Taking I.H. Marshall’s suggestions in Aspects of the Atonement as our starting point, we set out some of the questions that need to be asked about the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA):-
- Is the doctrine of PSA taught in Scripture? How does it cohere with scriptural teaching on related matters, such as the love of God, the Trinity, the nature of Old Testament sacrifices and meaning of expiation/propitiation? And does it cohere (and if so, how) with the life, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ?
- If the doctrine is scriptural, how important is it? Is it of peripheral, secondary, or primary importance? Is it one of a number of equally scriptural and equally valid explanations of the atonement? Is it less central than, say, atonement as healing, or reconciliation, or restoration)? Or is it of central importance (because, perhaps, it is the explanation that makes sense of all the others)?
- How has the doctrine of PSA been regarded in the Christian church? Is it something of an innovation (dating back, perhaps, to the Reformation), or does it date back to the earliest years of the church?
- Even if the doctrine of PSA is taught in Scripture, can it be maintained today? Does it rely on ideas and assumptions (around retribution, for example) that are no longer understood or accepted in many contemporary cultures. Do we therefore need new images of atonement that speak more effectively to modern people?
- Why has the doctrine of PSA fallen into disrepute, in some circles? Is it because it is beset by intractable theological and ethical problems, or because, as popularly taught, it has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented? And, if so, what would be the remedy?