On Obbie Tyler Todd’s “The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement.”

If one is seeking insight into the historical waters of Baptist faith and practice, there is, perhaps, no better wordsmith with whom to wade than Obbie Tyler Todd. Obbie’s voracious appetite for history and theology, and the pastoral intertwining of both, animates his faith in rich and rewarding ways. Such is what likely fueled his considerable feat of finishing M.Div., Th.M., and Ph.D. degrees prior to reaching his mid-30s. Stints at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) afford Obbie robust ecclesiastical tutelage, which he employs to great success. Obbie is a true pastor-theologian, evincing both a pastorally enriched scholastic mind and a scholastically informed pastoral heart. And there is, certainly, no truer example of this than his recently-published work, The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement: Re-envisioning Penal Substitution.

Throughout the book, Obbie meticulously examines what was once a “nation-shaping and epoch-defining doctrine,” now all but abandoned,1 i.e., the moral governmental theory of atonement. This theory of Christ’s atoning work is defined by the author 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.”2 This view of Christ’s work, among the many that have been upheld throughout the ages of church history,3 has been relegated to the doctrinal scrap-heap and reduced to an archetypal system derived from archaic belief. In some senses, this is true, as Obbie establishes in exquisite detail the historical precedence and prevalence of a doctrine that, though lost to time, once initially “captured the American spirit in a way that transcended generations, denominational lines, [and] geographic boundaries.”4

Not only did the moral governmental theory occupy the ecclesiastical zeitgeist of the 17th and 18th centuries, it was also a uniquely American theological project. “The American moral governmental theory of atonement,” Obbie writes, “was not an ephemeral doctrine relegated to New England that quickly died out after the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s . . . in some ways, the moral government theory of the atonement was a soteriological expression of American republicanism.”5 Indeed, upon examining the moral governmental theory of atonement, one is privy to “a small window into the American self-consciousness between 1750 and 1850,” Obbie continues, “as themes like honor and authority and liberty were inextricably linked to the American situation.”6 One is suitably encouraged, therefore, to join the author on a scrutinizing journey of bygone belief to uncover its modern resonance. 

Obbie’s analysis of this “distinctly American doctrine”7 begins with a helpful introduction, which states the intended purview of the work. This is followed by a lengthy tandem of chapters which situate moral governmental theory within its historical context. Obbie excels at articulating historical citations and archival accounts into homogenized narratives, developing the thread of moral governmental theory conviction apparent throughout decades of church history. The middle four chapters constitute the bulk of the book’s body, as Obbie elaborates on the elemental dogma of moral governmental theory proponents, e.g., the prevailing importance of God’s glory and goodness, the sovereignty of his grace, the nature of God’s justice exhibited on the cross, culminating in the fundamental duty of faith in the life of the believer. His engagement with both past and present Reformed thinkers, from Jonathan Edwards Sr. and Samuel Hopkins, to J. I. Packer and John Piper, is particularly insightful, as he traces the heritage of atonement theology and the maturation of moral governmental theory to those espoused to its propagation. He closes with a trilogy of discussions primarily concerned with assessing the value of the moral governmental theory of atonement within the larger construct of atonement theory.

Obbie extends the tension for the duration of the book, denying the reader the release of knowing where the author falls on the spectrum of atonement theology proper. Whereas a keen reader might anticipate an eventual doctrinal gut-punch to the theory which has come at the expense of so many words, Obbie is less interested in decimating an entire era of ecclesiastical thought than he is in demonstrating the modern applicability of a bygone belief. Rather than taking up either the office of moral governmental apologist or attorney, he instead goes to great lengths to vindicate the storied legacy of moral governmental theory itself, situating it within the broader spectrum of the theories of the atonement. This he does not by pitting the varied doctrines of atonement against one another, as if they were sumo wrestlers competing for unrivaled glory, but by evincing the manifold ways in which the theories of the atonement complement each other, including the moral governmental theory of the atonement. “The atonement is a ‘mosaic,’” Obbie affirms, “with interconnected pieces that fit together by virtue of God’s beautiful design, evoking our worship rather than simply becoming an academic exercise to ‘figure out’ the best piece.”8

This is, perhaps, the premier benefit of engaging with Obbie’s work, in which he proceeds to reinforce a “robust” conviction in the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, precisely by interacting with moral governmental theory, among others. It is his apparent aim to fortify one’s faith by carefully putting the classically held Reformed conviction of penal substitutionary atonement under the microscope. His specific dismantling of the modern notion that the classic view of the atonement is nothing more than “cosmic child abuse” is particularly helpful. Such aspersions, prattled off by contemporary deconstructionists, are shown to be nothing but faithless drivel — torpedoed by Obbie’s specific employment of both the tenets of the moral governmental and the penal substitutionary views of the atonement.9 In that way, one is brought to the precipice of atonement theory in order absorb God’s panoramic glory and goodness, which is decidedly seen nowhere else but in the cross. As Obbie writes towards the end of the book, “atonement theology is not a precarious mountaintop upon which only one theme can stand. It is, rather, the mountain itself, with beautiful vistas and various peaks along the way.”10 Obbie’s enterprise, therefore, enables the student of theology to grasp a fuller picture of the work of God in Christ, hinging upon the manifold accomplishments which flow from Calvary’s mount.

1

Obbie Tyler Todd, The Moral Governmental Theory of Atonement: Re-envisioning Penal Substitution (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021), 1.

2

Ibid., 7.

3

Including the moral influence theory, the ransom theory, Christus Victor, the satisfaction theory, and penal substitutionary atonement. For a brief but helpful overview of each of these atonement theories, including the moral governmental theory, you can read Stephen D. Morrison’s “7 Theories of the Atonement Summarized.”

4

Todd, 12.

5

Ibid., 12, 32.

6

Ibid., 191.

7

Ibid., 25.

8

Ibid., 165. My article, “Cutting through the glut of the theories of Jesus’s atonement,” might also be helpful here.

9

Ibid., 172–73, especially.

10

Ibid., 161.