Scottish Journal of Theology



Can punishment bring peace? Penal substitution revisited


Steve Holmes a1
a1 School of Humanities, King's College London, steve.holmes@kcl.ac.uk

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Recently, I attended a conference on the theme ‘theologies of the cross’. I gained much from it in various ways, but one feature concerned me: in reading the papers, and listening to discussions, it became rather clear that, whilst the various contributors might or might not agree, or even be sure about, what they did believe about the cross, they were all both united and certain on what they didn't believe in – the traditional Reformed and Evangelical idea of penal substitution. Now, I confess that I had no particular commitment to this idea. I knew of no exegetical or theological reason to demand that we hold on to it, or to suggest that our account of the atonement would necessarily be lacking something vital if we did not express it in this way. Penal substitution was a way of talking about the cross with which I was familiar, but to which I was not committed. Temperamentally, I had tended to avoid it: as far as I can judge, the dominant way of talking about the cross in my preaching has been in terms of combat with, and victory over, the evil powers of sin and death and hell; it is not a theme I have touched on much in my academic writing. Penal ideas are common, however, in the liturgy and (particularly) hymnody of my church tradition: ‘Bearing shame and scoffing rude/In my place condemned he stood’; ‘All our pride, all our greed, all our fallenness and shame, and the Lord has laid the punishment on him.’ I have never seen any reason to object to such songs. So, to be at a conference where there was near unanimity that, whatever else we were going to say about the cross, we would begin by dismissing this tradition, was of interest and concern to me.