Allan Bate comes to grips with the ongoing debate about the atonement.

After 15 years in fulltime stipendiary ministry within the Anglican Church in Australia I decided to enrol myself in a MA(Min) with the Australian College of Theology so as to receive some much needed professional development.

This year I enrolled in a theological subject which looked at the Meanings of the Atonement. One of the reasons I enrolled in this subject was to assist me in my discussions with my liberal colleagues who argue against, and even strongly oppose my views, on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). The other reason I chose to enrol was because of the rise in evangelicals who are choosing to leave this doctrine behind, which probably includes even some members of EFAC Australia.

As an isolated evangelical working in a non-metropolitan diocese issues like this sometimes fail to come up on my radar and so it was for this reason that I thought that I would take the opportunity to share some of my insights with you. (I would love someone to do a similar article on Tom Wright and The New Perspective in another issue of Essentials). (In the meantime here is a link to a paper by Tom Wright on the New Perspective)

Liberal Anglicans have long attacked PSA, particularly since Joanne Carlson Brown accused the doctrine of promoting a form of cosmic child abuse[i] adding fuel to the fires forming in Australia. In many ways these attacks are gaining intensity as Progressive Christian[ii] Anglicans work to remove PSA from the vocabulary of both the church and our nation. 

It was David Peterson who first brought to my attention the growing divide within the evangelical communion over PSA in the introduction to his 2001 publication[iii]. But it was when Steve Chalke and Alan Mann published their book[iv] in 2003 that the debate really began amongst evangelicals resulting in the 2005 London Symposium on the theology of the atonement[v], a counter publication by Jeffery, Ovey and Sach[vi], and numerous other papers and publications.

From reading over the papers from the symposium and through attending the lectures given by Dr Graham Cole I got to observe the reasons as to why Chalke, Mann, Mark Baker, Joel Green, Stuart Murray Williams and others are rejecting the propitiatory nature of Christs sacrifice of atonement. In reassessing my own position I began to understand their lack of biblical understanding as to ‘sacrificeas well as the lack of biblical support that they have given to their own ideas.

I would make one exception, and that is with Mark Baker. For in seeking to make the atonement more palatable to our society Mark wrote, ‘I sought a theory to replace the penal satisfaction theory of the atonement... ‘through the influence of biblical scholars, I became convinced that using multiple images offered a better approach than trying to capture the fullness of the atonement in one theory[vii]. This being the case I think that we should pray for Mark, and others like him, as they seek to present the message of the cross in ways that our society might, by the grace of God, listen to xsand then believe and be saved.  

In seeking to remain faithful to the Bible as we assess these new images or explanations of the atonement let us, as John Stott instructed, ‘strongly reject... every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its centre the principle of... divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution[viii].

If you would like to look at this topic in more detail then let me encourage you to purchase Coles book, God the Peacemaker[ix].

Allan Bate serves in the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle


[i]  ‘Divine Child Abuse?’ Daughters of Sarah (Summer 1992)

[iii] David Peterson, Where wrath and mercy meet : proclaiming the atonement today  (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001).

[iv] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The lost message of Jesus  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003).

[v] See Steve Chalke et al., The atonement debate : papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008).

[vi] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our transgressions : rediscovering the glory of penal substitution  (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007).

[vii] Mark D. Baker, "How the Cross Saves," Direction 36, no. 1 (2007): 45.

[viii] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ  (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 159.

[ix] Graham A. Cole, God the peacemaker : how atonement brings Shalom  (Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos/InterVarsity Press, 2009).