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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why Do I Focus on the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement?

Some may wonder why I am focusing on PST. Don’t I realize that there are other theories of the Atonement that have been advocated through the centuries? Yes, of course I do, but PST is the dominant view among evangelical theologians and many believe that it is actually at the very core of what constitutes Evangelical Theology.

For example, listen to the following statements, all blurbs written in endorsement of the book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution:

Roger Nicole, Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary: Atonement is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, and penal substitution is the heart of this doctrine.

Ian Stackhouse, Pastor of Guildford Baptist Church: Some things are worth fighting for. The evangelical doctrine of penal substitution is one of them. Remove this strand of atonement theology from Christian proclamation and you fairly rip the heart out of the gospel drama.

D. A. Carson, Professor of Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: This book is important not only because it deals so completely with what lies at the heart of Christ’s cross work, but because it responds effectively to a new generation of people who are not listening very carefully to what either Scripture or history says.

Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes and President of, Church of England Evangelical Council: If gospel people are to be clear on the nature of the gospel, then they need to have a clear understanding of penal substitution.

Mark Dever, Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC: The Bible historically has been understood to teach explicitly and implicity that Christ died as a penal substitute for sinners.

Timothy George, Dean Beeson Divinity School, and Executive Editor, Christianity Today: The doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ can be abandoned only by eviscerating the soteriological heart of historic Christianity.

Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA: The perennial attempts throughout church history to relativize and even deny the propitiatory and substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice should not simply be understood as peripheral discussions; they indicate a constant tendency to revise the very essence of the Christian faith to conform to wider cultural mores and shibboleths.

David Wells, Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, MA: At the cross, when Jesus bore the penalty for our sins in our place, the grace of God paid the price his holiness required. This has been the message of the gospel down the ages because this is the message of the gospel as Scripture reveals it.

In addition, the following evangelical leaders give their endorsement to PST:

John MacArthur, President of The Master's Seminary: Deny the vicarious nature of the atonement-deny that our guilt was transferred to Christ and He bore its penalty-and you in effect have denied the ground of our justification. If our guilt was not transferred to Christ and paid for on the cross, how can His righteousness be imputed to us for our justification? Every deficient view of the atonement must deal with this same dilemma. And unfortunately, those who misconstrue the meaning of the atonement invariably end up proclaiming a different gospel, devoid of the principle of justification by faith. (Open Theism’s Attack On The Atonement,The Master's Seminary Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2001, available online at:

Greg Bahnsen, one time Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS: The doctrine of penal substitution could be expunged from the Biblical witness only by a perverse and criminal mistreatment of the sacred text or a tendentious distortion of its meaning. (Penal Substitution, Penpoint, Vol. IV:2 [March 1993])

Kevin Kennedy, Assistant Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX: However, evangelicals almost unanimously interpret the cross in terms of what has come to be known as the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement (Revisiting Penal Substitution, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Vol. 2, No. 2 [Fall 2004], p. 38).

N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, responding to criticisms about his endorsement of Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus: Imagine my puzzlement, then, when I heard a great storm had broken out because “Steve Chalke has denied substitutionary atonement.” After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God, upon which Steve had relied to quite a considerable extent, is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find. . . . I was puzzled, as I say, when I heard about the fuss, because I hadn’t remembered Steve denying at that point something I had been affirming, and since I had been strongly and deeply affirming the substitutionary (and, yes, penal) nature of Jesus’ death I wasn’t sure whether I had missed something. (The Cross and the Caricatures, 2007, available at

J. I. Packer, Professor of Theology at Regent University in Vancouver, BC: The task which I have set myself in this lecture is to focus and explicate a belief which, by and large, is a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity: namely, the belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution. . . . I am one of those who believe that this notion takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel . . . . (What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution, Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973, available at

These individuals are like a “who’s who” of evangelical Christianity. There can be no doubt that belief in PST is at the very heart and core of what constitutes evangelical (and in their minds, biblical) Christianity.

If there are insuperable problems with PST, then evangelical Christianity as we know it today is in serious jeopardy.

The famous Christian apologist and atheist debater, William Lane Craig acknowledges that this is a weak point for evangelical scholarship. He writes:

The doctrine of the atonement is one of those areas of Christian theology which is most in need of careful philosophical analysis. In fact, if any of you readers are contemplating graduate work in philosophy, here is a great dissertation topic! You can be almost guaranteed publication of your work, given how central and philosophically underdeveloped a doctrine the substitutionary atonement is. Unfortunately, my areas of research interest have not included the atonement, so my remarks here will be at best sketchy. My hope is that they will provoke others to tackle and think further about this important doctrine.

My opinion is that the problems associated with PST are the Achilles’ heel to Evangelical Christianity, thus my current focus on this subject.


  1. How can you deny something you don't even understand?

    You clearly don't have a clue about the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is. You simply know that every evangelical believes it.

  2. ZDENNY, I'm almost afraid to suggest this, but maybe you should go ahead and unfold the true understanding of penal substitution for us instead of just carping about how he got it wrong.

    Time to "put up or shut up." What is the real teaching of penal substitution and why are Ken's arguments invalid? If you can't do this (or at least point us to a concise source that got it right), then please, just tuck your tail and leave us alone.

  3. There is no need to prove Ken wrong because he doesn't have a clue about the penal substitution view of the atonement. I would have to sit down and do coffee with him because he is way out there. He doesn't understand either the philosophy or the Scripture.

    I am looking forward to his additional reasons for rejecting Christianity. It is clear based on his post that he doesn't understand the Penal Substitution view of the atonement.

  4. ZDENNY, you don't have to prove him wrong. Just show us where his grasp of the doctrine is faulty. Two or three sentences should illustrate where his definition is off kilter.

    If you're unwilling to be specific, then it's apparent you're only interested in making generalized criticisms, like "Ken is clueless," without backing them up.

    That's troll behavior.

  5. Steve,

    Nice challenge. I doubt our resident troll will meet it.

    Dr. Ken, great work again. Thanks for the insight and intelligence.

  6. ZDENNY, what the fuck is your deal, seriously? You are “absolutely certain” that Ken does not have a PhD? Really, that’s quite an assertion. You must have at least performed a cursory Google background check, the kind that takes all of five minutes. No? Well I did, and found a few interesting items…

    It seems that your accusation is not the first to be leveled against the good doctor, as witnessed by the comments in the following forum, where Ken restates his academic background:

    You may notice that the author of the post, Phil Johnson (or is it?) ends the comment section by stating that he is personally acquainted with Ken and that Ken is not lying about his academic background. Included in that background is the completion of his dissertation under Dr. Stewart Custer (who taught at Bob Jones University for over forty years) regarding the “evolution of Bernard Ramm's Views of Inerrancy.” Information on his thesis can be found here:

    As the record states, the thesis was completed by Kenny Regan Pulliam in 1986. Ken has also jointly published an article in the Calvary Baptist Theological Journal, entitled “The Blood of Christ” (Fall 1987), which you can look up yourself if you’re interested in further writings that you wave your hand at dismissively based on grander claims to certainty.

  7. Steve is right, Ken is clueless! I couldn't have said it better myself. He doesn't even understand the basics of the philosophy behind it all.

    In any event, a PHD in my experience oftentimes means they are phenomenally dumb. I watch how a person makes arguments to see if they really know something.

    Ken argument is so lacking in understanding of even the basic concepts behind the arguments that it would be meaningless to write a book on this blog.

  8. I see that it's been well over two weeks and ZDenny hasn't posted one sentence as to WHY Ken Pulliam may be wrong. All I see are juvenile comments that PHD means phenomally dumb, and he's clueless. It doesn't really take a PHD or a Seminary graduate or a priest to know what the PST is. About the only ones who would believe in this silliness are ones who swallow the line that god inspired every syllable of the bible. ZDenny is one of those people, as are, of course, all of the evangelicals. I was raised Catholic, and fortunately escaped the cult, so I am not completely unaware of these silly doctrines like virgin births and sacrifices. The latter is thrown in there to instill a sense of guilt into humans. It's one of the main hooks that grabs a human and keeps him hooked....another man (god) dying for little ole him. How can a human resist such tugging at his heartstrings, particularly in light of the contentions put forward by ZDenny and his ilk that the bible is the inspired word of god. Don't believe at your own peril, which will be hell to pay.
    Not only is is PST and the virgin birth concocted, but christianity as well. It was a good story gone haywire now, with millions of people inflicted with the disease.