"Modern theological liberalism developed open antipathy to the substitutionary nature of the atonement"

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TylerR's picture


I would very much appreciate Don's comments on this article, particularly on this comment from Mohler:

At another level, Stagg’s denial of substitution was also surely rooted in his strange and sub-orthodox understanding of the Trinity. While Stagg affirmed the deity of Christ, he denied the Nicean formulation of the persons of the Father and the Son. And he seemed to deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit. In his case, a flawed understanding of the Trinity almost certainly lead to a misperception of both the person and the work of Christ.

On the other thread, somebody specifically asked Don if he had modalist leanings. I suppose the point the commentator was probing was whether Don's reluctance to endorse penal substitution was grounded in a false view of the deity of Christ. There was no accusation made, only a question. The question was not answered. 

If Don is willing, I'd like to know if he agrees with: 

  1. The formulation of the deity of Christ (as defined at Nicea and Constantinople), and;
  2. The two natures of Christ, mortal and divine, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly and inseparably united (as defined at Chalcedon).  

Again, no accusations - just questions. Don has been challenged by many commentators from Scripture on his position. I am merely curious to see if he holds to a different Christology, and whether that is the root of the disagreement. 

Bro Sailer, hopefully you don't take this as an attack, but merely as a sincere question from someone who has followed your discussion from the previous threads on this topic with interest. 

God bless.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thank you, Dr. Mohler, for this reminder of the danger of denying the doctrine of penal substitution.  It is helpful to understand the source of this attack upon the Gospel.  This glimpse into liberalism in the SBC is a cautionary tale for all Bible believing Christians.  How thankful we should be that this error was identified and removed from SBC seminaries.  May we all be vigilant for truth and equally willing to stand militantly against errors which undermine the fundamentals of the faith.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture


Amen to that!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Jay's picture

I was a little surprised that this idea went as far back as Schleiermacher (although if I'd thought hard about it, I probably would have realized that there is no new theological construct under the sun).  I would also be very interested in Don's feedback, but I doubt highly that this article will help him come to a better understanding of propitiation and atonement than the one he currently holds to, if the discussions on the other thread were any indicator.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Charlie's picture

There has always been disagreement with penal substitution. It is important to distinguish between the theory of penal substitution codified by Calvin and the theory of satisfaction by Anselm. There are similarities, and some modern theologians reject both, but others reject only penal substitution. One also has to distinguish between the way an atonement theory casts Christ as "for" us in the sense of for our benefit, and "for" in the sense of "in the place of." 


There were Protestant theologians in the 17th century who diagreed with penal substitution. Socinians did and some Arminians as well. Some 18th century theologians, such as Charles Finney, held moral governmental theories of the atonement. So when Protestant liberals critiqued it in the 19th century, they were not the first Protestants to do so.

Even more significant, the Catholic and Orthodox churches never really embraced penal substitution. Catholics often go as far as Anselm's satisfaction but stop there. Orthodox often even downplay satisfaction and stick more closely to Christus Victor and cosmic redemption models. Also, there has been plenty of debate as to whether penal substitution has any secure footing in the Church Fathers. My opinion is that notes of penal substitution are present, but penal substitution is definitely not a privileged way of explaining Christ's death.  So, in the whole scheme of Christianity, penal substitution as explicit theory is a minority viewpoint.

However, that doesn't mean it's wrong or bad. It also doesn't mean that every reason for rejecting it is equally well thought through. Orthodox reservations may be more theologically serious than liberal dismissals, or vice versa. 

For people interested in how penal substitution can be integrated into and bolster other theories and aspects of the atonement, check out the section in Michael Horton's Pilgrim Theology. He does a great job navigating the historical and systematic currents.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Wayne Wilson's picture


That was a helpful summary.  Do you know whether or not the term "vicarious" when referring to the Atonement has always implied the idea of penal substitution?  In my reading, it always seems to, but I was wondering after our exchange with Don if it always carries that idea.

christian cerna's picture

Thank you Charlie for that info. It is good to be reminded that Christians can sometimes have differing views on certain topics.

However, I think that the main issue I had with Don Sailer's argument on the other thread was that he was using Psalm 22 as the foundation to support his theory. He was denying that when Jesus cried out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me", or when he said "I thirst", or "It is finished", he really meant those things. According to Don, Jesus was merely quoting Psalm 22 and nothing more. However, this goes against the plain meaning of Scripture and 2000 years of church tradition.

mbruffey's picture

Finney is 19th century, not 18th. Finney excoriates the notion that the atonement has any penal or punitive aspects whatsoever. Nevertheless, he insists on applying the terms vicarious and substitutionary to it. In Finney, it is vicarious in the sense that sinners (who believe) do not receive exact justice for their sins, since Christ died in their place. It is substitutionary in the sense that something equally effective for the purposes of public justice was substituted in place of exact justice. In parts of the the Edwardsean stream, well before Finney's heyday, a shift away from penal atonement was already occurring. Finney, thus, articulated and helped to popularize the governmental theory, although he did not invent it.

Wayne Wilson's picture

I was curious because Don withdrew rather suddenly from the previous thread on this topic, and I wondered if he had possibly said too much here since he teaches theology at an institution whose doctrinal statement affirms a "vicarious" atonement.  I wondered how he could sign off on that.  I see now he probably takes the Finney route.


I would imagine that vicarious atonement in the doctrinal statement was meant to convey penal substitution, but since it can be construed more broadly, we should take note and make sure such things are worded carefully.  Even substitutionary appears to be insufficiently precise.  The word penal should be used along with substitutionary by those of us who want to see that idea preserved and taught in our theology classes.  Details matter!

Mark_Smith's picture

was a liberal in the traditional sense. I think he really thought that the Bible taught that Jesus died for our sins, and that somehow that meant we were free from God's wrath without Jesus experiencing that wrath. I thought he highly valued the word of God as opposed to valuing philosophy, and in that sense, wasn't a liberal.

Wayne Wilson's picture

I completely agree, Mark.  I certainly wouldn't regard Don as a Liberal.  I would say his view of the Atonement is weak, and I would say unorthodox, much like C. S. Lewis' view was inadequate.  It does bother me that he is teaching theology at a Christian college.