Does Evangelical theology inculcate abuse Pt II: is penal substitution to blame?


Five days ago, Giles Fraser argued that the current abuse scandal surrounding the Church of England can be reasonably considered to be the fault of Evangelical theology. He offered no theological reason for this slur, simply stating it a priori. You can read my initial response to his comments here.

Evidently, Fraser appears to have heard the cry of many Evangelicals. We know this, not because he has retracted his comments, but because he has today written a piece defending his first article. You can read it here. In short, Fraser argues that Evangelical theology specifically provides a vehicle for abuse because of its insistence upon the penal substitutionary model of the atonement. This is the belief that Jesus Christ was punished (penal) in the place of believers (substitution) to satisfy the demands of God’s justice.

Many Evangelicals will note we have been here before. Those from supposedly within our own camp have famously referred to penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse‘. This seemed to be something of a twisting of comments from other more scholarly quarters. It has led to books, such as Pierced for our Transgressions, defending the historic doctrine. What is new in Fraser’s comments is that rather than viewing penal substitution as theology that makes God the Father into an abusive monster, he argues that it lends a theological justification and faux-spiritual rationale to all who would abuse.

Fraser argues thus:

It was towards the end of the bishop of Guildford’s statement that the main purpose of his press conference appeared to become clear. Rt Rev Andrew Watson said he had been “drawn into the Smyth circle” on elite Christian holiday camps, and beaten by him once. It was “violent, excruciating and shocking”. But – and here comes the key bit – “absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I have come across”. That, of course, is what the evangelicals are most afraid of: people making a connection between their theology and John Smyth’s beating of the children in his care. Yet the connection is obvious – and at the very core of the evangelical story: that God the father violently punishes his son for the salvation of the human race. To reference Isaiah: “He was whipped so we could be healed.”

Having laid out his stall – Evangelical theology, especially its theology of the atonement, promotes abuse – he proceeds to write an article bearing no further reference to the doctrine or its outworking in practice. Instead, as in his previous article, Fraser reverts back to stories from public school and offers unsubstantiated liberal inferences as to the subtle imagery behind a boy being beaten with a cane. What is particularly noteworthy – apart from the obvious interpretive view on a caning that has no basis in reality – is that Fraser can only land on Rev William Sewell as his example – a high churchman who can in no way be considered Evangelical.

Interestingly, in this example in which Fraser infers Sewell’s ‘feelings were formatted through the theology of substitutionary atonement’, there simply is no evidence of penal substitutionary doctrine at play. For the doctrine to have any parallel to a boy being caned, another innocent boy would have had to offer to take the punishment on the miscreants behalf. Moreover, we reckon with the effect of the trinity upon the doctrine of penal substitution. Jesus was not a subordinate being forced into an unwilling sacrifice, he was very God. He willed, in accord with the Father, in order that his righteous justice may be satisfied and yet his mercy and love may be displayed. This is the clear inference of Romans 3:21-26 – God is both just and justifier – and as fully God, this must include the Son himself. Moreover, Jesus says of himself ‘I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again’ (John 10:17f). Jesus willingly acted as our substitute and, in eternity past, willed with the Father this means of salvation so that he may uphold his righteous justice whilst displaying his mercy in all that believe.

The point that Giles Fraser wants to make is that this view of Jesus Christ gives Evangelicals cause to abuse others. But never does Evangelical theology put the believer in the place of God. We have no theological rationale or basis (nor has anyone sought to make the argument) for suggesting that because God punished Jesus for our sin that permits us to punish others for their sin. Indeed, Evangelical theology recognises the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. Whatever else this may be teaching, it is apparent that those who have been forgiven much – and Evangelicals would infer ‘forgiven much’ is the position of every sinner who turns to Christ – have no right to deal harshly with others. To take Jesus’ more pointed statements, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ and, later, ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:14f). We are also entirely aware of Jesus’ command to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Luke 6:31) and for the need to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31).

All of these things stand against any notion of abuse. The apostle Paul puts it most helpfully in Galatians 5:16-25:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

What does Paul consider to be ‘desires of the flesh’? In respect to our specific discussion, fits of anger, sexual immorality, impurity and sensuality would all denounce abuse. Note also Paul says ‘and things like these’. So even if the specific word does not appear in the list, it is clear that abuse of the order we are discussing is certainly in view. Contrast this with the fruit of the spirit, specifically gentleness, kindness and self-control. The work of the Spirit, with whom Paul encourages us to keep in step in v25, works against any notion that abuse is somehow spiritually beneficial or a valid means of achieving holiness.

Nonetheless, apart from all this, it is precisely the penal substitionary view of the atonement that inoculates against abuse. Note what Paul says in Philippians 2:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Here the link between behaviour and penal substitution is made explicit. In the same way as Jesus humbled himself to death on a cross on our behalf, bearing the scourge of death on cross, we too ought to be prepared to serve others even to this extent. Paul tells us in the clearest possible terms that we are not to put ourselves in the position of God the Father but are rather to follow the example of the Son. Just as he humbled himself to death on a cross on our behalf, as our substitute, so we also ought to love and serve others like Christ. It is hard to see how this opens the door for the kind of abuse Fraser accuses us of encouraging.

There is nothing in the abuse meted out by John Smyth that can credibly be considered an outworking of Evangelical theology. Indeed, his abuse took place in spite of Evangelical doctrine. The penal substitution model does not inculcate abuse, it actively inoculates against it. If we are to have the same mind among us as Christ Jesus, far from abuse, penal substitution would encourage the Evangelical to stand in the place of others, to contend for them, and to so love them like Christ loved us that we would even be prepared to give our lives up in their service. Evangelical theology does not encourage abuse. Fortunately for Giles Fraser, Evangelical theology is also clear on turning the other cheek and not repaying evil for evil. I do hope he will withdraw his slur against Evangelicals.


  1. Good post Stephen. No surprise to see PSA under attack again. FYI you might like a few articles on on this includes Does My theology encourage violence and abuse & An Offensive Salvation.

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