Going Beyond Evangelical-Liberal Debates on Models of Atonement?

Question from an old friend: “Is it not possible to accept that penal substitution is only one Pauline model of the atonement and that those of us who find it fails to communicate the Gospel in many cultural contexts prefer to use other models/metaphors (whether Pauline or non-Pauline)- without us all being denounced us “liberals”? … Continue reading “Going Beyond Evangelical-Liberal Debates on Models of Atonement?”

Question from an old friend:

“Is it not possible to accept that penal substitution is only one Pauline model of the atonement and that those of us who find it fails to communicate the Gospel in many cultural contexts prefer to use other models/metaphors (whether Pauline or non-Pauline)- without us all being denounced us “liberals”? Isn’t it also high time we moved away from such misleading and irrelevant theological labels as “liberal” or “evangelical” which are largely Anglo-American cultural imports?…there is no way Stott’s and Morris’s insistence that this [hilasterion] means “propitiation” can be defended in the light of both Jewish and recent Christian scholarship. In any case, you well know that words don’t derive their meanings from dictionaries but from usage in larger literary contexts.”


1) Regarding atonement models – Of course I agree with you that there are many valid models of the atonement. Notice I mentioned that the classical Confessions did not ‘canonize’ any one model? I further argued that because of PSA, I can believe in CV? But that doesn’t mean that I cannot argue that PSA is foundational for the other models. Whether one agrees with me or not is a matter of theological exegesis. Everyone is free to take a position on this matter.

I agree that witnessing in some contexts may require giving greater priority to some models of the atonement over others. I am aware of situations where the proclamation of the Christ to rural tribes results immediately in power encounter (and therefore CV) before anyone raises theological issues like PSA. Nevertheless, these same tribal groups are even more sensitive & receptive to the teaching of the wrath of God than most city folks, folks who have what I call “modern sensitivities.” These tribal groups also understand the need for propitiation and respond to the message of PSA. Actually, they need less persuasion to be convinced about PSA. Naturally, both models (PSA and CV) work in together in mission context.

I am interested to know from you those places or situations where PSA “fails to communicate the Gospel.” The question is raised with awareness that despite contextualization requirements, still, in the end we need to go beyond cultural accommodation (in communication strategy and priorities) and present the whole gospel (including PSA) so that the gospel judges culture (or sin) and brings forgiveness, assurance, reconciliation, liberation, justice etc. How else do we get people to repent? In the end we will need to deploy the whole range of models of the atonement (and perhaps even new models if they emerge in new theological and mission contexts).

2) Regarding evangelical-liberal debate. I thought for over 20 years that the debate is no longer relevant in my context. After all, what message does classical liberalism have to offer in the Asian context with its own millennial long religious heritage? For some sociological reasons, I find certain doctrines once associated with classical liberalism now coming back into churches which identify themselves as evangelical – doctrines like assertion of errors in the bible, acceptance of Welhausen documentary hypothesis – its derivatives and ramifications, some rather radical results of atheistic historical criticism of the history of Israel and the origins and formation of the gospels, openness to Walter Bauer’s hypothesis of diversity (non-unity) of doctrinal development regarding orthodoxy-heresy in early Christianity, denial of the historical Adam, denial of eternal hell (keeping the difference here in perspective), open theism, some degrees of ‘tolerance of LGBT [‘tolerance’ to be defined] and denial of penal substitution (I think you may disagree with me on penal substitution). I personally will not draw the liberal-evangelical line with penal substitution, although I find it interesting that the doctrines I listed seem to cluster together like a package deal, especially among the younger Christians.

Question: Let’s say we avoid using the traditional terms like ‘theological liberalism’ – how would you describe people or groups of people who promote these doctrines? What handles would you depend on to discuss these doctrinal differences which I think are more than trivial. What theological matter matters and how do we prioritize our engagement/challenge? I am also prepared to say that for me some doctrines are non-negotiable (of course this depends on our understanding of what semper reformanda amounts to). How would you describe your approach?

3) To some degrees you are right. The liberal-evangelical divide does seem irrelevant nowadays but the reason for this may be different between us. First, what becomes of evangelical identity if the cluster of doctrines listed above has become accepted by leaders who call themselves evangelicals? It only testifies to the sad state of the evangelical theology rather than the emergence of tolerant doctrinal maturity. Notice I do not go around identifying who “so and so” is a liberal? I have kept my critique to doctrines of liberal theology and use the term ‘liberals’ as a short hand for people who endorse these doctrines. But I do not attack individuals or question his or her faith. If necessary I engage with a prominent scholar if he provides a convenient foil for theological debate or where this influential scholar has critique classical evangelical doctrines. The influential scholar requires a response. He will have to accept being critiqued as this is a price of fame and influence. Second, the debate is irrelevant to many contemporary evangelical leaders who are not interested in doctrines [I hope to explain the reason for this doctrinal indifference should I write and introduce my readers to the Dayton/Olson vs Marsden/Horton debate on evangelicalism]. I may not go so far as D.G. Hart or Carl Trueman as to suggest that we deconstruct and abandon the term ‘evangelicalism’. Still, I wonder if term “evangelicalism” has lost is usefulness and if one now needs to identify oneself as some kind of hyphenated-evangelical – you may know where I am personally heading if I suggest some of us need to identify ourselves as ‘confessional evangelicals’. Btw, I came to this conclusion of confessional evangelicalism fully on my own and not through reading American stuff.

I have already written the article on ‘hilasterion’, but decided to release it later next week so as not to overwhelm my less theologically trained readers. Not sure what recent Jewish and Christian scholarship you have in mind? Sanders? Sorry he has been sufficiently challenged so as not to have the last word; McKnight? Not that I pretend to be anywhere near his biblical expertise, but theologically I am confident enough to disagree with him on some matters; apocalyptic Pauline scholarship? Actually, we don’t have to be force to dichotomize between the different models of atonement or schools of Pauline scholarship. Specifically, I include both aspects of propitiation and expiation even though I side with Morris-Nichole. Of course new scholarship needs to go beyond just the Dodd-Morris debate, but I think the Morris-Nichole’s foundational critique remains valid. To be sure, I do not simply rest my theology on isolated linguistic analysis and etymological studies of theological terms (would be silly after James Barr’s  critique in his The Semantics of Biblical Language). In general, my difference with ‘liberals’ reflects not our lack of exegetical-theological skills but our different mindsets that influence how we read the interconnected texts and doctrines. But will highlight how technical terms are still vital if we read them within the canonical context.

Meanwhile, will continue with short posts. Even though I am only writing short blog articles and not theological treatises, I hope to be able to respond to interesting questions from my readers.


4 thoughts on “Going Beyond Evangelical-Liberal Debates on Models of Atonement?”

  1. Quote from your old friend “there is no way Stott’s and Morris’ insistence that this (hilasterion) can be defended in light of both Jewish and recent Christian scholarship”.
    I’m more interested whether it can be defended in light of Scriptures. Looking forward to your post on this.

  2. Dear Kam Weng,


    (1) Where in the parable of the Lost Son (the most well-known of all our Lord’s parables) is there any hint of penal substitution or propitiation? Indeed, where in the Gospel writings or the sermons in the Book of acts?

    (2) What do you make of texts like Romans 5:8-10 where God’s wrath (future) is distinguished from “justification through his blood” (present)?

    (3) I cannot understand why you still feel the need/desire to assign labels (hyphernated or otherwise)? What’s wrong with simply CHRISTIAN (thoroughly biblical!)? Surely anybody who subscribes to the early ecumenical creeds and seeks to obey the teaching of Jesus should be considered a sister or brother in Christ and from whom we should be willing to learn?

    (4) Part of the problem with “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” (which comes out clearly in your posts) is the obsession with “correct doctrine”. I know many “non-evangelicals” who show a greater respect for Scripture in the way they teach and preach from it than many “evangelicals”. I prefer to look at a person’s practice (as did our Lord)than what he or she claims to believe. In my experience,many individuals, churches and organizations that loudly proclaim their “evangelical Bible-believing” credentials never actually read and teach the whole Bible but rather a Bible within the Bible (or they read and teach with theological spectacles inherited from their particular traditions or favourite preachers and authors).

    (5) You appear too wedded to a 17th century Puritan theological world, understanding the Gospel in individualistic terms of sin, guilt and justification. What about Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Paul’s presentation of the gospel of Reconciliation (Eph 2:14ff) as the creation of a new humanity? The scandalous divisions in our churches are a product of the uncritical importation of individualistic gospels from the US and Britain.

    (6) I don’t subscribe to several of the beliefs that you arbitrarily define as “evangelical”- e.g. inerrancy of the Bible, a historic Adam, eternal hell. If this qualifies me as a “liberal” in your eyes, so be it. But I think that would be to your loss, not mine.

    (7) You ask for references in recent scholarship regarding hilasterion and the Day of Atonement. Here are a couple of weighty volumes:

    T.Hieke and T. Nicklas (eds.), The Day of Atonement: Its Interpretation in early Jewish and Christian Traditions (Brill, 2013)

    J. Sklar, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions (Sheffield Phoenix, 2005)

    I admire your rich learning and zeal to defend what you see as fundamental biblical truths. Though I myself don’t regard as “fundamental” what you labour on, and think your gifts should be better deployed elsewhere, I remain your not-so-old-friend…


  3. Hi Vinoth,
    Not sure if this internet post is the best avenue for debating point-by-point over exegetical and doctrinal issues. In general I focus on giving a positive formulation of my theological position and trust my readers are able decide for themselves the plausibility and coherence of my view, but will give some pointers to answer your questions.

    1) It is surely better to rest doctrine, including PSA on direct discourse and didactic passages rather than on narratives and parables. In any case, to refute PSA even if it is not found in the parable of the Lost Son would be to refute a proposition based on argument from silence. However, in my view there is more solid evidence found elsewhere in the Bible.

    Regarding Acts, it is noted that Christology in Acts is focused on the resurrected and exalted Christ. One may strain a bit to take note of references to Christ’s suffering for believers (huper humon epathen – huper is a great word for substitutionary atonement in other passages and biblical books). Also relevant are similar passages in Acts referring to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Darrell Bock writes, “Morna Hooker is correct in emphasizing the humiliation and the innocent suffering of the Servant Jesus in his death…The Acts 8 text makes explicit what the Luke 22 text had made implicit, that is, the clear identification of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, one who died and suffered unjustly…one cannot miss that this death is a special one, full of injustice and representation. We are not discussing merely any unjust death here but one that speaks of a death for the many and their sins.” Darrell Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, ed. Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser (Kregel 2012), p. 141. The debate may then shift to whether penal substitution is found in Isa 53 (Of course I affirm PSA in Isaiah but that is another story).

    But surely, even if the book of Acts focuses on other aspects of Christology like resurrection and exaltation, the absence of evidence should not be interpreted as evidence of absence of preaching about PSA in earliest Christianity. We should include Peter’s (who is prominent in Acts) more explicit preaching on Christ substitutionary death in the Petrine epistles which are significant sources of “primitive Christianity”. (Oh yes, Peter describes how Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree in 1 Pet 2:24 // the curse in Deut 21:22 & “by his “by his wounds we are being healed” //Isaianic servant) It also makes good sense to base PSA on the more explicit references in Pauline epistles as supplementary sources of what the primitive church taught. If PSA is good enough for Paul, it is good enough for me.

    2) Btw the wrath of God is already revealed from heaven against all ungodliness in Rom 1:18 – we note the tension in NT eschatology between “the already” and the “not yet”. In this light, Paul pictures the Christian as having been saved, as looking forward to being saved, and even as in the process of being saved (cf. 2 Cor. 2:15; 2 Thess. 2:10).

    Reference of wrath in Rom 5:8-10: The justified status conveyed to the believer on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death issues in salvation from wrath. The temporal element in the verse makes clear that wrath refers here to eschatological judgment (cf. 2:5). “We will be saved” is, then, a genuine temporal future. As he typically does, Paul uses salvation language to depict the final deliverance of the believer from sin, death, and judgment. Salvation, accomplished in Christ and the believer’s appropriation of Christ, is finally realized only in the last day. This double temporal conception is typical of NT teaching, which insists on the absolute and final nature of the believer’s acceptance of salvation while also maintaining that salvation is not complete until the body is redeemed and glorified (cf. Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:21). It is precisely the tension set up by this “already-not yet” perspective that gives rise to the need to proclaim the unbreakable connection between the believer’s justification and his or her salvation from the wrath of God still to be poured out in the last day. Paul suggests the unbreakable connection between the two by insisting that, as initial salvation is “through his blood,” so final salvation is also “through him.” (John Murray; Similarly Doug Moo, Romans NICNT).

    (3) and (4) No need to comment at the moment.

    (5) It is interesting to find the accusation of individualism against PSA and the Puritans. Nothing could be further than the truth! Reformed Puritan theology is quintessentially covenant theology. The cross set in the context of God’s covenant can never be individualistic. How can reformed covenant theology be individualistic when it maintains the covenant of works in Adam which explains why Adam’s fall entails original sin, because of solidarity of the human race. On the other hand the same covenant solidarity is evident with the covenant of grace of the Second Adam (Christ). Actually, I have been toying for some time with the idea of writing a post to answer this charge of individualism. On the other hand, I wonder whether the very people who bring this charge against Covenant theology and deny solidarity of sin in Adam are inconsistent in presupposing solidarity of salvation in Christ’s salvation (Rom 5: 12-21). Without a covenantal ontology, are not these people not the ones who are on a slippery slide towards an individualist gospel?

    Finally, thanks for the recommended books. Will look them up. Will certainly hear more about these books if they are found persuasive by the scholarly community. I reserve judgment until I have finished reading the whole book by Sklar. Meanwhile, based on his article, ” Sin and Atonement: Lessons from the Pentateuch” BBR (2012) and his commentary on Leviticus (TOTC), I note that he basically categorizes sin into three types: (1)Unintentional sins, (2) intentional but not (necessarily) high-handed sins, and (3)high handed sins. The first two categories are atonable by means of sacrifice, but category (3) is not atonable by sacrifice (the exceptional nature of the Day of Atonement can be discussed another time) because it is rebellion or blasphemy against the Lord. In Sklar’s words, “the defiant sin against an apostate”. The high-handed sins is to be ‘cut of’, excommunicated or at most put to death. There is still a proviso, “this does not mean atonement was impossible, but there was no automatic guarantee of it as there was with sacrificial atonement”. The Lord may even forgive in non-sacrificial context for high-handed sin because in his mercy he does not necessarily treat sinners in the way they deserve, “not that discipline for sin will be avoided.”

    Notwithstanding these provisions, I note that Sklar keeps the institution of sacrifice for atonement pretty much in place. What would really settle the issue for us is what sacrifice in Leviticus means. This will require a full discussion of how the blood makes atonement. Sklar himself quotes the great Jewish commentator, Rashi – “‘Blood represents life, and it can threfore expiate life’. Basic to the theory of sacrifice in ancient Israel, as in many other ancient societies, where God could have exacted the life of the offender…[S]ubstitution could avert the danger with sacrificial blood being especially instrumental because it was the symbol of life. […] God accepts the blood of the sacrifices in lieu of human blood.” [ Sklar commentary on Leviticus 17]. This also requires more attention on how ‘blood’ and ‘death’ are related, perhaps a reprisal of the debate between Vincent Taylor and A.M. Stibbs-Leon Morris. This would explain why the Book of Hebrews says without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin – surely an affirmation of penal substitution.

    This is a preliminary observation. It is already a long note. I am open to further discussion and learning tho my view reflects much of traditional scholarship on sacrifice in ancient Israel.

    In any case, my theological hermeneutics agrees that NT interpretation should be grounded in the OT (interpreted from the perspective biblical theology rather than in contestable historical reconstruction which is certainly useful but nevertheless limited). Still, in the end the final and fuller revelation should be evident in the NT and decisive in our formulation of doctrine. The NT is hidden in the OT, but the OT is revealed more fully in the NT (tweaking & expanding on Augustine’s quote here). Another hermeneutical debate.

    Comments are not as brief as I anticipated. Ah, long comments require laborious typing in internet debate. Meanwhile may the Lord bless our different passions and ministries. God willing, he will bring us together one day so that we will be able to exchange our views more adequately. Will certainly be more fun.

  4. The following is excerpted (Hebrew words have been transliterated) from pages 19-22 of Jay Sklar, 2008, “Sin and Impurity: Atoned or Purified? Yes!,” pages 18-31 in Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible, edited by Baruch J. Schwartz, David P. Wright, Jeffrey Stackert and Naphtali S. Meshel, New York: T & T Clark. According to Sklar himself, “This essay draws heavily from my dissertation, now published as Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions (Hebrew Bible Monographs 2; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2005)”.

    A second approach understands atonement in terms of koper, that is, “ransom.” It is helpful in this regard to begin by defining the term koper. A survey of the various texts making use of this term leads to the following definition: “A koper is a legally or ethically legitimate payment that delivers a guilty party from a just punishment that is the right of the offended party to execute or to have executed. The acceptance of this payment is entirely dependent upon the choice of the offended party, it is a lesser punishment than was originally expected, and its acceptance serves both to rescue the life of the guilty and to appease the offended party, thus restoring peace to the relationship.”

    [Footnote to above paragraph] For fuller discussion, including the exegesis of the relevant texts (Exod 21:28–32; 30:11–16; Num 35:30–34; Ps 49:8–9 [ET 7–8]; Prov 6:20–35; 1 Sam 12:1–5; Amos 5:12; Isa 43:3–4; Job 33:24), see Sklar, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement, 48–67.

    [Sklar cites Jacob Milgrom (a Jewish Biblical scholar, the doyen of Levitical studies) and regards his comments as “helpful”:] “Therefore, there exists a strong possibility that all texts that assign to kipper the function of averting God’s wrath have koper in mind: guilty life spared by substituting for it the innocent parties or their ransom.” [Only the last sentence of the quote is reproduced here. The quote is taken from page 1082 of Volume 1 of Milgrom’s massive 3-volume commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series.]

    [Footnote to above paragraph] The last line of the above actually reads as follows: “Therefore, there exists a strong possibility that all texts that assign to kipper the function of averting God’s wrath have koper in mind: innocent [sic] life spared by substituting for it the guilty [sic] parties or their ransom.” In a private communication to the author, Milgrom states that he inadvertently switched the words “innocent” and “guilty” in the original, for which reason they are switched back in the above.

    In sum, forgiveness is not necessarily the remission of all penalty; it can refer to the allowance of a mitigated penalty—a koper—in place of the one deserved. This understanding of salah [forgiveness] fits very well in contexts where kipper and salah occur together: the sinner has breached the law of the LORD and can expect judgment to follow; instead, however, the sinner can bring a sacrifice, so that the priest can kipper (i.e. effect a koper-payment) on the sinner’s behalf with the result that this mitigated penalty is accepted and the sinner is forgiven (salah). To paraphrase the texts in Lev 4–5: “[…Hebrew…] (and the priest will effect a ransom payment for them) […Hebrew…] (and this mitigated penalty will be accepted in place of the one deserved, i.e. they will be forgiven).

Comments are closed.