Editor’s note: We recently published Steve Harmon’s and Curtis Freeman’s response to the Southern Baptist Convention’s affirmation of the theological concept of penal substitutionary atonement. That prompted a reply from two Southern Baptist writers, Lucas Stamps and Matthew Emerson. Harmon and Freeman are continuing the conversation with the following piece.
We want to express our appreciation to Lucas Stamps and Matthew Emerson in their call for Southern Baptists to reclaim the whole of the Christian faith and heritage. We regard them as fellow pilgrims on a journey, not of returning to an un-historicized ideal of biblical Christianity or even to our radically reformed Baptist roots, but toward participation in the life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, which encompasses more, not less, of our identity in Christ. As fellow travelers, we share much in common, especially in the desire to reclaim the catholicity that belongs to all Christians. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, all things are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21-23). This is the catholicity we seek. Yet the nature of this unity is a matter of contestation. We offer a rejoinder to their response to our article on violence and the atonement, then, not as an act of debate or correction, but rather of clarification.
We want to be clear that we seek to embrace all biblical images of the drama of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ. We share the concern expressed in the Southern Baptist resolution that the language of Christ’s vicarious suffering is inescapable, and indeed essential to the gospel. Scripture attests to him as bearing “our infirmities and diseases,” being “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities,” and having “laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6). Though prophetic texts like this one have a complex hermeneutical horizon, we nevertheless share the conviction with the earliest Christians and with Christians through the ages, who identified these descriptions as finding their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth (Act 8:35).
Part of our struggle is with the suggestion that this suffering is more, or rather different. That Christ’s death is penal. That the cross should be thought of primarily, if not exclusively, as canceling the guilt of past transgression. Our problem with this expression is that penal suffering is not redemptive suffering. As Baptist theologian W. T. Conner put it in his classic statement The Gospel of Redemption, “The cross of Christ as presented in the New Testament does more than cancel the guilt of past sin; it is the one and only source and dynamic of the Christian life.” We worry that in pushing back so hard against critics who refuse to accept the vicarious suffering of Jesus, the Southern Baptist statement narrows the scope of Christ’s redemptive work to this one image, and in so doing impoverishes the gospel.
To give a faithful account of the deliverance of God in Jesus Christ requires more than telling the story of the cross. Any theology that seeks to do justice to the whole of Scripture must understand Christ’s atoning work as transformational, encompassing his life, death, resurrection and glorification. It demands a presentation of the incarnate faithfulness of Jesus Christ who, as Athanasius of Alexandria succinctly said, “became what we are that we might become what he is.” The problem is that for much of evangelical theology, the Incarnation simply does no theological work. It only serves the purpose of getting Jesus to earth so he can die for our sins. Here we note that the Nicene Creed confesses that “for us humans and for our salvation [Christ] came down from the heavens and became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.”
It is not surprising, then, that the Apostle Paul declares that “we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” and thus “having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). It is this sense of being saved by Christ’s life, not simply by his death, that we turn to the non-violent servanthood embodied in the life of Jesus as a source of our transformation. By learning to follow him in this way of radical obedience we learn what it means to live into this salvation that he made possible — a way that includes learning to be reconciled with our enemies without resorting to violence.
We commend Matt Emerson’s critique of evangelical Christians who refuse to address the violent culture of systemic injustice that continues to result in the deaths of so many innocent African Americans. However, we contend that the root of the problem is not simply a “truncated canon,” but rather of a notion of violence that is inherent to the preaching of many evangelical Christians, indeed to many Southern Baptists. As we said in our earlier statement, the preaching of a penal substitutionary view, not merely its caricature, presents an account of the cross in which God is violent and the endorser of violence. We contend that this is a truncated account of the gospel. And we further contend that limiting the redemptive work of Christ to the cross, interpreted exclusively in penal terms, results in (as the SBC resolution explicitly states) “a warrior-savior,” which underwrites and endorses the very violence they wish to critique.
We agree with Stamps and Emerson that “substitution, recapitulation, and victory go hand-in-hand.” But we worry that rather than broadening the scope of God’s reconciling work, the SBC resolution narrows the focus, not just to one image, but to an even narrower “theory of atonement,” which explains, as the resolution states, “what evangelical Baptists have long since preached and believed.” We reject the notion of theorizing the atonement, and instead regard the so-called theories, summarized as “substitution, recapitulation, and victory” to be theological applications of root metaphors in Scripture pointing to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. To put it simply, we do not believe that any theory sufficiently displays God’s reconciling work.
It is simply not the case that penal substitution is that faith which has been believed “everywhere, always, by all.” It has been and remains a divisive and disputed doctrine, not a catholic one. It is affirmed only by some Protestants, and until recently it was judiciously omitted from the Baptist Faith and Message statements. The early church in its ecumenical councils was wise not to include as the orthodox faith any particular interpretation of the manner in which the cross of Christ saves us. Rather than theorizing, we argue that the only way to give a faithful account of redemption is “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” We fear that subsuming the deliverance of God into the conception of “retributive justice,” as Emerson and Stamps suggest, further abstracts our experience of redemption from the Gospel narrative which does not explain how, but only tells by whom this mystery is wrought.
The grace that meets the world in Jesus Christ is a sheer gift that is radically discontinuous with what comes before. In Christ a new world has come. The old humanity of Adam’s race is fallen and imprisoned. It is fading away. The new humanity that comes through Christ is a reconciled and redeemed creation. In Christ the old has passed away, and the new has come into being (2 Cor. 5:17). The reconciling work of Christ thus frees all the sons and daughters of earth from the powers that would determine their lives and opens up the space in which it is possible to live as free people. That is good news.