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I come from a background in Protestant/Evangelical churches. The trademark salvation message in those churches is that Christ bore the wrath of God for your sins to satisfy his justice that we have offended by our sin; it's basically a teaching of the penal substitution theory woven into a call to repentance. John Piper also seems to declare the theory as gospel in his books.

Since becoming a catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox church I have rejected this theory as an acceptable way to explain salvation. It is my opinion of most Protestant/Evangelical churches that they teach the theory as fact (perhaps less so in for high church Protestants).

Are there any Protestant denominations (or individual churches) that explicitly reject the penal substitution theory, and more generally the idea that Christ's death was needed to "pay" or satisfy God the Father?

For reference, the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox church sometimes uses the ransom theory of atonement to explain Christ's death being a ransom paid to death. However, that is just one teaching that can help a Christian who is meditating on the meaning of His death.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Though your question is a good one, it's far too broad for this site. Different Protestant individuals and churches will have different views. For your question to be on-topic here, you'd either have to ask what a particular Protestant denomination believes about this, or the somewhat more difficult question of whether there are any Protestant denominations that reject penal substitution. – Lee Woofenden May 4 '16 at 16:50
  • For more on what's on-topic here and what this site is all about, see: What topics can I ask about here? and: Types of questions that are within community guidelines and: How we are different than other sites. – Lee Woofenden May 4 '16 at 16:51
  • @Lee - question revised to ask if there are any protestant churches that reject the penal substitution theory. I can't just make it about denominations, because there are so many splinter churches and churches that teach outside of their denominations' norm these days. Can it be on topic for someone to say "My church xxx in xxx, USA teaches this about the atonement"? – Ian May 4 '16 at 17:20
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Not all Anglicans have held to Penal Substitution Theory. For example, the nineteenth to early 20th century Anglican bishop Charles Ellicott did not. See his commentary on Galatians 3, for example. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion does not express Penal Substitutionary Atonement. So, if you look at some of the continuing Anglican denominations you may find a church that is Protestant but does not hold to Penal Substitution Theory. Some of those continuing denominations are "Anglo-Catholic", so I'm not sure they are actually Protestant.

I am in a denomination called the Federation of Reformed Churches. I do not hold to Penal Substitution Theory. I've expressed this in a paper sent to my fellow Presbyters. None of them attempted to bring any charge against me. So, there are Reformed Presbyters who can tell the difference between theory and scriptural data and have some appreciation of the history of the doctrine of Christ as our propitiatory sacrifice.

It is interesting to note that Calvin did not write his view on penal substitution theory into either the Geneva Confession of 1536 or the later French Confession. (There is some question as to whether Calvin wrote those documents or just influenced them.) Calvin seems to have been more careful of such things than the Lutherans and many of the other Reformed, such as Ursinus.

There have been Reformed believers and are at least some now who do not hold to Penal Substitution Theory. Furthermore, it is not hard to find Arminian teachers who do hold to it. So I do not think that holding to or not holding to the theory has any direct relationship to one's doctrine of free will.

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You will find rejection of the Penal Substitution Atonement theory among the Progressive churches and theologians. They reject the theory because it makes God out to be no different than the pagan gods. JKlemm responding to this question says "If a denomination/church/believer believes in the supremacy of Scripture, it's nearly impossible to reject Christ's penal substitution." This belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue. It has nothing to do with the authority of scripture and everything to do with how one interprets those scriptures, specifically how one views the sacrifice of Christ and the atonement. Progressive churches have gained much insight into pre-Augustine thinking with the help of your Eastern Orthodox churches that escaped the influence that Augustine had on the Western Roman Empire.

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    I don't know if St. Augustine really promoted the PS theory. He is usually blamed for Western opinions of original sin, predestination, and purgatory. Usually it is Anselm of Canterbury that is blamed (or credited) with starting Western thought in the direction of what ultimately became PS in the reformation. – Ian May 31 '16 at 15:14
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    Thanks for actually answering Ian's question. I think a line can be traced from Anselm back to the more extreme anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, where he began to deny the role of free will in one's salvation. Even though he recanted many of his more extreme positions later in life, his phantom continues to carry some banners. – user22553 Aug 25 '16 at 18:43
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I do not believe there are any (in my experience or knowledge, anyway) Protestant churches that reject penal substitution. Protestant churches, for the most part with the exception of the newer liberal denominations, adhere to the traditional Reformation fundamentals of Sola Scriptura, Sola Christus, etc. If a denomination/church/believer believes in the supremacy of Scripture, it's nearly impossible to reject Christ's penal substitution.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're asking about, and I know you're looking for a factual answer rather than a discussion, but I think the Scriptures are rather clear on this topic, though I'd like to see where you substantiate you beliefs. I could come up with more examples, but I don't think I need to after reading Romans 5, which states pretty clearly that we are reconciled "through the death of his Son."

Romans 5

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

So to answer your question, I don't think you'll find any traditional Protestant churches that reject penal substitution, since most traditional churches believe in the supremacy/infallibility of Scripture. I think it's hard to conclude anything other than Christ's penal substitution unless you reject the idea that Scripture is inerrant.

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    Welcome! This answer has some promise, but could be improved in a few ways. First, you'll notice that the question doesn't specifically ask about conservative Protestant denominations. So saying "there aren't any conservative denominations" that reject this isn't really an answer to the question – you might be right, but which liberal ones reject it?. Second, your defense of the theory doesn't really fit here. I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel is protesting May 24 '16 at 0:18
  • I think you are answering the question without appreciating the historical context of the debate. Reading this Wikipedia article may be a good start: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_Victor. Also, note the quote I make in my answer here: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/44513/… from Gregory Nazianzus in which he emphatically states that God the Father did not accept the sacrifice out of need. IMO, your answer shows how people are taught this theory as gospel. – Ian May 24 '16 at 16:17
  • Also, note that the KJV and NKJV say "saved from wrath" instead of "saved from God's wrath". Either way, the debate is not whether we will be saved from God's wrath by the death of Christ, but how and why. What does reconciliation and sanctification mean. Did Christ die to change God (i.e. - satisfy him), or to change us? Satisfaction theories date from the 2nd millennium and onward, so you will find that the protestant penal substitution formula is actually the liberal and innovative doctrine and not the other way round; always remember that the church existed for 1400+ years before Luther. – Ian May 24 '16 at 16:24
  • @JKlemm - I don't think Ian is claiming that Christ did not die for us. That is a fundamental belief and truth of the Church. What is disputed is that His death was a punishment that we should have received to satisfy God in some legal sense. Often when people hear that someone objects to the theory of penal substitutionary atonement they automatically assume that that someone doesn't believe that Christ died for us - mostly, I think, because no other logical explanation for Christ's death has been presented to them other than the Anselmian. – user22553 Aug 25 '16 at 18:36
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Early unitarians such as Joseph Priestly and later William Ellery Channing rejected the idea that God punished Jesus in the place of sinners. They thought rather that God rewarded Jesus with resurrection and ascension and did not punish him. They reasoned that if Jesus were the only one to die and go to hell, he might have been punished by God for all the sins of everyone else, but that if he rose from death and went to heaven instead, Jesus was not a substitute to go in our places, but rather one we should follow, both his words and his deeds. They saw Jesus more as an example to follow than a substitute to give them a free ticket to heaven, regardless of what they do.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer here. I question, though, whether the early unitarians were, or considered themselves to be, within the Protestant/Evangelical orbit, which is what the question is asking about. For more on what this site is all about, please see: How we are different than other sites. – Lee Woofenden Dec 26 '16 at 3:18
  • Unitarians aren't Protestant. – curiousdannii Dec 26 '16 at 4:08
  • @curiousdannii That's debatable. Personally I would agree with you that they don't qualify as Protestant in any sense of theological heritage, but J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedia of Protestantism identifies them as “Non-Trinitarian Protestant”, as do about half a dozen other major works. Additionally at times they have claimed to be Protestant, as in the Protestant Theological Institute of Cluj. Then you have the Biblical Unitarian Movement which is basically a heresy coming out of mainstream Protestantism. – Caleb Dec 26 '16 at 8:38

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