“Resolved to Saw Through the Branch Upon Which They Sit: Southern Baptists and the Varieties of Substitutionary Atonement”

Bibliographic information:

Mosser, Carl. “Resolved to Saw Through the Branch Upon Which They Sit: Southern Baptists and the Varieties of Substitutionary Atonement.” Criswell Theological Review N.S. 18, no.2 (2021): 3-30.


Since its founding, the Southern Baptist Convention has deliberately permitted a variety of substitutionary theories of atonement. Apparently unaware of this fact, in 2017, messengers to the annual meeting passed a non-binding resolution on the necessity of penal substitutionary atonement. Some describe the resolution as the first step in revising the Baptist Faith and Message to ensure professors at SBC seminaries are required to teach penal substitution. However, “penal substitutionary atonement” is a highly equivocal phrase and the resolution does not define which version(s) of penal substitution are permissible. Its authors, though, seem to presuppose a controversial version of the doctrine which is at odds with the teaching of the Reformers.

The first part of this articles demonstrates that the founders of the SBC and SBTS held a variety of views on the atonement, including non-penal forms of substitutionary atonement. When SBTS was founded, the Abstract of Principles was carefully crafted to ensure professors would be free to teach at least varieties of penal substitution, the Fullerite theory, or the Edwardsean Moral Government theory. The original Baptist Faith and Message was crafted to conserve early Southern Baptist pluralism on the atonement. Formulations specifically designed to permit Fullerite and Edwardsian theories were retained in both the 1963 and 2000 editions. When the word “substitutionary” was added to the 2000 revision, the BFM for the first time stated explicitly where the boundary of SBC orthodoxy regarding the atonement lies, in the essential fact of substitution. Some form of substitutionary atonement is required, penal substitution is not. That is precisely where James P. Boyce drew the line in his Abstract of Theology. In asserting the necessity of penal substitution, then, the resolution is out of step with the historic Southern Baptist position.

The second part of this article briefly examines some ways in which varieties of penal substitutionary atonement significantly differ from one another. It then poses a number of questions Southern Baptists ought to consider before making moves to revise the Baptist Faith and Message to require penal substitution.


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