‘The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History’: A Review

Holmes - Wondrous CrossStephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007). xii + 130 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227541 2. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

It seems that not too many theologians feel just as comfortable writing about Isaiah and Jonah as they do Anselm, Aquinas, Doctor Who, Kierkegaard, Coleridge and Matt Redman. But then Steve Holmes is a particularly gifted theologian.

Holmes’ latest book, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History, has one central thesis: that to speak about the cross – which we must – in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. Those already conversant with Colin Gunton’s brilliant The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition will already be acquainted with where Steve is coming from, and perhaps where he is going.

He begins by reminding us that ‘Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the Cross than to understand it’ (p. 1), before turning in Chapter Two to where ‘Christian theology, if it to be adequately Christian, must always begin and end: with the inspired Scriptures’ (p. 14). In just 14 pages, Holmes introduces his readers to the place and use of typology in biblical literature, and then surveys the key OT material, ‘pictures’ that inform our theology of atonement: principally sacrifice, but also justice, servanthood, wholeness, healing, and representation.

In Chapter Three, Holmes attends to the NT metaphors of atonement: namely sacrifice, victory, ransom, healing and salvation, reconciliation, revelation, new covenant, and justification. He reminds us afresh that ‘the best way to think about the cross is to use many, complementary, models or stories of salvation that hint at and point towards the indescribable truth at the heart of the matter. It seems clear that this is what the New Testament writers did’ (p. 41). Some readers may expect more from these two chapters, but I think given the nature of the book and its intended audience what Holmes gives us is adequate.

In the following two chapters – Four and Five – Holmes sketches the tradition. Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, John of Damascus, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Luther, Calvin, Anabaptists and Anglicans, early Evangelicals, nineteenth-century liberals and twentieth-century neo-orthodox theologians, Aulén and liberation theology are all perused. Holmes argues – against Jeffery, Ovey and Sach in Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, who spill not a little ink trying to prove (force?) otherwise – that the claim that penal substitutionary atonement is found in the fathers is misplaced and that he can find only ‘one isolated passage in Gregory the Great, but nothing else’ (p. 57), the focus there being principally on ransom and sacrifice motifs. This is not a problem however for Holmes: ‘If we understand the various pictures of the atonement to be complementary and (only) partial attempts to grab hold of a bigger truth, as I am suggesting we do, then the history of the early and medieval church will not seem surprising to us’ (p. 58).

The first full account of the doctrine comes, Holmes suggests, with Calvin. Had he wanted to, Holmes could have elicited support here from some negative (and older) critiques of the doctrine from church historians who claim that there is a scarcity of the doctrine pre-Reformation. See, for example, Laurence William Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester/London: Manchester University Press/Longmans, Green & Co., 1920), 191, and James Franklin Bethune Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine to the Time of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co., 1933), 352. Whether or not Holmes is correct here (and I’m not suggesting that he isn’t) is of little significance for his argument however.

Summarising, Holmes writes:

‘Christian theologians and preachers have told many, many ‘stories of salvation’. They have drawn pictures of kings being ransomed and slaves being freed and the sick being healed and guilty prisoners being declared innocent, of human nature being transformed and evil powers being defeated and people being inspired to a new life. The stories have changed through time because culture has changed through time, and different stories communicate the unchanging reality of the gospel to different cultures. At the time of the Reformation, penal substitution became a common and successful way of talking about the cross. Despite some critics, this remained the case for several centuries. Over the past two hundred years, however, several significant criticisms have been raised. Any account of penal substitution today needs to answer three questions:

1. How are all the different ‘stories of salvation’ related?

2. How did penal substitution ever thrive as an idea in early modern culture (i.e. sixteenth to eighteenth centuries)?

3. What, if anything, has changed?’ (pp. 72-3)

With this these questions, the Lecturer in theology at the University of St Andrews turns in the remaining chapters to explore the ‘what do we do with all these different pictures and stories’? question. ‘How do we decide between them which is right and which is wrong? Indeed do we have to decide between them?’ (pp. 74-5). He proceeds to properly note that ‘every story of salvation works by picturing what Christ did on the cross in terms of one particular facet of human experience, whether it be religious (sacrifice), legal (penal), or whatever. If we want to say that one or another of these theories is just plain right, then we have to say that the atonement, what Christ did for us to save us, really is just one example of the some more general part of human life. There are lots of sacrifices in the world, and the death of Jesus is one more. Perhaps more powerful, more lasting, than any of the others, but still, just a sacrifice amongst sacrifices. Or Jesus is one amongst a number of inspiring moral examples that we may find. Again, perhaps the most inspiring, but still, an example of some more general aspect of human life’ (p. 77).

One of the commendable things about this book is Holmes’ concern that the church might be able to communicate the truth to which the doctrine of penal substitution is attempting to proffer to contemporary society: ‘We need stories of salvation that are no decomposed, but that make sense to our culture’ (p. 103). He has most to say about this in the final chapters and in the Appendix (wherein he responds specifically to the challenges of Green, Baker, Chalke and Mann’s theses), but one does not need to wait until the end of the book to get to the ‘practical bits’, for this Baptist pastor has his eye on the world from Page 1. An example:

‘Our account of the atonement must make some sort of sense in whatever modern culture we find ourselves in. The pictures we draw must use symbols and images that people will recognise; the stories we tell must make sense. For academic theologians this is not quite so important: they can study the culture of Anselm’s day, and so work out how his theory made sense. But for preachers and evangelists – and that means every Christian – it is vital. When announcing the saving death of Jesus to people in ringing tones from a pulpit, or explaining it in hesitant conversation over a coffee, we need to be able to tell stories of salvation that will communicate, that will connect with the people we are talking to.

This might seem a very tall order, but if we accept the need for – and legitimacy of – many metaphors, we do not need to find one theory, one picture, one story, that will meet all these conditions. Instead, we can tell many stories, which between them build up into a cohesive, coherent picture. Some of them will underplay, or miss completely, this or that aspect of the biblical witness; some will be easy to grasp in our culture, others difficult and will require additional explanation. But between them all, we will build up a composite picture of all that Jesus has done, a picture that will begin – but probably only begin – to be adequate to explain the wondrous cross.

The question, then, that I want to put with regard to penal substitution as a way of picturing the atonement is not: ‘Does it answer everything?’ but rather: ‘Does it illuminate some things?’ Does it help, alongside other stories, to build up a picture of the cross? Of course it has weaknesses – every metaphor does – but do its strengths counterbalance its weaknesses? Is there some aspect of the work of Jesus that, in our particular culture, it enables us to speak meaningfully of, some aspect that is missed by most or all of the other things we could say or stories we could tell?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then penal substitution may – and must – remain as one of our stories of salvation, balanced by others of course, but an important part nonetheless of our witness to the cross’ (pp. 85-6).

I confess that I am weary of the use (and overuse) of unqualified analogy or metaphor in any christological discussion because, as with the resurrection, we are dealing with something, or Someone, new – a reality which fundamentally challenges all we know, and think we know, about the whole order of the possible. This does not mean, however, that I think there is no place for metaphor. I concur with Gunton’s The Actuality of the Atonement that we must not only speak about the work of Christ but that to do so necessarily means harnessing a broad range of metaphors – both biblical and extra-biblical – with the conviction that no one group of metaphors can exhaust the atonement’s meaning. Therefore, warfare, redemption, judicial and sacrificial dialects are all valid (most often, to be sure, at different times and in different places) – as are dialects of poetry and the social and hard sciences – with the conviction that although no one group of metaphors can exhaust the atonement’s meaning, it is through metaphor that the church has been able to say anything at all about the cross. We ought not be concerned that no one metaphor can translate the reality of the atonement. Christ did not die for a metaphor. Moreover, the dominance of any one metaphor risks distorting the reality which, like conversion itself, carries a totality in it, an eternal crisis, to which nothing in the world is comparable and all metaphor inadequate. To employ an analogy: to stress any metaphors of the atonement at the expense – or even worse, at the exclusion – of others is akin to silencing all the members of the orchestra except the clarinets. Now I’ve nothing against the clarinet (I play one) but it’s not what the score before the orchestra requires. And anyway, 90 minutes of clarinet with nothing else is not even what the clarinetists want.

Holmes recognises the tendency within some evangelical camps to privilege penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement over others; a move, he argues, which distorts the full word of the cross. Instead, he cogently outlines why preachers and theologians – that is, all of us – need all the stories if we are even to begin to understand the many truths of what God was doing in Christ crucified. Penal substitution is one of these stories. If this story has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past – and it has, pitting the Father against the Son, for example – then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the Scriptures and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

In the final chapter Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. On this latter, and rehearsing some things he has written about more fully elsewhere (see Stephen R. Holmes, ‘Can Punishment Bring Peace? Penal Substitution Revisited’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58 (2005): 104-123), Holmes writes:

‘Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ’ (p. 119).

In this short book, Dr Holmes doesn’t answer every question we might have about penal substitution though he does give us enough of an indication of where he might want to suggest the answer might lay. But I have said enough. So, why do I like this book? Here’s four reasons:

  1. I agree with the basic thesis;
  2. It models a good way of doing theology: start with exegesis of Scripture, and then work through the tradition with an eye on the church and the world;
  3. Because it’s easy to read;
  4. Because it’s the kind of book I can pass onto folk at church who are confused about what the bible (and the tradition) wants to say about the cross, and/or who are needing a guide through the current debates on penal substitution. [Unfortunately, not too many are prepared to read Gunton’s The Actuality of Atonement]. As a pastor, I can place this book into people’s hands confident that their love for Christ and praise for his work on their behalf will be matured and deepened.

It is all too rare to find a book written with the educated lay reader in mind by one who so properly has both eyes on the biblical witness, is so consciously aware of the tradition of which the theme is a part, and who is informed by the pastoral and missional implications of the discussion, and who also seeks to say something constructive to those on both sides of a contemporary debate. Holmes’ book does all this admirably.


  1. I didn’t like Actuality of Atonement. Steve did a much better job in his book in my opinion. Much as I love Gunton, I just thought that his book on Atonement was a little nebulous.


  2. Jason, many thanks for the review.

    Jon–I can’t quite decide whether to be honoured and humbled by that comment, or scandalised that one of my own students has such a poor grasp of the relative worth of theological texts…


  3. Like you say – either way it’s your fault – for writing a theological text which is relatively worthy – or not teaching me better!

    As far as I’m concerned – your book is the only theology book I’ve been able to give to my Dad which he could read, understand and benefit from. That’s pretty important in theology in my humble opinion.


  4. Thanks for the review. I though the quotes you took from the book were especially thought-provoking. I am not a proponent of penal-substitution theory, but I find the viewpoint expressed by the author interesting, nonetheless.


  5. Here is one of my favorite, short, by very good statements on the Atonement:
    “I have often wondered whether we might not say that the Christian doctrine of the Atonement just meant that in Christ God took the responsibility of evil upon Himself, and somehow subsumed evil under good.” ~ Letters of Principal James Denny to his Family and Friends, p. 187.


  6. Sorry about the lost e in Denney! lol My type is so poor. Indeed James D. Denney (1856-1917)is/was one solid man of Christ and the Cross! And Denney’s understanding of the death of Christ was penal and substitutionary.
    “The Cross is the place at which the Sinless One dies the death of the death of the sinful; the place at which God’s condemnation is borne by the Innocent, that for those who commit themselves to Him there may not be condemnation no more. I cannot read the NT in any other sense. I cannot see at the very heart of it anything but this – grace establishing the law, not in a “forensic” sense, but in a spiritual sense; mercy revealed, not over judgment, but through it; justification disclosing not only the goodness but the severity of God; the Cross inscribed, God is love, only because it is inscribed also, the wages of sin is death.” (Studies, p. 124)
    And he believed this all his life!
    “Can we say anything else than this: That while the agony and Passion were not penal in the sense of coming upon Jesus through a bad conscience, or making Him the personal object of divine wrath, they were penal in the sense that in that dark hour he had to realise to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race in which He was incorporated, and that without doing so to the uttermost He could not have been the Redeemer of that race from sin, or the Reconciler of sinful men to God?” (Reconciliation, p. 273) And “Christ owns the reality of sin by submitting humbly and without rebellion to the divine reaction against it. (Reconciliation, p. 234)


  7. Since, according to Jesus, there is only one small narrow gate perfected by him for escaping from the consequence of eternal death and it is found by only a few, having a multiplex of explanations of equal merit of what this gate actually is is a stretch. “Continue in my words” is his directive, but I think books written by men are more than likely not his words. Don’t you?


  8. Thanks Jason… Good review. Will place book on my ‘to read’ list. A long list only ever shortened in bursts.

    I often wonder if wanting an exclusive all encompassing theory of atonement isn’t a symptom of our modern way of thinking. Interesting to note you and Homes see them crystallise in early modernity. We want to be in control and have it all tied up.

    People often forget that the use and beauty of metaphors in our thinking is the compare and contrast nature. It allows us to see how the Cross is seen from those different perspectives and pictures but also to reflect on how it differs. Both are useful and important in grasping the whole.


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