Warfield on Penal Substitution

Speaking at the ‘Religious Conference’ at Princeton in 1902, B. B. Warfield (sounds like a great name for the first great Presbyterian rapper) offered the following observations, pertinent for our own times:

‘It is probable that a half-century ago the doctrine of penal satisfaction had so strong a hold on the churches that not more than than an academic interest attached to rival theories … [Penal substitution] 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’. Benjamin B. Warfield, ‘Modern Theories of the Atonement’, in Studies in Theology. Edited by Benjamin B. Warfield. Vol. 9 of 10 vols.; The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, 286, 287.

Once again, the ancient preacher was spot on: ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us’. (Ecc 1:9-10)


  1. I reckon he is. Unfortunately, he’s been stereotyped so strongly with his views on inerrancy that most people seem to ignore him on everything else. This is a shame because he is so incredibly astute on a wide range of topics. I don’t know of anyone who wrote as many book reviews. And there are few writers that display such an objective sense of the times. His essay ‘Modern Theories of the Atonement’, which I only read this morning for the first time, is wonderful … apart from the bit where he totally misinterprets Forsyth, lumping him in with McLeod Campbell and Dean Fremantle, and so fails to hear Forsyth’s unique voice. That aside, the essay is well worth reading, not least in these times when the doctrine of penal substitution is undergoing such an assault.


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