The row surrounding the controversial book 'The Lost Message of Jesus' has intensified, threatening splits within Evangelicalism, with a public statement issued by the Evangelical Alliance accusing the author, Rev Steve Chalke, of "avoiding" the "key biblical texts" from which the idea of penal substitution is created.
In a statement, The Evangelical Alliance publicly attacked Steve Chalke for questioning the doctrine of 'Penal Substitution', urged him to "think again" and said he had "insufficient appreciation" of the extent to which the idea had shaped Evangelicalism.
The statement follows a debate in Westminster which some saw as a modern-day equivalent of an historical theological inquisition. Organised by the Evangelical Alliance last month and attended by close to 1,000 people, Steve Chalke was asked to publicly respond to his critics.
Steve Chalke's book "The Lost Message of Jesus" provoked outcry from conservative Evangelicals after several pages questioned the idea that God punished his son by sending him to the cross - otherwise known as 'penal substitution'.
Penal substitution is one of a number of ways that Evangelicals understand the cross. It holds that God had to punish people for their sin, but Jesus took their place, and God punished him instead.
In his book, whilst accepting that the cross provides forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God, Steve Chalke suggests that the penal substitutionary view encompasses a misunderstanding of the character of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ. But the statement issued today by the Evangelical Alliance, which follows pressure from its more theologically conservative members, says that Steve Chalke has avoided, "rather than seriously address, the key biblical texts typically cited in defence of the penal substitutionary view." The statement recognised Steve Chalke's "contribution to the churchís social mission and community engagement" and acknowledged his call "for more detailed study and discussion on this matter".
However it continued; "we are concerned that in Steveís case there has been insufficient appreciation of the extent to which penal substitution has shaped, and continues to inform, Evangelical understanding of the atonement." "In particular, we regret that he has tended to avoid, rather than seriously address, the key biblical texts typically cited in defence of the penal substitutionary view (e.g. Isaiah 53:6-10; Romans 1:18; 3:22-5; 5:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:11-28; 1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 4:10)." It continued; "We trust that instead of dismissing penal substitution out of hand as a false teaching tantamount to ëcosmic child abuseí, Steve will recognise its significant place in the range of atonement theories to which Evangelicals have characteristically subscribed."
Steve Chalke has however publicly recognised that Evangelicals have historically held such a view.
At the debate in Westminster, Steve Chalke made clear that he accepted ideas of sin, God's anger, substitution, sacrifice and redemption, contained in traditional atonement theory. He said however that it was the idea of a vengeful and vindictive God that was at odds with the revelation of Jesus Christ in the gospels.
Suggesting that Steve had not been positive enough in debates with Conservatives, the Alliance said; "We also trust that he (Steve Chalke) will interact more positively both with the theology which underpins it, and with that vast majority of Evangelicals across the world who continue to affirm it. It may be true, as Steve has claimed, that Evangelicals are often perceived to be harsh, censorious and ungracious, and that this can hamper evangelism. However, we do not accept Steveís assertion of a causal or necessary link between affirming penal substitution and being harsh, censorious and ungracious." During the recent Westminster debate, Dr Anna Robbins, a Lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at the London School of Theology, made the link between understandings of atonement and social ethics. A penal substitution understanding of atonement, it has been suggested, implies a belief that violence is redemptive - something rejected by Christians who believe that Jesus was opposed to violence, and preached a non-violent Kingdom of God.
Steve Chalke is not the first Evangelical to question the doctrine. Evangelical scholars including James Dunn, Stephen Travis, Nigel Wright, Clark Pinnock, Robert Brow, Mark Baker and Joel Green, had all questioned the biblical basis of penal substitution, and the importance accorded to it in Evangelicalism.
However at the end of the recent Westminster, Joel Edwards, director of the Evangelical Alliance said that the Alliance's statement of faith implied an acceptance of Penal Substitution. His conclusion called into question whether many Evangelicals can continue to be members, and so also threatens splits within Evangelicalism.
The latest statement from the Evangelical Alliance re-affirmed his position;"While the Evangelical Alliance Basis of faith does not use the explicit terms ëpenalí, ëpenaltyí or ëpunishmentí in relation to what it calls the ësubstitutionary sacrificeí of Christ, our research confirms that the Executive Council which approved the Basis in 1970 took it as entailing and implying penal substitution"; the statement said.
"We believe that its affirmations of universal human sin and guilt, divine wrath and condemnation, and the substitutionary, sacrificial and redemptive nature of Christís death, together comprise the key elements in the doctrine of penal substitution."
The statement concludes by urging Steve Chalke "to reconsider both the substance and style of his recently expressed views on this matter." The Alliance said it was planning a special symposium on the atonement.