When it comes to social media, there is power in the blood.
“Questioning penal substitutionary atonement really brings out the 30-year-old white dudes in my feed,” contemporary Christian musician Michael Gungor commented during a Twitter storm he started Feb. 25 with the recommendation: “I would love to hear more artists who sing to God and fewer who include a Father murdering a son in that endeavor.”
Penal substitution is a notion developed during the Reformation that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, bearing the wrath of a righteous God. Promoted by the likes of John Calvin and Billy Graham, it was long the default position in Western Christianity but in recent decades has come under challenge from theologians who regard it divine child abuse.
“If you can’t think of anything to sing to God other than gratitude for taking your shame away through bloodshed, stop singing and look around,” Gungor said in a follow-up tweet.
Engaging online critics, the singer/songwriter who leads the Grammy-nominated musical collective Gungor said he didn’t “mean to minimize the meaning and symbolism of the cross for billions of Christians through the centuries.”
“I simply think blood sacrifice is a very limited and less than timely metaphor for what the cross can mean in our culture,” the Los Angeles-based entertainer revisited the topic the day after the original post.
“People used to slaughter animals to appease the wrath of the gods. Early Christians used the story of the cross to show how the blood sacrifice idea was unnecessary,” Gungor said. “Jesus was the ‘ultimate sacrifice.’ They could stop trying to get to God with violence.”
In proper context, Gungor said describing the cross as a blood sacrifice “is a beautiful metaphor.”
“To see it as literal and out of context — that God needed to be appeased with blood — is not beautiful,” he added. “It’s horrific.”
Owen Strachan, associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., took exception to Gungor’s argument in a Patheos blog Feb. 27.
“Gungor may think he is preserving a pristine and beautiful God by removing blood atonement from the equation,” Strachan said. “But in truth, Gungor’s move to sanitize God reworks the holy character of the divine, making God a less-than-holy figure, and leaves sinners without any of the benefits of the death of Christ.”
“Without Christ, we have none of the righteousness of Christ, no redemption by his work, no propitiation of divine wrath, no sonship in the Son, no reconciliation with God, no reconciliation with fellow blood-bought sinners, and no victory over Satan, sin, death, and hell,” Strachan expounded.
“A Christ who does not give his life as a ransom for sin (Mark 10:45) is a Christ of good feelings, a Christ of emotional solidarity with sinners, a Christ who feels positively toward the lost, but who does nothing to redeem them,” Strachan said.
Gungor is no stranger to theological controversy. In 2014 he and his wife, Lisa, roiled the contemporary Christian music scene by saying they didn’t take the Genesis accounts of creation and Noah’s flood literally.
He also isn’t the first Christian musician to face controversy over the atonement. In 2013 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dropped plans to include the hymn “In Christ Alone” in a new hymnal after authors Keith and Kristyn Getty refused permission to alter the phrase “as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”
The Atonement, the term used to describe the sacrificial work of Jesus for sinners, is a central doctrine in Christianity, but theologians have long debated what it means.
Frank Stagg, a longtime professor at both New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., rejected the propositional concept of substitutionary atonement in a 1951 paper, “The Rationale of the Cross.”
“The aim of the cross is reconciliation and forgiveness,” Stagg said in an excerpt quoted in a collection of essays honoring his work published in 1985 by Mercer University Press.
“These are creative,” Stagg wrote. “The aim is to effect a transformation in us. God’s way of Jesus confronts man; man is condemned, he fears and hates so he tries to destroy Jesus; but in this encounter man may be converted by Him who utterly refused to act for Himself — by Him who gave even his life.”
Fisher Humphreys, who taught at both New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School before his retirement in 2008, offered an alternative to penal substitution called “cruciform forgiveness” in a 1978 book titled The Death of Christ published by Southern Baptist publisher Broadman Press.
Humphreys’ suggestion that Christ’s death was salvific but not theologically necessary became an undercurrent in the inerrancy controversy that divided the Southern Baptist Convention at the end of the 20th century.
“The atonement was, in fact, necessary in order to fulfill the Scriptures,” conservative resurgence co-founder Paige Patterson said in a 2011 essay looking back on his debate with Humphreys about the book held on the campus of New Orleans Seminary in 1987.
Today the atonement debate in the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics is over the purpose of Christ’s death.
“I think that of all the five points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the most controversial, and the one that engenders perhaps the most confusion and consternation,” Ligonier Ministries founder R.C. Sproul wrote in an article published in 2012.
Sproul, a member of the Calvinist Presbyterian Church in America, said he prefers the term “definite” atonement or redemption to communicate “that God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Christ died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him.”
A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, posted online by Connect316, a group formed to counterbalance organizations promoting Calvinism in the SBC, affirms penal substitution but denies “that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.”