Atonement and Evangelicalism: An Interview with Garry Williams

Greg Strand – April 23, 2013 2 Comments

Yesterday we were introduced to Garry Williams, Director of the John Owen Center for Theological Study, through a Conference the Center hosted on the Historical Adam. A couple of years ago he was interviewed about this role and a number of other important matters. The whole interview was excellent, which I encourage you to read.

I include two parts – his response to questions regarding substitutionary atonement, which was an emphasis of his dissertation and he is writing a major treatment of this important doctrine, and challenges/problems facing Evangelicalism today.

GD: You have written on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Why do you think that this teaching is so important?

GW: For so many reasons. Key of course is that the Bible teaches it and so we must too if we are to honour the Lord Jesus and rightly proclaim his saving work. Spiritually, clarity on the atonement grounds our assurance of the Lord’s forgiveness and favour – without it we are left with the burden of sin, which we know is intolerable. Theologically, it goes with the doctrine of God’s justice – if we redefine the atonement we are usually redefining the nature of God.

GD: Why do you think that the doctrine has become so unpopular in some supposedly evangelical circles?

GW: What we see often with a denial of penal substitution is a wholesale rewriting of a series of the more (humanly speaking) uncomfortable doctrines. Penal substitution is a glorious description of the love and mercy of God, but it also entails a belief in the retributive wrath of God, and that is always hard for people to accept. This is where the link to the doctrine of God is so important: the pressure often arises to redefine the atonement because a different god is wanted. This is obviously not the case for every critic of the doctrine, but many critics themselves rightly make the connection to the doctrine of God.

GD: Do you hope to publish a book length treatment of penal substitutionary atonement?

GW: Indeed, I hope not posthumously. I hope that it will be a biblical, historical, systematic work framed within a classic Reformed covenant theology.

Williams wrote his dissertation at Oxford on ‘A Critical Exposition of Hugo Grotius’s Doctrine of the Atonement in De satisfactione Christi’. He responded to some of the criticisms of the doctrine of penal substitution, particularly the thought that Christ’s death on the cross was a form of “cosmic child abuse”: “Penal Substitution: A Reply to Recent Criticisms,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50.1 (2007), 71-86. (This is reprinted (with minor alterations) as “Penal Substitution: A Response to Recent Criticisms,” in The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement, ed. David Hilborn, Justin Thacker, Derek Tidball (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 172-191.) And for a recent essay, see the following: “Penal substitutionary atonement in the Church Fathers.

Regarding the challenges/problems facing Evangelicals, he notes the increasingly antagonistic response against Christians, which is much like the early church experienced.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

GW: I wouldn’t want to generalize: different problems are more acute for different parts of what is a quite fragmented and often diverse movement, even if we confine our view to the conservative end of the spectrum within just one country. I do think that our culture is going to become much more hostile to the Lord Jesus Christ quickly, as we see when the Bible becomes guilty of a hate crime. So I think that we will need to be much more on the front-foot in terms of apologetics and evangelism, taking the battle to an increasingly aggressive pagan world much as the early Christians did. We have more in common with the early church than we do with the Reformers in terms of our wider context in Britain today, and we need to learn from the way that they preached the Gospel so boldly among their neighbours and devastatingly exposed the vacuity of incoherent and unfounded pagan worldviews.

Your turn. Here are a couple of questions for you as an extension of this interview.

  1. What do you think of Williams’ responses? Do you agree or disagree?
  2. How would you have responded to the questions?

By the way, Williams’ response regarding Evangelicalism is why we are focusing on the specific theme we are in our upcoming Theology Conference (2014), “Christian Faithfulness in a Changing Culture,” with an emphasis on what we can learn from the early church in our attempt to live faithfully today. I recently described our Conference in this way:

My general sense is that we are today as similar to the pre-Constantinian church (prior to the Edict of Milan, 313) as we have ever been. I am interested to hear and learn how the early church approached life and ministry while living in a culture that persecuted them, and yet in this sort of culture the church grew! In light of some of the sea-changes happening, which we are feeling more palpably today than in the past, our tendency/temptation is to retreat or to separate. I want to learn the lessons from the early church that we can apply today.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Atonement and Evangelicalism: An Interview with Garry Williams

  1. When it comes to penal substitutionary atonement, and the calls by some in the evangelical world to lay it aside, I am drawn to 1 Cor. 1:23. We preach Christ Crucified a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. When Gary Says in his answer that we have more in common with the early church I agree and feel this scripture sums it up. Penal atonement will always be a stumbling block and foolishness to some. Should we succumb to the winds of feel good gospel or stand on the Rock as the early
    Church. For me Penal substitutionary atonement is the pillar of our faith and should never be swept under.

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