The penal substitution debate
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Date: 11 October, 2004


'When you become a father you move one step up the ladder and you lose your childish faith in your father as a hero pretty early on.'


Charlotte Haines Lyon listens to both sides of a contentious debate about whether Jesus had to die and interviews author and presenter Steve Chalke and Evangelical Alliance general director Joel Edwards

Just under a year ago Steve Chalke published a book with Alan Mann called The Lost Message of Jesus. The darling of the evangelical world argued that God loves humans especially the poor.

He also happened to mention that as Jesus demands that we love our enemies, he couldn't see how God could demand a sacrifice in order to love us.

Loud indignation ensued amongst evangelicals. Had Chalke become a liberal and turned his back on truth?

Disturbed by the furore caused, the Evangelical Alliance held a debate last week looking at whether penal substitution [that salvation has been achieved because God punished His Son, Jesus, instead of sinful humans] is necessary to Christian belief.

Accusations flew. Chalke chastised those who had assumed he had read feminist theology after comparing penal substitution to "cosmic child abuse". (The phrase was coined in the pub.) He also claimed that letters of support had not been published in at least one evangelical magazine.

Simon Gathercole, lecturer at Aberdeen University, said that Chalke had "made a serious revision of not only the church's preaching but of Jesus' teaching." Anna Robbins, of the London School of Theology, charged that Chalke spoke of a "Christ of human construction."

Vicious cycle

Chalke responded by saying, "penal substitution is devoid of ethical depth." His supporting speaker, Stuart Murray Williams, chair of the Anabaptist Network, asked if penal substitution "will help build peacemakers and break the vicious cycle in the world at the moment?"

At question time, one bible verse was read after another, in an attempt to prove Chalke wrong. Yet, there was enormous applause when Chalke gave his final response.

Once the passions had calmed a little, Charlotte Haines Lyon caught up with Steve Chalke and Joel Edwards.

Steve Chalke, Baptist Minister and director of Oasis Trust

Did you feel on trial at the debate?

Some of the time, which I think is a shame because all I have done is take evangelical scholars and put their broadsheet words into tabloid language. Sometimes I get disappointed that we don't think more deeply about these issues.

At the end of the day it's all about mission and nothing else. It's about the character of God. What we believe about God determines what we think about ourselves and how we engage and react in the world.

How long have you held this position?

Always. I have always believed that God is passionate about us and especially about the poor, by which I mean all of those who get shut out of choices. As I've got older I have become more articulate at thinking and talking these things through.

So is it like coming out?

Well a bit. I know a lot of people feel like this because they have written to me about it. To tell you the truth it's hard to stand up and say it, because you bring heaps of criticism upon yourself. But I've got to be strong and say it's ok to believe these things.

Did you expect the reaction you've had?

I didn't expect it so strongly. Particularly as my book doesn't talk about penal substitution at all! It's about inclusion and God's love. Then it's got this sentence saying if God is love and Jesus said love your enemies then how could God not love his enemies. God says love your enemies but then doesn't love his until he's got blood - how can God run on a different ethic to the way he's asked his people to live?

Do you think that this furore is due to apparent heresy or fear of something new?

I think it is like the emperor's new clothes and when someone stands up and asks questions people get scared. I think there is a bigger view to be had of the cross.

Jesus took on all of the evil systems of the world, individual and corporate, he walked through it all and he would not cave in. He became the second Adam and reversed things. As in Adam we all died, in Jesus we all live.

He's an example to all of us. He's an example to Christian Aid; you can take on evil trading systems. You can take on governments. You can take on the multinationals and they have bigger budgets and faster marketers than you. We will not stand aside. We will not return evil for evil. And Jesus says it works!

Joel Edwards General Director of the Evangelical Alliance

What did this debate mean for the Evangelical Alliance?

It means that we were able to have an open and honest debate. In an environment where we still respected each other at the end of it.

Have the concerns been mainly around heresy or around unity?

I don't think I have heard anybody discuss heresy. If The Lost Message of Jesus and Steve's opinion was that wrath, God's judgement, justice and sin do not exist, I think we would be having a very different debate.

I think the question is firstly about the sufficiency of penal substitution as the primary or only model of atonement. Secondly for us as an Evangelical Alliance, is penal substitution the only way in which you can be a legitimate evangelical.

This is a question that we need to look at responsibly, and biblically in the light of where we are now without selling anything short of what the cross means.

So at the moment penal substitution isn't necessarily a check box for the Evangelical Alliance?

If anyone looks at clause three and four of our basis of faith; there is a very clear implicit relationship between Jesus' work of substitution and penal substitution. It is not explicit, therefore the question we have to ask honestly and biblically together is, whether or not someone could deny penal substitution and legitimately remain in the Evangelical Alliance.

So are you willing to deepen the debate as Steve called for tonight?
I think we plan to do that in any event. We have been looking at our basis of faith for the last two years. We will want to do the work of drilling down in more detail, some of the things we could only deal with in passing tonight.

If it hadn't been Steve Chalke who is so influential in the Evangelical Alliance would we be here tonight?

There have been many theologians who have wrestled with this issue but largely they have done it in the safe zone of academia or within a niche market. Steve hasn't introduced the notion he has popularised it.

Because it is the phenomenon called Steve Chalke, we have actually been catalysed to have a public debate. It would have not been appropriate to have had this debate in the first instance behind closed doors following a very popular book. I think what we have done is follow the discussion at a populist level and now we have to have the debate in a much more detailed and intentional way.

It's been a good thing then?

It has to be a good thing that Christians can ask tough questions and end in a place where we still love each other and respect each other.

Order The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, Zondervan £8.99


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