Is penal substitutionary atonement the “core of Christian faith”?

According to this story, the Southern Baptist Convention just adopted a resolution at its annual meeting that re-affirms the “penal substitutionary” view of Christ’s atonement. This was passed in the face of what were described as efforts to “weaken” the doctrine.

Proponents of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement)–the view that on the cross God was punishing Jesus for the sins of humanity–often treat it as a non-negotiable part of Christian orthodoxy, or even the very essence of the gospel. In the article linked above, Southern Baptists seminary professor Owen Strachan is quoted as saying the following:

“there is no doctrine in Scripture more beautiful than penal substitutionary atonement,” yet at the same time “there may be no doctrine that is more hated.”

“In truth, the biblical precept that the righteous must die for the wicked is the very core of Christian faith,” Strachan said. “Here is the burning heart of divine love: Christ crucified for us.”

By contrast, many other Christians will concede that PSA, properly interpreted, is one legitimate way of understanding the cross, but they insist that it be balanced with other images and motifs from Scripture, such as Christus Victor or moral exemplar.

What strikes me about the pro-PSA side of the argument is that, considering it’s supposed to constitute the essence of the gospel, it actually takes a lot of work to make the case for it from the Bible. Nowhere does Scripture unambiguously say in so many words that God was punishing Jesus on the cross. (And there’s a lot of biblical data that would tell against such an interpretation.) The case for PSA draws primarily on certain passages in Paul, Isaiah, and a few other books, and these passages admit of various interpretations. One has to stretch, to say the least, to find PSA in the gospels and much of the rest of the NT. Even Paul himself draws on a variety of images for understanding what happened on the cross, not all of them obviously consistent with PSA. It seems to me that the death-and-resurrection of Jesus is, for the NT authors, a cosmic event that eludes neat and tidy explanations in the form of any particular theory.

You’d think that if the atonement, understood specifically in a penal, substitutionary sense, really was the “core of Christian faith” it would be presented a bit more unambiguously in the Bible. Given that it isn’t, it seems a sin against Christian liberty to require people to believe in PSA. As the Anglican articles of religion put it,

HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (Article VI)

It’s a little ironic that a free-church tradition like the SBC would try to impose more restrictions on Christian consciences than the church of Queen Elizabeth.

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