My Article in Evangelical Quarterly: Penal Substitution and the Church Fathers

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

UPDATE: See below for details

I just heard that my article on the Church Father's view of the atonement will be published in the upcoming (May) issue of Evangelical Quarterly! EQ is an international peer reviewed academic journal of Bible and Theology edited by I. Howard Marshall and published in the UK by Paternoster. So I've doing a happy little dance right now :^)

The article is a response to the book Pierced for our Transgressions claim that penal substitution was taught by the early church. The authors back this up with a host of citations from Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, and other big guns from the early church, all who seem to be espousing penal substitution. After this book came out there was quite a bit of buzz across the internet of folks exclaiming that the PfoT authors had pretty much conclusively "disproved" the misconception (taught by folks like me) that penal substitution was not taught for the first 1000 years of church history. So I was understandably a little bit irked by this claim which went against the larger tide of patristic scholarship. The problem was that it had been considered so self-evident for so long that the early church did not teach penal substitution that most historians and scholars would simply state it as fact without feeling the need to back it up. So against that the detailed array of quotations marshaled by the PfoT authors was pretty impressive. In fact, it was the one positive thing that NT Wright had to say about the book(!)

The problem is that the quotes they cite are all taken out of context and thus misrepresent what the the early church was saying. So in my EQ article I take a look at the citations they give, paying attention to the larger context, and showing that the early church not only did not teach penal substitution, but in fact explicitly denies it. Here's the tricky part though: What they do teach is substitutionary atonement, and so to folks who think that the only way to understand substitutionary atonement is in the way Calvinists do, this of course looks like the Calvinist doctrine. Only if you really listen to what the church fathers are saying, actually reading them in context, they are understanding substitutionary atonement in a very different context - one which has to do with healing our sin and liberating us from bondage.

In correcting the record, I thought it would be important to say this via an academic peer reviewed journal in order to take the conversation beyond the blogosphere and get it in front of theologians and scholars as well. My hope that it will open up the possibility of some dialog here, because while I think that the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions are definitely wrong in their representation of the fathers, at the same time I also know that they are good guys who love Jesus and are all pretty sharp to boot. What I really appreciate about the atmosphere of debate in England (both EQ and the PfoT authors are in the UK) as opposed to here in the States is that while we tend to have polarized sides on issues that shut down communication, they are more accustomed to lively debates. That's true specifically of Evangelicalism here, and across the pond as well. So I hope that this will spur a healthy discussion, even though we obviously disagree significantly.

UPDATE: I have now posted a PDF of my article. More here.
I also have a follow-up article responding to a rebuttal of my article by one of the key players in PfoT: 


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