The Gospel is a Story AND a set of Propositions

Alright, l’ve had it with the silly “The Gospel is not a set of propositions, it’s a story” meme that keeps getting thrown around in church conversations and books. It’s been beat down I don’t know how many times, but let’s just be clear: the Gospel is both a story AND a set of propositions. It includes both, it is both because stories involve propositions. What do I mean? A proposition is basically an affirmation, something asserted about the world, or a situation. “It is raining” or “Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States” are good examples of propositions. Now, when you take more than 2 seconds to think about it, you’ll realize that without propositions, you don’t have stories. Let me quickly illustrate my point:

Proposition 1: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch some water.
Proposition 2: Jack tripped and sustained a head injury
Proposition 3: Upon seeing his fall, Jill was frightened, tripped, and fell down after him.

Put this together and you have a short story. This is not hard stuff.

Now, let’s think about the basic Gospel announcement. Here’s the King Jesus, McKnightish/Wrightish version: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” That’s an assertion about what is the case. It’s a proposition about the Lordship of Christ. Or, try this more “Soterian”-sounding one: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19 ) “God is reconciling the world to himself” is an assertion, a proposition that sums up the Gospel.

One more:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-18)

Take the first verse alone:

Prop 1: “In the beginning was the Word”
Prop 2: “The Word was with God”
Prop 3: “The Word was God”

The narrative of the Word coming into the world which rejected him and the salvation that came to those who did is a series of propositions that are connected to form a version of the basic Gospel story. Are we clear then? The Gospel is a story AND a set of propositions? Good.

Now, I get where this is coming from. People have reacted against presentations of the Gospel that are a series of de-historicized, de-narrativized, “4 spiritual laws” that takes all the drama and movement out of things. I get that. I’m not a fan of those presentations either. The Gospel is a rich, deep, and dramatic reality that shouldn’t be reduced down to a formula. Still, I’m not a fan of silly, misleading statements either. This is one of them. Stop using it, people.

The Beauty of the Impassible God (Or, Is God an Emotional Teenager?)

For some reason I’ve become interested in the much-maligned doctrine of the impassibility of God over the last couple of years. What is the doctrine you ask? Simply put, it is the idea that God cannot be made to suffer change from without or be overcome with passions. Ever since the early Fathers this has been the standard teaching of the Church: God is not subject to passions. I first found out about this idea in college when reading Jurgen Moltmann’s classic, The Crucified God in which he argues, among other things, that for God to be impassible in light of the world’s suffering and evil would make God wicked. In fact, in light of the cross of Christ where the Godman suffers death and alienation, it’s absolutely blasphemous. Instead, the Bible presents us with a passionate God who suffers alongside of us, who bleeds, who dies, and who understands our pains–because isn’t that what love does? In this account, impassibility is a hold-over from Greek philosophy that crept in and corrupted the pure, Hebrew view of the dynamic, living God of Scripture and turned it into the conceptual idol of the frozen absolute valued by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

This view, that of the passible God, has become the “New Orthodoxy” that has been growing apace in academic and popular theology since the earliest part of the 20th Century, especially with the rise of process theism, open theism, and panentheism. Impassibility is also generally rejected in various quarters of Evangelical theology that cling to largely traditional doctrines of God, with John Stott citing Moltmann on this point with approval in his great work, The Cross of Christ. Now, given that I first came across the doctrine of impassibility at the tender age of 20, without any real knowledge of historical theology, or most of the reasoning behind the thinking of the Fathers in articulating this doctrine, it’s not hard to imagine that I whole-heartedly rejected it as nonsensical and the silly invention of “Greek” theologians and their systematizing ways.

Luther said that for the Christian all of life is repentance. I’ve come to find out that holds true not only in moral terms, but also intellectual ones. Suffice it to say that after reading some significant criticisms of passibilist criticisms from biblical, theological, philosophical, and historical-theological angles, I’ve come back around to affirming a form of the doctrine of impassibility. Key thinkers who helped me along this path have been Kevin Vanhoozer, David Bentley Hart, and Paul Gavrilyuk.  Kevin DeYoung also has a helpful article summarizing key points.

I’m not going to attempt to cover all the relevant points or even come up with as helpful of a summary case as DeYoung has. I simply wanted to offer up some quick, semi-connected, but inevitably unsystematic correctives of popular perceptions about the doctrine as well as offer some reason to find this doctrine beautiful along the way. In doing so, I will be depending heavily on the account offered in Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology, pp. 387-468. Needless to say, this will be hopelessly incomplete. Any insight that is helpful or intelligent is probably his. Anything silly or reductionistic is probably mine.

Clarifying Thoughts on Impassibility

Not a Rock - It is often charged that the doctrine of impassibility leaves us with an emotionless rock of a God. From the outset it ought to be made clear that to teach that God is impassible is not to deny that God has an emotional life with cares, joys, loves, and so forth. Impassibility does not mean impassivity any more than immutability means immobility. Both are caricatures and misunderstandings of the classical doctrine. Just as the doctrine of God’s immutability or changelessness is not a teaching about a static, stone God, but a God so perfectly overflowing with life that any “change” could only tend towards a lesser state, so the doctrine of impassibility is statement about the perfection of God’s emotional life, his sovereignty over it, not its absence. Anybody who teaches otherwise, both critic and advocate, has been misled on the subject. In the early Fathers, to teach that God was impassible was to teach that God did not have “passions”, or unrestrained feelings ungoverned by reason or will that could simply sweep over him. A passion was thought of as a sort of violent, semi-physical force that could move a person without the consent of their reason or will, or a sinful inclination. To deny that this can happen is to say that God’s emotional life is under his own control and will not erupt violently in irrational or sinful ways. God is not an emotional teenager.

The Bible? - What about those passages in the Bible that talk about God’s very strong feelings about things? What do they point to if God is not a passionate God? Are they “merely” anthropomorphisms that don’t “really” mean what they say? The Fathers and the medieval tradition made a distinction between ‘passions’ and ‘affections.’ An affection is a sort of controlled emotion that is subject to the will and mind of the one having it. It is a rational emotion that does not overcome the person, but is in line with the will. God has affections such as kindness, anger, etc. which he can display. The passages in the Bible talking about God’s anger, kindness, grief, and so forth are pointing to something real in God–his affections, the emotional life of the God of Israel. They are not “mere” anthropomorphisms, even though they are anthropomorphic. They are real descriptions, though not to be taken in a literalistic fashion, of God’s emotional life.

What’s An Emotion Anyway? - One point that clouds this discussion and makes it hard to conceive of God having emotions that are not passions, is that often-times we don’t have a clear understanding of what an emotion is. Kevin Vanhoozer draws attention to the fact that there are various theories on offer as to what an emotion is, but the split is between two basic types: non-cognitivist and cognitivist understandings. Non-cognitivist theories of emotion stress the pre-rational nature of an emotion such as the physical rush associated with fear or anger, which we then attach to cognitive content. Vanhoozer points out a few problems with that. First, God is spiritual, not physical. He cannot have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or moistening of the tear-ducts. For us to ascribe emotions to him on this view is to ascribe a body. The second problem with this is that with fear or anger, I feel the rush precisely because of what I believe about a certain situation or action. Third, a lot of emotions “feel” the same physically, like anger and fear, but the only thing distinguishing them is the cognitive content. Fourth, it’s hard to ascribe praise or blame to the way people feel if it’s just a physical reaction. But we seem to think that some feelings are praiseworthy and others are blameworthy. For these reasons, (and a few others), its best to opt for a cognitivist understanding of emotion.

On a cognitivist view, an emotion is a judgment or an attitude that one takes about something.  It is a concern-based, value-laden judgment about a state of affairs. My fear and happiness are flavored understandings about situations or persons that I am concerned with. Given my humanity my loves, jealousy, or fear can be both passions that I suffer as well as affections. We are both patients and agents with respect to them. God has perfect emotions, affections not passions, because his value-laden judgments are true and accurate ones. God’s love, jealousy, wrath, compassion, and kindness are involved judgments, ways of “seeing” with the heart that inclines him towards action of some sort but do not overwhelm him.  They do not incline him towards evil and they cannot sweep over him because they are fully-consonant with his perfect knowledge and will.

At this point some people might be thinking that this makes a sort of sense, but not something you’re willing to buy into too quickly. These highly cognitive emotions seem too distant from our everyday human experience.  In response, Vanhoozer would remind us that “the similarities between God’s emotional life and ours exist in the midst of an even greater dissimilarity, one that marks the infinite qualitative distinction between Creator and creation, Author and hero.” God is God. We might be made in his image, but God’s reality is a whole ontological step up from ours. We should expect things to be a little different up there. Just as God’s sense of personhood will be different than yours given that he exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while you exist as you, it’s unsurprising that his emotional life is a little beyond us.

Sovereign Relationality - A further consideration connected to impassibility is that there is nothing outside of God that is beyond his control. Those agents or situations about which he feels things are not outside of his will or agency. Given creatio ex nihilo, even with a strong view of libertarian human agency, God is not subject to his human creations. His feelings in relation to them are not things which he must passively suffer but ones which he actively chooses to endure. They are not imposed on him from without, but sovereignly accepted. Passibilists might point to passages like Hosea 11:8, where God speaks to Israel, saying that he cannot bear to be parted from him, that his heart recoils within him at the thought of extinguishing him in judgment. The thought is that here human subjects exert a force and cause a change, or suffering in the emotional life of God from without. It must be remembered that these statements are uttered within the context of a covenant relationship which God freely and sovereignly entered into without force or compulsion. God did not have to save Israel. God did not have to covenant with a people. God was not forced to create. He is under no threat to save. Therefore, the situations that he involves himself in, about which he has these value-laden judgments like anger, sadness, etc, are situations over which he is sovereign and in control.

The Incarnation–Chalcedonian Solutions  – “All this theological logic-chopping and conceptional analysis is fine, but what about the cross? Doesn’t that show that God suffers? What sense does it make to say that God is impassible if Jesus is God and Jesus truly suffers on the cross?” This is where a little Chalcedonian christology comes to the rescue.

The classic answer developed by theologians like Cyril of Alexandria is that while it is appropriate to say that the Son suffered on the cross, we make it clear that God the Son suffered in his humanity, which is capable of suffering. Because we confess the unity of the Godman, that this man, Jesus Christ, truly is the Eternal Son, it is true then, to say that God suffered, but only in the soul and flesh of the Godman. If we begin to take suffering up into the divine nature, then we begin to render the incarnation a pointless gesture. If God can suffer in his own nature, then why assume human nature at all? In a sense, it is true to say that the lover wills to suffer alongside the beloved. But without impassibility we lose the wonder of what God has done in Christ–he who knew no suffering in himself, willed to become as we were so the he could experience it alongside of us. We too often forget that nobody takes Jesus’ life from him–even in his humanity, the Son lays down his life of his own accord. (John 10:18) He is sovereign even over his death and “suffering” at the human hands he empowered to crucify him. (John 19:11) What’s more, he did so, not just to “feel our pain”, but in order to end it. There is some comfort when we read that Christ is a sympathetic high priest who knows of our temptations (Heb 4:15), but as Vanhoozer reminds us, the true comfort of the verse comes when we read that he did not give in to the temptation, but overcame it for our sake in order to cleanse us from our sins giving us free access to the throne of grace. (4:16; Heb 2:17-18)

The Beauty of the Impassible God

In the end, the doctrine of impassibility affirms that God did not incarnate himself of necessity to relieve his own unbearable suffering. His existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one of perfect, unconquerable, and impassible “light, life, and love.” (Vanhoozer) Instead, in Christ, he freely, willingly, and sovereignly endured suffering, actively making it his own, so that ours would be put to an end. To affirm God’s impassibility is to confess that God’s action in Christ is nothing other than the beautifully gratuitous outpouring of his invincible, unsurpassable, enduring love for his wayward creatures–it’s the foundation of grace itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christ’s Cross and Ours: Some Thoughts on Suffering and the Life of Faith

One of my favorite sections in the Institutes is Calvin’s section on the Christian life. As much as I love his exposition of the creed, or his theological-polemical engagements with Osiander, the “Papists”, and the “Enthusiasts”, Calvin shines when discussing the practical. Beyond Calvin the theologian and biblical scholar, there was Calvin the pastor–the man who was passionately concerned that all of human life be lived before God and in light of the Gospel. This might surprise many readers but the Reformation wasn’t simply a narrow theological debate about justification and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning, but rather a restructuring of Christian life and practice. It was about, as James K.A. Smith puts it, “the sanctification of ordinary life.”  For that reason Calvin was concerned not only with teaching doctrine, but the life of piety that flows from that doctrine.

A Life of Self-Denial and the Cross

Calvin writes, “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him.” (3.7.1) Therefore, in this life between the first and second comings of Christ, a saint’s life is one of self-denial. In order to be fully devoted to God, love our neighbors in difficulty, and bear up under adversity, we must deny ourselves and look to God alone for our blessedness.

In order to do this well, he encourages his readers to consider to the cross, because the cross of the Christian is the chief part of self-denial:

But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross [Matthew 16:24]. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil.” (3.8.1)

To many of us, it is surprising to think that we are called to carry crosses. “I thought Christ had the cross so I wouldn’t have to?” That is true, but only in a certain sense. It is true that because of Christ’s suffering and death, we no longer have to face the penal judgment of God, or worry about the ultimate victory of the powers that he defeated on it. (Col. 2:14-15) Still, the active life of discipline and self-denial, scorn, pain and difficulty that he endured, (“while he dwelt on earth he was not only tried by a perpetual cross but his whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross”), is also a model for those of us who would be made holy as God intends us. As Calvin puts it: “Why should we exempt ourselves, therefore, from the condition to which Christ our Head had to submit, especially since he submitted to it for our sake to show us an example of patience in himself? Therefore, the apostle teaches that God has destined all his children to the end that they be conformed to Christ [Romans 8:29].” (ibid.) The Christian then, should expect difficulty and suffering in this life.

The Benefits of the Cross

While nobody ever accused Calvin of being an optimist, he didn’t think that the Christian should fear submitting to the cross–there is comfort in its shadow. Following Paul, he says taking up our cross allows us to know the beauty of sharing of Christ’s sufferings in a way that enables us to participate in his glory. (Phil. 3:10-11) “How much can it do to soften all the bitterness of the cross, that the more we are afflicted with adversities, the more surely our fellowship with Christ is confirmed! By communion with him the very sufferings themselves not only become blessed to us but also help much in promoting our salvation.” (ibid.)

More specifically, Calvin sees at least six benefits to the cross we are called to bear in this life.

1. The cross leads us to perfect trust in God’s power (3.8.2) We are too quick to give ourselves credit when life goes right or our accomplishments receive praise. We trust in our own awesomeness. We think that our goodness, or wisdom, or strength is the cause of our good life and that we really have this handled. It is only when difficulties and suffering comes our way, when disease hits, markets crash, relationships break, that we are humbled and taught to rely on God’s power and strength in all things. Only the cross kills our arrogance, shows us our inability, and drives us to the perfect source of strength, God’s gracious sustenance.

Believers, warned…by such proofs of their diseases, advance toward humility and so, sloughing off perverse confidence in the flesh, betake themselves to God’s grace. Now when they have betaken themselves there they experience the presence of a divine power in which they have protection enough and to spare.”

2. The cross permits us to see God’s perfect faithfulness and gives us hope for the future (3.8.3). God’s faithfulness matters most when we are in the pit. It is in the tribulations of this life that we find God’s unswerving commitment to his children to be proven to our hearts. When we see him act faithfully in our current travails, we are given hope for God’s future faithfulness. “Hope, moreover, follows victory in so far as the Lord, by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come.”

3. The cross trains us to patience and obedience (3.8.4) Difficulty gives us occasion to practice obedience and patience.  Virtues such as these cannot be exercised when life is going swimmingly. “Obviously, if everything went according to their own liking, they would not know what it is to follow God.” Obedience in the face of difficulty is what forms a golden character, one tested in the furnace of adversity. (1 Peter 1:7) Patience is developed only when we are called to endure situations that are unpleasant. It is in the troubles of this life, not the joys, that we learn to submit fully to God’s good commands and patiently await God’s vindication and comfort in our adversity.

4. The cross is medicine for our sin-sick souls (3.8.5) Calvin sees our fleshly or sinful desires, our ill-will, as a sort of recurring illness or medical condition that, if not kept a close eye on, would grow or deteriorate due to laxity. The crosses that we bear in this life function as a medicine, a sort of chemotherapy, or possibly as physical therapy, for the soul according to the particular conditions we struggle with such as pride, lust, anger, self-centeredness. Through the ministrations of our great physician, our souls are healed and treated according to his wisdom:

Thus, lest in the unmeasured abundance of our riches we go wild; lest, puffed up with honors, we become proud; lest, swollen with other good things—either of the soul or of the body, or of fortune—we grow haughty, the Lord himself, according as he sees it expedient, confronts us and subjects and restrains our unrestrained flesh with the remedy of the cross. And this he does in various ways in accordance with what is healthful for each man. For not all of us suffer in equal degree from the same diseases or, on that account, need the same harsh cure. From this it is to be seen that some are tried by one kind of cross, others by another. But since the heavenly physician treats some more gently but cleanses others by harsher remedies, while he wills to provide for the health of all, he yet leaves no one free and untouched, because he knows that all, to a man, are diseased.

5. The cross is fatherly discipline (3.8.6) If God is a father, then at times he will discipline us according to our misdeeds so that we mature and grow into the kind of children that look like their father. Just as any parent knows to correct a child’s lying or unkindness with a light (or heavy) punishment as the situation calls, so at times our cross is connected to some disobedience we are walking in. This is not judgment, but parental concern that motivates his permission of certain troubles that awaken us to our foolishness.  Calvin quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 here,”My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, or grow weary when he reproves you. For whom God loves, he rebukes, and embraces as a father his son.” As the author of Hebrews says, it is through God’s discipline that we know we are legitimate children whom God cares enough about to displease for a short time. (12:8) God works through the cross to lovingly correct his wayward sons and daughters, demonstrating a love concerned not merely with the happiness of his children, but with the deep joy that comes with goodness.

6. The cross is suffering for righteousness sake (3.8.7) Calvin goes on, “Now, to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake is a singular comfort. For it ought to occur to us how much honor God bestows upon us in thus furnishing us with the special badge of his soldiery.” To many of us it is a foreign way of thinking, but in the New Testament the apostles’ rejoiced at being thought worthy of the honor or suffering for the sake of Christ. (Acts 5:41) Jesus himself says,”Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:10-12) As Calvin points out, the suffering itself is not good, but because these sufferings are the source of great honor, for God will not fail to reward the faithful believer in the Kingdom to come because of goods lost here. “If, being innocent and of good conscience, we are stripped of our possessions by the wickedness of impious folk, we are indeed reduced to penury among men. But in God’s presence in heaven our true riches are thus increased. If we are cast out of our own house, then we will be the more intimately received into God’s family. If we are vexed and despised, we but take all the firmer root in Christ. If we are branded with disgrace and ignominy, we but have a fuller place in the Kingdom of God. If we are slain, entrance into the blessed life will thus be open to us.”

Conclusion

In these various ways the cross that comes into the life of the believer can be a great comfort and hope. In light of these meditations we can see how Calvin can say,”Hence also in harsh and difficult conditions, regarded as adverse and evil, a great comfort comes to us: we share Christ’s sufferings in order that as he has passed from a labyrinth of all evils into heavenly glory, we may in like manner be led through various tribulations to the same glory.” (3.8.1)

May we also come to consider the goodness of God in the cross.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wrath or Love? Calvin on Why Jesus Goes to the Cross

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was it because of God’s wrath or rather because of his love? Here’s one of my favorite passages where my boy Calvin breaks it down. For those of us trained to think in caricatures of Calvin as the perpetrator of a cold, legalistic theological system, his answer might be surprising:

Although this statement is tempered to our feeble comprehension, it is not said falsely. For God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that he sees in us all. All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely.

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him. If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone. For actually, through him alone we escape the imputation of our sins to us — an imputation bringing with it the wrath of God…

For this reason, Paul says that the love with which God embraced us “before the creation of the world” was established and grounded in Christ [Ephesians 1:4-5]. These things are plain and in agreement with Scripture, and beautifully harmonize those passages in which it is said that God declared his love toward us in giving his only-begotten Son to die [John 3:16]; and, conversely, that God was our enemy before he was again made favorable to us by Christ’s death [Romans 5:10]. But to render these things more certain among those who require the testimony of the ancient church, I shall quote a passage of Augustine where the very thing is taught:

“God’s love,” says he, “is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son — before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.”

These are Augustine’s words.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis  Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.16.3-4

Soli Deo Gloria

Becoming the Archetype’s I AM = The Doctrine of God + Death Metal

Alright, so this is the one where I blow my credibility with a bunch of you: I love metal music. I’m not an expert, a connoisseur, or even an amateur. I’m just a fan. Still, I love the speed, the ferocity, the heaviness, and the creativity involved with the genre and its multiple sub-genres.

One of my favorite acts is a Christian progressive death metal band by the name of Becoming the Archetype. (Think Christ as the archetype of humanity made in the image of God into whose image we are being conformed.) They embody what I’ve been saying for the last few years: some of the most creative, theological song-writing is coming, not out of the worship music industry, but the metal and hardcore scene. With albums titled Terminate Damnation and songs like  “Ex Nihilo” and “Elemental Wrath: Requiem Aeternam”, it’s obvious they don’t pull theological punches. Redemption never sounded this brutal. Thankfully they’ve been thoughtful enough to actually handle deep theology within the medium, producing complex concept albums like “Dichotomy”, which they based on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy in order to explore themes of resurrection, the knowledge of God, biology and technology. (It also features the most brutal rendition of “How Great Thou Art” you’ve ever heard.)

Now, when I learned of that the band had lost bassist and frontman, Jason Wisdom, I was worried both that the music and the message would suffer a drop-off in sound as well as theological content. (He left when his wife became pregnant. Something about wanting to be a good dad or something.) With release of their 5th full-length studio album I AM, my fears were assuaged.

In terms of sound, Christ McCane’s vocals come through loud, low, and aggressive.  The clean vocals shine at times and at times, not so much. Overall, very solid. There are quite a few good technical riffs, (the opening of the title track “I AM” comes to mind), solid drumming, a few good bass-lines, and a number of heavy break-downs, even though they’ve backed off a bit from other albums. Continuing the trend off of their last album Celestial Completion, they’ve continued to place increasing focus on progressive elements. Still, it regains some of the speed, heaviness, and aggression of Dichotomy. It’s a solid metal album. The more I listen to it, the more pleased I am. My face is quite sufficiently melted.

This is not the main reason I am excited by this album. What I love most is the theological ambition driving the sound. With I AM Becoming the Archetype has attempted to do something many academic theologians no longer try: say something substantial about God.

I AM

In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush as the great “I AM that I AM” (Exod. 3:14), or simply “I AM” (Yahweh). This is his specific covenant name by which Israel was to call him.  In Isaiah, specifically 40-55, a section that draws on Exodus themes of liberation and redemption, God repeatedly emphasizes that “I am” the one who will redeem Israel. (Isa. 41:4; 43:25; 47:10; 48:12; 51:12) In the NT we find Jesus taking up the divine self-designation in the book of John with its seven famous “I am” (ego eimi) statements. Using prominent OT images of salvation he declares himself to be the bread of God (6:33), the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the gate for the sheep (10:7), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1). Each of these predicates symbolize some aspect or form of the salvation that Jesus brings or in fact is.

In the same vein, I AM is an extended reflection on the glorious, terrifying predicates which can be ascribed to God in his saving actions, especially as they are manifested in Jesus Christ. Check out the track list:

  1. The Ocean Walker
  2. The Time Bender
  3. The Eyes of the Storm
  4. The Sky Bearer
  5. The Machine Killer
  6. The Weapon Breaker
  7. The War Ender
  8. The Planet Maker
  9. The Sun Eater
  10. I AM

Now, let’s be honest, we’re not dealing with Thomas Aquinas, or Barth, or Bavinck here. This is a death metal band. Some over the top metalness is to be expected. Still, there’s something great about a band that will speak in the first person for God and utter:

Traversing the infinite
Transcending the evident
Watch as reality bends to my will

Navigating eternity
Dispatching uncertainty
Navigating eternity
Behold in my presence
Time standing still

I am the future
I am the past
I have seen you breathe your last

The metal epicness is almost too much to bear. What I do love is that song after song we see some attribute or action of God’s, whether eternity, the act of creation, judgment, or consummation, being defined through the Son. Ending on a truly Johannine note, the refrain of the title song simply states, “I AM THAT I AM/I AND THE FATHER ARE ONE.” We know God in and through Jesus Christ or not at all.

To sum up: if you like metal, or Jesus, check out the album. Prepare for theology and epicness.

Check out the first single, “The Time Bender” below.

Is God Allowed To Do Stuff We Can’t? Some Thoughts on Penal Substitution

Ever heard a kid ask, “Why can’t I do that when you’re always doing it?” I’m sure those of you parents have heard this refrain from your children.  Before getting hired at my church, I worked for a few years as a substitute teacher and every so often I’d get this from a kid who wanted to defend using a cell phone or eating in class.

I’d often debate with myself whether or not this was a fair argument. Is it fair for a teacher to use their cell phone in class when a student is forbidden to? What are the reasons for this? Is it fear that phones might be used for cheating? Are they a distraction in the learning process? Are they just inherently wicked? Depending on the answer, it might be an unfair double-standard; I’m pretty sure all the times I ate in front of those hungry children were.

This raises the question, though, “Are there actions that, in virtue of the different roles which students and teachers occupy, are inappropriate for students but are entirely appropriate for their teachers?” I think there are probably a few. For instance, it seems entirely appropriate for a teacher to have possession of the answers of a test out during the administration of a test while it is inappropriate for the students to have the same. Or again, it is entirely appropriate for a teacher to be talking to a student during a test, but not for another student.

Let’s broaden the principle. Is it the case that some actions are appropriate for some people given their role or job, but entirely inappropriate for others given theirs, such that the one can essentially say to the other, “Do not do what you see me doing”? I think that seems reasonable. A parent might say to a child, “Do not use the knife” without being hypocritical. A police officer might enforce restrictions on hand guns while using a gun. In virtue of their different roles, the parent is allowed to do what the child is not and the police officer is allowed to carry what the average civilian is not.

One more question: Is it possible that one person, trying to abide by the same principle as another, might have to do exactly what they have forbidden the second from doing precisely because of their different roles? Think of a chemistry professor who, in the interest of student safety, handles dangerous chemicals that he has expressly forbidden his students from handling. Think of a mother who, in the interest of fairness, forbids her older children from punishing their younger siblings for their faults because that is her job. She knows they won’t be able to do it properly, so she does it herself. In both cases, one person forbids another from taking an action that they themselves will take for exactly the same reason. The action itself is not inherently wicked or wrong–it is wrong for some given their position or abilities, while it not for others.

The Objection: Is God Unfair?

Why this digression into the fairness of in-class cell phone usage by substitute teachers? Last week I posted a little piece on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), the teaching that part of what Jesus did on the cross was to suffer the judgment of God for sins in our place thereby saving us from having to bear the penalty ourselves. This sparked some off some friendly (and some not-so-friendly) conversation about the doctrine; apparently there are a number of people who don’t think to highly of this teaching.

Now, I have to admit, this area of Christian theology is one of those that I’ve done a fair bit of reading on, for an amateur theologian. I think I’ve heard most of the classic arguments against penal substitution that are out there (it’s unbiblical, it supports violence, it’s a hold-over of primitive deities, it’s the product of Calvin’s legalistic mind, there is no possibility of moral transfer, it’s a legal fiction, etc.). I think there are answers to all of these so I don’t plan on going into most of those today. There is one increasingly common type of argument against the doctrine that came up in the conversations that goes something like this:

God tells us to forgive one another and not to demand retribution. Jesus says to turn the other cheek, bless those who curse you, forgive those who hate you, and love those who harm you. If that’s the case, then how is it that we can conceive of God demanding retribution for sin and, specifically, imagine that this is what is happening on the cross of Jesus? Isn’t that God doing exactly what he tells us not to do? Isn’t that hypocritical and immoral? 

As one blogger recently put it, “Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if your theory of the cross completely contradicts everything Jesus stood for and taught… it’s probably wrong. It’s sad that I need to say this, but the gospel is rooted in love of enemies, not in retribution. Retribution is the opposite of forgiveness. So the idea that the entire work of Jesus was to fulfill the demands of retribution is simply absurd.” Finally, one of my recent interlocutors put it this way, “But if the cross is about retribution, punishment, then God teaches us to “do as I say, not as I do.“”

No, God is God

What can be said about this? Is penal substitution an instance of God saying “do as I say, not as I do?” Would this make God inconsistent or unfair? I won’t give an exhaustive answer to the various missteps and mistakes in this sort of thinking (particularly the false dichotomy between “retributive” and “restorative” justice, which I plan on dealing with in a future post), but I will offer up a few clarifying points on the thought that God can do things that we can’t:

Only God is God In general, there are a number of things that are appropriate for God to do given his role as God, King, Judge, Creator of all the earth, that it is not permitted for me to do in my role as human, created thing, sinner, and so forth. For instance, it is entirely appropriate for God to seek and receive worship. In virtue of his infinite perfections, his beauty, his glory, his majesty, his love, and goodness, God is absolutely worthy of worship and for him to demand or receive it is simply a right concern for truth. On the other hand, it is wicked for us to receive worship or to seek it. I am a created thing as well as a sinner, and therefore I am not worthy of worship. For anyone to worship me would be to perpetrate a lie. In fact, the reason we are not to receive worship is because it is God’s prerogative and his alone. At this point it would be the height of silliness for someone to look at God and say, “Well, you’re always seeking worship and yet you tell us not to seek worship or receive praise. What’s the deal?” The deal is that, looking at things realistically, you’re an unworthy ant, and God is God. This is at least one place, and there are a number others, where God is allowed to say, “Do as I say, not as I do…because I am God and you are not.”

Only God is Judge Turning to the subject of judgment, punishment, and retribution we find Paul writing, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ “(Romans 12:17-19) In this particular passage Paul says not to inflict judgment on your enemies, not because God never does that sort of thing, but because he’s said that’s the sort of thing only He should do. The explicit logic of the text is, “Don’t do that. It’s my job. I don’t want you taking vengeance. Vengeance is mine.” Paul wasn’t squeamish about this sort of logic the way a number of anti-PSA advocates are because it’s all over the Old Testament. The Law (Exod. 20:5), the Psalms (Ps. 75:7), and the Prophets (Ezek. 5:8) tell us that God is the judge of the world and so it is his particular job to take care of things, vindicate whoever needs vindicating, rewarding those who should be rewarded, and punishing those who ought to be punished. He is the sovereign Lord of the world with the authority and might to execute judgments. (Ps. 94) There is no thought that judgment or punishment is inherently wicked in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the hands of the righteous Lord of all the earth. Unless we want to slide into a crypto-Marcionism that pits the God of the OT against the God of the NT, we have to factor that into our thinking. There is a difference between being Christo-centric and Christo-reductionistic in a fashion that looks at Jesus without setting his life, death, and resurrection within the context of the whole canon and God’s revelation of himself to Israel. But even just looking to Jesus, we see that indeed, his heart longs to shelter Jerusalem under his wings to save them, but this comes only in the context of his recognition and proclamation of judgment on their sins. (Matt 23:29-39)

We Can’t Handle It Why might God call us to forego retribution and not give vent to our wrath against others, when he apparently is allowed to? One reason that comes to mind is that we might not be suited to the task. Just as the mother does not allow her slightly older children to punish the younger because their own judgment is faulty, God does not allow us to exercise that kind of judgment because we are not able to do so righteously. Our judgments are flawed and provisional, while His are perfect and definitive; ours are infected by sin, while His are holy. That seems like a perfectly good reason for God to tell us not to do something that He himself does without imagining that the action is inherently wrong.

Another reason we are not suited to it is because we can’t handle it. Just as the chemistry professor forbids his students from handling the dangerous chemicals, God might forbid his children from handling vengeance. If we take vengeance upon ourselves, seeking retribution, and administering our own judgment we are liable to get sucked in. Given our sin-sick souls it is easy to see righteous anger and a passion for justice be overwhelmed by selfish pride and drawn into hate, bitterness, and malice. God is perfect love. His judgments flow from a heart free of corruption that cannot be overwhelmed by sinful passions.

How Does God Forgive? Coming to the issue of forgiveness and judgment: It is true that God tells us to forgive without seeking vengeance. Is it then wrong for him to lay the judgment for our sins on Christ in effecting our forgiveness? Two points come into consideration here:

a. Forgiveness at its most basic level is the generous release of an acknowledged debt. In commercial terms, which is where we derive the image in the NT, it is saying, “You owe me this, but I’m not going to make you repay.” Transferring it to the moral realm, “That was wrong, but I’m not going to make you suffer for it.” For us to forgive someone is for us to not make them pay or suffer for an acknowledged wrong-doing. Taking into consideration God’s role in the universe, it is entirely reasonable to think that God’s forgiveness will look slightly different from ours. As we’ve already noted, God is King and Judge of the world. Part of his faithfulness to creation is to execute justice within it, to maintain the moral order he has established–which is not some impersonal justice, but one that is reflective of his own holy nature–in essence, to make sure that payment is rendered and that wrong-doing is punished. Justice involves more than that, but certainly not less.

Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen. The cross is the way that God makes sure payment is rendered, that sin is punished and yet still forgive sinners by not making them pay for sins themselves. PSA is not a denial that God forgives, but an explanation of how God forgives justly. It is how He, as King of the universe, goes about lovingly forgiving His enemies who deserve judgment. He suffers the judgment in himself. Realize, this whole explanation is articulated within a Trinitarian framework in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are all cooperating to achieve atonement. The Father is not pitted against the Son because the Father sends the Son in love and the Son, out of love, voluntarily comes in the Spirit to offer up his life in our place. The Son suffering judgment on the cross is God forgiving us.

b. The second thing to recognize is that our forgiveness comes after his forgiveness, on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. We can let things go, forgive as we’ve been forgiven, forgo vengeance, and avoid retribution because we know that these things are safely in God’s loving hands. We don’t have to exact payment. Justice for the sins I suffer are handled the way my own sins are handled–either on the cross, or at the final assize.

Conclusions

These reflections are far from exhaustive or adequate to the subject matter. Much more could be and has been said on the subjects of forgiveness, substitution, justice, and the cross. In this piece I simply wanted to make one small point: sometimes it’s okay for God to tell us not to do something that he himself does. Executing judgment is one of those things.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Silliness of Impatience

This last weekend our church’s high school ministry went on a little retreat. The theme for the weekend was learning how to grow in Christ in the midst of an instant gratification culture. In our Siri and Google Voice instant-access context we are trained in so many ways to expect things instantaneously. We don’t understand the slow and steady discipline it takes to grow in holiness and in the grace of Christ. In order to illustrate the silliness of the kind of impulsive impatience we are so prone to, a couple of my students put together this little video. It is one of the many reasons I love my college students. I thought I’d pass it on for your enjoyment and edification. Check it out.

Impatient Paul from Josh Berry on Vimeo.

Where is True Peace Found?

I’ve begun my second attempt through John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress this week in my attempt to find more theologically-rich devotional literature. (The first was an unfortunately broken off in college due to my immaturity.) I’m pleased to say that I have been thoroughly blessed by it. It’s easy to see why Charles Spurgeon confessed that, “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The allegory is riddled with biblical quotations and wisdom designed to illustrate the pilgrimage of the Christina through the current world on to glory.

Bunyan does this by telling a dream-vision he has of the pilgrimage of Christian, an everyman character, who is on a journey from his home-town “the City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City.” His journey is provoked by his reading of a book that causes him great distress and anguish about his spiritual state.  On the way he is met by various characters such as Worldly-Wise Man and Evangelist who give him varied instructions as to ease his turmoil. Eventually after a foolish detour in the direction of the village of Morality on the advice of Worldly-Wise Man that lands him in great peril, he takes Evangelist’s advice and heads down the narrow road that leads to life and his true journey begins.

Burdens Released

Christian is committed and so he makes great headway for a while, but from the very start of his journey he is weighed down by a burden, a pack that hinders his progress. The pack symbolizes the spiritual weight of his sins, the anxiety and fear of judgment, the encumberance of great guilt and shame. He suffers with it despite his best efforts as well as the godly counsel of those good characters such as Evangelist and Interpreter who open the truth to him and he receives no respite until he catches a vision of something glorious:

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Isaiah 26:1. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. 

Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Zech. 12:10. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” Mark 2:5; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment, Zech. 3:4; the third also set a mark on his forehead, Eph. 1:13, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing,

“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

So many of us suffer the burdens of guilt and shame. We walk day in and day out bearing a great burden, an inexpressible anxiety and grief that doesn’t seem to dissipate no matter how many self-help books we read, mantras we chant, or health-goals we set and meet.

Christian found the true source of peace: “Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be/The Man that there was put to shame for me!” In Christ all of our sins, our shames, our hurts are taken, destroyed on the cross with him, buried in the sepulchre with him, and in him we rise again to new life, freedom, joy and hope. In him we find true peace.

Soli Deo Gloria

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.

N.T. Wright on Penal Substitution

I’ll come clean and say that I’m a huge N.T. Wright fan. I have been for years.

Wright and I are BFFs.

For those of you wondering, Wright is a British New Testament scholar who ranks among the top 2 or 3 most prolific, somewhat controversial, and influential churchmen on either side of the pond in a wide variety of theological circles.  I attribute my love for Biblical studies, and the New Testament in particular, to my early encounters with his lectures, essays, and books. I generally pre-order his books, both popular and scholarly, and have read all of his big pieces with the exception of a couple of difficult-to-acquire texts.  (I knew McKenna was a keeper when she bought me his tome The Resurrection of the Son of God for my first birthday when we were dating. Later she took me to go see him speak on our anniversary. I love that woman.) All that to say, I’m not lying when I say I’ve got a good idea of what Wright teaches on various subjects in New Testament studies and theology. Which brings me to the subject at hand.

As I mentioned, Wright is a bit controversial in some circles due to some of his, admittedly unclear or difficult to understand, teaching on Paul’s doctrine of justification.  Wright’s an adherent of the New Perspective on Paul and a unique one at that, which makes understanding him a bit difficult at times. Also, his sentences can get really long. (For those of you interested, here’s his most recent, clearest piece on the subject delivered at the Evangelical Theological Society a couple years ago. Note: I am not endorsing it. Just sharing for clarity’s sake.) One of the things that’s consistently surprised me is however is the way that both friends and foes have misunderstood his teaching on the atonement, particularly penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), the idea that Christ’s death is in some way a representative one in which he suffers the judgment/wrath of God on behalf of deserving sinners thereby releasing them from guilt and obtaining forgiveness for them. Interestingly enough you can find both conservative Reformed types being joined by emergenty Anabaptist types saying he denies it, the former accusatorially, the latter joyfully.

I just want to take a moment to clarify, with Wright’s own words, that Wright does affirm penal substitutionary atonement. He has been clear on this over the years, but somehow that’s been lost on many due in some cases to their willingness to read all sorts of faults into him because of his position on justification, or because to some people, affirming Christus Victor components to Christ’s atonement, the idea that in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus defeated the principalities and powers of satan, sin, and death,  means a necessary denial of PSA. It doesn’t. The Reformers all affirmed both themes because both are in Scripture. Wright isn’t any different. So, without further ado here is Wright himself.

Wright Speaks

First, a short little video where Wright says it clear-out, 1:19 onward:

Next, here’s a big long quote from an easily-accessed online article in which he is critiquing a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Johns as well as a recent book on the subject. He is dealing with what he calls “caricatures of the cross”, correcting so many bad arguments against penal substitutionary atonement by pointing out that they are based on misunderstandings of the doctrine as well as misreadings of certain biblical texts which point to it. Don’t be scared by the length. It is absolutely worth your time, specialist or not:

Quoting 2 Corinthians 5.21 and Galatians 3.13 (‘God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin,’ and ‘Christ became a curse for us’), he [Dr. Johns] tells us the explanation of these verses he was given as a child and declares that, because that explanation is repulsive and nonsensical, we must reject it. His summary starts quite mildly: God was very angry with us, and had to punish us, but instead he sent his Son as a substitute to die for us, so that God stopped being angry with us . . . But then, inserting into this account the things Dr John realised he disliked at the age of ten, and which he wants to attack to bring down the whole edifice, he goes on: ‘What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of this own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we’d say they were a monster . . . It just doesn’t make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. . . sending a substitute to vent his punishment on.’

Well, yes. We must of course grant that many Christians have spoken, in effect, of the angry God upstairs and the suffering Jesus placating him. Spoken? They’ve painted it: many a mediaeval altarpiece, many a devotional artwork, have sketched exactly that. And of course for some late mediaeval theologians this was the point of the Mass: God was angry, but by performing this propitiatory sacrifice once more, the priest could make it all right. And it was at least in part in reaction against this understanding of the Eucharist that the Reformers rightly insisted that what happened on the cross happened once for all. They did not invent, they merely adapted and relocated, the idea of the propitiation of God’s wrath through the death of Jesus. We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have since then offered more caricatures of the biblical doctrine. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit.

This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that of course there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach – just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.

But how does the caricature relate to what we find in the New Testament? Actually, how does it relate to Dr John’s initial summary? There he states, as we saw, that God sent Jesus to do this: yes, and that’s what the New Testament says too, at all the key points; and if we ask why, the answer is always, in Paul, John and everywhere else, the wonderful greatness of God’s merciful love. You can’t play off the juridical account of atonement, so called, against an account which stresses God’s love. As those Doctrine Reports rightly saw, they belong together. If God is love, he must utterly reject, and ultimately deal with, all that pollutes, distorts and destroys his world and his image-bearing creatures.

So what should we make of Paul at this point? Dr John never says. Is he content simply to say that the key Pauline statements must be left out of consideration as we construct an atonement theology we can believe today? If so, how can he later quote 2 Corinthians 5.19 (‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’), which, a mere two verses before the one he seems to reject, might be thought to be part of the same argument? What does he make of the explicit statement – this, I think, is as clear as it gets in Paul – in Romans 8.3, where Paul says explicitly that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ? Paul does not say that God condemned Jesus; rather, that he condemned sin; but the place where sin was condemned was precisely in the flesh of Jesus, and of Jesus precisely as the Son sent from the Father. And this, we remind ourselves, is the heart of the reason why there is now ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1).

Or what account does Dr John give of Romans 3.24-26? Here, whatever we may think about the notorious hilasterion (‘propitiation’? ‘expiation’? ‘mercy-seat’?), in the preceding section of the letter (1.18-3.20) God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness, and by the end of the passage, in accordance with the ‘justice’ of God, those who were formerly sinners and under God’s wrath are now justified freely by grace through faith. To put it somewhat crudely, the logic of the whole passage makes it look as though something has happened in the death of Jesus through which the wrath of God has been turned away. It is on this passage that Charles E. B. Cranfield, one of the greatest English commentators of the last generation, wrote a memorable sentence which shows already that the caricature Dr John has offered was exactly that:

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. 2 vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217.)

Now I do not ask that Dr John, or anyone else, necessarily accept this as the correct interpretation of Romans 3:24-26; nor that, whether or not they accept this exegesis, they believe that this is a true statement of God’s intention in the death of Jesus. All I ask is that Dr John admit that this very careful statement, in which the propitiatory effect of Jesus’ death is seen as the result of God’s overarching and overwhelming mercy and love, and in which the persons of the Trinity are held in extremely close union, is not subject to the critique he has levelled against what increasingly looks like a bizarre (if sadly still well known) caricature.

Not everyone likes Paul, of course – especially some Anglicans. But what about Jesus? Unless we are to go the route of the ‘Jesus Seminar’, and say that Jesus’ death was simply an accident which he never intended and for which, therefore, he offered no theological grid of interpretation, we must give some account of the self-understanding of Jesus in relation to the death which, as at least one substantial stream of scholarship has agreed, he must have known was just round the corner. There were ancient Jewish grids of interpretation available to him, and all the signs are that he made his own creative construal of them, understanding his vocation as the point of convergence of several rich strands of scriptural narrative, heavily freighted with the sense of Israel’s long destiny coming to a dark and decisive climax. In particular, the early Christians were clear that Jesus’ death was to be understood in terms of Isaiah 53, and they were equally clear that this was not a new idea they were wishing back on Jesus. ‘The Son of Man,’ he said, ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). These words – which many have of course been unwilling to credit to Jesus precisely because of the frantic attempt to prevent him alluding to Isaiah 53 – capture the very heart of that great chapter, and as I and others have argued elsewhere it is extremely likely, historically, that he made that entire section of the book of Isaiah thematic for his self-understanding.

Ironically, Dr John himself alludes to Isaiah 53 at the end of his talk, suggesting that Jesus ‘bears our griefs and shares our sorrows’, without realising that if you get one part of Isaiah 53 you probably get the whole thing, and with it not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death, yet without any of the problems that the caricature would carry:

He was wounded for our transgressions
and bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that brought us peace
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned every one to his own way;
And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:5-6.)

It is with the Servant, and the theology of the whole of Isaiah 40-55, that we find the explanation for the otherwise bizarre idea of one person standing in for the many (which, as Dr John says, we might otherwise find incomprehensible and deeply offensive). The sense which penal substitution makes it does not make, in the last analysis, within the narrative of feudal systems of honour and shame. It certainly does not make the sense it makes within the world of some arbitrary lawcourt. It makes the sense it makes within the biblical world, the Old Testament world, within which the creator God, faced with a world in rebellion, chose Israel – Abraham and his family – as the means of putting everything right, and, when Israel itself had rebelled, promised to set that right as well and so to complete the purpose of putting humans right and thus setting the whole created order back the right way up. And the long-promised way by which this purpose would be achieved was, as hints and guesses in the Psalms and prophets indicate, that Israel’s representative, the anointed king, would be the one through whom this would be accomplished. Like David facing Goliath, he would stand alone to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. It is because Jesus, as Israel’s representative Messiah, was therefore the representative of the whole human race, that he could appropriately become its substitute. That is how Paul’s logic works. ‘One died for all, therefore all died,’ he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.14; and thus, seven verses later, ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ he concluded seven verses later, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (5.21). And it is within that argument that we find the still deeper truth, which is again rooted in the dark hints and guesses of the Old Testament: that the Messiah through whom all this would be accomplished would be the very embodiment of YHWH himself. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19).

Underneath all this discussion is a deep concern which has emerged again in our own day, notably in the writings of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won’t do, when faced with radical evil, to say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.’ That (as the 1938 Doctrine Report already saw) is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first ‘exclude’, argues Volf, before it can ‘embrace’; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again. Somehow I sense that Dr John knows this, since he writes movingly of Jesus Christ as God coming down into the midst of the mess and the muddle to be with us and . . . to rescue us – though he never says how this rescue is effected. But again and again I sense in Dr John’s writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say.

Recently, looking for something else, I came upon this:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

When I read that, it sounded as though Denney were addressing Dr John directly. And I was put in mind of a characteristically gentle remark of Henry Chadwick, in his introductory lectures on doctrine which I attended my first year in Oxford. After carefully discussing all the various theories of atonement, Dr Chadwick allowed that there were of course some problems with the idea of penal substitution. But he said, ‘until something like this has been said, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the full story has not yet been told.’ For myself, I prefer to go with Henry Chadwick, and James Denney – and Wesley and Watts, and Cranmer and Hooker, and Athanasius and Augustine and Aquinas – and Paul, Peter, Mark, Luke, John – and, I believe Jesus himself. To throw away the reality because you don’t like the caricature is like cutting out the patient’s heart to stop a nosebleed. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God. There is ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of the Son who, as the expression of his own self-giving love, had been sent for that very purpose. ‘He did not spare his very own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ That’s what Good Friday was, and is, all about.

Finally, from the same article, Wright explains his confusion that someone could describe a work that had based its understanding of Jesus on Wright’s own scholarship as denying penal substitutionary atonement:

After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God…is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find.

You can also find various statements elsewhere, including his big commentary on Romans.

The moral of the story is that N.T. Wright affirms penal substitutionary atonement. Sorry uber-conservative Reformed guys, he actually does get the Cross. Sorry, lefty, anti-PSA types, your Kingdom-minded hero says some really old-school Evangelical stuff about the atonement.

For everybody else, you’re welcome.

Soli Deo Gloria