Penal Substitionary Atonement

It was interesting encountering arguments about this in my reading this week. I learned that proponents of this atonement theory hold to it passionately.

Legalism reads the scriptures of wrath and judgment through the lens of punishment and debt. Love reads the same scriptures with a lens that sees God’s determination for reconciliation.

The wrath of God was not against us. The focus of His wrath is against sin because He loves us. It is the wrath of mankind that was poured out upon Jesus.

Jesus did not die to either punish or fix our behavior. Rather than a punishment, his crucifixion was a cure. Sin is the root of our brokenness. Whether it results in murder or low self-esteem, in lust or loneliness, the need for healing is the same.

There is an interesting discussion about all of this following Tony Jones’ post, Why Jesus Died:

Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God’s wrath burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.

I’m with Tony here. I do not find it compelling or in keeping with Scripture that God’s wrath burned against Jesus or against us.

In response to Tony’s post, Michael Spencer said:

Seems the room is full of people who believe in the incarnation, believe Jesus became one with us, believe in the humanity of Jesus, believe in the loving, Trinitarian God and STILL believe that Jesus bore the Father’s wrath against sin in our place.

Jesus bore the complete weight of the curse of sin and death FOR US, but I do not believe that He bore the wrath of the Father, even the Father’s wrath against sin. Substitution, yes. Substitution as targets of God’s anger, no.

Both “the wrathful God demanding payment” and “Jesus as our example of humility” neglect the passion of God’s intention to restore us to Himself. This quote from Rachel Mee-Chapman represents the opposite end of the spectrum:

“You know what? Jesus did not die for my sins. He died because his message of equity, justice, and charity clashed with the political and religious leaders of his time. He died because he was teaching people things that threatened the power of the institutions. He died because he lived in a time and a place where insurrectionists were nailed to a cross. It was terribly sad–bloody and raw and awful–but it had nothing to do with the consequences of my actions.”

Absolutely not! Thank God Jesus did die for my sin. It was much more than a political tragedy and subversion of empire. God was not demanding payment for my bad behavior. He remedied the terminal condition that I was born into. I needed to be restored, I needed to know forgiveness, and I needed to be loved in a way that had nothing to do with my own merit.

Sin was dealt with decisively on the cross as Christ willingly gave His life to defeat the power of death and alienation that ruled over His creation. We should never diminish what He accomplished or why He did it.


47 thoughts on “Penal Substitionary Atonement

  1. It’s interesting that this topic came up several other places as well…

    This weeks podcast on also contrasted penal substitution with a less “legal” based view.

  2. joel,
    I’ll have to listen to that. I always enjoy hearing Wayne. I guess it isn’t surprising that we would be looking at the “why” of the crucifixion as we celebrate Easter.

    I know, isn’t that amazing? I’m not a heretic. :)

  3. I liked this Grace:

    “Legalism reads the scriptures of wrath and judgment through the lens of punishment and debt. Love reads the same scriptures with a lens that sees God’s determination for reconciliation.”

    I also like the way that you say that God’s wrath is against sin.. maybe folks can’t see it because the identify more with their sin?

    Happy Monday!

  4. It’s amazing how much more clearly the ancients understood “sin” to be a holistic, inter-humanity-level thing than do we moderns, thus necessitating this spirit-depleting debate.

    Grace and Peace,

  5. bob,
    Sadly, we are taught that it is part of the Christian walk to deeply identify with our sin.

    So true. When we see sin as simply an issue of morals and behavior, we miss the depth of sin itself and the extent to which we’ve been rescued.

    I haven’t read it. From what I’ve heard, he believes in a multi-faceted understanding that incorporates many of the atonement theories. I can see how that may be necessary to grasp all that is involved in atonement. I don’t know if he distinguishes between psa and substitutionary atonement.

  6. I would mostly agree. The main danger in the traditional view of the atonement has always been that we end up with the completely heathen idea of an angry god who needs to be appeased through sacrifice.

    I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying that Jesus bore only the curse of sin but not the wrath of God against sin. When Jesus talks in the garden about drinking the cup what other cup could it possibly be other than the cup of God’s wrath?

  7. The other reference I was thinking of as one of the clearest interpretations of the cross as an act of God’s judgement of sin would be at the end of Romans 8:3, ” And so he condemned sin in sinful man …”

  8. If I may add a couple quotes from N.T. Wright (who consistently has argued against Anselm’s view of the atonement and other caricatures), from his book “The Challenge of Jesus”:

    The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the “cup of YHWH’s wrath.” These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself” [pp. 60, 61].

    “Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again [Ibid, 48-49].”


  9. I have been giving a lot of thought lately to how to interpret some things in the Old Testament, and I have come to a tentatively-held position:

    Until the revelation of the Father in Jesus, we did not really have a good understanding of who the Father was. For example, take the Israelites. They stood at the foot of a mountain where our Father was calling all of them to the top. He wanted to meet them personally, but they were scared of him.

    Were they right to be scared of him? According to the revelation in Jesus, no. They mistook a loving Father for a Father of anger and danger.

    So, when the Old Testament writers wrote about the Father, I am leaning toward believing that they were not accurate in their portrayal. If they had been accurate, Jesus would have come on the scene with a much different attitude. He would not have talked about a Father, but a Judge. He would not have talked about love, but about punishment.

    Isaiah started to see this a bit when, in chapter 53, he said, “But we esteemed him stricken of God.” (emphasis mine) It was our perspective that was messed up.

    Furthermore, the New Testament uses the word “ransom” with regard to the death of Jesus. I think this begs the question, “To whom was this ransom paid?” Who was the god of this world? Who held mankind captive because of sin?

    Hint: It wasn’t the Father ;)

  10. Interesting topic… I’ve been questioning the same lately too. The book “He Loves Me” by Wayne Jacobsen got me rethinking it. (free download)

    Does God ever quit loving us? Did God stop loving Jesus when he was on the cross? I’m OK with a loving father disciplining his children – but can killing ever be done in love? There’s gotta be a better way to describe it than God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus….

    Good thoughts.

  11. Jesus GAVE his life – the Father didn’t kill Him. Jesus could have called to the Father – and a legion of angels would have immediately freed Him (or maybe He was delusional when He said that?? …… NOT)

    At anytime in the entire passion – He could have simply walked away from it – just like He had at other times when they came to kill Him. But He didn’t…..

    And yes it does get very personal – I’m Barabas – the one wanted for insurrection and murder (believe me I’ve been accused of insurrection (the unforgivable sin)) – the one who should have been nailed to the cross – but I the guilty one – go free – and He the innocent One – who had no reason to die – goes to the cross. That is substitutionary.

    A lamb sacrificed for me – a passover lamb for a family …. and progressively – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world.

    Yes Steve and amen – I never looked at that passage that way! We esteemed Him stricken of God … like one from whom men hide their faces…. the Jewish thought was that if you had God’s favor – you didn’t end up in that situation. (This is still the hyper-faith teaching of many Charismatic believers) Call your God now and see if He will save you was what the mockers said (and the mockers still say this to us).

    God’s anger did burn – against the serpent who had bruised the heal of man. And as sinful man shoved the spear of the cross – with a Sinless Lamb hanging on it – into the place of the skull (Golgotha) – the skull was crushed. What an awesome picture Golgotha is – a snake’s skull – with a wooden stake (cross) driven thru it. You will bruise his heal – he will crush your head !!!! Triumphing over principalities and powers – by the CROSS. This is not a story that was to be continued in hell ….. IT IS FINISHED right there on the cross.

    This was a war – not against man – but against that power which held man captive. The anger was not against man, all of man had fallen in Adam – it was not against Jesus – the perfect One – who knew no sin – all of man would be lifted in Jesus (the Second Adam). The anger was against his enemy…. the devil.

  12. “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolator – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath (*orge) comes on those who are disobedient.” Ephesian 5:5,6

    (*orge – an abiding anger, an active emotion. It is the same term used of Jesus’ emotions when He was confronted by the Jewish leaders in Mark 3:5.)

    Can we in our desire to evolve God into someone more to our understanding ignore such passages as these?

  13. josh,
    I think that Jesus shares God’s wrath toward sin. I believe they, as God, determined to carry the full effect of sin in order to destroy its curse over mankind and creation. I believe the cup is the cup of suffering the full weight of sin and death. In that He put an end to (condemned) the hold that sin had over mankind (who were born into the curse of fallenness). I absolutely agree that on the cross Jesus carried the full load of sin for us.

    Big surprise, I share your perspective. :)
    The problem has always been that our view of God is messed up. Jesus came to show us what God is really like, and He said, if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father. Yet so often, it seems that we have trouble believing the fullness of the Father’s sacrificial love for us.

    I’ve always wanted to read that. I agree that the way PSA is typically described doesn’t contribute to understanding the nature and character of God.

    I appreciated your comments on Tony’s recent posts. As you said there, substitution is everywhere throughout Scripture. It’s the penal (punishment) aspect that I question.

    While many of the thoughts in your post were unfamiliar to me, your statement that sin is not something God punishes us for, but rather sin is what God rescues us from describes my views. Likewise, other similar views we share are salvation as liberation, freedom from sin and freedom to know God, our inclusion in Christ, and citizenship in the kingdom. Much of the rest of it is over my head, but I agree that what you describe as the Orthodox position respects the unity of the Trinity.

    Beautifully said. Substitution, sacrifice, and triumph over the enemy, absolutely!

    I hope to hold all of my views about this in humility, willing to continue to learn and not desiring to conform the truth to my own liking.

    I don’t know what to do with Ephesians 5:6. When I read it, I see that from the very beginning, it is always because of believing lies, deceit, and empty words that man has fallen into sin.

    While I hold my interpretation loosely, I also consider the possibility of interpretive errors. Here are a few of the versions I looked at:

    Let no one deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the anger of God upon the sons of the disobedience (Young’s Literal Translation)

    No man deceive you by vain words; for why for these things the wrath of God came upon the sons of unbelief. (Wycliffe, the only one that uses past tense)

    Do not let anyone fool you by their empty talk. It is because people do these wrong things that God is very angry. He is angry with the people who do not obey him. (Worldwide English, hate this one)

  14. I don’t have a (“The”) handle on theis either. I am just cautioning that we cannot only embrace texts and interpretations that fit what we want to believe about God. God is bigger than our ‘boxes’. However, when I watch Jesus (the express image of the Father), His angerwas not directed at the prostitutes, the adultresses, the tax collectors, and other ‘common’ sinners. His anger was directed at the religious leaders who hardened their hearts against His message – and who hindered by intimidation those who would draw near. Perhaps Paul’s statement is more applicable to those who through the use of empty words … religious folks who would use their concept of God and His ways … to deceive those who would otherwise draw near to Christ’s teachings and example.

    Just a thought – not fully worked out yet.

  15. The P in PSA does not sit right with me at all. Personally, I think its a HUGE problem in Christendom- at the root of much apathy and abusiveness. After all, if GOD punished the innocent for the guilty, one is “god-like” to do likewise, and the guilty one gets a “free pass” since the innocent was punished in his place, so what motivation is there to change? It was just a “legal transaction”, nothing transformational. I see the P as theologians projecting their experience with angry fathers onto God. It really character assassinates God and makes him in the image of man (and not even a good man).

    Here’s some of my thoughts on the atonement:
    Christians are NOT saved from the wrath of God against sin:
    -our bodies die (a universally experienced consequence of sin)
    -If a Christian sins, they will suffer the consequences for it: Eph 5:6, Col 3:5-7, Gal 6:7-8, Romans 13:4, Hebrews 12:4-8

    Christians are NOT saved from Satan:
    Job 1:7-11, Luke 22:31-32, 1 Cor 5:5

    In Christ, Adam’s decision is reversed and We ARE SAVED from ourselves, from our own flesh. This is a process, just like DEATH is a process (though Adam was told “the DAY you eat of it you shall surely die”, the fact is that DEATH was a process. LIFE is a process too.) I could quote probably a hundred verses that identify FAITH and BELIEF as keys.
    “without FAITH, it is impossible to please GOD”

    I think self-righteousness and Pharisaism is not limited to the historical context of the 1st century but is alive and well today. People think they are IN because they behave a certain way and believe certain doctrines. And they look down their noses on those they think are OUT. I think they are focused on “good and evil” and they consider themselves the judge of that. Basically, in Garden of Eden terms, they have put themselves in the place of God, they see “good and evil”/sin and “righteousness”… But the righteousness they see and commend is as filthy rags. Its worthless works. And the world looks at the “Christians” and sees NO love and NO resemblance to Christ.

  16. In Christ, Adam’s decision is reversed and We ARE SAVED from ourselves, from our own flesh. This is a process, just like DEATH is a process (though Adam was told “the DAY you eat of it you shall surely die”, the fact is that DEATH was a process. LIFE is a process too.) I could quote probably a hundred verses that identify FAITH and BELIEF as keys.
    “without FAITH, it is impossible to please GOD”

    Good thoughts…

    Yes, for Adam & Eve it was a process of decay their physical bodies experienced. For us, that process is the promise of the mortal passing away to immortality…

    I do believe God’s promise of life was given to Adam & Eve & their progeny. They were not left hopeless to be for us just a theological example we point to from our current timeline existence.

    God’s provision of the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” represented in Abel’s sacrifice. That sacrifice freely given. No law had been declared & etched in stone from a smoking mountain meant to intimidate the cowering. Abel quick to sense the heart of God & what was already pleasing to Him…

    What an amazing typology…

  17. I really enjoyed this post. It is something I have been in the process of reconsidering for some time now.

    I believe that Hebrews 1:1-3 is a huge key to our understanding of the character of God. So much of what I hear used as an example of the wrath of God comes from the Old Testament. And yet, according to the passage in Hebrews, the Old Testament understanding of God was incomplete (if not skewed at times).

    I think of it alot like using the word “but” in a sentence. When the word “but” occurs midway through a sentence, it basically means that everything that was said prior to the “but” is now inconsequential. The “but” changes the direction of the sentence. I look at Jesus in the same way. I believe that Jesus is God’s “but” in the narrative of redemption (go ahead and laugh)! He supercedes and overrides all previous understandings that mankind has had about God. Jesus reveals God’s character and His attitude toward humanity. After all, “what greater love has any man than this, that he should lay down his life for a friend.”

  18. Agree with you there Raborn.Take a look at some of Rene Girard’s work on the Atonement based on up to date anthropological research regarding the development of sacrifice within ancient cultures.One of his theologian friends has written a great take on the whole atonement idea called ‘Saved From Sacrifice’.Forget his name -sorry.

  19. You guys are sounding like “Red Letter” Christians :)

    I love that Raborn says “Jesus is God’s “but” in the narrative of redemption”.

    I think that we err when we interpret the scriptures through anything other than the words and example of Jesus. In a sense we always needs to interpret the word with the Word.

  20. I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit different to the rest of the group!

    I can kind of sympathise with the PSA model (it was recently a big news item in the UK when Steve Chalke critisised it in one of his books – and did look into it as part of my theology studies at the time). I find that I am able to reconcile it in my head and from my understanding of scripture.

    However where I have a problem is with the tendency to over emphasis this model, I see that as a matter of theological idolatry!

    The way I understand the Atonement is as a collection of lots of different models, i.e. Jesus death and resurrection accomplished so many things that it is nigh on impossible to say that one or other is the key!

  21. Kansas Bob you sound a wee bit like a Northern Irish Presbyterian Calvinist clergyman with your ‘interpet the Word With the Word.’The trouble is some of the Word (Holy Scriptures not Jesus) may not actually be the Word e.g. 2nd Peter,Jude etc.I personally think we have nothing to fear from bringing modern discoveries in many field’s eg anthropology,linguistics etc to see new and perhaps truer things in Scripture than our traditional Church Fathers found with their limited knowledge and sources.Love the story of Jesus in the Scriptures but let’s not them God instead of Him!

  22. Charlie:


    You want to ‘rewrite’ the N.T.?

    Where do you begin … where do you end?

    You DO still believe in the atonement, right?

  23. Ken thanks for your question.As a teenager I was drawn to evangelical Christianity as the answer to my search for meaning and truth.After many years of keeping the lid on my unease at many standard beliefs I moved on until God hijacked me once more with an experience of ‘liquid love’.I learnt that day that belief is not the vacuuum that God is attracted to but weakness and honesty.Luther got revelation regarding Romans.Did he rewrite the New Testament or was something new revealed to him?Girard says that the New Testament Gospels reveal an upside down version of what antropological critics have always said i.e. that sacrificial Christianity is just the same as all the older sacrificial cults.Girard says it says the opposite – the sacrifice was not to please an angry God but a result of angry violent men both religious and political.God has now debunked the blood sacrifice myth by exhonourating the innocent God victim Jesus of Nazareth.No longer can the blood sacrifice thing hold people in its grip.
    An examination of church history and politics shows that 2nd Peter and Jude were based on The book of Enoch a Jewish apocalyptical book written around 150 BC – found in Cave 4 at Qumran.The Jews believed that it was written by Enoch the 7th generation man who walked intimately with God.Clearly it was not.Much of Enoch’s imagery was included in John’s Revelation.Fire and brimstone teaching generally has Enoch’s teaching as its source.Funny though that the early Church Fathers left it out of the New Testament canon but allowed in 2nd Peter and Jude that were so strongly influenced by it.Hope this helps.I believe that revelation of Scriptural truth did not stop with the Protestant Reformation.

  24. I find it funny, too, that as recently as Luther (and perhaps more recently), serious questions were being asked about these topics, and we now tend to hold Luther in high regard. Luther didn’t “rewrite” the NT, but he sure did ask some tough questions about the canonicity of certain books.

    Yet when some of us ask similar questions, oh boy. Get out the matches and firewood. We’ve got another heretic to burn…

  25. Great insight Steve! Somehow we have let fundamentalism, replete with literalism and legalism, define the scriptures for us. LOL – Maybe God is bigger than our theologies :)

  26. Er … still a bit confused on your approach here Steve. Do you believe in the authority of canon of scripture as it is commonly accepted within the church, or do you think some of the books (i.e. 2 Peter and Jude) were improperly included and you question their authority?

    Steve – I certainly don’t discourage asking the tough questions that arise out of the authority of canon – However, I deeply hesitate to engage in discussion that questions the authority (legitimacy) of canon. To me, that’s a slippery slope.

    I guess that’s where I’m coming from.

  27. Ken, you may choose not to engage, and that’s completely fine with me. I’m not trying to force engagement at all. However, let me ask these two questions in response to your questions. I’m not avoiding your questions, but hopefully my return questions will help you understand better where I’m coming from:

    1. “To me, [questioning the authority of the canon]’s a slippery slope.” A slippery slope to what? What’s the projected conclusion that we are trying to avoid?

    2. “Do you believe in the authority of canon of scripture…?” In response to that, I ask, simply, where does scripture claim “authority” for itself? Where does Jesus ever refer to scripture as “authoritative”? All authority is HIS, not scripture’s.

    So, help me understand what it is that my questions are leading to. :)

  28. Steve agree with you on these issues.Ken if historicity is to be used as a Christian tool when it suits us e.g. Jesus really lived because Philo and Flavius Josephus mentioned him briefly then why not modern historical data reveal that some of the Cannon may not actually have been accepted by the apostolic fathers e.g 2nd Peter and Jude which would appear to be based on the Book of Enoch and only added in under pressure from St. Jerome.I don’t think we can have it both ways.If Jesus really is the way the truth and the life then these unusual epistles are not needed.Think how much damage may have been caused by hot blooded preachers shoving some of 2nd Peter’s down the throats of unbelievers and believers alike.Just my thoughts – we will not fall out over it!

  29. Steve and Charlie,

    First of all, I certainly appreciate the atmosphere in this discussion – my intention is to better know where you’re coming from, and to attempt to convey my reservations without becoming an (implied) authoritive judge of your position. So, thank you for that. I still try to live by the old adage:

    In essentials, unity
    in non-essentials, liberty
    In all things, love

    I believe we are still safely in the non-essentials area.

    The ‘slipery slope’ of which I speak is ‘shrinking’ or ‘adjusting’ the canon of scripture to better fit one’s own interpretation of God and his narrative. I am not accusing you of this – I am questioning whether this might be an underlying motive. What individual or body of men would then have the authority to do such a thing, and where would they get such authority? Or can any individual or group of agreed individuals simply choose which of the books of cannon they believe to be ‘inspired’ and then quite ignore those they don’t? Do you see my point? The universally accepted cannon maintains some semblance of spiritual unity. Removing the sanctity of accepted cannon creates fertile soil for ‘spiritual anarchy’ – a slipery slope indeed.

    Just a few examples: I believe that scriptural authority is fully supported by David (e.g. psalm 119), Jesus (e.g. Luke 24:27, John 5:37-47, John 17:17, among many others), the gospel writers who continually quote OT prophesies to validate that Jesus is the Messiah, the apostle Paul who utilized the scriptures as the only authorative basis for his gospel and Luke ascribed noblity to the Bareans for studying the scriptures to see if what Paul was telling them was indeed true. If scripture holds no authority, then what objective source do we have for the Spirit to bear witness to? Almost every major cult emerged out of some charismatic personality that convinced his/her followers that their ‘word’ had greater authority than the canon. Can our faith rest on a foundation of our subjectivity? Another slippery slope in my opinion.

    So, I have no qualms in questioning traditional interpretations of cannon. I myself have been doing that a lot lately, and is why I enjoy this blog so much. That is not my point at all. My concern is questioning the content and authority of cannon.

    I might finish with a profound observation: I know missional Kingdom servants in both India and China who do nothing but present scripture. No preaching, no commentary, just present scripture (both written and spoken). People are coming to fatih by the thousands just by hearing the NT canon being read – and for many different reasons. For instance, a woman in India opened her heart to the gospel when the geneology of Jesus was read. None of her gods had a geneology, and for some reason the Holy Spirit used this ‘boring passage’ to open her heart to the Messiah. I have dozens of stories … and now I have another brother that is reporting similar stories from Muslim nations in the mid East where just NT scripture is being read. They don’t have preachers or commentaries – just the NT canon. No one will never convince me that the canon of scripture has no authority. It is my objective authority and has been used by the Lord to pull me off the slipery slope several times in the past few decades. His word does not return to Him void. He is faithful to watch over His word to perform it.

  30. No one will never convince me that the canon of scripture has no authority. It is my objective authority and has been used by the Lord to pull me off the slipery slope several times in the past few decades. His word does not return to Him void. He is faithful to watch over His word to perform it.


    We already had an exchange over at the Incarnation and Crucifixion topic.

    Just to add my perception of what we consider the canon of scripture, whether the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant assortment. Do we truly believe that just because a book or verse or concept is listed/found in any of the canonical books it is all equally authoritative?

    There is much of scripture that is simply included. It has no real application. Could be a list of events or facts or accounts yet there is no reason to attempt to extract some hidden/esoteric meaning out of them. Now I do know some preaches/teachers do attempt to squeeze novel ideas from obscure passages, but that is something we can view as disputable, correct?

    I do not view all scripture as peer revelation. There has to be a pinnacle all other scriptures revolve around. For the New Testament saint, Jesus became that visible representation all scripture points to. So it is today. I cannot invalidate the gospel accounts with the epistles or any Old Testament passage. For Christians today the gospels are elevated to the pinnacle of importance as is the tradition in the High Church faith expressions where the congregation stands during a reading from the Gospels. I think the gospels contain enough clear teaching that would keep any serious disciple occupied their entire life to live out properly. The gospels alone cause enough dispute/disagreement resulting in the disunity of the saints. Add to that the majority of the New Testament written by Paul & you get the Protestant divisions at odds with one another. What is considered canon has already caused division where none was ever intended. There is no danger that I can see in ignoring or relegating Old Testament passages or New Testament epistles as unimportant. It will be a point of contention for some people, but not a slippery slope of heretical proportions.

    I am on no crusade to shuffle the current canon of Holy Writ. But as with any saint today, all scripture does not hold equal weight/importance simply because Paul wrote to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness… if the goal is, “salvation through faith in Jesus Christ…”

    That passage does not make any or all scriptures equal to Jesus. Not sure I can honestly place Paul’s words on par with my bible’s red letters. I do not believe that has anything to do with the issue of canonicity, but one of personal conviction/faith. We may wrangle over the manner which Jesus transferred His authority to the original Apostles & how that has been dispensed from them to us today. You will face considerable disagreement from the apostolic traditions that do not accept the 5 Sola reformist formulation. You will face disagreement from the Protestant camps that do emphasize certain concepts or scriptures over others. The canon an attempt to concentrate written passages containing the essentials of the faith. But as we know, the debate has been ongoing even after the Council of Trent, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith, & the Synod of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox determined what is canonical & why.

  31. “… as with any saint today, all scripture does not hold equal weight/importance simply because Paul wrote to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness… if the goal is, “salvation through faith in Jesus Christ…” ”


    Thank you for your insights. You are obviously well-studied and very articulate in church history. I admittedly am not – except for being self-taught.

    From reading your many posts here at Kingdom Grace, I think I know the implied depth of your statement above – but I disagree to a point in what I believe church-ized people hear when they hear/read such a satement. When the customary idea of ‘salvation’ is the goal, it seems to be assumed through evidence of activity (or lack thereof) that a spiritual ‘comfort-level’ sets in. “Fire insurance has been pruchased – I don’t have to bother with it any more. ”

    In contemplating what I believe is the customary traditional idea of ‘salvation’, it is the beginning of a far greater and more noble goal; beginning the incredible adventure of a life-time of discipleship. Why salvation? To escape God’s wrath and get to heaven one day? What does salvation have practically to do with my day-to-day experiences in this life? Did Jesus simply secure a place in heaven for us some day in the sweet bye-and-bye? Or does He have some genuine and holy purpose for us in His Kingdom now – on earth as it is in heaven? Is our purpose simply to fellowship with people who are also saved and honor the same little list of rules to keep until Jesus comes? Or are we called to go out and manifest the influence of His Kingdom in the places where our little list of rules are continually ignored and broken?

    The traditional church-ized are quick to embrace Jesus as Savior … but where is Jesus as Lord? Why are the abysmal moral statistics the same in the church as they are in ‘the world’? Where is the transformational character of Christ being manifested when people think that gathering once a week around a platform ministry is the highlight of their ‘Christian walk’? Why are spiritually hungry people walking away from the church? What are they hungry for?

    I believe the epistles were written and canonized to correct the church’s focus in the first century – and throughout the church age. I agree, we cannot simply embrace the imperatives of the apostlic epistles without carefully scrutinizing the indicatives through the lens of Jesus’ teachings (including His life’s example). But, I do not see Paul indicating that his indicatives stand alone. He constantly references them to the authority of the scriptures, the teachings of Jesus, and the authority invested upon him through a personal encounter with and charge from Jesus.

    Paul warned the church against apostacy, and the consequences of those who would follow false teachers. (So did Jesus.) Why would it be doubted that Peter and Jude would? Weren’t Peter, James and Jude were all contemporaries? Isn’t it probable that they had access to the same historical books the Jews and Rabbis studied ? So what is the problem in possibly having been influenced by the book of Enoch? I believe there might be numerous influences in the canon from written sources outside of the canon – but that would not invalidate their inspiration, would it?

    I believe that ‘Moses wrote of Jesus’ (John 5) – but I do not take the Genesis account literally nor do I believe in a ‘young earth’ – but both Jesus and Paul affirmed its authority in God’s narrative. Thus, I do not challenge the authority of the canon of Genesis, but I do question the interpretation through a Western analytical paradigm.

    There must be CERTAIN truths in Christian orthodoxy. I believe we can and should challenge them to ascertain what truths are essential – not just for ‘salvation’, but also for proper discipleship. Can we challenge interpretation, yes. But can we challenge canon itself …. m-m-m-m-m. I believe the only objective source we have to challenge with is the canon of scripture. When we tamper with our source of objectivity, we change everything.

  32. I have been enjoying this dialog very much.

    Just a quick question for Ken..

    When you say..

    “Can we challenge interpretation, yes. But can we challenge canon itself” do you differentiate

    1) challenging a Christian group’s (i.e. Church Council) “interpretation” regarding which books are canonical and

    2) challenging another Christian group’s “interpretation” of the scriptures?

    It seems that “interpretation” is involved in both cases.

  33. Hey Bob,

    I know there had to be an amount of subjectivity in the accepted canon (even though they used objective indicators in their choosing), but it was generally agreed upon by the church that the Council was authorized to make the choices. Here I will have to leave some room for God to inspire His Church (the only physical authority on this earth to carry on His ministry) to do so. Now I ask myself, would God allow the decision to stand for 400-500 years through the greatest expansion of the gospel the world has known? (In fact I think the earliest canons in the 2nd – 4th centuries included all of the current NT books except Hebrews, James and 3 John.) The OT canon came very late in Israel’s history, but it appeared to be fully validated by Jesus and the apostles.

    At any rate, MY interpretaion will never have any bearing on canon. I wasn’t there, and I have no kind of authorization to make such an interpretation. However, I believe can challenge interpretations of canon, both that of my own and that of others. I guess I can loosely find authorization to do that from my interpretation of 1 John 2:27 (How’s that for irony?) This brings me back to my pondering – with what objective source can I challenge it if there is no accepted canon?

  34. There must be CERTAIN truths in Christian orthodoxy. I believe we can and should challenge them to ascertain what truths are essential – not just for ’salvation’, but also for proper discipleship. Can we challenge interpretation, yes. But can we challenge canon itself …. m-m-m-m-m. I believe the only objective source we have to challenge with is the canon of scripture. When we tamper with our source of objectivity, we change everything.


    Okay, I can appreciate the fundamental issue of your argument: without a ‘fixed’ point of reference where does one stop cutting out offensive passages of scripture like Thomas Jefferson did?

    Keep all the vague & disputable scripture references, just don’t discard them from the officially recognized canons of each & every Christian faith expression? Yeah, I can see from this perspective that once you eliminate any book or chapter or verse it can lead to the cherry-picking we may fear…

    Oh wait, that is already happening… ;)

    As with other non-canonical writings there can be great truth included. Many non-scriptural writings can be a source of inspiration & clarification & “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” sans the whole ‘breathed of God’ classification. Could be the Church Fathers & earliest Church Council members would include some of these later writings as canonical. Since they did not have access to them to scrutinize due to the passing of time, simply saying the canon is closed an artificial benchmark then? Were the councils as inerrant/inspired in their choices as the writers are accorded? We must accept a moving/guiding of the Holy Spirit for anything we accept today as being binding upon the Church now as it was then. We have the scriptures & their interpretations of faith/practice handed down from generation to generation. We can trust a faithful rendering of scripture yet if improved methods of scholarship and/or text discoveries expose additions/omissions of words, phrases, meanings, does that change what we view as canonical?

    Does handing out New Testaments violate the “whole counsel of God” concept of the canon? If a person chose to ignore the Old Testament could they be declared a heretic? Like Marcion? Could it lead to dangerous error? I am a Gentile by birth, do I need to be instructed in Jewish history to understand Jesus is the Savior? Is focusing on only one Gospel only using ¼ of the power of it to save? You need all 66 (or more) books to guarantee a complete revelation of God?

    My questions rhetorical of course. I will admit there are certain books in both the Old & New Testaments that I have never referenced once while communicating to others. Zip. Nada. No nod or footnote or verse citation. Don’t know if that makes me a double-minded man or a poor bible scholar or a lazy Christian, but I do not feel I am missing something essential in my theological understanding. Same with the early believers that only had oral tradition regarding Jesus. And all those Gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish faith/customer unhindered by their ignorance. I realize this is not to be viewed as a divine precedent, but throughout the history of The Church there will be exceptions to everything I suppose… :)

  35. Joseph,

    I think we have come to a somewhat common place of understanding. I take no issue with your last post. For me personally though, I am commited to discipleship – and my understanding of God, His purposes, Jesus, His mission, and my journey are are deeply enriched by continually seeking, studying, and yes, questioning the canon of scripture – all of it. In fact, one of the significant advances in this process was when I took the Divine Drama training seminar which is a wonderful overview of the Bible as God’s narrative and giving it texture and depth by setting it’s various portions in context within their original cultural contexts. This has greatly increased my desire to better understand what Jesus’ and Paul’s audiences were hearing in the context of their own cultures and it has greatly modified my former Western contextualizations of scripture and given it profoundly more depth.

    I sincerely appreciate your insights and your well thought out comments. I deeply appreciate this blog in its honesty in questioning traditional points of doctrine and the continual respectful tenor of those who contribute.

  36. Now I ask myself, would God allow the decision to stand for 400-500 years through the greatest expansion of the gospel the world has known?

    Are you prepared to apply that same question to other decisions decided by “the Church”? For example: Mary as the mother of God (5th century decree, I believe). Or all the hierarchy that was put in place as early as the 4th century, probably much earlier?

    Much was “decided” or “decreed” by the Church that is questionable. Yet a handful of those decisions are deemed to be “untouchable”.

    I’m not convinced that those who made the decisions with regard to NT canon had “objective” standards that were applied. And even if they did, they did not apply them consistently.

    Does that invalidate our canon? I don’t believe so. But does our canon have “authority”? Again, I think that’s a stretch.

  37. Steve,

    I do not see this as a ‘battle’ worth fighting. I respect your position, and I respect the fact that you have a well thought out position as opposed to some knee-jerk reaction. I believe the important thing here is that we agree that the canon contains the gospel of the Kingdom, and our adherance to that gospel is the transforming power of life. If we can live out the great commandment in the power of His Spirit, we indeed will then be living a life worthy of His calling.


  38. A lovely sense of unity pervades here even though we may have different takes on the Canon.Did you guys know that Jesus quoted from the Septuagint Version whereas we have in our Scriptures Jerome’s translation from the Hebrew Old Testament.There are differences that stem from their being in Jesus day 2 different Scriptures – the Septuagint in Greek from an Egyptian source and a Hebrew one from the Babylonian captivity.Jesus authenticated the Scriptures i.e. the Septuagint but not the Hebrew one.There are differences.The Septuagint has only 7/8 s of the Book of Jeremiah.Logically then we are using Jesus to back up our Old Testament rather than the version He quoted from.A slight dishonesty probably born out of ignorance.It kind os shakes our high views of Scripture a little.

  39. The Septuagint has only 7/8 s of the Book of Jeremiah.Logically then we are using Jesus to back up our Old Testament rather than the version He quoted from.A slight dishonesty probably born out of ignorance.It kind os shakes our high views of Scripture a little.

    I’ve not given much thought to the implications of ‘the canon’ more than now. Being involved in this discussion thread has really caught my meditative mind…

    Thanks grace, ken, Steve, kansasbob, Charlie: the commentary has been grist for the ol’ grey matter mill…

    BTW ken: I am not quite in this category, “You are obviously well-studied and very articulate in church history” although I appreciate the compliment. I engage enough in theological message forums to have picked up just enough information to be dangerous, but I’m no expert believe me. Those other guys would run circles around my knowledge of church history, scriptural minutiae, biographies of movers-and-shakers in the development of the church. etc. I can reference things enough to get the general feel for whatever topic I engage in, but I do it mostly from my personal perspectives, not from the factual data involved. Just thought I would clear up that slight misperception…

    Anyway, I was reminiscing about my church experiences & I can point to a few instances where the catch-all concept of ‘the canon’ placed all scripture on a level playing field. I’m sure we have all known of some teaching/preaching expounding on a theological/doctrinal concept based on one verse or event or reference in scripture. If it is all ‘God-breathed’ & useful, then it seems all scripture fair game for any teacher to emphasize, overemphasize, elevate & eventually create an entire doctrine or movement from it. The extreme prophetic/apostolic types do this with obscure passages and/or concepts & build them up to contain esoteric insights they all high-five one another about. Mix in some new revealing from God & voila, you too can be the new prophetic voice-a-minute today. ;)

    There are rules of hermeneutics & proper exegesis, but even these will be fine-tuned to fit the overriding theological end-result sought & justified. We see this in the non-charismatic camps vs. those crazy charismanics & vice versa. The Protestant camps vs. the Apostolic traditions even a more glaring difference. Simply being ‘in the canon’ not a carte-blanche equalizer as you already know. There could be this category of scriptural application Paul hinted at in his admonition to Timothy: some scriptures correctly left alone as is without further reference. Just recognize they’re included, but simply move on once they are read…

  40. Joseph wrote;

    Anyway, I was reminiscing about my church experiences & I can point to a few instances where the catch-all concept of ‘the canon’ placed all scripture on a level playing field.

    Good point.

    I don’t think Jesus placed all “scripture” on an equal footing. Matt. 23:2-24, for instance.

    I appreciate the winsome and informative conversation that has occured.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s