Does God allow doctrinal problems in the church so that Christians will study God’s Word carefully and defend it more accurately against unbiblical ideas? Maybe so. There does seem to be some evidence of this in church history. But whether this is true or not, it does seem that several serious doctrinal deviations have arisen in our generation—one after another—even within what has been considered generally conservative Christianity. From the fifties on, evangelicals debated among themselves the doctrine of the inerrancy of the original writings of Scripture. In response to those evangelicals who were arguing that Scripture was not inerrant in the scientific and historical sections of Scripture, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was formed in 1977. These biblical scholars planned a ten-year strategy of education, study, and publication. Over the course of ten years, they and others published several important and helpful books, along with the notable Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The battle is not over, but much has been accomplished through careful biblical responses to those compromising the doctrine of Scripture.
Then around the turn of the century, a new approach to the doctrine of God was submitted by those known as Open Theists. Open Theists argue that God does not have detailed control of the universe and that He does not know for sure the future acts of free moral agents. In the words of Al Mohler writing in the end of the twentieth century: “My argument is that the integrity of evangelicalism as a theological movement, indeed the very coherence of evangelical theology is threatened by the rise of the various new ‘theisms’ of the evangelical revisionists.”1 The ideas of Open Theism have been answered by those in support of the classic doctrine of God,2 and the debate has seemingly quieted just in time for another major doctrinal deviation to be proposed.
Now we are hearing that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement should be replaced by some other theory. Seemingly the left side of the Emerging Church has been in the forefront of this grave development, though there is no unified agreement in what the correct theory is. In fact, some, in typically postmodern style, seem to be arguing that there really is no one model of the atonement that gets to the essence of Christ’s death on the cross. The value of the atonement might depend on each individual’s understanding.3
Other Emergents are proposing the old Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement that argues that what changed at the cross was not God’s attitude toward us, but our attitude toward God. “…Jesus enacted and represented the forgiveness that has always been in the heart of God…. [T]he Atonement is about how our attitude toward God changes as we see forgiveness acted out before us.”4 So, Jesus on the cross shows us how much God loves us, and we are supposed to be thus influenced to feel better about God and love God.
Still others are arguing for the Christus Victor model of the atonement. This view, which was one of the theories in the church of the Middle Ages, was redeveloped in the 1960’s, and is now being promoted by Greg Boyd among others.5 Boyd, previously of Open Theism fame, does not deny penal substitutionary aspects to the atonement, but argues that Christ’s death and resurrection was essentially and primarily about Christ’s victory over Satan. According to Robert Webber, the Christus Victor theory “is becoming more pronounced among younger evangelicals.”6
We at Shepherds Theological Seminary believe that the Penal Substitution view of the atonement describes the reason why Christ died on the cross. This breathtaking biblical doctrine, revived in the Reformation by Luther and Calvin, is called “penal” because there is a penalty that was inflicted at the cross of Christ. Everyone of us has broken God’s law and we are required to face a judicially angry God. But God loves us in that He sent His Son to die on the cross, and wonderfully, Christ’s death propitiated the wrath of God and paid the penalty.
And it is called “substitution” because Christ paid the penalty in our place. We could never have paid the penalty even for ourselves, let alone for anyone else. Our punishment would have been an eternal separation from God in hell. But the God-man could suffer the punishment and pay the penalty for the sins of the world. Scripture says explicitly, “and He [Christ] Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf. Mark 10:45; Acts 20:28; Rom. 5:6, 8; 1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Cor. 5:14, 18-19, 21; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; 3:13; Eph. 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:10; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 2:17; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 4:10, et. al.). The New Testament Epistles make it crystal clear that penal substitution is the essence of Christ’s death on the cross. This is what we believe, teach, and preach at Shepherds Theological Seminary.
1 Albert Mohler, “The Eclipse of God at Century’s End,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology I (Spring 1997):38.
2 For a defense of the classic doctrine of God, see, for example, Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (Crossway, 2000).
3 See D. A. Carson’s analysis of Brian McLaren’s The Story We Find Ourselves In, in Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005), 166-67.
4 Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical (Zondervan, 2003), 101.
5 See Greg A. Boyd, God at War (InterVarsity, 1997), 238-68. See also Boyd’s arguments in The Nature of the Atonement, edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (InterVarsity, 2006), especially 23-65. This is a four views book.
6 Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Baker, 2002), 251, n.15.
Dr. Larry Pettegrew taught at Pillsbury Baptist Bible College for over 10 years, serving as chairman of both the Christian Education and Bible departments. Following his time at Pillsbury, he served on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary then taught at Central Baptist Theological Seminary for 14 years. After 12 years on the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, Dr. Pettegrew accepted the executive vice presidency of Shepherds Theological Seminary—a position he presently holds in addition to his role as Academic Dean.