(Interview) Obbie Tyler Todd On the Atonement of Jesus Christ

The word atonement is a key to understand the relationship with God and sinful man through Christ’s death. Without the atonement, what Christ accomplished is mere heroic deed. Atonement is the game changer when viewing deeply what the death on the cross really mean for the believers position before a holy God. Author Obbie Tyler Todd opened another view of this important doctrine, in his book The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement which is, as the title suggest, moral governmental theory (MGT). I haven’t heard this view so I reach out and chat with him about this. He has another book also tackling MGT which is the latest, titled A Baptist at the Crossroad. So we chat about it plus upcoming works in this interview:

Would you consider A Baptist At The Crossroad as a sequel to your previous book The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement?

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book. To answer your question, I’d say: this book is part 2 in a 3-part series! I’ll explain. I began writing this book first. It’s a revised version of my dissertation at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. My focus all along was Richard Furman, a neglected figure in Baptist history who I decided to study. I was introduced to him by Tom Nettles at Southern Seminary during my Th.M. years. However, when I began reading Furman’s writings, I discovered that in order to understand Furman’s doctrine of atonement, I would need to first master the moral governmental view of atonement because he seemed to integrate the theory into his overall view.

Once I started researching that theory, I found that it too was a neglected part of religious history! After being asked to write The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement as part of the “Re-Envisioning Reformed Dogmatics” series, I set out to write both books at the same time. I actually wrote three books!

The third is set to release in early 2022, and it’s entitled Southern Edwardseans: The Southern Baptist Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. It’s part of the “New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies” series with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht through the Edwards Center at Yale. Furman factors prominently in that book as well. So, you might say that Richard Furman opened up an entire 3-part saga for me haha!

Whoa a trilogy then! The finale is a big one and it’s on Jonathan Edwards. That’s something to look forward to. Kindly give us a quick definition of penal substitution and moral government theory of atonement.

Broadly speaking, I would define penal substitution as Christ suffering the penalty of our sin in our place in order to satisfy divine justice, removing our guilt before the divine Judge. He died “for us,” as Isaiah 53 says, “for our transgressions” and “for our iniquities.” He paid our debt by becoming our substitute. On the other hand, I think the best definition of the moral governmental theory of atonement is the one I supply in the introduction to my book:

“As a public exhibition of the evil consequences of sin and God’s displeasure with it, Christ suffered the equivalent of damnation in order to maintain the honor of the law, to vindicate the Moral Governor, and to achieve the most good for his moral universe. Christ did not endure the actual penalty of the law, but suffered extralegally, non-savingly, and non-transferrably as a substitute for punishments in order to satisfy public (general) and rectoral justice and to open the door for sinners to be pardoned of their sins upon faith by a good and just Ruler.” (7)

How important is penal substitution in the discussion of soteriology?

It’s vitally important. It not only colors the way we define biblical words like propitiation and justice, but it also affects the way we live our lives as Christians. The New Divinity theologians certainly thought so. Christ’s death is the essence of the gospel itself, and it ultimately shapes the motives behind Christian obedience. Why did Jesus die? What was Jesus accomplishing when he died? What does that say about my sin and about God? How do I live for him in light of what he did for me? These questions go to the very heart of Christianity.

What do you think are at stake when we downplay this doctrine?

Downplaying Christ’s death ultimately diminishes the gospel and our salvation. It undermines the importance of repentance and resurrection. It downplays what God has to say about Himself and about our sin. Jesus had to deal with sin. And because He had to deal with it, we have to come to terms with who God is and who we are and how to be reconciled to Him. At its heart, that is atonement: reconciliation.

With all theologians that you can choose to further flourish the discussion of this doctrine, why did you select Richard Furman? To be honest, I don’t know him and his apparent influence.

Richard Furman demonstrates that Baptists, even relatively “conservative” Baptists, have not historically been limited to one aspect or view or school of the atonement. Furman was the ideal Baptist to present this kind of eclecticism because he was a confessional Calvinist. He was lauded by virtually every Baptist of his generation and so many Baptists since. He was the inaugural president of the first nation-wide Baptist denomination in American history: the Triennial Convention. That’s big. He’s been called America’s most influential Baptist. And that might be true. But we can’t simply assume that since he was an old school Calvinist that he must have viewed the atonement in precisely the same way that, for example, James P. Boyce did. He didn’t. He combined the essence of traditional penal substitution with the dominant ideas of his age. Penal substitution was a fluid doctrine for many years in the early republic, and Furman demonstrates this. Some denominational historians might not like to hear that, but it’s true.

If we look at our contemporary evangelical landscape, what lessons can we apply to our current state of theology? In the spirit of Richard Furman, what issue will he and his belief in penal substitution be facing.

I don’t personally hold to the moral governmental theory of atonement (although some people still do!). I hold firmly to traditional PSA. But I can sympathize with what Furman and others were trying to do. MGT had a lot of admirable qualities about it, including an attention to law and God’s cosmic rule and order and public justice and so on. Many of these themes came from movements within their lifetime, like republicanism and the Scottish Enlightenment and etc. Every generation is subject to its own intellectual milieu. For example, in our contemporary theological landscape, we are experiencing debates over the Trinity that mirror current debates over gender and marriage. Do we really think that we’re so different than our theological forbears, that we can somehow insulate ourselves from the trends and movements of our own age? At the very least, someone like Furman should remind us that the “penal substitution” umbrella is a little bigger than we might think and that there’s room to contextualize the doctrine of atonement inside the larger debates of the age.

Well said! Please tell us the process of writing both books The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement and A Baptist at the Crossroad?

The origin of this book is fairly straightforward: I found a Charleston Baptist named Richard Furman who had not been investigated thoroughly. My first book, however, was the result of being asked to write the volume for a new series. I had published a couple articles in the International Journal of Systematic Theology and Scottish Journal of Theology on the moral governmental theory of atonement, and the editors of “Re-Envisioning Reformed Dogmatics,” Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton, asked me if I wanted to write a book on the view. I said…sure! It was a fun book to write. I am not a traditional theology guy. I much prefer history. So both books take a very historical turn. But I’m glad to re-introduce the evangelical world to an old view and an old figure.

 As I said earlier, I have a book coming out next year that I hope will shape the way we understand Southern Baptist history. That’s bold, I understand. But I’m that confident in my research. One of the endorsers for the book has said that he thinks the book “presents groundbreaking research that will be consulted, debated, and referenced for many decades to come.” So you might say that for the past 2-3 years I’ve been actively engaged in revising a bit of Southern Baptist history.

Which among these books do you find memorable in terms of writing it?

I found the first book more memorable because it was my first. Also, during the process, I was writing something that I intended to be the standard work on this particular view of the atonement. There have been several scholars who have written on the view, and my work builds on the scholarship of these men, but I felt that I was dusting off an historical subject and introducing it to the theology community. Sometimes historians talk about things for a long time but meanwhile the theological community is doing its own thing. And vice versa. I imagine that “The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement: Re-Envisioning Penal Substitution” will be read mostly by theology folks and “A Baptist at the Crossroads: The Atonement in the Writings of Richard Furman (1755–1825)” will mostly be read by history folks. Maybe I’m wrong. But it’s still part of the same project.

At least you got the best of both worlds by those two books. As a pastor and a Christian how does this doctrine impacted you?

As a pastor, writing on penal substitution has re-energized my preaching about the cross. I’m much more cognizant of what I say to my congregation and what I mean when I say it. The death of Christ is so essential to the gospel that it’s never a waste of time to think deeply about what Jesus did at Calvary. It affects our conversations about justification, sanctification, justice, and really everything.

Thank you, pastor. Kindly invite our readers to check these books and can they contact you if they have questions.

Thanks for this conversation. For those who are interested in the doctrine of atonement or Baptist history or both, I invite you to read either of these works. My email is obbie.todd@lutherrice.edu. Feel free to email me any questions about the book or about my research. I also have just finished a project on early Baptist politics that will hopefully be published in 2023 so I also welcome conversation on that topic as well. Many thanks!

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