Few Christian doctrines cause more ire than the view known as either the penal substitutionary atonement or the vicarious atonement of Christ. Over the last couple of decades, it has elicited sharp invective from those who believe it to be a barrier to preaching and teaching the gospel. Those expressing opposition to the vicarious atonement view seem to fit the description of those referenced in the late, Princeton Theologian, B. B. Warfield’s work. There really is nothing new under the sun. Enjoy the excerpt from Mr. Warfield:
“The ultimate result has been that the revolt from the conceptions of satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice, reinforced continually by tendencies adverse to evangelical doctrine peculiar to our times, has grown steadily more and more widespread, and in some quarters more and more extreme, until it has issued in an immense confusion on this central doctrine of the gospel. Voices are raised all about us proclaiming a ‘theory’ of the atonement impossible, while many of those that essay a theory seem to be feeling their tortuous way very much in the dark. That, if I mistake not, is the real state of affairs in the modern Church.
I am not meaning to imply that the doctrine of substitutive atonement – which is, after all, the very heart of the gospel – has been lost from the consciousness of the Church. It has not been lost from the hearts of the Christian community. It is in its terms that the humble Christian everywhere still expresses the grounds of his hope of salvation. It is in its terms that the earnest evangelist everywhere still presses the claims of Christ upon the awakened hearer. It has not even been lost from the forum of theological discussion. It still commands powerful advocates wherever a vital Christianity enters academical circles: and, as a rule, the more profound the thinker, the more clear is the note he strikes in its proclamation and defense.
But if we were to judge only by the popular literature of the day – a procedure happily not possible – the doctrine of a substitutive atonement has retired well into the background. Probably the majority of those who hold the public ear, whether as academical or as popular religious guides, have definitely broken with it, and are commending to their audiences something other and, as they no doubt believe, something very much better. A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.”
(The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield IX, rpt. Baker, 1981, p. 297)