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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Controversy over PST in the UK Evangelical Alliance

A controversy erupted in 2004 over the book, The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke. Chalke, an evangelical and a Baptist, repudiated the penal substitutionary theory in the book and even called it cosmic child abuse. This created a firestorm in Evangelicalism resulting in a symposium on the controversy in July 2005 at the London School of Theology organized by the UK Evangelical Alliance. Speakers at the conference included Steve Chalke, Joel Green, Graham McFarlane, Steve Motyer, and Stuart Murray Williams in opposition to PST and David Hilborn, Garry Williams, Steve Holmes, Howard Marshall, Sue Groom, and Simon Gathercole in favor the theory. Some of the papers from the conference are available on-line.

Later in 2007, three theologians associated with Oak Hill Theological College in London, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, issued perhaps the most complete defense of PST ever written. The book is titled: Piereced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.

In 368 pages the authors defend PST historically (against the charge that it originated in the Reformation), exegetically (against the charge that its unbiblical), and apologetically (against the various criticisms). The first several pages of the book contain endorsements from what reads like a "who's who" of evangelical theologians, including D.A. Carson, Howard Marshall, John Piper, Roger Nicole, and Timothy Dwight among others. Interestingly enough, the Bishop of Durham and well-respected scholar, N.T. Wright would not endorse it, even though he claims to be an adherent of PST. He called the book deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.

At the symposium mentioned above, Stuart Murray Williams laid out six reasons for rejecting PST:

1. Punishing an innocent man – even a willing victim – is fundamentally unjust.
2. Biblical justice is essentially about restoration of relationships rather than retribution.
3. Penal substitution is inherently violent and contravenes central aspects of the message of Jesus.
4. Penal substitution raises serious difficulties for our understanding of the Trinity.
5. Penal substitution fails to engage adequately with structural and systemic evil.
6. If penal substitution is correct, neither the life of Jesus nor his resurrection have much significance

I fully agree with numbers 1, 3 and 4 of William's criticisms. I disagree with number 2 and I am ambivalent towards numbers 5 and 6.

I have already addressed points number 1 and number 4 on this blog.

I disagree with point number 2 because I believe the Bible does teach retribution for sin. C.S. Lewis, in his famous article, The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment , makes a very strong case for the biblical model to be that of retribution for sin. The restoration of relationships may be the ultimate goal, but it cannot be attained until retribution for sin has taken place.

Point number 3, I have not yet treated. I agree with Williams that PST seems to contradict many of the teachings of Jesus. I will address this point in tomorrow's blog post.


  1. I remember the EA symposium well. The press release claimed that Chalke had agreed to rethink PST after hearing Howard Marshall’s presentation. I read Marshall’s paper several times and just didn’t get how it was supposed to be so persuasive. I don’t have my notes and I haven’t read it in a year or so, but I remember thinking that by the time Marshall was done qualifying his terms, what he presented was no longer PST. Marshall describes it as “penal” in the sense that it was unpleasant for Jesus and the consequence of his identification with sinful humanity (kind of a natural consequence of sin rather than an event that was necessary to appease the wrath of God).

    Interesting point on retribution. I will have to look into that.

  2. Funny, point 2 is the only point that has any bearing for me against the use of PST (as one model among others to help describe the atonement and not comprehensively to define its entire meaning). Very pleased with your siting of Lewis' article on this. It is, in my mind, one of the only convincing arguments I have heard for retributive justice from a Christian perspective. Thanks for this.

  3. "6. If penal substitution is correct, neither the life of Jesus nor his resurrection have much significance.

    ... I am ambivalent towards number.. 6."

    I find it interesting that you are "ambivalent" towards number 6 as I found this assertion to be the most striking. What is the purpose and benefit of the life and resurrection of Jesus if in fact he only played the role of the scape-goat. Did not his death fulfill the retributive requirement? What is the point of further drama?

  4. Willie,

    Thanks for your comment. Here is why I am ambivalent about #6. When I was a Christian, I was a Calvinist. I agree with Packer that any consistent adherent of PST must be a 5 point Calvinist or a universalist. For the Calvinist, the life and the resurrection are important. Calvinists believe that both the life of Christ (active obedience) and the death of Christ (passive obedience) are necessary for redemption. Our sins are imputed to Christ and he expiates them on the cross. But we still have no righteousness. The righteousness that is imputed to the believer is the active obedience of Christ while on earth. He kept the law perfectly, which we could not do, and his righteousness is imputed to us.

    AS for the resurrection, it was also necessary as the confirmation and validation that the Father accepted the sacrifce of Christ. So, I think Williams is wrong on #6. All three are important and indeed necessary for man's salvation according to good Calvinist theology.

  5. Ross,

    I think the biblical picture is this: Retribution (payment) has to take place first before there can be restoration of relationship. To try to restore the relationship before retribution or payment is made is impossible as I understand the Bible.

  6. Kyle,

    I agree. Marshall's paper on the Atonement is very weak. Not surprising to me because he is an Arminian. I agree with Packer that if you hold to PST, in order to be consistent, you must either hold to a limited atonement or universal salvation. Marshall cannot consistently hold to PST.

  7. You're so right about Jesus' own teaching being unsupportive of penal substitution. In the Sermon on the Mount, he states that we'll be forgiven if only we forgive the offenses of others against us. There's no talk of a sacrifice. Same with the Prodigal Son story. The son returns, and that's it ... the Father doesn't demand that his son accept a sacrifice in order to be received back into the home.

  8. Thanks for your clarifying response. I am enjoying your thoughtful treatment and critique of this subject. You have brought to light some interesting points that have given me much to think on.

  9. I recommend Christopher D. Marshall's excellent book Beyond Retribution, where he does a great job of showing that the biblical understanding of justice is primarily restorative. It's certainly more academically and biblically grounded than C.S. Lewis' pop-theology.