Questioning the Atonement

The last two posts below were fluff when compared to this.

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is made quite clear in Scripture and has been affirmed by Christians throughout church history.

In a recent interview with Drew Sumrall of The Harvest Show, emerging church leader and author Tony Jones, in typical postmodern fashion, seeks to question and redefine this core tenet of the Christian faith. During the interview, Jones and Sumrall discuss Jones’ newest ebook, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin. Jones claims that the idea of the penal substitutionary atonement is a modern one that “began with Anselm in the Middle Ages” and that the first 1,000 years of church history knew nothing of the doctrine of the atonement as most Christians understand it today.

Tony Jones is not the first to deny or question the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Most recently, gay-affirming “evangelical punk preacher” Jay Bakker acknowledged in an interview with the Christian Post that he is “definitely questioning the atonement and trying to discover how we can see it in a different way.”

See, Emerging Church Leader Tony Jones Discusses ‘A Better Atonement’ (included is a video by Christian apologist and host of Fighting for the Faith, Chris Rosebrough, who addresses the bold and erroneous claims of Jones)

11 comments on “Questioning the Atonement

  1. A “better atonement” is like a “more perfect” union. Most of these guys are universalists of some kind. Just because soem segment of church histroy did or did not embrace a certain doctrine is meaningless. What does the Word of God say is the only litmus test. That is why creeds do not impress me either.
    Making a case for truth based upon what someone else believed is a subtle form of doctrinal humanism.

  2. As bad as this sounds, they’re not necessarily questioning the atonement as much as the penal substitutionary atonement. On the bright-side, they’re digging up other aspects of the atonement (e.g. Christus Victor).

    However, they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Substitutionary atonement (whether Penal or otherwise) is key to understanding the Gospel and understanding the Cross.

    They’re wrong to reject it, but I don’t think they even really know what they’re rejecting. Certain emergent leaders have described substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child-abuse”, but they’re fighting strawmen. That’s not it at all. I speak as one who would’ve at one point agreed with them.

    My 2 cents,

  3. Strange doctrine indeed. I wonder what’s next?

    Gladly I’m not ashamed of the Gospel and wonder what this guy really is selling or who is he blocking for?

  4. I read an interesting definition of penal atonement yesterday.


    Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.


    There’s much more at the link including criticisms.

    Reading through Jay Bakker’s interview with the CP (which by the way, the CP isn’t an organization i have the greatest confidence in either) some of his ideas, to me, are really reaching. Read it if u get the time.

    The whole premise of atonement is simple for me…but then again, i have always viewed the things of God in simple terms. Why, because its my belief the gospel and doctrines such as the trinity, atonement, etc. are there for the understanding of “every man”…not just theologians. 🙂

    It disturbs me when either someone wants to make these doctrines difficult, or wants to change them.

    • I view “doctrine” as being something of a two edged sword. It is, by nature, both unifying and divisive. And that can be a good thing. We need unity in the body and we also need a certain divisiveness in order to separate sound doctrine from heresy. Historically, heresy has actually been a major factor driving doctrine, in the sense that often, doctrinal statements have been a response to heresy. And if resulting doctrinal statements become too expansive, that can be a bad thing in that it can bring unnecessary divisiveness. Doctrinal statements can not only separate believers from unbeleivers, but can also separate believers from believers when they get too expansive. We know that we “see through a glass darkly” and when we try to enforce definitions that search out the mysteries of God, we can get into deep trouble. That is why I have some deep reservations about doctrine as a whole. I have no problem with basic doctrinal statements that define the faith, but the broader ones that entert he realm of speculation give me concern. There are many issues of faith that the Bible itself does not clearly define with sincere believers and Christian scholars having various views. I really think, in many cases it would be wise to back off on these issues and to admit that we really simply don’t know everything about God and thus “theology” will always be an unfinished work until everything is revealed at the last day.

      I believe we can learn much from that fact that many that were regarded as saints in the early church held theological positions that the church regarded as being heretical. Salvation is based on faith, NOT on doctrinal purity. Certainly there are serious doctrinal positions that DEFINE one as being OUTSIDE the Christian faith, but there are other situations where minor doctrinal failings are simply a sign of human frailty and should not be a cause for division within the body of Christ. We really need to apply doctrine in a way that secures believers in the faith and brings unbelievers to the faith rather than in a way that UNECESSARILY foments division in the overall body of Christ.

      In the case of Atonement, the larger doctrine of Atonement in the sense of a deep conviction as to the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross is essential to the Christian faith. One who does not subscribe to this doctrine is NOT a Christian. In the case of the particulars of this doctrine, we need to be able to agree to disagree. And those, like the emergent church, who are attempting to enlarge this doctrine even further with the likely goal of neutering it in the process, need to be recognized as enemies of the faith, since, at best they will only be bringing more confusion and division and at worst they will be putting themselves in a position of denying the underlying doctrine by heretically redifining it. I prefer to back off to a position of solid ground doctrinally, even if that position does not fully define every last detail. We need to define far enough to identify heresy, but not so far as to unnecessarily divide believers. Those are my feelings on the subject.

    • Salvation is based on faith, NOT on doctrinal purity.

      And thank God! If doctrinal purity was “the” determining factor, none would be saved George…for no on can honestly say they have all their doctrinal ducks in a row.

  5. I would like to comment on the following statement: “Jones claims that the idea of the penal substitutionary atonement is a modern one that “began with Anselm in the Middle Ages” and that the first 1,000 years of church history knew nothing of the doctrine of the atonement as most Christians understand it today.”

    I see that statement as a huge exageration. And “penal substitutionary atonement” is a teaching of John Calvin, not of Anselm.

    The doctrine of the Orthodox Church is virtually unchanged since AD 350 or so. While they do reject the idea of the crucifixion being punishment or “blood justice” from God and rather teach that Jesus gave his life for us willingly to defeat death, they certainly do fully accept that Christ did indeed die for our sins as taught in I Cor 15.3. In fact their commentary on that verse (“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures”) is as follows: “This concise statement of the gospel is probably part of an early creed or catechism.” Thus they embrace fully the concept of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross in order that we may receive eternal life. All of which in the end amounts to Atonement as Cal has already pointed out. So I would argue that while the Orthodox do not understand Atonement as do Protestants, they most certainly do not question the concept of Atonement itself.

    I think the question for Terry Jones is, if he is concerned with changes made after the first 1000 years, why he doesn’t simply adopt the Orthodox Church’s view of atonement. And I think the reason he doesn’t is that he doesn’t like that position either, but he is only using it as a strawman to try to justify his own humanist and innovative approach to doctrine. He is, by his own admission, looking for a “Better Atonement”, not to any understanding of attonement rooted in the Bible or even in the very historical church he uses as an excuse to engage in this quest. There is no question in my mind that, as Rick alluded to, these “emerging church” leaders are intent on somehow embracing universalism, which is the logical end of the old “I’m OK, you’re OK” fad that went through the church years ago when I was a young guy. Its the therapeutic gospel. The Bible itself CLEARLY repudiates any idea of universalism by presenting the spector of an “unforgivable sin” which is itself totally irreconcilable with any sort of totally universal atonement. And, in fact, the Bible is full of teaching which repudiates univeralism and makes it very clear that many will end in hell because of their unbelief and also makes it clear that hell will be a very unpleasant place to spend eternity. And most in the emergent church movement really don’t like the idea of a very real and very unpleasant eternity in hell either.

    There are, in fact, a number of slightly differing views of atonement, even amongst Protestant churches.

    The list across Christianity includes:

    Christus Victor (Patristic)
    Governmental (Arminian)
    Moral influence (Patristic)
    Penal substitution (Scholastic – Reformed)
    Ransom (Patristic)
    Recapitulation (Patristic)
    Satisfaction (Scholastic – Anselmian)
    Substitutionary (Scholastic – Reformation)
    (from Wikipedia)

    What really bothers me about a lot of this doctrinal stuff is that it is often more rooted in human logic than it is in scripture. And human logic is exactly what I fear Terry Jones is using for the most part to come up with his “Better Atonement”. What I prefer to see are doctrinal positions that are CLEARLY enunciated by scripture and supported by the teachings of the early church fathers.

  6. George – You are correct with your information. However it is my experience that the group which denies the penal substitionary view are comprised in large part with those who have other disturbing issues with Biblcal truth. The emergent church looks at themselves as a more modern and insightful and even a more expansive view of the faith, and they seem to generally reject the penal view. Many of them take great pride in that mtamorphosis in thinking and sometimes openly and subtly suggest that those who ascribe to the penal view are a vanishing breed of dinosaurs and are a road block to a changing view of the faith.

    • And Rick, I am quite sure you would agree with me that the end goal of the emergent church is to rid the church of everything that might be offensive. The problem with that, of course, from a scriptural AND historical perspective is that everything about the gospel tends to be offensive to the self sufficient, self righteous, humanist mind. Thus the “modern” gospel they are seeking is a crossless gospel neutered of its offensiveness AND of its power to save. One who does not know God has to be seriously shaken in order to come to repentance and these people, instead, want everybody to feel comfortable in their unsaved condition rather than to be challenged to SERIOUSLY submit their lives to Christ. I think the emergent church is one of the most spiritually dangerous and spiritually deceitful religious movement going on in our day. I also feel that many mainstreamers are caught up in its deception in an attempt to make their “gospel” more acceptable to the world. The real church of Jesus Christ is not about therapeutic spiritual and emotional healing, it is about death and resurrection. And that is offensive and their is no way around it. People want to bring their “baggage” with them into the Kingdom and that does not result in salvation and shouldn’t be encouraged by the church. Certainly the penal atonement issue is a lightening rod for these people, but it is also just the tip of the iceberg.

  7. Its ironic that you would post this , the question of Atonement is intrinsic to the “True or False” post put up previously , and certainly worth more indepth study on the part of those who believe in unlimited Atonement.

  8. other than their idea of a better atonement the problem I see is a word used by many if not all of your eastern mysticism. The word Cosmic. It leads me to believe they are not studying the word with the Holy Spirit as their guide but one of the cosmic spirits that is mentioned in most of these other religions. They are being guided by a spirit but He is surely not the Third Person of the Godhead. Most theology can and should be thrown out with the wash because man tends to get in the way of Scriptural Interpretation. Paul said to study to show thyself approved of God a workman that needth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. Paul also warned Timothy of these who would come having the form of Godliness but denying the power there of. We must never take a persons interpretation of the scripture as gospel if they back up their ideas with others who think their way but by weighing it against the Word of God as we study and rightly divide it. Never take man’s interpretation as truth until you have weighed it against scripture and if it holds to scripture. If they do not believe in Penal substitution atonement the what do they do with the scripture which says that He became the propitiation for our sins. This is stated twice in 1John 2 and is also stated in Romans. Propitiation and the greek words that are used both verb and noun have to do with appeasement. Isaiah 53 says he was bruised for our transgressions and the chastisement of peace was upon Him for by His stripes ye are healed. When you rightly divide the word you realize that the term penal substitutionary atonement is a modern term but fits the teaching of the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation as it is rightly divided. There can be no other atonement. Its by faith in Christ’s death on the cross that we obtain Grace. Christ made a covenant with the Father on Calvary that allowed for Grace. Penal substitutionary atonement does not make Him unequal to God. The writer of Hebrews explains it very clearly.when he talk about Christ being made a little lower than the angels counted it not robbery to be equal with God. Study the word of God and do not take mans word for anything until you have weighed it against the Word.

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