Baptist Catholicity and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

by R. Lucas Stamps and Matthew Y. Emerson

At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last month, the messengers adopted a resolution titled, “On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Afterward, two “Other Baptists,”[1] Steve Harmon of Gardner-Webb University and Curtis Freeman of Duke Divinity School, responded to the resolution with a mostly critical piece in Baptist News.[2] Harmon and Freeman are both identified with the so-called Bapto-Catholic movement of moderate Baptists in North America and have, in many ways, paved the way toward a richer understanding of catholicity among Baptists in the twenty-first century. They have continually pointed their readers and students to a vision of Baptist life that is not cut off from the wider Christian tradition but that learns from it and speaks into it. While we do not wish to address every detail of the resolution and the criticisms leveled against it, we do want to address Freeman and Harmon’s critique of the doctrine of penal substitution. Because of their knowledge of the Christian tradition and their insistence that Baptists learn from it, it is surprising to see how quickly they bifurcate between a substitutionary model of the atonement and one that emphasizes solidarity. They summarize their dissent from the resolution thusly:

The root of our disagreement with the penal substitutionary atonement resolution is a differing location of the ultimate source of the violence of the cross. If it is God, then the cross reveals God as violent and the endorser of violence. If instead it is, as the Apostle Paul clearly states, that our Lord was crucified by “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8), then the cross exposes humanity’s violence as sinful. It also reveals God’s solidarity with those who suffer violence and Jesus’ nonviolent way as that which triumphs over violence.

The remainder of their discussion of the resolution focuses on rejecting an understanding of God as “violent” and of violence itself as “redemptive.”

As those who are interested in the visible catholicity of the church, both in doctrine and practice, we feel compelled to respond to Harmon and Freeman on this issue. While we appreciate their work in other areas related to catholicity, we feel that here especially they are the ones who have missed the mark, not those who affirm penal substitutionary atonement. While we want to affirm with Freeman and Harmon that Christ’s death on the cross is one that Jesus undergoes in solidarity with us, we reject the notion that solidarity should be falsely dichotomized from substitution. To demonstrate this, our response will proceed on two levels: biblical and historical.

Regarding the biblical data, Harmon and Freeman are correct to say that Paul identifies “the rulers of this age” (Col. 2:8) as those who crucified our Lord. They might have also quoted Peter on the day of Pentecost when he spoke to the Jewish leaders concerning “. . . this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:23). And yet that ellipsis is crucial to responding to Harmon and Freeman, as well as other detractors from a penal substitutionary model of the atonement, for Peter’s complete statement affirms that Jesus was “delivered up according to the plan and foreknowledge of God.” We could add to these passages other texts that speak of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for sin, such as Rom. 3:26; 2 Cor. 5:21; and Heb. 2:17. We should also make explicit mention of Gal. 3:13 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” The context of this passage in Galatians and in its original context in Deuteronomy make clear that this curse is one placed by God on those who have disobeyed his law. In other words, Christ taking the Mosaic Law’s curse is exactly the kind of forensic relationship which penal substitution addresses. This text and others in the New Testament are thus rooted in the Old Testament’s conception of the holiness of God, his wrath toward sin, and the necessity of an atoning sacrifice for forgiveness. While Harmon and Freeman insist that penal substitution is rooted in a misreading of the biblical narrative, they simply do not address these texts regarding God’s holiness and his wrath toward sinners – both individuals and nations. Instead, they insist that “redemptive violence” is dangerous and non-scriptural, seemingly equating penal substitution with many other evangelical arguments for the death penalty. We believe that this move makes the same mistake that they accuse the resolution of, namely, tying atonement theories to a particular position on the death penalty or just war. We would argue that “violence” is a category error when applied to the outworking of God’s retributive justice, and that a commitment to PSA does not necessarily settle the complicated ethical issues surrounding capital punishment and war. In any event, we believe that Harmon and Freeman did not deal adequately with the mountain of biblical evidence for the wrath and judgment of a holy God.

Regarding the history of doctrine, all would acknowledge that at least since Anselm a satisfaction model of the atonement has been prominent in the West. Its heritage can be traced through Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, and Balthasar, just to name a few. To say, then (as many modern theologians do), that a particular view is not catholic when it has been held by many of the church’s major theologians since the late medieval period is a misnomer at best. It is also misleading regarding the historical data prior to Anselm. Contrary to popular opinion, substitutionary themes, while not the most prominent emphasis in the Patristic and early medieval periods, were nevertheless not entirely absent.[3] While we would certainly acknowledge that other themes, like victory and recapitulation, are of first importance to early Christian theologians, this does not entail the complete lack of substitution or satisfaction language about the atonement prior to the late medieval period.

Satisfaction and substitution can be seen especially in the citations of Gal. 3:13 by early Christian theologians. To cite but two brief examples, Athanasius says, “He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He ‘become a curse’ otherwise than by accepting the accursed death?”[4] And Gregory Nazianzen, in his Fourth Theological Oration, says,

But look at it in this manner:  that as for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account.[5]

Notice that Gregory associates “curse” with his own disobedience toward God, i.e. a legal consequence for his actions. where Christ becomes the curse of sin for us. Yes, the early Christians emphasized Christ’s victory over the powers, and we do not want to anachronistically read the explicit and fully formed Reformation doctrine of satisfaction back into the early church. But we also recognize that the early church did not falsely dichotomize their predominantly victorious and recapitulative model of the atonement from a less prominent but still attested substitutionary model. This is because substitution, recapitulation, and victory go hand-in-hand.[6] As Paul says in Col. 2:13–15,

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

God both cancels the record of debt against us and disarms the rulers and authorities in the death of Christ. God substitutes Christ for us, and in doing so prevails over his enemies. This has been the church’s confession, from the apostolic period through the Patristic and medieval periods, into the Reformation, post-Reformation, and modern periods. While various periods of church history emphasized one model over the others, they are never parceled out and pitted against one another, as modern theologians seem anxious to do. It is on this hope that we base our faith and trust, that Christ has paid our debts, restored the image of God, and defeated our enemies through his shed blood on the cross. Soli Deo Gloria.


[1] Curtis Freeman uses this moniker in his book on Baptist catholicity, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014).


[3] See Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

[4] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4.25. In context, it is clear that the curse humanity is under is one stemming from their disobedience to God – a just penalty, in other words.

[5] Gregory Nazianzen, Fourth Theological Oration, V. See also on this Ephrem the Syrian, Nisibene Hymn 36. Ephrem connects recapitulation, victory, and satisfaction all in two stanzas. And while the satisfaction we see in that hymn, and others from both Ephrem and other early Christians, is related to ransom, we should note that ransom is never more than one step away from the justice of God. Even if the ransom is paid to Satan, and not God, as it is explicitly in Origen, there is a ransom to be paid precisely because death is the proper penalty for sin.

[6] See also on this Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 462–535.