An Analysis of the 2017 SBC Resolution on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Editor’s Note: This is part 4 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering the necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as described in this 2017 SBC resolution. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

The 2017 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention approved a non-binding resolution “On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.[1] The resolution is framed as a response to recent attacks on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and a reaffirmation of traditional Southern Baptist theology. The resolution garnered attention in the press and sparked a fair bit of online discussion. Few people, however, noticed two significant facts that make it surprising the Committee on Resolutions ever approved it for consideration.

First, the Southern Baptist Convention has never committed itself to penal substitution or any other discrete theory of atonement. Quite the contrary, the confessional statements which govern SBC entities were crafted to permit penal and non-penal accounts of substitutionary atonement alike. Thus, the resolution creates a highly misleading impression. Rather than reaffirm confessional Southern Baptist theology, the resolution could be interpreted as a surreptitious attempt to redefine it without going through the process of revising the Convention’s doctrinal standards.

Second, some of the key founders of the SBC and its first theological seminary rejected PSA. They were proponents of rival accounts of substitutionary atonement. When the resolution says “denial of penal substitutionary atonement constitutes false teaching that leads the flock astray,” it inadvertently condemns these men as false teachers. Denominations do not usually condemn their founders as false teachers even if they are later deemed to have been mistaken on important issues (e.g., slavery). The resolution’s blanket condemnation also applies to some of the Convention’s leading conservative theologians from the last century.[2]

This article will elaborate each of these facts in turn. Readers will quickly see the resolution is deeply out of step with the Convention’s historic commitment to neutrality regarding claims made by competing theories of substitutionary atonement. Despite characterizing itself as a defense of traditional Southern Baptist theology, the resolution expresses sentiments which actually conflict with the SBC’s long-standing confessional position. This article will then raise a question about the scope of the resolution’s positive affirmation in light of the diverse ways penal substitutionary atonement has been understood by some of its well-known proponents.

Only Committed to Substitutionary Atonement

It is easy to demonstrate that the SBC has never committed itself to penal substitutionary atonement. All one needs to do is read the confessional statements which govern Convention entities. You don’t need a degree in theology to see none of them endorse PSA. However, someone who is not well-informed about the history of atonement theology may overlook the fact that the SBC’s confessions were crafted to accommodate Edwardsian or New Divinity teachings about the atonement. Edwardsian atonement theology was popular in the nineteenth century as an alternative to penal substitution. Edwardsians explained the cross in terms of rectoral justice without denying God exercises retributive punishment against the unrepentant wicked.[3] For that reason, it is sometimes called a Calvinist moral government theory.[4]

The oldest SBC confession is the Abstract of Principles. It has been the primary doctrinal statement for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since its founding in 1859.[5] It was also adopted by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary when it was established in 1950. The pertinent articles state:[6]

VII. The Mediator. Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is the divinely appointed mediator between God and man. Having taken upon Himself human nature, yet without sin, He perfectly fulfilled the law; suffered and died upon the cross for the salvation of sinners. He was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended to His Father, at whose right hand He ever liveth to make intercession for His people. He is the only Mediator, the Prophet, Priest and King of the Church, and Sovereign of the Universe.

XI. Justification. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal of sinners, who believe in Christ, from all sin, through the satisfaction that Christ has made; not for anything wrought in them or done by them; but on account of the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith.

The Articles of Religious Belief have served New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary since it opened in 1918. The fourth article is devoted specifically to the atonement:[7]

Article IV. Christ, God’s Way of Atonement. We believe that a way has been provided whereby men born in sin may be reconciled to God. That Way is Jesus Christ, whose death atoned for our sin, and through union with Him we become partakers of His merits, and escape the condemnation of God’s holy law. The atonement becomes personally effective through the foreordination and the grace of God, and the free choice and faith of man.

The Baptist Faith & Message was originally approved in 1925 and subsequently revised in 1963 and 2000. The relevant articles of the 1925 edition state:[8]

Article IV. The Way of Salvation. The salvation of sinners is wholly of grace, through the mediatorial office of the Son of God, who by the Holy Spirit was born of the Virgin Mary and took upon him our nature, yet without sin; honored the divine law by his personal obedience and made atonement for our sins by his death….

Article V. Justification. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of righteousness of all sinners who believe in Christ. This blessing is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but through the redemption that is in and through Jesus Christ…. 

Articles IV and V are adapted from the 1833 New Hampshire Confession. The language of “honoring” the law is significant. So is the way justification is grounded in “principles of righteousness” rather than imputation. These formulations were designed to serve as a bridge where proponents of traditional Calvinistic and Edwardsian teachings about the atonement and justification could join hands in peace. The terminology itself is Edwardsian coin. One of the principles Edwardsians generally agreed upon was, “the active obedience, viewed as the holiness, of Christ was honorable to the law, but was not a work of supererogation, performed by our Substitute, and then transferred and imputed to us, so as to satisfy the requisitions of the law for our own active obedience.”[9] Similarly, the law and distributive justice of God were “honored by the life and death of Christ” but not vicariously fulfilled or satisfied by them.[10]  

Anyone who serves as a trustee, administrator, or professor at one of the eleven SBC entities is required to teach “in accord with and not contrary to” the doctrines contained in the current edition of the BF&M.[11] The text of the relevant portions of the 2000 edition is identical to the 1963 edition except for the addition of the word “substitutionary.” They state: 

Article II. God, §B God the Son. Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin. He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin….

Article IV. Salvation, §B Justification. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.

Clearly, the BF&M retains formulations designed to accommodate the Edwardsian alternative to penal substitution. For the same reason, it avoids mentioning imputation and the distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. The resolution’s authors apparently did not recognize the significance of these formulations. Their resolution clumsily asserts what the BF&M carefully avoids: “Christ is our passive and active righteousness, forgiving all our sin by His death and imputing to us all His righteousness through faith.” 

In a blog post announcing the resolution as forthcoming, one of its co-authors claimed penal substitution is “carved into the SBC’s core confession, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”[12] The basis for this claim is stated in the resolution itself when it says, “The Baptist Faith & Message was revised in 2000, incorporating for the first time the language of substitution….” But penal substitution is precisely what was not carved into the BF&M with that addition. Every edition of the BF&M is strictly neutral with regard to competing theories of substitutionary atonement.

Theologians have long recognized PSA is a species of substitutionary atonement. For example, Simon Gathercole observes, “Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, and propitiation…. One can have substitution without that being penal substitution.”[13] That is why J.I. Packer says the penal substitution model “is put together in two stages: first, the death of Christ is declared to have been substitutionary; then the substitution is characterized and given a specific frame of reference by adding the word penal.”[14] Packer mentions F.W. Camfield’s defense of substitutionary atonement as an example of “a non-penal view of substitution.”[15] More recently, Oliver Crisp discusses the views of John McLeod Campbell in an article aptly titled, “Non-Penal Substitution.”[16]

Conflating substitutionary atonement and penal substitutionary atonement is an amateurish mistake. At the end of the nineteenth century, Robert Verrell Foster observed that substitution-theories all “affirm substitution as an element of the atonement, and yet differ more or less radically the one from another in regard to the nature of the substitution.”[17] He summarized fifteen ways by which substitutionary accounts known to him could be distinguished. Foster also categorized divergencies under four heads or starting points. The first one is whether a penalty was paid and, if so, the nature of that penalty. Later we will see that proponents of penal substitution sometimes hold quite different views about the nature of the penalty Christ paid for our sin.

Inclusive Orthodoxy[18]

Resolutions do not establish Southern Baptist doctrine. Through the confessions that bind its entities, the SBC officially affirms an inclusive orthodoxy that sees competing theories of substitutionary atonement as equally valid options. By implication, substitutionary atonement is essential to the gospel, penal substitution is not. Local congregations and individual Southern Baptists may hold that it is, of course, but the Convention and its entities have never endorsed that view—the resolution notwithstanding. Examination of SBC history shows early Southern Baptists intentionally crafted the Abstract of Principles to strike this balance.

Three basic approaches to the doctrine of atonement are attested among the first Southern Baptists. The penal substitution family of views occupy one end of the spectrum. John L. Dagg taught a version of PSA indebted to the “High Calvinist” scholastic theology of John Gill. James P. Boyce and Basil Manly, Jr. were committed to a somewhat different version of the doctrine learned from Charles Hodge when they were students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Edwardsian moral government theory stands at the other end of the spectrum. This position was quite popular with Baptists in the South.[19] James S. Mims and William B. Johnson were among its most well-known proponents. Mediating positions were also popular, especially Andrew Fuller’s. Fuller rejected the High Calvinist quid pro quo commercialist understanding of Christ’s suffering as well as the notion that Christ suffered the identical penalty the law’s curse demands. Like the Puritan Richard Baxter, Fuller contended for an equivalent payment.[20]

Proponents of all three approaches worked together to found the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. William B. Johnson was one of the country’s most influential Baptist statesmen and served as the SBC’s first president from 1845-51. An “ardent advocate” of the New Divinity view, Johnson has been described as the SBC’s “single most influential architect.”[21] For decades Johnson dreamed of a seminary in the South and took practical steps towards that end. When this dream was finally feasible, he and other senior figures entrusted its founding to younger men. James P. Boyce, then a theology professor at Furman University, was selected as the seminary’s first president. Johnson and Boyce were firmly committed to their respective atonement theories but they were mature theologians who understood the complexity of the theological issues. Rather than display a divisive partisan spirit that condemns anyone who disagrees with their preferred theory, Johnson and Boyce understood the need for genuine epistemic humility that extends charity toward those who reach different conclusions about how best to understand the substitutionary nature of Christ’s redemptive work.

In a lecture laying out his vision for a seminary, Boyce said success would depend far more on the doctrinal sentiments of the faculty than finances.[22] He urged “a declaration of doctrine to be required of those who assume the various professorships.”[23] Professors, he said, should sign an abstract of doctrine and their “agreement with the standard should be exact” and “based upon no mental reservation.”[24] Boyce emphasized the importance of formulating the doctrinal standard before any controversy arises and sticking to its parameters once one does. Boyce warned that establishing doctrinal standards in the heat of controversy is a sure path to unjustly condemning someone who holds unpopular or unfamiliar views that are perfectly orthodox.[25]

When plans to establish the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary finally crystallized, William Johnson served as a delegate to the five-day Educational Convention convened to approve the seminary’s curriculum, organizational plan, and confessional statement. Johnson did not generally favor creeds and worried a confession would limit the amount of support the fledgling school would receive.[26] He and others were especially concerned for the Abstract of Principles to maintain the young SBC’s pluralism on atonement. The Abstract went through multiple drafts until everyone was content it would not preclude their favored theory or subtly suggest one of the others. The final draft “was a comprehensive statement of Southern Baptist Calvinist doctrine that included the traditional Calvinism, the general provisionist Calvinism [i.e. Fullerite], and the New Divinity Calvinism’s moral government view of the atonement.”[27] While some predicted it would result in division among the seminary’s erstwhile supporters, “The confession became a bond of union.”[28] When Southern Seminary opened on October 3, 1859, Boyce asked Johnson – now a trustee – to give the opening prayer and address.[29] The fact that they held different theories of atonement was not an impediment to cooperation and warm friendship. 

Writing in 1874, Boyce said three principles guided the drafting and revision of the seminary’s confession:

The abstract of principles must be: 1. A complete exhibition of the fundamental doctrines, so that in no essential particular should they speak dubiously; 2. They should speak out clearly and distinctly as to the practices universally prevalent among us; 3. Upon no point, upon which the denomination is divided, should the convention, and through it the seminary, take any position.

Boyce elaborated on the third principle as follows:

While, however, it was deemed essential to avow distinctly and unreservedly the sentiments universally prevalent among us, both as to doctrine and practice, it was equally important that upon those questions upon which there was still a difference of opinion among Southern Baptists, the seminary articles should not bind the institution.[30] 

Nearly thirty years after Southern Seminary’s founding, James Boyce remained committed to an inclusive orthodoxy that permits incommensurate theories of atonement. This is evident in the textbook he wrote, Abstract of Systematic Theology. Boyce divides atonement theories into three categories: the Socinian theory, the Middle theory, and “those theories held by persons, who, however, differing from each other, are regarded as Evangelical.”[31] Boyce regarded the Socinian and Middle theories as unorthodox. Among evangelicals, however, he identified six theories: the Andover ethical theory, Governmental theory, Arminian theory, Lutheran theory, Andrew Fuller’s theory, and the Calvinist theory. Boyce recognized the first of these theories as an example of non-penal substitution.

In the Andover theory, Boyce observes, Christ representatively suffered for sin and repented of it “as the substitute of man.” [32] However, it denies “that element in those sufferings which arose from their relation to the penalty endured for sin in the satisfaction of the justice of God.”[33] Boyce considered that feature a serious deficiency but not a mark of heterodoxy. The theory’s substitutionary element set it apart from the Socinian and Middle theories. This tells us precisely where Boyce thought the line between heresy and orthodoxy is found: substitution. He did not think someone was a heretic just because they disagreed with him about whether Christ suffered to pay the penalty for sin or disagreed with him about the nature of the penalty Christ paid.

Is Penal Substitution Necessary or Owenite Penal Substitution?

There is a third fact about the resolution few people noticed—it never defines penal substitutionary atonement. The opening lines simply equate PSA with that version of the doctrine contested in the so-called evangelical “atonement wars.” But that is not the only version of the doctrine on offer. That is why J.I. Packer described penal substitution as an interpretive model which particular theologians and schools of thought develop in different ways.[34] Others describe PSA as a family of related views.[35] Some members of the PSA family do not make the claims which elicit the objections mentioned in the resolution. In the absence of a definition, the resolution is ambiguous about whether its authors consider the full range of penal substitution views valid options.

The version of penal substitution contested in the atonement wars can be characterized as follows. It starts with the idea that God’s nature requires him to punish every sin. The only possible way God can forgive sinners is to punish a substitute in their place. Thus, the cross is understood in terms of God punishing his Son. He did this at the cross by pouring onto Jesus the wrath and fury believers would have otherwise experienced for their sin. Proponents of this view say that is what Paul is getting at in Romans 3:25-26 when he says God put Christ forward as a propitiation “to show his righteousness” and be both “just and justifier.” This variety of PSA can be traced back to the teachings of various post-Reformation theologians. It is especially indebted to innovations John Owen popularized in his polemics against Socinianism. But there are other varieties of PSA. Consider the following.

John Calvin is often credited with articulating “the first fully worked out account of penal substitution” in history.[36] In several places Calvin makes comments which lead some people to assume he held an Owenite view. However, it is easy to show Calvin’s doctrine employs fundamentally different premises. Calvin insists God could have freely pardoned by a word or redeemed humanity by some means other than the cross. Had God done so, there would have been no injury to his perfect justice. However, he chose to save by means of the incarnation and cross in order to secure a more lavish salvation than otherwise possible, one that is better for us than mere pardon.[37]

Calvin says “it is foreign to divine justice and equity to punish the innocent for another’s offence.”[38] Thus, he does not speak of the Father punishing Jesus. Similarly, he says Christ “apprehended” the wrath of God but does not say God poured out his wrath onto him. Instead, Calvin often says Christ transferred our guilt, curse, or condemnation to himself in order to make satisfaction as our surety. In sixteenth-century theology and law, satisfaction was understood as a work of justice in which a penalty (poena) is voluntarily taken upon oneself that makes compensation for an offence.[39] When the offended party accepts satisfaction, he is rendered well-disposed (i.e., propitious) and vacates the right to inflict punishment upon the offender or their surety. Offering and receiving satisfaction reconciles the parties and averts retribution in a manner that accords with justice.

Calvin often speaks of Christ bearing the punishment or chastisement due our sins. He also specifies the nature of that penalty. Instead of the retribution the elect would otherwise experience in hell, it is characterized as “the penalty due sins that we would have had to pay before we could become reconciled to God.”[40] Similarly, Calvin asks, “For what else was Christ’s death, but a sacrifice for expiating our sins — what but a satisfactory penalty (poena satisfactoria), by which we might be reconciled to God — what but the condemnation of one, for the purpose of obtaining forgiveness for us?”[41] Poena satisfactoria is a technical phrase medieval and early modern theologians used in reference to a secondary sense of punishment distinguishable from poena simpliciter, i.e. retributive punishment. “Satisfactory punishments do not inflict the demands of an abstract order of justice but rather constitute something willingly suffered as a condition for realizing divine reconciliation.” They are “punishment in a diminished sense of the term.”[42]

Because Calvin rejects the Owenite doctrine’s starting premise that God’s nature requires him to punish every sin, he is not motivated to read the exercise of divine retribution into Romans 3:25-26. Instead, when Paul says God put Christ forward as a propitiation “that he might be just,” Calvin thinks Paul refers to two different things. First, God demonstrates his righteousness in the sense of showing himself to be praiseworthy as the one “who contains in Himself alone all the fulness of righteousness.” Second, God communicates the riches of his righteousness upon mankind.[43] Calvin also says the death of Christ expiated our sins, removed the curse, and was the price that placated God. Much more can be said about Calvin’s doctrine. For our purposes, it will suffice to conclude that it is penal and substitutionary but not the view critics have in mind when they denounce PSA. 

Leon Morris probably spent more energy than anyone in the twentieth century defending the biblical warrant for penal substitutionary atonement. Over the course of his career, Morris wrote six books about the cross and atonement.[44] While there is some overlap, each one makes a distinctive contribution. Morris also addressed the topic in numerous articles, commentaries, and a theology of the New Testament. Like Calvin, Morris taught a version of penal substitution that differs in significant ways from the one contested in the atonement wars.  

Morris only touches on the necessity of atonement in passing. Sometimes he seems to presuppose God could have pardoned freely, at others he talks like an Anselmian, but he never endorses the Owenite belief that God must – in a strong metaphysical sense – punish every sin. Morris famously championed the idea that the authors of the New Testament saw Christ’s death as a propitiatory offering. Unlike some well-known proponents of PSA, he never explains propitiation in terms of God redirecting, pouring out, or “satisfying his wrath” by venting it onto Jesus. Such notions simply are not part of the concept of propitiation and the New Testament authors never say such things. Instead, Morris spoke of the death of Christ “averting,” “turning away,” or “removing” divine wrath from sinners, full stop. He did not ontologize wrath the way some celebrity preachers do as if it is a substance or destructive energy pent up within God’s being that must be released once it has been provoked by sin.  

Morris discusses Romans 3:25-26 many times across his corpus. He consistently strikes a distinctively Augustinian note in his interpretation.[45] An example in succinct form: “God saves in a manner that is right as well as powerful. The claims of justice as well as the claims of mercy are satisfied.”[46] An example in longer form:

It is not the fact but the manner of salvation which shows God’s righteousness. It is not salvation, but salvation by the way of the cross which shows God as at one and the same time ‘just’ and ‘the justifier.’ It is that salvation wherein a ‘propitiation’ is effected, i.e., a salvation in which God’s concern for the right is safeguarded as well as His concern for sinners. And His concern for the right is more than a mere abstract desire that justice be done. His justice is creative. It brings about the righteousness He demands.[47]

Penal substitution, at least as Morris understood it, inculcated a humility lacking in many recent defenses of the doctrine and which stands in stark contrast to the strident hyperbole that colors the PSA resolution. “What I am concerned to contend for is a decent humility in this matter,” he wrote. “We ought not to act as though any of our petty theories had comprehended the whole. The atonement is too big and too complex for our theories. We need not one, but all of them, and even then we have not plumbed the subject to its depths.” Unfortunately, he continued, “upholders of the penal theory have sometimes so stressed the thought that Christ bore our penalty that they have found room for nothing else. Rarely have they in theory denied the value of other theories, but sometimes they have in practice ignored them.”[48] Little has changed.

The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession provides our third example. It is important within SBC history because it was widely-accepted by Baptists in America as the Philadelphia Confession (1742) and Charleston Confession (1767). Many early Southern Baptist leaders subscribed to the Charleston Confession and it remains the confessional standard for a number of historic SBC churches. The Abstract of Principles was an attempt to distill the essence of both the 1644 and 1689 Baptist confessions.[49] The latter is a revision of the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration, which, in turn, is a revision of the Westminster Confession. Large parts of these three confessions are identical or vary only in minor points of style. Their chief differences relate to matters of church polity and the sacraments. But there are also changes that reflect divergent theological judgments on other matters. One of them relates to atonement.

In discussing Christ’s discharge of the office of Mediator, the Westminster Confession says:

This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that He might discharge, He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfil it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. (WCF, 8.4)

The phrase “grievous torments immediately in His soul” echoes Calvin’s distinctive interpretation of Christ’s descent to hell (one of Calvin’s most frequently misunderstood teachings).[50] In revising the text for Congregationalist use, the Savoy Assembly made two significant additions to this passage:[51]

This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that he might discharge, he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfil it, and underwent the punishment due to us, which we should have borne and suffered, being made sin and a curse for us, enduring most grievous torments immediately from God in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body, was crucified, and died; was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. (Savoy Declaration, 8.4)

On its own, the first addition could be understood two different ways. First, it might refer to the punishment God decreed for sin which Christ took upon himself and bore over the course of his life, culminating in the Passion and Crucifixion. That is the position commonly found in many early Reformed theologians. Understood that way, it does not follow that God punished his Son. But the addition is also compatible with the idea that he did. Such is the ambiguity of the word “punishment.” The second addition clarifies what Owen and his colleagues intended.

Adding the phrase “from God” changes the referent and meaning of “immediately.” In the Westminster Confession, “immediately” only indicates Christ endured mental or psychological torment directly in his soul in contrast to torment that stems from bodily anguish. In the Savoy Declaration, “immediately from God” ascribes Christ’s psychological torment to unmediated divine agency.[52] Whereas Calvin and other earlier Reformed take it that God ordained his Son should undergo torment in his soul as he plumbed the depths of human despair and forsakenness, most refrain from describing God as the direct proximate cause. However, for Owen it is axiomatic that God’s nature requires him to punish every sin. Thus, it would be insufficient to say Christ took upon himself and discharged the penalty God decreed for sin. That would not qualify as an exercise of what Owen called “vindicatory justice.”[53] The Savoy Declaration does not endorse Owen’s position on the absolute necessity of punishment; some members of the drafting committee disagreed with him about that. However, its additions reflect Owen’s views about the nature of the penalty Christ bore. It was retributive punishment inflicted by God. 

The Baptist editors of the 1689 Confession retained the Savoy Declaration’s first addition but deleted the second. As a result, the phrase “underwent the punishment due to us” no longer suggests God was the agent of Christ’s suffering. Now the punishment “which we should have borne and suffered” can be understood along the lines of Calvin’s “penalty due sins that we would have had to pay before we could become reconciled to God.” The fact that the editors removed the phrase “from God” suggests some or all of them were uncomfortable with the idea that God was the immediate cause of Christ’s suffering. However, they did not stop there. Rather than revert to the wording of the Westminster Confession, the editors replaced “torment” with language drawn from Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song and the Gethsemane narratives. They thought it was more prudent to simply confess Christ endured “most grievous sorrows in his soul” (cf. Isa 53:3-4; Matt 26:38; Mk 14:34).

The atonement theology of the Second London Baptist Confession remains penal and substitutionary in character. However, it is more modest and exegetically conservative than that of the Savoy Declaration and Westminster Confession. The Baptist divines responsible for its compilation were not convinced Scripture warrants the idea that God specially acted to torment or punish Christ. They demurred from saying what some Southern Baptists today insist one must say.


Some of the most prominent founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Seminary denied penal substitution. The SBC has never taken an official position in favor or against any discrete theory of substitutionary atonement. The three confessions that govern SBC entities are all strictly neutral with regard to the claims of competing varieties of substitutionary atonement. Thus, it is surprising that the Resolutions Committee approved a resolution “On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement” for consideration. But what is really strange is the fact that none of the pastor-theologians, professors, or seminary presidents in attendance raised objections from the floor. Some of them, at least, should have been familiar enough with the content of the Baptist Faith & Message and history of the Convention to know that the sentiments expressed in the resolution are incongruous with their denomination’s longstanding confessional position. In this respect, the resolution is not in any way a conservative document but a revisionist one.   

The resolution does not change the SBC’s official position. Resolutions are non-binding expressions of opinion that merely reflect the views of delegates at a particular time and place. However, resolutions can portend future developments. The Southern Baptist Convention is certainly free to revise its confessions to include penal substitution. However, it would be odd and rather disconcerting if America’s largest evangelical denomination were to insist that only one version of penal substitution is acceptable. The resolution does not address whether the full range of penal substitution views are valid options. However, some of its rhetoric suggests its authors intended to assert that it is the Owenite variety of PSA that is the “burning core of the Gospel message” and everything else “false teaching that leads the flock astray.” If that is the case, the resolution does not just step away from the historic Southern Baptist commitment to inclusive orthodoxy, it takes the first step down a sectarian path.[54]

Carl Mosser (PhD, University of St. Andrews) has served as Professor of Christian Theology at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, California, Visiting Research Professor and Analytic Theology Fellow at the University of Notre Dame, and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. 

[1] Online:

[2] W.T. Conner, for example, rejected penal substitution. James Leo Garrett describes him as “the leading theologian among Southern Baptists during the second quarter of the twentieth century” as well as a “conservative or constructive” evangelical. See James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 449, 455.

[3] See Edwards A. Park, ed., The Atonement: Discourses and Treatises by Edwards, Smalley, Maxcy, Emmons, Griffin, Burge, and Weeks (Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1859), x-xi.

[4] Modern taxonomies usually categorize moral government and penal substitution as distinct theories but they are really variations on a single approach to the doctrine. Both positions explain the atonement in substitutionary terms. Both relate Christ’s suffering to the punishment for sin. Both argue from considerations about the nature of justice and God’s moral governance of the universe.

[5] The Abstract of Principles was an attempt to distill the essence of the 1644 London Baptist Confession, supplemented by the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession. The relevant portions of those confessions will be quoted later in this article.   

[6] Online:

[7] Online:

[8] The text of all three editions of the BF&M is available in parallel columns online:

[9] Park, The Atonement, x. Park demonstrates that the formulation of honoring the law was taken from Jonathan Edwards, Sr. (pg. 22). The degree to which the senior Edwards would agree with the Edwardsian theory remains a matter of dispute.

[10] Park, The Atonement, x.

[11] Unlike the seminaries, mission boards, and other Convention entities, Southern Baptist churches may adopt whatever doctrinal standards they see fit to hold. Their standards are not required to agree with any of the historic SBC confessions in all their particulars.

[12] Online:

[13] Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 18.

[14] J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 17.

[15] Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” 19. See F.W. Camfield, “The Idea of Substitution in the Doctrine of the Atonement,” SJT 1/3 (1948): 282-93.

[16] Oliver Crisp, “Non-Penal Substitution,” IJST 9/4 (2007): 415-33. Cf. J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, intro, James B. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996 [1856]).

[17] Robert Verrell Foster, Systematic Theology (Nashville: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1898), 610.

[18] For more detailed discussion of the historical issues mentioned here, see Carl Mosser, “Resolved to Saw Through the Branch Upon Which They Sit: Southern Baptists and the Varieties of Substitutionary Atonement,” Criswell Theological Review N.S. 18/2 (2021): 3-30. Interested readers can access this article online through

[19] See Obbie Tyler Todd, Southern Edwardseans: The Southern Baptist Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2022).

[20] See further Carl R. Trueman, “John Owen and Andrew Fuller,” Eusebia 8 (2008): 61-66. Fuller acknowledged the point: “It is true, I have found several of my own sentiments maintained by Mr. Baxter” (Letter to John Ryland, January 22, 1803in Joseph Belcher, ed., The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, 3 vols [Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1845], 2.714).

[21] Michael A.G. Haykin, “Great Admirers of the Transatlantic Divinity: Some Chapters in the Story of Baptist Edwardsianism,” in After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology, ed. Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 204.

[22] James P. Boyce, Three Changes in Theological Institutions: An Inaugural Address Delivered Before the Board of Trustees of the Furman University (Greenville, SC: C.J. Elford, 1856), 37.

[23] Boyce, Three Changes, 33.

[24] Boyce, Three Changes, 35, footnote.

[25] Boyce, Three Changes, 40.

[26] Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 21.

[27] Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 38.

[28] Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 40.

[29] Woodson quotes a local newspaper saying Johnson offered “a solemn and earnest prayer to Almighty God for His blessings on the Institution, its Professors and Students, and the great and important labors upon which they were about to enter.” She also quotes excerpts from Johnson’s remarks. See Hortense Woodson, Giant in the Land: A Biography of William Bullein Johnson, First President of the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville: Broadman, 1950), 153-54.

[30] James P. Boyce, “The Two Objections to the Seminary, V,” Christian Index (25 June 1874): 2 as quoted in Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 31.

[31] James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, Press, 2006 [1887]), 296.

[32] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 299.

[33] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 297.

[34] Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” 12, 16-17.

[35] The primary differences between members of the PSA family relate to whether a particular account (1) is founded on the hypothetical or absolute necessity of satisfaction, (2) employs the classic concept of satisfaction, a modern appetitive sense, or some other notion, and (3) understands the poena (penalty, punishment, pain) Christ bore in continuity with late patristic and medieval accounts of sin and the defects of human nature Christ assumed. It is very challenging to build an adequate taxonomy due to the sheer number of ways answers to these questions can be combined.

[36] Stephen R. Holmes, “Penal Substitution,” in T&T Clark Companion to Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 307.

[37] Among other passages, see Institutes 2.12.1 and Calvin’s commentaries on John 15:13, Romans 4:25, and Galatians 1:4. He also makes the point in several sermons, sometimes in fuller form. A few of those passages are discussed in a helpful comparison of Calvin’s and Owen’s positions in Paul Helm, Calvin at the Centre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 163-95. Helm shows that Owen’s philosophically sophisticated view suffers from internal inconsistencies fatal to his position and commends Calvin’s alternative.

[38] Institutes 2.8.19. Quotations from the Institutes are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

[39] The theories of atonement literature often asserts the Reformers agreed with Anselm about the necessity of satisfaction but rejected the Anselmian disjunctive “satisfaction or punishment” in favor of “satisfaction through punishment.” This commonplace makes an anachronistic claim. It only appears plausible if one has a superficial understanding of Anselm and no awareness of the way subsequent medieval theologians relate satisfaction and punishment/pain (poena) to one another under the principle of cure by opposites. Most of the Reformers actually agree with Anselm about the nature of satisfaction but disagree with him about its absolute necessity.

[40] Institutes, 3.4.30.

[41] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 314. When speaking of the condemnation of Christ, Calvin consistently identifies it with the judicial condemnation he received before Pilate’s tribunal. He also speaks of Christ transferring our condemnation to himself as our surety and bearing it.

[42] Romanus Cessario, The Godly Image: Christian Satisfaction in Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2020), 150-51; cf. 202.

[43] John Calvin, Romans and Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 77.

[44] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965 [1955]); The Story of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957); The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965); Glory in the Cross: A Study in Atonement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966); The Atonement: Its Meaning & Significance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983); The Cross of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). It is an interesting exercise to read these books in order of publication to track consistencies and development in Morris’s thought. Morris’s final book on the topic may be his least known but most creative. In it he focuses on themes others have only recently begun to address such as atonement and the environment and atonement and the problem of loneliness in society. Given the focus of this article, it is worth noting that The Cross of Jesus is based on lectures Morris delivered at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I owe a debt of gratitude to Martha Powell, my wife’s dear aunt and long-time librarian at SBTS, who procured recordings of those lectures for me to listen to.

[45] Compare the quotations that follow and, especially, The Cross in the New Testament, 381-88 with Augustine, De Trinitate, 13.17-18, 21 and De libero arbitrio,

[46] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 182-84.

[47] Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 245. Emphasis original.

[48] Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 401. Partisans on both sides of the atonement wars would do well to thoughtfully consider the sage wisdom and gentle criticism Morris offers on pp. 396-404.

[49] In compiling the initial drafts of the Abstract, Basil Manly, Jr. gave priority to the 1644 confession. He used its language as far as possible, supplemented by the 1689 confession. See Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 32. Here are the relevant portions of the 1644 confession.
Article XVII: “Touching His Priesthood, Christ being consecrated, has appeared once to put away sin by the offering and sacrifice of Himself, and to this end has fully performed and suffered all those things by which God, through the blood of that His Cross in an acceptable sacrifice, might reconcile His elect only.”

Article XXVIII: “That those which have union with Christ, are justified from all their sins, past, present, and to come, by the blood of Christ; which justification we conceive to be a gracious and free acquittance of a guilty, sinful creature, from all sin by God, through the satisfaction that Christ has made by His death; and this applied in the manifestation of it through faith.”

Article XXX: “All believers through the knowledge of that Justification of life given by the Father, and brought forth by the blood of Christ, have this as their great privilege of that New Covenant, peace with God, and reconciliation, whereby they that were afar off, were brought nigh by that blood, and have (as the Scripture speaks) peace passing all understanding, yes, joy in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the Atonement.”

[50] Much work needs to be done on this topic, but for a very helpful start, see Debora Kuller Shuger, The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 89-112; Russ Leo, “Jean Calvin, Christ’s Despair, and the Reformation Decensus as Inferos,” Reformation 23/1 (2018): 53-78 and Preston Hill, “‘The Useful and Not-To-Be-Despised Mystery of a Most Important Matter’: The Place of Christ’s Descent into Hell in the Theology of John Calvin,” in Calvinus Frater in Domino: Papers of the Twelfth International Congress on Calvin Research, ed. Arnold Huijgen and Karin Maag (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020), 241-53.

[51] The committee charged with drafting the revision consisted of Philip Nye, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Joseph Caryl, William Bridge, and William Greenhill. Owen was the only member who had not also served on the Westminster Assembly.

[52] That, at least, is how some members of the Savoy Assembly intended it. Thomas Goodwin attributes Christ’s immediate experience of torment to God punishing, inflicting wrath, and venting anger. (Of Christ the Mediator in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D., vol 5 [Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863], 280-81). No early Reformed theologian would question whether Christ could experience God’s wrath immediately in his soul or doubt that he did. However, language like Goodwin’s is conspicuously absent from many early Reformed treatments of Christ’s suffering. The idea that Christ endured “most grievous torments immediately from God in his soul” does not require a discrete punitive act of God since “from” can indicate source without ascription of action to the source. Thus, the phrase can be affirmed by anyone persuaded Christ – due to his sinlessness – acutely perceived the anger of God against sin that inheres in all suffering and death. According to Calvin, Christ also experienced grievous torment at “the sight of the dread tribunal of God that came to Him, the Judge Himself armed with vengeance beyond understanding” (John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, trans. A. W. Morrison [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 3.148). God is the source of that experience in the same way someone who enters a room may, upon being seen, cause others to immediately experience strong positive or negative emotions.

[53] See John Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice in vol 10 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 495-560.

[54] I would like to thank Jeff Iorg, Jason Allen, and Al Mohler for going to extraordinary lengths to give me the time necessary to conduct the research from which this article draws (Dan. 6:4 KJV).

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