The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (500th Post)

christ-on-the-cross-1587The cross of Christ has always been a scandal and an offense. As a symbol of social shame in the Greco-Roman world, the idea of a Crucified God elicited scorn from the cultured elites. For 1st Century Jews, a crucified Messiah was a nonsensical contradiction in terms. Even today, speaking of Jesus’ death as the saving center of history provokes a quizzical response both in the pews and the marketplace. Beyond that, there has been a wide variety of debate around just how Jesus’ death saves us within the church itself. Historically, there has been no binding ecumenical statement on the issue comparable to those on of the Trinity and the person of Christ. The result is that many different approaches to explaining the way the death Christ exercises a saving function in the economy of the Triune God.

Though widely-held by Evangelicals and Protestants of all stripes (and even some Catholics like H.U Von Balthasar), among the most controversial views is that of “penal substitution” or “penal representation”, PSA for short (penal substitutionary atonement). At its heart, the idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was the divine means of dealing and dispensing with the guilt incurred by sinners who have rebelled against the true God. Humanity through its sin violated the divine law, wrecking God’s intended shalom, bringing down condemnation upon them, and alienating them from proper relationship with God. God being just as well as loving and merciful sends the Son, Jesus, as an innocent, representative person, the Godman, to take responsibility for human sin and suffer punishment on behalf of sinners. Or rather, he suffers the legal consequences of sinners, the judgment and just wrath of God against sin, thereby relieving them of guilt, bringing about reconciliation. Roughly.

As with just about any idea in theology, there has been no little confusion around this issue, provoking a number of criticisms and responses over the years. Now, I happen to be convinced on the basis of Scripture that some form of penal substitution is at the heart of Jesus’ saving work on the cross. I thought it might be helpful, then, to have some sort of post dedicated to listing and answering most of the standard objections against the doctrine, as well as engaging some of the modern objections against it. Mind you, this post is not intended to be extensive in every sense. I will not and cannot go into detailed exegetical arguments establishing the doctrine according to a number of key texts, nor establishing the long-range biblical theology that undergirds it. I think the case is there, but I will point you to resources for that along the way and at the bottom of the post.

That said, I do want to engage some of the broadly theological objections against it, as well as correct popular caricatures of the doctrine along the way. I have to say that a number of the issues that people have with penal substitution are quite understandable when you consider some of the silliness that passes for biblical preaching on the subject in popular contexts. Those who affirm the doctrine as true and beautiful do our hearers no benefit when we defend misshapen, caricatured versions of the doctrine. I’ll try to do my best to avoid that in what follows.

First Principles

A few principles will serve to ground the rest of the discussion.

First, many problems arise when advocates treat penal substitution as a totalizing theory of atonement set against Christus Victor or moral influence, or some other kind of atoning action. Proponents all-too-often hold it up as “The One Atonement Theory To Rule Them All”, as one friend put it. Instead, I’ve already argued before that all of these “theories” are more properly seen as containing insights into various aspects and angles of one great work of atonement. I do think there is a place for ordering these elements logically, and penal substitution is something of a lynchpin here, but there is no excuse for downplaying or ignoring the other themes. For more on this, see here and here.

Second, one important principle to observe is that when it comes to theology “abuse does not forbid proper use.” In other words, because the doctrine has been misused in the past, that doesn’t mean it cannot be properly taught or deployed again. Virtually any can be and has been abused at some point. Growing up Evangelical, I’ve certainly seen distortions and caricatures of the doctrine. We should be prepared to find, though,  despite the distortions, there is a properly biblical truth to be held on to here.

Well, with those caveats out of the way, let’s get to it, shall we?

1. Critics often allege that penal substitution is anti-trinitarian in that it pits an angry Father punishing a loving Son, introducing a false split in the Godhead. While this can happen in popular preaching, when it comes to the tradition, this charge is manifestly false. Penal substitution is inherently trinitarian in that it follows the best Patristic pattern of thought in seeing atonement as the work of the whole Trinity. All trinitarian action begins with the Father, is accomplished through the Son, and perfected by the Spirit. In a properly-trinitarian PSA the Father hands over the Son, while the Son willingly offers himself up in obedience to the Father, and he does so through the empowering work of the Spirit.  It is a costly work of love and sacrifice posits no split purposes within the Godhead, but only one redemptive plan born of mutual love and mercy towards sinners.

Also, contrary to popular mischaracterizations, the Father never hates the Son, but always looks on the Son in love, even while the Son suffers the penal consequences of sin in place of sinners. Calvin says as much:

Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. –Institutes, II.xvi.11

In fact, it is precisely because of the Son’s willingness to suffer on their behalf that the Father loves the Son (John 10:18). What’s more, classically, advocates of PSA have also held to divine simplicity, thereby ruling out tout court any thought of a split in the Godhead. All of the best exponents hold this up from Calvin all the way to J.I. Packer and John Stott. For more, see Thomas McCall’s excellent little book Forsaken on this.

2. Others charge that PSA has God directly “killing”Jesus. Alternatively, in another version, the charge is that if PSA is true, then the mobs who crucified Jesus were doing God’s will. There are a number of issues with these charges. The first, and most obvious, is that it rejects the appropriateness of distinguishing divine intention from human one. If God “wills” the death of Jesus in any sense, he is a killer, or murderer, or we have no room to say that the Romans were guilty of a crime because they were only doing God’s will at that point. However, biblical thought is not that cramped.

Instead, we are trained by Scripture to see God and humanity working at different levels with different aims at their own level of being. In other words, God’s being and activity is not “univocal” but “analogical” with ours. God is Creator and so he does not operate on the same level of being as we do. His purposes for history are different than ours, even in the same events of history. As Joseph tells his brothers of their sinful actions in selling him into slavery, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” God might will an action or an event for a good reason, concurring and allowing human actions, even while the humans perpetrating it are doing so for evil reasons that God does not share. This is sort of thing is common throughout the Old Testament. Various events of judgment such as the Exile at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians are both the wicked work of evil empires, all the while being God’s own judgment through them. It is clear from the biblical witness at numerous points that God intends Jesus’ (indeed his own!) death on the cross (John 12:27; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Most of the exegetical gymnastics at this point are simply astounding. To reject the cross as divinely-intended in some sense is to simply reject the witness of the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, and Jesus himself who says that these things “must” (dei) happen to fulfill Scripture.

3. Related to the last claim, PSA has been infamously referred to as “Divine Child Abuse” and charged with encouraging victims of abuse, especially women, to identify with models of passive, redemptive suffering in imitation of the Son. Let me say at the outset, if there are people who have suffered under preaching that encourages women, children, or anyone else to passively suffer under the abuse of the violent, I am deeply sorry to hear this. This is a gross distortion of Christian doctrine that I strongly repudiate. Penal substitution properly preached does not encourage that kind of passive submission to abuse.

First, I would point out that the abuse the Son suffers is at human hands. The Father does not abuse the Son, though it is by God’s will that he suffers in this fashion. Remember that divine and human intentionality need to be distinguished here. Second, it also teaches that the Son’s work is uniquely redemptive. Moreover, this point is important. Not everything that God does in Christ is strictly imitable. You cannot create reality out of nothing. You cannot pour the Spirit out into creation. You are not the Eternal Son who is going save anyone by suffering that abuse. Your abuse is not atoning in the least bit. It is a sin against you and God is very angry with it. In fact, God’s judgment on the cross is a testimony to his judgment against abuse and injustice.

Still, there is a place for self-denial and cross-bearing in the Christian life. This is simply a matter of the biblical record and at the heart of Jesus’ own path of discipleship.  However, with every piece of biblical insight, there needs to be careful, wise application. Paul tells us that we can serve Christ in whatever station we find ourselves in, but there’s nothing wrong with getting your freedom if you can (1 Cor. 7). There is nothing in PSA that requires us to passively endure abuse in imitation of Christ. What’s more, if anything, PSA properly though through ought to be deployed as a testimony of the non-selfish, sacrificial life of all, including men, or anyone else in authority ought to lead in their dealings with others.

Finally, and this is crucial, in PSA the Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about.  Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

5. Some say that any idea of justice must not be retributive, but only restorative. It is repugnant to think that justice must include some tit for tat “balancing of the moral scales.” I would first point out that pittingretribution against restoration is a false dichotomy. Retribution has claims of its own alongside distributive and restorative concerns when it comes to a broader, holistic biblical account of justice. Theologians such as Miroslav Volf, Oliver O’Donovan, and Garry Williams have pointed out that in the biblical record, retribution is not merely about getting payment for a debt, but about naming evil. Judgment is about calling evil what it is, as well as giving it what it deserves. According to the Scriptures, a God who does not name evil, and does not treat it as it deserves is not good. Quite frankly, it is impossible to screen out any notion of retribution from the biblical account without simply chopping out verses and narrative wholesale.

Herman Bavinck establishes quite clearly the retributive principle in Scripture and worth quoting at length:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

For those interested in following up, it’s instructive to peruse Bavinck’s Scripture references, to see they are not merely proof-texts. Upon examination, one is struck by the massive amount of biblical material that has to be reinterpreted or shunted to the side in order to screen out the retributive principle. (Also, for those who have access, the entire section examining justice, retribution, and punishment is worthwhile.)

Also, it should be said here that the judgment of the cross is not simply about God matching up ounces of suffering according to some pecuniary punishment scale. It is about Jesus suffering the final, ultimate judgment of alienation on our behalf. Instead of thinking about it in terms of units of suffering matching up for sins, think of it in terms of total exile and alienation. Sin ultimately alienates and cuts us off from God in a total sense. We reject God and so in his judgment God names and answers our sin by handing us over to the fate we have chosen: exile from the source of all good, life, and joy, which is simply death and hell. This is what Jesus suffers on the cross on our behalf. He takes that situation of total alienation and damnation upon himself.

What’s more, retribution can be part of a broadly restorative aim.  Christ’s penal death was not simply a strict act of retributive justice whose sole aim was to satisfy God’s wrath or a strict, economic tit for tat exchange of punishment for sin. God could have had that by simply leaving people in their sins so that they might pay out their just wages, death (Rom. 6:23a). Instead, God’s atoning act through the cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23b). God did not simply want to deal with sin; he wanted to save sinners. God did not only want to be vindicated as just, but instead wanted to be both “just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Wrath is dealt with to be sure, but it is dealt with in Christ in order to clear the path for the gift of the Spirit that enables believers to live new, reconciled lives now which will issue in the final total restoration through the gift of resurrection. “God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love.”  The gift of God far outweighs the trespass of man (Rom. 5:16). The penal, retributive justice of God has a more-than-retributive goal; it aims at the “restoration of community and eternal peace” with God and others. Peace happens through the gift of life in the Spirit, which is peace (Romans. 8:6). Thus, the retributive justice of God has a restorative goal which transcends strict, economic justice through his gift-giving grace which comes out only when developed in light of its Triune goal: the gift of the Spirit.

Finally, for those still struggling with the necessity of thinking in terms of retribution, I would direct your attention to C.S. Lewis’ classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” Vintage Lewis, the discussion is still relevant to the issues addressed in this section.

6. From another angle, some charge that PSA encourages moral passivity. It is said that is no active ethic that can be derived from Jesus’ sin-bearing work on the cross. Indeed, it seems to mute it. There are a number of points to be mentioned here. First, we should question the idea that PSA even has to be justified on this account. We must not fall prey to the populist, pragmatic idea that for a doctrine to be true, it has to be immediately practical and imitable. As theologian Karen Kilby has pointed outwith respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, we do not need to be justifying our model of what God is like based on what kind of political programme it generates. We measure our account on the basis of what God has revealed of himself, not of what use he can be to us. The same thing is true for atonement. We affirm our understanding of atonement on the basis of Scripture, not simply because it is useful. What’s more, we have to remember that each doctrine has its place within the wider structure of Christian truth. Atonement is not the only doctrine in our toolkit for constructing our ethics. We get to work with a lot of truth. So the formal charge does not hold water.

All the same, the charge is materially false as well.  For Christ to be able to offer up the sacrifice that he did on our behalf, he had actively to resist the satanic powers and principalities arrayed against the kingdom of God. In other words, precisely through his obedience that qualified him to be our representative and substitute, he embodied the kingdom of God among us. His holy life was a perfect testimony to the perfect will for human flourishing according to God’s covenant standards. Advocates of penal substitution get to read all of the same gospel stories, teachings, commands, and so forth.

It must be remembered that PSA does not need to be separated off from other aspects or angles of the atonement such as his victory against the powers. As we said earlier, just because PSA is seen as the lynchpin securing the victory of Christ over the powers, that doesn’t mean that we have to sidelines the Gospels’ testimony about Christ’s cross-bearing life as an active resistance against the powers of oppression. That is a false dichotomy that needs to be forcefully rejected. Jeremy Treat’s newest book The Crucified King decisively answers it. Indeed, in this he is only following the tradition. Witness Calvin who seamlessly integrates both understandings:

Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf.1 Peter 3:22, Vg.]. –Institutes, II.16.11

Quotes like this could be piled up from Luther, Calvin, and countless other Protestant stalwarts.

Finally, the cross as judgment does not undermine the moral life for a number of reasons. First, we are provoked to a life of obedience in gratitude for God’s great forgiveness. Second, we only participate in the benefits of Christ’s cross-work only when we are united with Christ in the power of the sanctifying Spirit. The aim of PSA is the restored, regenerate disciple who is being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

7. Is the God of PSA a God who says “Do as I Say Not as I do?” Does he tell us to forgo vengeance and then go and exact it? Isn’t that inconsistent? Actually, no.God is God, and we are not. The Creator/creature distinction is the grounding of a lot of ethics in the Bible. God often says to us, “Do as I say, not as I do precisely because that is only mine to do.” 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 us to do as humans, created things, sinners, 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.

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 is said that’s the sort of thing only He should do. The explicit logic of the text is, “Don’t do that. It is my job. I do not want you taking vengeance. Vengeance is mine.” Paul was not 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.

8. God tells us to just forgive, so why can’t he just forgive? Why does he need to punish us? Isn’t that the negation of forgiveness? 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.” Instead of payment, though, condemnation of sin is at issue. For us to forgive someone is for us not to condemn them 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 that wrongdoing is condemned and 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. And it bears repeating that we don’t want him to. We honestly don’t want a God who looks at sin, idolatry, murder, oppression, racism, sexism, rape, genocide, theft, infidelity, child abuse, and the thousand dirty “little” sins we’d like to sweep under the rug, and just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go. That is a God who is lawless and untrustworthy. As a number of the Fathers said, a God who doesn’t enforce his law is a God whose word cannot be trusted.

All the same, the cross is the way that God makes that sin is punished and yet still forgives sinners by not making them suffer 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. Once again, 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.

The second thing to recognize is that our forgiveness is dependent upon 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 do not have to exact judgment. Justice for the sins I suffer are handled the way my own sins are handled–either on the cross or at the final assize.

9. Some charge that PSA points us to a God who has to be convinced to love us. He can only love us after he gets rid of his wrath against us. Again, I am sorry if you’ve heard presentations like this, but against the classic accounts, the charge just misses the point. In PSA, the Father sends the Son precisely because he does love us. He sends the Son out of love to deal with the just judgment that hangs over us because of sin, to defeat the powers the stand against us, and to bring us back into relationship with himself, though justly. Calvin himself says quite clearly that God’s love is the deep motivation for Christ’s atonement:

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.

I could go on to find text after text and multiple analogies here. Say my friend wrongs me. I am angry with him because he stole from me and he has made himself my enemy. I might go pursue him out of love and friendship and yet still insist that there be an apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing even while I look to forgive the debt.

I suppose it is appropriate here to clarify what is meant by wrath. God’s wrath is not some irrational flare-up of anger and foaming hatred. Wrath is God’s settled, just attitude of opposition towards all the defaces creation. It is his stance and judgment of displeasure towards sin, as well as his will to remove it. It also must be noted that God’s wrath needs to be qualified by the doctrine of impassibility and analogy. God moves to remove wrath, or his stance of opposition to our guilt and rebellion, precisely because he already loves us. It is quite possible for God to have complex attitudes towards his creatures.

For those still thinking of denying wrath, or aiming to pit wrath as antithetical to love, I’d suggest you consult Tony Lane’s excellent article on “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God.” Indeed, for those who affirm it a little too violently, I’d suggest you read it as well as it corrects a number of unbiblical exaggerations and distortions preachers can fall into in their zeal to be “biblical.”

10. Related to this, it is claimed that PSA pits divine attributes against each other. Holiness v. mercy, love v. justice, and so forth, threatening the unity of God.While some popular presentations trend this way, as I mentioned before, classically the truth of God’s action on the cross has always been held consistently with the truth of God’s simplicity. It functions as a qualifier on every statement about God’s attributes and actions. So God’s holiness is not at variance with his mercy or his love with his justice. God is fully loving, just, righteous, and fully himself in all of his acts in history. And yet in the narrative of his historic dealings with Israel, it is not always easy to see the consistency and unity of his character. At times he judges immediately, and yet in others he shows mercy and delays wrath. He is named variously as Father, Judge, King, Lover, Friend, and the roles seem to come up in apparent conflict within the narrative of Scripture itself.

Properly conceived, though, PSA is about demonstrating the fundamental unity and consistency of God’s good character by resolving the narrative tension given in the Bible’s portrait of God. In that sense, God’s action on the cross is the revelation and enactment of his mercy, justice, love, holiness, wisdom, sovereignty, power, and grace, all simultaneously displayed. It is not about pitting his attributes against one another, but displaying their glorious, harmony as the culmination of his historical redemption. It is holiness as mercy, love through justice, and so forth.

11. It is often said that PSA as an account does not need Resurrection. It just stands alone, concerned only with Christ’s death for sin.Let me say that, yes, many popular accounts have been presented in this fashion. However, once again, this is not necessarily the case. If you look at the best exponents and defenders of penal representation as a strand of atonement, there is absolutely a place for Resurrection as part of God’s act in Christ. First, the resurrection is the public announcement that Jesus’ death for sin counts. Second, resurrection is itself the public vindication and justification of the Messiah and his people. As Paul says in Romans 4:25: “he was handed over for our sins, and raised for our justification.” According to N.T. Wright, Michael Bird, and a number of Reformed theologians, resurrection itself is the justifying act. The cross clears away our guilt, but it cannot stand alone.

Also, again, PSA is an angle on, but not the only truth of atonement. It deals with guilt, wrath, and the grip of death, but not death itself. Resurrection is still very much needed to accomplish Christ’s victory over all that stands against us. You can find this in Calvin, Bavinck, and many other stalwart defenders and exponents of penal substitution. There simply is no conflict and definitely a place for the resurrection in a system with penal atonement in it. On all of this, I would further suggest Michael Bird, Michael Horton, and Robert Letham as well.

12. Penal substitution is presented as an abstract legal transaction that sort of floats above history, concerned with a sort of celestial mathematics to be solved. It is a legalistic abstraction. While this might be true of Evangelical youth camps, it is definitely not of classic Reformed presentations. The “law” whose judgments must be satisfied is not some abstract idea floating around with other Platonic ideas in the realm of the forms. No, the idea of the law is grounded in the history of the covenants, which are inherently legal documents.

Adam broke the covenant in the Garden by explicitly violating God’s express command. That law is God’s revealed will in history. Law refers to God’s covenant charter with Israel expressed in the Sinai covenant, the book of the Law, and the Deuteronomic covenant. You can think of these laws as Suzerain-Vassal covenants where Israel’s love and loyalty are pledged, and blessings are given out with obedience, while curse/punishment is threatened for disobedience. Or again, it is like a marriage covenant, a set of promises with binding stipulations enforced by law. There is the promise of love, blessing, and joy with fidelity, but for infidelity/disobedience there lies the curse of divorce from the covenant God. The concept of law, blessing, and curse is present throughout the whole of Torah, the historical narratives, the Psalms, and the Prophets who act as God’s covenant enforcers. This is the background for Paul speaking of Christ suffering the curse of the law for us. It is within this framework in which Christ acts as the covenant representative. On all of this, I suggest consulting Michael Horton’s Lord and Servant.

We have, then, not some abstract legal theory foisted upon the text because Anselm could not think past his medieval, feudal context. Indeed, if anything, this was something that Anselm’s feudal context allowed him to pick up on better than our modern one can. No, in PSA we have careful reflection on the shape of the biblical narrative and an atonement derived from its own categories.

13. Another more political charge is that somehow PSA is tacitly supportive of the status quo and prevailing power structures of oppression. Honestly, I have a hard time taking this one as seriously as the others because the connections are so tenuous. It is usually caught up in the dubious narrative of the Constantinian fall of the Church, Anselm accommodation to the cozy church/state relationship, and other theological conspiracies. Still, say for the sake of the argument that PSA has been associated or used as a way of supporting power structures, I would argue that it is not inherently so. If it has, this is an abuse of the doctrine and the quirk of historical happenstance, not the necessary inner-logic of the position.

First, we must again note that PSA is not necessarily separate from Christus Victor themes. To the extent that it has, that has been a serious a doctrinal mistake. Through the cross Christ is reestablishing his rule against the powers, exposing their false claims, and releasing people from the fear of death. Beyond that, it’s been often pointed out by advocates of other theories that on the cross, God stands with the victims by identifying with them. I think there is a real truth there. Still, I would move on to say that the unique contribution of thinking of the cross as judgment is that it stands as a warning against oppressors. Yes, there is repentance available because Jesus has dealt with sin on the cross, but also note that God’s judgment is coming. Those are your options: repentance and forgiveness, or God’s just wrath against your consistent oppression of the weak, the poor, and the powerless.  This seems to be is a powerful witness against oppressive power structures that deface and destroy all that God loves.

14. It could also be argued that  PSA could be used as a supporter of inequality among the sexes or races. If guilt is simply atoned for, we can passively accept unjust social situations. If people have used PSA as an excuse to sit comfortably with abuse, this is a gross abuse and caricature. The cross as judgment for sin is the great leveller of human pride that declares all have fallen short of the glory of God, Greek and Jew, male and female, and all stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and the mercy offered. All have offended against God by violating his law and in violating each other, his Image-bearers in some way or another. And so all go to Christ together for mercy. Indeed, the cross is where these inequalities go to die. As the old phrase has it, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

By placing the vertical claims of justice at the center of the cross, PSA does what Christus Victor and many of the other atonement angles can’t do: reconcile us to each other by dealing with the history of wrongs, sins, oppression, guilt, shame, and violence. In Christ, the dividing line is torn down through the blood of his cross and one new humanity is wrought in him, the Church (Col 1:15-20; Eph. 2:10-20). For a beautiful exposition of the way Jesus’ cross-work brings about reconciliation and repentance, see Trillia Newbell’s little book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.

15. Many charge that PSA is legalistic due to its narrow focus on law, punishment, and so forth. While we’ve already dealt with this to some degree, the Bible does say that while it is more than this, sin is at least law-breaking (1 John 3:4). The legal dimension of sin is real and needs to be dealt with definitively. In that sense, PSA is as legalistic as the Bible is. Now, it is true that insofar as PSA has been divorced from other angles on the cross it becomes narrowly legalistic, sure. But as we’ve seen over and again, that need not be the case.

16. Many claim that PSA encourages violence. Divine violence against sin is imitated by humans on earth, unleashing violence against one another.First of all, this objection usually assumes a theological pacifism based on quite contestable interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount (and even then, usually only a few verses within it). Then, this pacifistic hermeneutic is extrapolated and superimposed upon the entire Scriptures. Often it is connected with some Girardianism that sees “violence” as the aboriginal heart of sin to be avoided in all instances. Despite the copious amounts of biblical evidence that God uses force or “violence” in his judgments, an idiosyncratic, non-violent Jesus is held up as counterpoint that rules all of that out. Indeed, in many cases this hermeneutic is used to simply eliminate texts from the canon, or create an overriding canon within the canon that simply rules out key verses on atonement.

But for those intending to be faithful to Scripture, it is simply a matter of the biblical record that God is not personally a pacifist. Hans Boersma has argued that God’s hospitality requires him to employ coercive force and violence. God hates human violence, but in a violent world, at times God deals in the violent exigencies of history. God judges the unrepentantly violent by handing them over to their own chosen means of living and dying. God is not violent in his being, but in order to hold back the tide of chaos and rage that threatens to destroy creation, he says, “this far you may come and go no farther”; and he backs it up.

Beyond that, this objection, again, assumes that all divine action in Scripture must be imitated. But this is simply not the case. In fact, there is plenty of space for those wanting to maintain a generally pacifist stance to see God’s judgment in Christ as his exclusive prerogative. In fact, Miroslav Volf has argued that the soundest basis for rejecting violence as a path for dealing with conflict at the human level is if we reserve it for the just, perfect judgment of God:

One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? Recalling my arguments about the self-immunization of the evildoers, one could further argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. Here, however, I am less interested in arguing that God’s violence is not unworthy of God than in showing that it is beneficial to us. Atlan has rightly drawn our attention to the fact that in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence. Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

–Exclusion and Embrace, pgs. 303-304

So then, even for those who accept a pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not clear at all that one must embrace contemporary non-violent atonement theories.

17. A fairly important charge that is often made is that PSA is simply not found in the Fathers. It is a theological novelty that ought to be at least suspect.There are two responses to be made here. First, I am a Protestant and so while I hold a significant place for the witness of the tradition and the theological interpretation of the Fathers, what matters most is whether the doctrine is found in Scripture. As I indicated earlier, I think a very strong exegetical case can be made that it is indeed in the Bible and that has been amply demonstrated.

All the same, a number of scholars have been doing more research in the Fathers and indicating that while penal motifs are not the dominant picture of salvation in the Fathers, it’s definitely an exaggeration to say it is entirely missing. Indeed, there is good evidence that Fathers like Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Hilary of Poitier, Augustine, and a number of other Fathers included considerations of Jesus’ death as penalty and curse born on behalf of sinners. Consult the link for extensive quotations.

18. Some have charged that PSA is an inherently individualistic theology of sin and salvation linked to Western, modern categories of jurisprudence. It should be clear from what was said above about Jesus as our Messianic representative that this is simply not the case when it comes to a more classic Reformed account of things. The whole logic runs against individualistic notions of sin and punishment. Now, it is true that it has often been presented individualistically in our modern context. But that is nowhere inherentto the theology. Instead, penal substitution is the work of our covenant head Jesus, who takes responsibility for the sins of his people, the Church. My sin and guilt are dealt with as I am united to Christ and brought into the broader family of his forgiven, set-apart people. For more on this and the similar charge made against Anselm, see here.

19. PSA as a theory is fairly divorced from the narrative of the gospels, floating above them, like oil on water.While many have constructed the doctrine on the basis of Pauline proof-texts, I cannot see this charge holding water. I myself wrote four papers in seminary demonstrating penal dimensions to each of the Gospel-writers thought about the cross. Consulting N.T. Wright or Jeremy Treat’s work, or any number of other scholars doing biblical theology will reveal the way penal representation fits squarely within the mission and message of Jesus. I can’t to the exegetical work here, but roughly, Jesus came to restore the kingdom of God, fight the great battle against God’s enemies, and bring about the end of Exile of judgment for Israel. Jesus does this in accordance with Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant, David’s Seed and true heir, who brings about a New Exodus by suffering a representative Exile for Israel on the Cross. This is how the great forgiveness of sins is brought about and the basis on which people are invited into the new Israel of God that’s been reconstituted in the person of Jesus. Again, roughly. For those who know the biblical themes, it all starts fitting together quite nicely.

I don’t have the time or the space, but we could talk about the Temple theology here, or Jesus the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, or Jesus the innocent sufferer, or the ransom-sayings, or A.T. Lincoln’s work on the trial motif in John, and a half-dozen other sub-themes that connect Jesus’ mission in the Gospels to the penal dimension of his work. Indeed, N.T. Wright has said that his own work in Jesus and the Victory of God as the most extensive modern defense of penal substitution grounded in Jesus’ own self-understanding. Penal substitution isn’t an extraneous, foreign element needing to be grafted onto the Gospels, but an idea that sits quite comfortably at their heart.

Conclusions and Resources

While this has been absurdly long for a blog post, I’m well aware that this is ultimately inadequate. I am sure there are a number of questions I’ve left unaddressed, or addressed too quickly to be satisfactory for some. Still, I think it is been demonstrated that a number of the largest objections rest on misunderstandings, or mischaracterizations of the doctrine. What’s more, though I did not address every variation and objection out there, I think the seeds and forms of basic answers to those challenges are present in the various responses given. Many of the new objections are simply variations on older themes.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those looking for more concrete resources, I would point you to these excellent works.

Articles

Books

These are generally holistic accounts that do an excellent job with the biblical material:

  • The Cross of Christ by John Stott. The classic Evangelical standard.
  • God the Peacemaker by Graham Cole. A newer, all-around balanced account.
  • The Crucified King by Jeremy Treat. New favorite on reconciling PSA and CV, and setting them both in biblical-theology categories
  • The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris. Older, but still solid exegetical and linguistic work.
  • Mysterium Paschale by H.U. Von Balthasar. Though this only has 30 pages on Good Friday, they’re absolute gold. I cannot overstate how good that chunk is.
  • The Glory of the Atonement An excellent collection of biblical, historical, and theological articles on atonement. Vanhoozer’s essay on atonement in postmodernity alone is worth the price.

For those interested in postmodern critiques from violence, Girardianism, feminism, postcolonialism, and so forth, I highly commend these works:

(Finally, I must say thanks to Alastair Roberts and Andrew Fulford for looking at earlier drafts. Their advice made this much better than it was. Any failures that remain are mine.)

Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience

abraham and isaacMy friend Rachel got me thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac again the other day. I think the first time I really gave it any deep thought was in reading Kierkegaard’s famous meditation on the nature of faith in Fear and Trembling. The entire thing is an examination of Abraham’s terrible choice, his decision whether or not to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering to God. (Actually, on a biographical note, that book’s partially responsible for me being married to my wife. But that’s a story for another time.) I took up the text again in seminary, ended up looking at some of the rabbinic treatments of the issue, and wrote a short paper on it.

In any case, upon reading the story the question comes up for many of us, “Would we? Could we ‘pass’ that terrible test of faith that Abraham did that dreadful day?” I don’t have a child yet, so I can’t say I know the full reality of what it is to love a son–let alone an only son. I love my nephew and to even briefly consider his loss fills me with terror. To think that my God could command that I perpetrate the deed is terror upon terror. In good conscience, I don’t think I could do it.

But here’s the thing, if I were Abraham I’m not so sure what I’d do.

What do I mean by that?

All too often in these discussions of troubling texts, we collapse the cultural distance between us and the biblical characters. Human nature is, in many ways, constant. Conscience is one of those basic human features. Across cultures, everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, norms against which we must not cross, and an internal compass about these sorts of things. That said, any student of culture knows there are some significant variations across cultures as well. “Self-evident truths” held by post-Enlightenment Americans are not all that apparent to equally intelligent Middle Easterners or citizens of the Majority world. The conscience of a 1st Century citizen might be very sensitive about an issue you and I wouldn’t blink twice about, and vice versa. Our cultural presuppositions and plausibility structures do a significant amount of work here.

Where does this come in with Abraham? Well, I think it becomes a factor in two ways: cultural distance and revelational distance. These two are bound up with each other.

I Went to Sunday School

First, it’s been said by biblical scholars before, but it bears saying again: child sacrifice was fairly common for a number of Ancient Near Eastern cults of Abraham’s day.* We have archeological digs filled with tiny human skulls and skeletons that were burned in the fire. At least two of early Israel’s neighbor competition deities, Molech and Chemosh both demanded child sacrifice. Abraham was a recovering idolater in this context. He didn’t grow up in church, Sunday school, or youth group. He grew up around idols, sacrifice, and the pagan gods most of his life. He didn’t live in the 21st Century West. I’m not a cultural relativist, but we neglect this reality much to our harm when it comes to these texts.

For Abraham to receive a command from the God he’d been following for some years now was not unintelligible. It wouldn’t be easy, or simple, but it wouldn’t be unthinkable to him. In Abraham’s mind, the firstborn does belong to God. In fact, that’s actually a deep truth that runs all through the Bible. The firstborn does belong to God as you can see very clearly in the principle of the Passover (Exodus 12) and the redemption of the firstborn and their replacement with the Levites (Numbers 3). Without this, you can’t understand Jesus’ role as the firstborn who redeems all of creation (Colossians 1).  God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it.

Still, what differed with God was the mode of the offering of the firstborn. Abraham didn’t know God’s character. A few encounters over the years isn’t a full bio of God. Remember, in Genesis 18, with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham still thought he had to talk God into being merciful. He didn’t know God’s commitment to life and that he’d only come to judge a once it had become so wicked as to have less than ten righteous people in the whole thing. And so, God “tested” him, and taught him through that haggling experience. In a very similar way, God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it. Did he have as much devotion to YHWH as the idolaters did? As much devotion as he would be willing to offer them?

God tested him, and then revealed himself to Abraham as the gracious Lord, who provides the sacrifice.

I’m a Christian

This is where the second form of distance from this situation comes in: All throughout Israel’s history, the Lord has to reiterate over and over that he does not want child sacrifice to happen. Multiple times in Jeremiah he says something like,

And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:31)

Israel’s kings even made their children pass through the fire in the valley of Hinnom outside the gates of Jerusalem. The people built high places. Apparently this was the kind of thing that it was very tempting for Israelites, even after Abraham’s day to do–to offer up sacrifices, the fruit of their love, to their gods in the fire.

We live in a culture that has been shaped by the text and presuppositions of Scripture on this, when Abraham did not. Western culture did not place the high value upon human life that we (allegedly) do, except through the influence of the Scriptures on our cultural conscience. In the ancient Greco-Roman Empire, Christians distinguished themselves by forbidding the dangerous and deadly (for both mother and child) abortions at the time. What’s more, they made a practice of rescuing infants who were regularly abandoned to die outside the gates of the city. It is this conscience that we inherit.**

Abraham didn’t have that either. So when I say, couldn’t, I mean it. I’m not an Ancient Near Easterner. I’m also not a recovering idolater (well, not in that sense.) I’m a Christian who has a Bible and knows the revealed character of God. God has strongly commanded that these things are evil and contrary to his purposes. So if God came to me today with these commands, I’d probably think it was a demon because he has clearly forbidden it in Scripture and, contrary to some popular readings, God doesn’t simply contradict himself.

I’m Not a Knight of Faith

There’s one more difference, though, between Abraham and myself: I’m not always sure I have his faith. See, if the New Testament is any help in understanding the story, apparently Abraham didn’t expect to walk back down the mountain alone that day.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

I suppose this is what Kierkegaard was talking about when he spoke of the difference between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Infinite resignation sacrifices the child believing that’s the end of it. Faith believes God’s good and he’ll give the child back. Abraham believed the knife wasn’t the end of the story. He thought, in some mysterious way, he was coming back down the mountain with Isaac.

Binding and Offering Up Our Conscience

There’s always more to say, but I suppose I’ll end with a word about conscience since that’s what provoked some of these meditations. We give ourselves a lot of credit on this one. We think the same thing about Germany and WWII. “I would never participate in that.” But most normal Germans did. At the right time and place, with the right cultural history behind us, many of us would do a lot of things we never would imagine doing now.

I mean, in our own ways, we do. Today there are a great number of men and women who honestly, legitimately think according to their conscience they are doing good by defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Of course, if a certain line of moral reasoning is true, then Abraham’s choice begins to look a bit closer to us in the 21st Century West. And we’re vocal about it. That’s how disoriented a strong conscience can be.

This is why, though Scripture tells us that conscience is important, and we ought not sin against it (Romans 14), we probably shouldn’t make it the final judge of things (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). We need to listen to our conscience, to be sure, but we also ought to submit them to the Word in order that we might be transformed according to the renewing of our minds so that we can know what God’s good and perfect will is (Romans 12:1-2).

That doesn’t mean we should stop questioning, thinking, reading, studying, and just settle for the first, obvious reading of any text we come to. No, all too often that will lead us astray and may even lead us to affirm things out of “deference” to God that he himself would never affirm. Some more Kierkegaardian wrestling on this point would probably do the church some good. All the same, as Christians we confess that God is God and God is good. And so we will trust his word and wrestle with it until we can his goodness in it. We will struggle until we can offer our consciences up to God and ask him to teach us, trusting that we will receive them back whole and healed.

And thank God, I think he is patient with us in those times.

Soli Deo Gloria

*See Jon D. Levenson’s excellent The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. 
**For more on this, see The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and Atheist Delusions by D.B. Hart.

A Crash-Course in Revelation (Or, Reformedish Thoughts on Scripture According to Westminster)

The crew doing some "theologizing" at Westminster Abbey.

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

I’m a Bible guy. I got my M.A. in Biblical studies, so it ought to come as no surprise that not only the content, but the nature of Scripture itself (or rather, the complex of theology surrounding God, Scripture, and hermeneutics that Kevin Vanhoozer calls ‘First Theology’)  is frequently on my mind. This is especially the case since it’s constantly under dispute and the subject of great confusion in our current intellectual climate. One of the unfortunate things that I’ve found in the process of engagement with my peers, is how often modern criticisms of what are taken to be ‘classic’, or ‘traditional’ approaches to these things are really aimed at popularized bastardizations of more classic, nuanced accounts.

On Vanhoozer’s advice, I’ve found that one of the best ways of thinking through the nature of these things is by going back to some of the virtuoso performances in the history of theology–the great creeds and confessions–to see the way theologians of the past have articulated these issues. Though I’m no expert on the document, I thought it might be a profitable exercise to quote and offer brief, running commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith’s first chapter on Holy Scripture. While there are a lot of things I would like to say beyond what the Westminster Divines offered up, I think it’s still a remarkably clear, relevant treatment of the issue. And I don’t just say that because I’m a Presbyterian; I think many who’ve never been exposed to the document will feel similarly after encountering it. 

Before I begin though, I’d like to reiterate that I am not an expert on the document. This is going to be a kind of rough-shot commentary. I’ll do my best to avoid what I think are disputed areas among the Reformed, but I’m probably going to fall afoul of more expert analysis. For many of you it may even be beneficial to simply skip my commentary and read the text itself. If I get any of you to do even that, I’ll be happy. That said, let’s begin:

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

Contrary to some popular pictures, the Reformed acknowledge some form of general revelation. In other words, Scripture is not the only place that God has spoken to us about himself. Following Romans 1, the Westminster Divines (pastors, theologians, etc.) said that God has revealed himself to the human heart in the light of nature and creation. The problem is that due to sin we take that revelation, if we recognize it at all, and fall into idolatry with it, worshiping creation rather than the Creator as divine. That revelation doesn’t serve to save, but only to condemn for our “suppression of the truth” in unrighteousness. Instead of a rope pulling us to salvation, we turn it into a noose to hang ourselves with.

This is key point, then: if we’re going to find out what we need to know for salvation, for being restored to right relationship with God–in other words, the Gospel–Scripture is God’s method for clarifying the truth about God that has been obscured in our hearts and minds through sin. So while we might experience God in nature, and find bits of common grace truth in the literature of non-Christian writers, the only place we can go to hear God’s final, ultimate truth about himself and the things concerning salvation is in the revelation given to us in Scripture; it is the only Word designed to pierce the fog-cloud of idolatry and sin.

2. Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these:

It’s a list of the traditional Protestant 66 book canon, here omitted for space. Consult the index of your Bible.

3. The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.

Protestants had a very clear logic for excluding the intertestamental writings as divinely-inspired, most of which I have forgotten except the fact that the Jews didn’t accept them as part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).

4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

These two sections go together. Essentially, contrary to Roman Catholic claims, the Westminster Divines said that Scripture’s authority does not rest on the judgment of the Church’s Magisterium or authority. Nor is it dependent on any particularly smart individuals, or any of the rational arguments that might be forwarded in its favor in terms of evidence. While these certainly can help confirm our judgment of it as witnesses, ultimately, though, we accept the Scriptures because we recognize their inherent authority as God’s own Word. In other words, the Church recognizes an authority already possessed by the Scriptures themselves–they don’t authorize them. God’s self-testimony is enough to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible and then illumine our hearts to recognize it. God’s Word is self-authenticating.

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Alright, so there’s a lot going on here. First, everything you need to know to be saved, live a Christian life, and enter into glory is either directly stated in Scripture, or flows as a logical corollary of what is there stated. Which means that nobody can add doctrines that are not in Scripture, or don’t flow from Scripture into the number of things a Christian must affirm to be saved, or an obedient disciple. An example of what I’m talking about is the difference between the doctrine of the Trinity and mariological teachings. The doctrine of the Trinity can be derived as a necessary corollary of very explicit teaching about the unity of God and the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To reject the doctrine of the Trinity forces you to reject much of Scripture’s explicit teaching, even though there is no one silver-bullet verse laying out Nicene orthodoxy. On the other hand, pretty much nothing in Scripture necessitates a belief in Mary’s sinlessness, immaculate conception, and assumption into heaven although the Roman Catholic church has declared it to be a dogma. In fact, there’s a pretty solid case that the Scriptures point in the other direction on this issue.

Still, the Divines did say even though everything you need to know is in there, you still need the illumination of the Holy Spirit–God’s work of ‘lighting up’ the text, so to speak–to recognize that truth. Also, even though everything you need to know is there, that doesn’t mean everything you might want to know is there. In other words, there are some areas where you’re going to have to make some pragmatic decisions about the way you run the church, society, and so forth that–while they need to be consistent with the Bible–don’t have a straightforward blueprint in Leviticus or something.

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

This is probably the most interesting section to me. Often people take the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity of Scripture to mean that Reformed theologians think every text is “obvious” and “clear” on a straightforward reading. It’s then charged with a premodern naivete about the problem of “interpretive pluralism”–something we’ve apparently discovered in the last 10 years or so–and declared it to be the nefarious origin of silly, pop-Evangelical “me and my Bible” approaches that have left us with thousands of denominations, and so forth.

Now, it’s true that the doctrine has fallen on hard times. And certainly, in the hands of some it has been turned into a recipe for anti-intellectualism and radical individualism. But clearly we see that, as it is propounded by the Westminster Divines, this picture is simply not all there is to it. They acknowledge very clearly that there are some fuzzier passages in the text. It’s not all quite so obvious as anti-intellectual types might think.

What the Divines do assert, though is that the main outlines of the faith–Jesus, the cross, God, grace, and so forth–can be known by someone who takes the time study with the “use of the ordinary means.” By the “ordinary means”, from what I’ve read, this means something along the lines of attention to grammar, genre, logic, etc. In other words, you don’t have to have a specially authorized Magisterium, operating with a special, secret apostolic tradition accessible to no one, to plumb the secret depths of the Bible in order to understand the basic message of salvation. Yes, even the “unlearned” who take the time to carefully read can come to know the basics of what they need to know–a “sufficient” understanding–even if there’s plenty in the Scriptures that’s probably only accessible to the scholars. (Often, though, I find that not even pastors and teachers take the time to apply “the ordinary means” well enough. We live in an age of sloppy readers.)

8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

God has preserved through providential means the Hebrew text of the OT and the Greek of the NT so that these texts might be the final court of appeal when it comes to disputes within the Church. But, since not everybody has the time, nor the opportunity to learn Greek and Hebrew, there should be vernacular translations in every language so that ordinary people might have the blessings and comfort available to us in the God’s Word. The promises of God in Scripture are not simply the province of the scholar, but the possession of the layman looking to know and love God through what he has revealed of himself.

9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

This is another important section when it comes to developing a hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, that is consistent with our beliefs about the nature of the Bible as God’s Word. Because we believe that all of Scripture is inspired by God, even though we recognize that there are difficult parts that require more special attention, we believe that Scripture is self-consistent because God is self-consistent; God is not a bumbler who contradicts himself. Because of that, our baseline principle of interpreting troubling sections of Scripture is to set them against the light of the clearer sections. If a certain unclear verse makes it appear that there might be more than one God, we stop and set it against the multitude of very clear verses that teach that there is only one Creator God.

Incidentally, one method that the early Church developed to do this well, is summarizing the clearest outlines of what Scripture teaches into creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, or the various summaries referred to by the Fathers as the Rule of Faith. These were by no means comprehensive statements of the Bible’s contents, but they were basic outlines drawn from Scripture that would keep you from going off the rails when it came to trouble. Note, the Rule of Faith was not some extraneous standard, or philosophical system imposed on the text, but really an outline drawn from Scripture itself. In a sense, it’s an instance of tradition being deployed as a support for maintaining biblical doctrine.

10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

All of this leads very naturally into a summary statement about the doctrine of sola scriptura about which there is much confusion. Often-times this principle is taken to mean that tradition, the writings of the Fathers, and the councils are to be ignored while we only focus on a “pure” reading of the Bible that isn’t influenced by any tradition. Not only is a traditionless reading of the Bible impossible, that’s actually not what it meant to the Reformers or how sola scriptura functioned in their hands. Instead, it meant that all of these other sources of theological wisdom and authorities are finally to be submitted and subject to the Scriptures. Councils, commentaries, and creeds are great–but they are finally to be tested against the light of Scripture. Yes, all of these things may be helpful, beneficial, and as a whole necessary, but ultimately they are ancillary. We should read the Fathers, but like Protestants.

As Kevin Vanhoozer says, tradition is an expert witness, but not the final judge–that role is reserved for the Holy Spirit speaking Scripture:

Sola Scriptura refers to the practice of attending the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final appeal in doctrinal disputes. How do we recognize the Spirit’s speaking? Church tradition enjoys the authority not of the judge but of the witness. Better: tradition enjoys the authority that attaches to the testimony of many witnesses. In this light, we many view the church fathers and church councils as expert witnesses as to the sense of Scripture in the courtroom drama of doctrine. Neither the Fathers nor the councils sit on the bench; the triune God has the final say. The task of theology is to cross-examine the witnesses in order to offer proximate judgments under the ultimate authority of the presiding judge: the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.

To practice sola scriptura  is to treat Scripture alone as the “norming norm” and tradition as the “normed norm.” A theology that practices sola scriptura recognizes the ministerial authority of tradition, namely, its ability to nurture individals in and to hand on the apostolic faith through the church’s corporate witness. Canon may be the cradle of the Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse.

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Account of Doctrine, pg. 234

Well, at this point I’ve rambled long enough. I hope this has been even somewhat helpful for some of you. If you liked what you read in the Westminster Confession, I’d encourage you to read through the rest of the document and follow out its Scripture references. It’s a very edifying experience. For those looking for a more in-depth treatment and analysis of four historical approaches to relating Scripture and Tradition, I would point you to this article by Tony Lane on the subject “Scripture, Tradition, and Church: An Historical Survey.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Is It Possible to Be Too Christocentric? Vanhoozer on Christomonism and the OT

remthologizingPart of Kevin Vanhoozer’s project in his massive work Remythologizing Theology is developing a method of moving from Scripture to theology, especially with respect to a properly gospel-centered doctrine of God. Roughly, the idea is to get from the narrative (mythos) of God’s “theodramatic” doings in redemptive history and derive a metaphysic, an account of God’s being (or being-in-act), that takes its cues and categories from that, instead of speculative philosophical categories (re-mythologizing = re-narrativizing). It asks, “what this ‘who’ is like – on the basis of what God says and does?” I’ve tried to summarize Vanhoozer summarizing himself here.

Vanhoozer examines Karl Barth’s approach in the process–one that informs his own at various points–to see its strengths and weaknesses, and set it up as a sort of foil for his own project. Barth clearly wants to speak of God on the basis of God’s own self-revelation, the Word we see uttered in the history of the Godman Jesus Christ. For Barth, God is who he is in the act of his revelation. To speak of his attributes is to speak of God’s divine activity. Still, Vanhoozer notes that there are a number of questions to be raised about Barth’s approach:

Yet questions remain: (1) Is God who he is apart from his act – his lived history in Jesus Christ – as well? It is one thing to say that God is in se the one who loves in freedom, quite another to say that God only becomes who he is – the one who loves in freedom – thanks to his self-actualization as Word become flesh. (2) If God is who he is in the history of Jesus, how are we to distinguish deity from humanity, divine loving-in-freedom from human loving-in-freedom? (3) Does Barth do justice to the idea that “the personalizing of the Word does not lead to its deverbalizing” if, as Wolterstorff thinks, he regards the Incarnation as God’s sole illocutionary act? [DZR: ‘illocutionary act‘ = act of revelation]

These three questions resolve into one: can Christian theologians ever be too christocentric? Usually Barth’s critics worry about his tendency so to emphasize the work of Christ that it reduces the significance of human action. The present concern moves in the other direction, however, questioning Barth’s tendency to let the work of Christ reduce the significance of other instances of divine action: Why must we equate God’s being-in-act exclusively with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ when the Bible depicts God as in-act at other points of the biblical narrative as well? 

Barth resists christomonism inasmuch as he accepts the witness of the Old Testament. Yet does he show sufficient awareness that without Israel’s Scripture we would lack the right interpretative framework with which to understand the event of Jesus Christ? More pointedly: without a prior revelatory rather than merely religious (i.e., man-made) framework, the event of Jesus Christ would ultimately be unintelligible. We must therefore press for greater clarity: is there nothing we can know of God prior to christology, on the basis not of speculative metaphysics but the mythos of Israel’s history with YHWH? Does YHWH’s activity in ancient Israel (not to mention the Ten Commandments and other texts that purport to be direct divine communication) count for Barth as divine revelation or not? Are there not events in Israel’s history in which one catches glimpses of God’s being-in-act?

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pp. 202-203

Vanhoozer goes on to wonder if Barth works a christological doctrine of simplicity, whereby God is defined solely by the narrative of the life of Jesus and nothing else. But there seem to be some problems with that:

Yet it is difficult to see how he can derive a complete list of divine attributes by analyzing the life of Jesus alone…For example, is God essentially related to the world, or is the world the result of God’s free (and hence contingent) choice? It is also difficult to see how Barth can demarcate divine from human attributes from the history of Jesus alone inasmuch as it exemplifies both “true humanity” and “true deity.” To be sure, Jesus’ taking on human flesh and laying down his life for many speaks volumes about God’s love, but what about Jesus’ sleeping ( Mk. 4:38) or increasing in wisdom and stature ( Lk. 2:52)? Is every moment in Jesus’ life equally essential to God’s being?

–ibid, pg. 204

What’s more, given what he says about the humanity of the biblical witness, which doesn’t truly become revelatory until God takes it up to confirm what he has said through Christ, it seems we’re in a bit of revelatory bind. This is why Vanhoozer later says:

Barth is clearly a kindred remythologizing spirit…Yet we have wondered whether Barth takes the biblical depictions of divine speaking seriously enough. Is the knowledge of God such that everything can be derived from his single incarnate illocution? By viewing Jesus Christ as God’s singular speech act, does Barth inadvertently demythologize the biblical accounts of God’s speaking by refusing to take them literally, that is, as ascriptions that render an agent?

–ibid, pg. 205

While there’s a lot more going on, and I’ve probably botched the summary sections, you can start to see the problem with a particular way of being “christocentric”–it ends up being not so much christocentric, but christomonistic. In focusing on the ‘Word’ uttered in Christ, he relativizes and doesn’t seem to have a place for the words that set up and help disambiguate that Word.

Where am I going with this? I’ve seen people complain recently that Evangelicals and other typical Christians have too long let the OT define Jesus rather than letting Jesus redefine the OT. And I can see that. I’m all for reading the whole OT as pointing to and finding its ultimate meaning, resolution, and clarity in the revelation of the Incarnate Christ in the New. Still, while this is not exactly what’s going on with Barth, you can start to see some of the same problems emerge in those ‘christocentric’ accounts that place so sharp a distinction between the life of the Incarnate Christ, and the OT that forms the revelatory background for the Word God speaks through His Son.

In my best Vanhoozer, then: Christ is the center of the action to be sure, the climactic act and dramatis personae who explains and gives meaning to the whole drama of redemption. But he doesn’t step onto an empty stage. The earlier acts of the drama between YHWH and Israel recorded in the Old Testament are what form the necessary background to understanding Christ’s lead role. To write off the earlier acts as parochial, confused, or semi-inspired testimonies of a backward religious age, actually ends up undermining our ability to see the way Christ’s redemption resolves the various dramatic tensions at work in the plot-line of God’s relationship with Israel, and impugns the artistry of the Divine Playwright.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does God Let His Kids Lie About Him? A Thought (or Two) on the Enns/Bell Interview

enns

Look that face. What a friendly-looking dude. You almost hate disagreeing with him. Almost. ;)

Does God let his kids lie about him? That’s the question I found myself asking after reading this interview of Pete Enns by Rob Bell. Enns has a new book on the Bible coming out, and it promises to be the new progressive-Evangelical handbook for scrapping your old doctrine of Scripture, so, of course, Bell pulled him onto the blog to chat. Unsurprisingly the issue of ancient science and Old Testament violence came up.  I’ll quote Enns said about it at length, because why not?:

OK, so can we focus on one specific issue here that troubles a lot of people? In your book you do a spectacular job of explaining those violent passages in the Old Testament. Can you give my readers a bit on that?

I spend a chapter on in my book on God’s commend to the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, and child and take over their land. This is the go-to example many point to of God acting more like Megatron than a God of love. 

This is a huge issue that has bothered people ever since there’s been a Bible. It’s nothing new. It’s hard to find Christians or Jews that don’t have at least some problem with this. When we hear of modern genocides, where perpetrators claim that God is on their side, we just call that ethnic cleansing at the hands of crazy people. So how can Christians say God opposes genocide today when he commanded it yesterday? That’s what we call a real theological problem.

Well, that and the fact that Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “Let’s kill all the Gentiles [Romans] and take back our land.” So, on top of the moral problem, Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page with what God says in the Old Testament. 

This issue is involved enough that you can’t Tweet an answer. You really need to walk through the paces of discovering the Bible’s ancient voice. We take a step back and try to understand the Israelites as ancient people with ancient ways of thinking. They weren’t like the “nice Christians” we meet at church picnics and who listen to gospel quartets.

The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge

The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience. 

The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot. 

We shouldn’t cheer the Israelites and emulate them, which is what Christians with a violent streak throughout history have done—Spanish conquerors of the “West Indies” or European settlers of “America” treat the “new world” like it was Canaan and take over. And neither can we sidestep or minimize the violence, which is another strategy Christians have had for handling these passages.

They are what they are, and the Bible looks the way it does because God lets his children tell the story

Children tell stories of their parents from their point of view as children, which is not the whole story. Think of boys bragging about their dads on the playground. I loved my father and I defended his honor. He was a mighty man who could lift heavy objects, was a sharpshooter, brilliantly smart, and as strong as any man anywhere. 

Not everything I said about my dad was fully and objectively true, but this is how I saw my father, a description born of love, from my youthful perspective, that followed the “rules of the playground.” 

Eventually, looking back from a later vantage point, I realized how much my dad-talk actually limited my father, but that was how we talked and I wasn’t able, obviously, to take a step back and tell my father’s story some other way. 

And even if I could, if I had said things back then like how hard he worked to support us, how he stayed up when I was throwing up at night, and how he never missed my Little League games, I wouldn’t have gotten across to the other guys how awesome my dad was, how much better he was than all the others.

The Israelites described God according to their “rules,” how they and the people around them understood gods in general. And here’s a huge lesson in there for us today. 

We always perceive God from our vantage point, according to ways of thinking we aren’t even aware of most of the time. In these stories, the Bible gives us a glimpse of ancient Israelites doing that very same thing. 

So, when we read these stories, we don’t read them as absolute rules to live by or the final word about what God is like. Christians believe that in the Gospels, we get a deeper understanding about God from Jesus. The Gospels don’t allow us to remain where the Iron Age Israelites were in their understanding of God.

In other words, the Bible isn’t a rulebook for Christian living. It is a narrative that has movement and a trajectory. 

And while we’re at it, archaeologists are about as sure as you can be that the mass extermination of Canaanites that the Bible talks about didn’t happen—which is good news, I think. This helps us see these stories are stories that tell us how the ancient Israelites, at least at some point in their history, understood God.

And that, I realize, is a very long answer, but it’s as short as I can make it.

Alright, there’s a lot going on in there, some of it good and some of it bad. It’s kind of a variation on the Jesus-Tea-Strainer theme we’ve chatted about before. But like I said, the main question I’m left with is, “Does God allow his kids to lie about him?” Because that’s the basic thrust of Enns’ answer, right? The Israelites are young kids, excited about their dad, who told tall, pretty violent, tales about him in terms their kid conceptions of reality could grasp. And God looked on smilingly, letting it go because they meant well.

Now, to some degree I go along with a theology of accommodation in revelation. Most Reformed do. Calvin used to say that God used a sort of baby-talk to tell his children about himself, using terms they would understand to communicate. Bavinck developed this way of thinking at length. Isn’t what Enns saying kind of like that? Kind of, but where they part ways is the issue of truth. Does divine accommodation mean that well-meaning lies are okay about God? Calvin, Bavinck, and most of the Christian tradition would probably say no.

Indeed, looking at the thrust of the Old Testament revelation, God doesn’t seem to take lying about him too well. What are the first few commands?

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:1-7)

So:

  1. Don’t worship other gods.
  2. Don’t make idols or false representations of me.
  3. Don’t misuse my name and cheapen it.

Well, it seems to me that making up stories about God, saying he did a bunch of stuff he didn’t really do, like commanding a bunch of stuff he would never command because it’s clearly abhorrent to him, would probably fall afoul of 2 and 3, don’t you think? I mean, if Enns’ reading of the New Testament is right, and Jesus really is uber-pacifistic to the degree that all judgment or violence is just completely foreign to the nature of God, then these stories aren’t just tall tales, but pretty big whoppers. In fact, they’d seem to be blasphemous.

Now that would be odd wouldn’t it? For God to deliver commands to us about not falsely representing him and taking his name in vain, through narratives that falsely represent him and take his name in vain? What kind of confusing father is that? A little exaggeration here and there is one thing, but to fundamentally miss a key component like that is kind of a big deal. I mean, especially when God seems particularly picky about the “no false images” thing (Ex. 32-33).

In fact, in his helpful little work Against the Gods, John D. Currid has argued that when the OT picks up images from the surrounding culture, there’s usually a polemical edge. In other words, the OT revelation is often-times taking up cultural ideas and then subverting them, or explicitly opposing them through ironic use. I’m not that convinced, then, that God would inspire, or semi-inspire, or even simply ‘tolerate’ texts remaining in Scripture, his covenant documents, that grossly misrepresent him to his covenant people, the nations, and future generations of believers. It’s not just about inerrancy, but about having a trustworthy God. Accommodation is one thing, but if your accommodation includes aggressive falsehood, it’s actually not accommodation but misrepresentation.

Beyond that, the issue of culture and chronological snobbery pops up again. Enns makes the point that we always view God from our vantage point, thinking of God in terms that our culture finds amenable and understandable. But if that’s the case, then shouldn’t we slow the train down on judging the stories the Israelites told? Shouldn’t we be careful about our own modern, therapeutic ideas of parenting, democracy and such creeping in to our theology? Why is our culture’s judgment about the divine, or violence, or whatever, obviously more trustworthy? Because it’s ours? I don’t think Enns wants to go there.

Finally, yes, the passages in question can be pretty troubling. Still, I think there are answers that are helpful. I’ve got my own article on the issue of the conquest of the Canaanites trying to treat the issue in historical and theological context. But again, I’d point people to the work of Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?or this helpful piece by Alastair Roberts. I’d also argue that even if Jesus does point us to a pacifistic ethic (which I doubt), there are ways of relating the Old and New Testaments in such a fashion that you don’t have to argue the OT was false in certain ways.

Because I’m lazy, I’ll quote myself from a post on a related subject:

So what do we say instead? I…would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

Well, there’s more to say, but I suppose I’ll end my ramble here. Do I think God accommodates himself to be understood by his children? Yup. Do I think that includes lies about him? Nope. And neither should you.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. I like Pete Enns. He seems like a fun guy and I’d love to consume a sandwich and beverage with him at some point. So, though we disagree, please don’t be a jerk in the comments.

This Too Is The Day the Lord Has Made (9/11–Thirteen Years On)

Firefighters Battle Troy Blaze in CaliforniaThis is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it. -Psalm 118:24

Thirteen years ago 19 men hijacked a few airplanes a blew a hole in the psyche of the Western world. We may not think of it this way, but in a sense, they claimed the day. For 13 years we have marked this day as the day we were attacked. It is a day when loved ones were taken from us. It is a day when a dark design was executed to great destruction and a historic, culture-shaping aftermath. It is a day, much like December 7th, that will live in infamy.

It’s also a day that still inspires fear. Many of us around the nation grow anxious at its approach. We wonder whether other men will choose to mark the occasion with similar violence, or an even worse attack that will eclipse the original. We avoid public places, possibly keeping our children at home, or simply go about our daily business with dark thoughts and breathe sighs of relief when the tense day closes.

My wife is one of those people. Last night I prayed with her about those fears. I prayed against the schemes of the Satan, the liar who would, just like every other cheap terrorist, use fear to control and oppress far beyond his actual power to threaten. I prayed against (and for) the dark hearts of wicked men. I prayed for the peace of God in the world and in her heart.

And as I prayed with her I was struck by the thought that, at core, I was praying against a lie. Through their terror, those men claimed one of the days the Lord had made as their own. They claimed ultimate authority, the power of life and death, and sought to stamp history with the mark of their ideology of annihilation. They said “this day is ours.”

But that is a lie, for this too is a day the Lord has made.

In the psalm quoted above, the Psalmist (possibly David) is speaking of the day when the Lord has vindicated him against his enemies and established him on his throne. In light of the Gospel we know it is ultimately about the victory of Jesus, “the stone the builders rejected” that has become the cornerstone (v. 22). Calvin comments that,

“Doubtless, all days were created alike by God, nevertheless David, by way of eminence, calls that the day of God which, after a long period of darkness, had dawned for the weal of the Church, because it was signalized by a notable event, deserving of being remembered by succeeding generations.”

Exegetically the text is singling out the day as the day the Lord has made, and yet it repays to consider the theological reality that “doubtless, all days were created by God.” Every day is a day that the Lord has made. He has crafted each with care. He is the Lord of History and every year, month, week, day, hour, and second of it is his and it is not for the taking. Indeed, it is his by virtue of creation, and once again by redemption. The cross and resurrection of the Christ is the Lord’s declaration that even history’s bleakest moments are not beyond the scope of his salvific purposes.

As I child I sang the Sunday school song based on the Davidic hymn quoted above:

This is the day, this is the day.
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice,
And be glad in it, and be glad in it.

This is the day that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice and be glad in it.
This is the day, this is the day
That the Lord has made.

It was a happy song and it pleased me. It assured me that the world was good and pleasant and that I could live at peace int. And yet as a child I don’t remember ever pushing on to hear the next verse:

We are the sons, we are the sons,
Of the living God, of the living God.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice,
And be glad in Him, and be glad in Him.
We are the sons of the living God.
We will rejoice and be glad in Him.
We are the sons, we are the sons
Of the living God.

The reason we can rejoice and be glad in each day the Lord has made, is that we meet it as sons and daughters of the Living God who has promised to that whatever weal or woe we face will be worked “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”, so that we may be conformed to the perfect image of his Son (Romans 8:28-29). We need not fear the day,

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

As we go about our days then, stop and rejoice, for this too is the day that the Lord has made.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 Reasons the Resurrection Matters

resurrection jesusOne of the things I love about reading Bavinck is that he continually disabuses me of the notion that recent challenges to the faith are really all that new, or that the sound, biblical theology that forms an answer to it was only recently discovered by a few insightful, North American (or British) scholars in the 1990s or something. Instead, Christian theologians have been taking up the charge to defend the faith, and pass on the richness of the biblical vision for a long time.

I was reminded of this when reading through Bavinck’s lengthy treatment of the Resurrection. In it he discusses various alternative, modern hypotheses, that would turn the Resurrection appearances into mere, subjective visions, or even divinely appointed projections of the risen Christ. Or, again, more agnostic accounts that would say the physical resurrection is really of no theological import as long as we affirm Christ’s current Lordship in either case. Besides not being historically satisfying accounts, Bavinck says they’re also theologically disastrous being a rather gnostic, dualist approach to the gospel.  He then goes on to explain how the Resurrection presents us with thick, rich approach to salvation that is indispensable or Christian faith and quickly lists 8 reasons it is absolutely crucial to affirm:

Scripture, however, proceeds from a totally different view. It teaches that both heaven and earth, spirit and matter, have been created by God; that the body belongs to the essential being of humans and in its way exhibits the image of God; that death is a consequence of and punishment for sin. For Scripture, then, everything depends on the physical resurrection of Christ. The that is integral to the how: if Christ did not arise physically, then death, then sin, then he who had the power of death has not been defeated. In that case, actually, not Christ but Satan came out the victor. According to Scripture, therefore, the significance of the physical resurrection of Christ is inexhaustibly rich.

Briefly summarized, that resurrection is

(1) proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13–15; 5:31; 10:42; etc.);

(2) a seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3);

(3) a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son (Acts 2:23–24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; etc.);

(4) the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9; etc.);

(5) the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25);

(6) the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12);

(7) the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; etc.);

(8) the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff.).

I’m sure we could all think of more reasons. Indeed, Bavinck himself does in other sections as well as this one. Still, even this brief list demonstrates how inextricably the benefits and accomplishment of salvation, not only of individuals, but the whole cosmos is tied up with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This isn’t only about the coming back to life of one particularly good, holy man, but literally the redemption of the whole world. All of this only serves to confirm Paul’s affirmation that the totality of Christian faith rises or falls with the Resurrection of the Son:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19)

Which is why I thank God for Paul’s next pivot–it’s one of my favorites in all of Scripture:

 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (v. 20)

Take some time to meditate on the Jesus’ glorious resurrection today. Maybe work your way through Bavink’s 8 reasons. Stop to think about each for a minute or two, and just praise him for what he’s done. More than that, praise him for who he is: the Resurrected Lord of All Creation.

Soli Deo Gloria