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.)

“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

My college philosophy program was a deeply formative time for me theologically. Many of the conclusions I came to in those classes are still with me and exercise a deep influence on the way I process certain divisive theological issues today. What’s more, looking back on things, I probably couldn’t have predicted at the time which insights would stick with me and which wouldn’t.

a fawnOne concept that’s been particularly important I picked up in my undergrad class on the problem of evil: CORNEA. Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra in, as you might have guessed, a piece of analytic philosophy, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”. Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil, specifically the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

– “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not, in Wykstra’s language, satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic. In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order  that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

Defending #ClassicalTheism One Tweet at a Time

panentheismI just finished John W. Cooper’s masterful work Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers yesterday. It’s often charged that ‘classical theism’, the Augustinian tradition of theological reflection held broadly across Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions, is ‘the God of the philosophers’ that was forged via the synthesis of Greek Philosophy and the Gospel. Usually this charge is leveled by those putting forward an alternative, more biblical, or whatever view, often coming from a panentheistic framework, or largely influenced by it. Cooper’s main task in this judicious, fair-minded, and quite comprehensive work is to trace the philosophical lineage of panentheism beginning with Neoplatonism through thinkers like Eriugena, Bohme, Cusa, Schelling, Hegel, and so forth on down into contemporary thinkers such as Hartshorne, Moltmann and Clayton.

Well, feeling a bit feisty and inspired, I took to twitter and began tweeting a series of one-line defenses of ‘classical theism.’ Some are snarky, others not so much. It’s Twitter so they lack the precision, and probably the charity of Cooper’s work. Twitter theology is always a risk. Still they were kinda fun and some friends joined in, so I figured I’d share them here.

Finally, he’s not actually on Twitter to participate, but it’s not a party without Kevin.

And we’ll sign off on that note. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Soli Deo Gloria

When Can We Stop Conversing and Believe Some Stuff? A Ramble on Intellectual Narcissism

landingI’ve written before about current failure of intellectual imagination that plagues our current, cultural conversations, especially around conversion narratives. If you used to believe something for stupid, sinful reasons, then that’s the only reason anybody could hold the position you used to hold. If people haven’t updated their beliefs along the lines you have, it’s because they haven’t read the arguments you have, so they simply need to be enlightened.

What follows is a ramble on another, related angle on the same problem.

Of late I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to assume people are in our same intellectual position with respect to an issue that’s up for debate. For instance, if you’ve never really struggled with doubt, it’s very hard to put yourself in the position of someone who is wrestling with issues that just seem obvious and intuitive to you. In theological circles, it may be tempting to write it off as pure perversity and rebellion, rather than real intellectual and moral tension.

On the flipside, if you’ve got doubts, then it’s hard to deal with someone who doesn’t currently seem to be sharing them. Their certainty on the issue can be off-putting, or, even more, unthinkable. It’s difficult to imagine that someone has wrestled as hard as you have and then come out on the other side and still holds the beliefs you used to hold, or different beliefs, or indeed, any strong beliefs on this at all. This actually seems to be more than case nowadays, especially because our culture puts a premium on heroic doubt. I don’t remember where he said this, but Matthew Lee Anderson has pointed out that in the current intellectual climate, beliefs aren’t as valid, or true, unless we’ve passed through some period of angst, or torment over them, otherwise they appear as inauthentic expressions of bad faith.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics. While he probably pushes too hard in one direction, he talked about the fact that it’s fine to search while you haven’t found the truth, but once you found it, land and be content with the truth:

But at the outset I lay down (this position) that there is some one, and therefore definite, thing taught by Christ, which the Gentiles are by all means bound to believe, and for that purpose to “seek,” in order that they may be able, when they have “found” it, to believe. However, there can be no indefinite seeking for that which has been taught as one only definite thing. You must “seek” until you “find,” and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught.

I take him to be saying something like this: When you go seeking for a spouse, the point is to find one, right? Now, once you find one, you’re not supposed to keep searching are you? That’s not to say you’re not still learning, or exploring–but it’s of a different character now. Before I was looking for a land to settle in, but now I’m exploring the land I have. Before I was searching to find a wife. Now I’m “exploring” my wife, looking to grow and learn in the context of an already settled relationship. This is no less stimulating, adventurous, or somehow closed-minded–it’s just the way relationships work. Depth and love are not the result of constant foundation-testing and tinkering, but in building once those things have been tinkered, tested, and settled on.

Something similar is true about theological truth. I’ve searched a bit and have already landed on the Apostles Creed. That’s not up for grabs for me anymore–at least, not in a live way, really. Now, I suppose theoretically someone could provide me with defeater beliefs for it and I’d give it up, but not for now. For now I have cast my bet, rolled the dice, and landed on a basic outline of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord who reveals God as Triune, salvation by God’s grace, and so forth. The question now is learning to understand what I’ve come to believe in a deeper fashion.

Where’s all of this going? Well, I suppose it comes to a few questions. Are you okay with ever landing? Is your approach to faith one that dictates we should we continue doubting and testing the same things over and over? Or, when it comes to cultural conversations on hot-button issues, do we have to keep having the same conversation? Or rather, am I expected to constantly come into every conversation with the same level of hesitancy as you do, or be deemed inauthentic and totalitarian? Can I be confident of my beliefs even as I’m tender and understanding of yours?

In the other direction, do you enter every conversation with the expectation that people have reached the level of confidence and security that you have? In other words, is every expression of uncertainty and doubt an expression of rebellion and perversity, or do you give some space for those who are still piecing it through?

I don’t have a conclusion here other than something I try to remind myself of all of the time: when dealing with people you disagree with, try your best not to be an intellectual narcissist.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘I Am of Christ’, or Jesus-Juking for the Gospel

thiseltonI appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)

I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students this year and after only a couple of weeks, it appears this is going to be a transformational study for me. At least I hope it will. Unfortunately, while I’m trying to preach the flow of the text, and not rush through the letter, I don’t actually to examine each verse in the kind of detail it could be, or would satisfy my own interests. (As a college pastor you slowly learn that you even need to be careful to die to yourself when it comes to preaching in the way that would please you, but might not really edify the students.)

Case in point, after preaching through 1:10-2:5, the natural section, I realized I was still fascinated with that little phrase in v. 12, “I am of Christ.” What’s going on with that? Why would Paul treat someone claiming that they “follow Christ” as a problem? Isn’t that the point? Generally speaking, yes, but it appears there’s something more subtle at work here.

After his initial intro, Paul dives right into the problem of divisions in the Corinthian body (1:10-17). Apparently these young, ex-pagan Christians had imbibed (or failed to leave behind) their surrounding culture’s status-obsessed ethos. In his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians Anthony Thiselton says that among these new believers, many of whom had gone from ‘rags to riches’, or were hoping to, the issue of “status inconsistency” loomed large (pp 12-13). And so, per the shame-honor society they inhabited, they had brought their attitudes about social advancement through the right patron-client, or teacher-student relationship into the church.

Whether for reasons of style, initial relationship, or some other quality, people had begun picking teams. “I follow Paul” say the loyalists who remembers Paul as the man who planted the flag for Christ in Corinth. “I follow Apollos” say the newbies impressed by the guest lecture series he gave when he was in town. “I follow Cephas” say the old-schoolers who like following one of the original disciples. And on it goes. Like sports fans who have taken a harmless preference and turned it into an identity-marker and are ready to knife each other in the parking lot, believer is dividing against believer over who preaches the Gospel better.

But who, then, are those who say, “I follow Christ?”

The Suspects

In a special section, Thiselton lays out six proposed options for understanding the “Christ” party in Corinth (pp. 129-133):

  1. Judaizers?  F.C. Baur suggested it was Judaizers opposed to Paul’s anti-law party on the grounds that he wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, but it appears there’s little exegetical support for this, especially when you understand that the parties here aren’t theological, but politically-motivated.
  2. Ultra-Spirituals? Other think it is hyper-spiritual gnostics who appeal to “Christ” as a way of getting around human means of revelation or authority structures. Think the hyper-Pentecostal who says that he doesn’t need pastors, or seminary eggheads, but Jesus just speaks to him. This would make sense with a lot of the themes in the letter.
  3. Interjection from a Copyist? Some think it’s just a inserted phrase that got copied in by accident when one dude indignantly wrote “I follow Christ” after reading it, and a later copyist mistook that marginalia for Paul. Quite unlikely for textual reasons, though.
  4. Misreading for Crispus?  A couple think maybe Kristou (of Christ) was originally Krispou (of Crispus), and that got misread. Again, highly unlikely for textual reasons.
  5. Pauline Rhetoric: Hypothesis and Declaration?  Paul likes using irony, sarcasm and other rhetorical techniques to drive points home. Couldn’t this be an example of this? On this reading, the phrase is supposed to be contrastive and that it’s not part of the critique, but is Paul’s own solution. But again, the construction of the phrase gives no sign of that.
  6. Pauline Rhetoric: Irony? Again, Paul’s creative, maybe he’s suggesting a “Christ party” just to show how silly this whole approach is. This works theologically, but again, the Greek construction makes it less likely.

So Thiselton says that option #2 is the most likely and I’m inclined to agree with him. Essentially, you’ve got a group of semi-Gnostic types, critical of authority, skeptical of the claims of teachers, and “men” have claimed to be able to go directly to the source via the Spirit, or whatever, without having to depend on authorized carriers of the traditions and so forth. “I follow Christ” turns out to be just another fleshly slogan, a Jesus-Juke used as a cover an all-too-human way of finding your identity outside of Christ.

Now, of course, the point of knowing all of this isn’t mere historical curiousity, but spiritual edification and practical application in the present.

Boasting In Not Boasting

Right off the bat, whatever you end up making of the Christ party, it’s obvious that the critique of personality-driven ministry and celebrityism in the church, especially in Evangelical circles, is worth meditating on. Far too many of us, like the Corinthians, have bought into our current culture eerily similar status-obsession and have sought to define ourselves via our party, our tribe, and their respective figureheads. “I follow Keller”, or “I follow Warren”, “I follow Wright”, or “I follow Driscoll–er, I mean…let me get back to you.” Young Reformedish guy that I am, I’ll be the first to confess I fall into this trap far too easy. I mean, it’s not just that I know you’re wrong when you disagree with Keller/Vanhoozer/Bavinck/Calvin, it’s that all-too-often your disagreement feels like a fundamental rejection of my way of being. And my brothers and sisters, this clearly should not be so.

Still, I wonder about the modern-day “Christ” party among us. It’s pretty easy to spot that sort of thing on the progressive wing of things: people who boast about being anti-power, anti-empire, anti-celebrity, anti-Evangelical-entertainment-industrial complex, all the while getting “I am of Boyd” and “I am of Hauerwas” tattooed on their firstborns. (You Anabaptists know I still love you, right? Well, some of you at least.) Deeper still, though, are the theological approaches that tend to relativize formal teaching structures in the name of the some vague, ‘way of Jesus’–modern-day heirs of those that Luther and Calvin deemed the “enthusiasts” during the Reformation.

But criticizing other tribes is too easy. What does this look like among the Reformed? This is maybe a little harder as there usually isn’t any obvious gnosticism, or telltale anti-authoritarian signs to pick up on. The “Christ” party is a bit more subtle. Now, As a young whipper-snapper, I suppose I have to be careful here.* Let me say clearly that I really enjoy Carl Trueman’s work–both academically, and his stuff over at Reformation21. As a young guy who is in very clear danger of falling into the kind of name-veneration and proxy status-seeking, I really take his warnings against that sort of thing to heart, even when it’s a bit uncomfortable. What’s more, I appreciate that he lives his anti-celebrity approach. When you email him, no joke, he really is his people.

Still, among the Reformed, or at least the internet-Reformed, there’s a dangerous tendency to boast in the fact that you don’t boast in men. Which, incidentally, is not quite the same thing as boasting in the cross of Christ alone. What I mean is that a lot of people have adopted the “I don’t follow celebrities to get my identity” ethos as their own, inverted-mirror way of constructing their identity. Is a pastor too popular? Might be a sellout. Did he write a book? Probably a sellout. Did it sell well? Definitely a sellout. Unlike me. I’m never gonna write a book, or if I do, I will make sure that nobody likes it. In other words, it’s still a way of being that is far too concerned with human estimations of associations, power, and rankings, and isn’t completely resting in the fact that it is “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

To reiterate, I know I’m probably still far too stuck in the ‘I am of Keller’ phase of things to sit comfortably under the preaching of this text, as are many of my friends in the wing of things I seem to be landing in. That said, for those of us looking to move beyond it, be careful you don’t confuse a fleshly Jesus-Juke with a true confession of Christ alone as the object of your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

*As a side-note: Being fairly new to this wing of things, I’ve often thought it would be helpful for someone to create a map of the American Reformed world: “Thar be Kuyperians! “, or “Land of the Theonomists, watch for stones”, or “Here reside Old-Siders, quote none before 1700″, or “Beware Reformed Cannibals: They eat their own!”