather, because of God’s unfathomable love and mercy God has always been able to forgive sin and to restore sinners who seek forgiveness.
An Alternative to PSA
In 1967 when I was still in Japanese language school, I read Interpreting the Atonement, a new book by Dr. Robert H. Culpepper, my missionary sempai (older colleague).
After reading the book, I wrote two typewritten pages (which I still have) of reflections and questions. The main question I raised was about the necessity of penal substitutionary atonement, although I didn’t use those exact words.
Bob, as I came to know him, wrote a good and helpful book, but even then I was drawn primarily to the subjective, rather than an objective, view of the atonement.
An objective view of the atonement means that something had to be done, in history, in order for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. Sin had to be punished. The “something” done was the crucifixion of Christ, who became the substitute for sinful humankind.
The subjective view posits the need for repentance but sees no objective, historical event as necessary for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. God is seen as all-merciful, all-loving, and always ready to forgive repentant persons.
According to this latter view, the prodigal son’s father can be seen as depicting the true nature of God. Restoration with a wayward child is dependent only on that child's repentance and returning home. No violent sacrifice is necessary.
Reflect deeply on this point as you look at the following detail of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.”