July 7, 2017
Southern Baptist view of atonement is consistent with scripture and tradition
To the editor:
Recently Baptist News Global published an opinion article critical of the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution reaffirming the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. This author likened the Southern Baptist view to pagan superstition that demands the death of a young maiden to appease a volcano.
It is reasonable to consider whether the view of penal substitutionary atonement is elevated above other views of the atonement found in scripture. But the author goes far beyond this with the assertion that this view of the atonement is fundamentally at odds with Christian faith. Furthermore, the way in which he criticizes penal substitutionary atonement would apply to almost all of the different pictures of the atonement in scripture. In fact one might argue that the hymn he criticizes (In Christ Alone) is presenting the satisfaction theory of the atonement.
The author suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity makes it necessary to reject the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. I would argue that the atoning work of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian understanding of the divinity of Jesus. In fact, in the writing of Athanasius this is exactly the point of his argument! He is defending the understanding of Jesus as fully divine. Athanasius does this by arguing that it is this divine nature that makes the atoning sacrifice effective for the debt of sin. “For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering his own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by his death” (Athanasius, “On the Incarnation,” 9).
We find consistently throughout the tradition of theological reflection the understanding that Jesus’ death made atonement for sin. I would argue the reason for this consistency is because of the overwhelming scriptural tradition that has shaped the subsequent theological reflection of the church (John 3:16-18, Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 2:20-21,1 John 3:16).
The Southern Baptist view of the atonement is not outside of the tradition. I would encourage the inclusion of additional pictures of the atonement found in scripture. It seems to me that a more foundational question raised by this author is how we come to understand what God is doing in the world. The author asks what people are to think when they hear of this message. I think this is a revealing approach to the question. You would not expect a doctor to ask what a patient might want to hear, but what is in fact the diagnosis.
Luke Smith, Staunton, Va.
The writer is pastor of Linden Heights Baptist Church in Staunton, Va.