The Atonement Debate (Zahnd and Brown): Some Historical Background and an Alternative to the Whole Thing

The International House of Prayer-University just hosted a debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown, the debate was on differing views of the atonement. Zahnd essentially christcenteredargued against the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA, hereafter) theory, while Brown argued for it. Maybe you weren’t aware that there were differing views out there on this, or maybe instead you are well versed in this area, and were pounding your fist one way or the other as you watched this debate.

Zahnd’s basic premise is that PSA represents divine child abuse; that the Father sent the Son to die for our sins, that he tortured him on a cross, and once he got every last ounce of his wrath out of him, as he beat on his Son, at this point God was able to love the elect. Brown argued, from a biblical theological approach, that to the contrary, PSA represents the most biblical view of the atonement, and fits well with the Day of Atonement motif (cf. Lev. 16), as well as New Testament passages where Jesus is called the ‘Lamb of God’ (Jn. 1.29), or the ‘Passover’ (I Cor. 5.7). Without getting into further detail, throughout the rest of this post I will take this debate as a jumping off point, and get further into the history of the development of PSA theology, and then offer the evangelical Calvinist (not Zahnd’s, but evangelical Calvinism’s) alternative to PSA, which by the way, does not fully disavow the penal substitutionary atonement model, it just doesn’t see it as the central frame for an atonement theory.

To begin with let me provide a little history on how the PSA developed in early Protestant Reformed theology. Jan Rohls does an excellent job of developing the history of PSA theology by weaving many of the Reformed confessions and catechisms together that in fact made it central to the scholastically Reformed church. As Rohls comments on the French, Belgic, and Geneva Confession[s], and how these confessions engage with the earlier Apostles’ Creed on the theme of atonement he writes of what we call PSA theology today:

All other events of Jesus’ life are placed in functional relation to his death. With regard to the content of Christian preaching the Synodical Declaration of Berne states that “the beginning must be made with Christ’s death and resurrection” (M 37, 7). But that raises the question, “If one must begin and end with Christ’s death and resurrection, what is the purpose of the evangelists, who describe his birth and his life?” (M 37, 38–40). According to the Geneva Catechism, the Apostle’s Creed immediately proceeds to Christ’s suffering, so that the question arises, “Why do you go immediately from His birth to His death, passing over the whole history of His life?” (T 13). The Catechism’s answer to this question is revealing: “Because nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption” (ibid.). The event that constitutes the essence of redemption is Jesus’ suffering and death, insofar as they are penalties that Christ takes upon himself for us in a substitutionary way. “He dies to suffer the punishment due to us, and thus to deliver us from it” (T 14). His substitution for us lies not just in the fact that he died for us. To highlight the penal character of the death that we have earned as sinners, he was condemned to death. “Because we were guilty before the judgment of God as evil-doers, in order to represent us in person He was pleased to appear before the tribunal of an earthly judge, and to be condemned by his mouth, that we might be acquitted before the throne of the celestial Judge” (ibid.).[1]

As I listened to the first half of the aforementioned debate I did not hear any of this background context provided, which is troubling. It is troubling because in order to offer a fair critique (Zahnd), or at least a relatively thick one, the development of PSA theology needs to be given its proper layering and reasoning. As becomes apparent through Rohls’ development, what we see is that the ‘penal character’ of the atonement comes from a particular background; what Rohls’ did not develop in the section that I quoted is that the background for PSA is what Reformed theology calls Covenant or Federal Theology, in particular the Covenant of Works. Because of space constraints, I am not going to be able to develop that either; suffice it to say there is much more to the background of PSA than Zahnd alluded to. If he had delved into that a little more further his own critique of divine child abuse would have been weakened somewhat, primarily because of the covenantal nature that PSA is couched in.

Unfortunately, this post is going to run too long if I attempt to provide the evangelical Calvinist alternative to PSA and classical Covenantal theology, I will have to make this a two part post and offer that next time or so. Let me conclude this way; the evangelical Calvinist critique of PSA, in particular has more to do with its broader covenantal framework, with election, the extent of the atonement, and most pointedly with the efficacious nature, or lack thereof, of penal substitutionary atonement. Evangelical Calvinism’s basic critique goes something like this: to frame the substitution as a juridical thing, a forensic thing, a legal thing does not deal with the depth dimension, the problem that needs to really be dealt with. The penalty view deals with the symptoms and consequences of sin, it does not deal with the cause and source of sin which is the heart. So as an alternative, evangelical Calvinism riffs off of TF Torrance’s ontological theory of the atonement that finds rootage in Patristic theology.

In my view the debate that happened did not really deal with the source issues, nor with a source alternative like the ontological theory of the atonement offers. More to come. Actually if you click here you can read the evangelical Calvinist alternative.

[1] Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. Columbia Series In Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 94-5.



  1. Todd Norquist · ·

    Bobby, if can only say one thing in my limited minute, it’s THANKS for covering this broadcast–wh has attracted large viewership (especially IHOPpers) in my little town.
    I, too, think a substitutionary aspect of Christ’s atonement can be believed (w no rift in the Trinity, nor appeasement of God); I eagerly look forward to more detail. Though I might possibly have missed portions of Brown vs. Zahnd, I reckon both debaters (while they seemed to me to be uni-faceted characatures) accurately represent actual opinions held in the church.


  2. Hi Todd,

    Thanks. There is no doubt that these guys represent little camps within the evangelical world, but there is certainly more available in the Christian tradition and history of interpretation that did not get covered whatsoever in this debate (and I understand that they had to move quick, and that there were time constraints). I am not so sure that Brown or even Zahnd are the best suited for this discussion, but it is still interesting, of course, to hear from a variety of people on this topic.