Examining Stott’s Strife (Reflections on Correcting Our Theological Fathers)

cross of ChristJohn Stott’s work The Cross of Christ is one of my favorite books on the atonement. A modern classic, its overall balance of exegesis, theology, pastoral insight, and existential application makes it worth returning to regularly. Beyond his many worthy commentaries, this book alone could secure Stott’s reputation as a giant in 20th Century Evangelical theology and ministry.

Recently, though, Adonis Vidu’s work Atonement, Law, and Justice (257-258) called my attention to a rather dismaying line or two where Stott seems to go ahead and affirm a “strife” of the divine attributes at play in God’s work of atonement.

Now, to speak of “strife” within God is language which more classical theology–with its axioms of impassibility and simplicity–typically rules out as deficient, if not abhorrent. If God is simple, without parts or pieces, to speak of God’s attributes is simply to speak of the single, indivisible reality of God from a different angle. In which case, it doesn’t make sense to speak of them at odds with one another. What’s more, recent revisionist critics of penal substitution have latched onto the idea that the doctrine requires us to posit a conflicted, split-minded God who needs to conquer his own wrath, as it were. To find Stott discarding the wisdom of the tradition and playing into the hands of critics of the doctrine would be distressing indeed.

In this post, I wanted to engage Stott a bit and see what’s going on. Both because I think it’s inherently interesting, but also because it’s a helpful gateway into reflecting on the way young theological students should proceed in engaging with our “fathers”  and “grandfathers” in the faith when we find troubling spots.

Two recent, theological blow-ups come to mind. First, there was the Trinity debate a summer or two ago, and then most recently the semi-brouhaha between John Frame, and others over James Dolezal’s book All That is In God. Other recent, internet tribunals could easily be adduced. Since I don’t think these disputes are going away, it’s worth slowing down and taking measure of how to proceed.

Stott’s Strife

Turning to Stott, he has an important section titled “The holy love of God” (129-132) where he is rightly arguing that God’s atoning work must be carried out in a way that is consistent with the entirety of his character. God does not atone simply according to his generous, merciful love, but also his perfectly just holiness.

To that end, he takes up the question of whether it’s appropriate to speak of a conflict, or a “strife” of the attributes within God. Against P.T. Forsyth, who explicitly ruled it out, Stott thinks we shouldn’t be too troubled with it. Yes, the language is anthropomorphic, but isn’t Scripture anthropomorphic that way? Does not Hosea 11 present us with a God at odds with himself (“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?”), torn between love and wrath? Here Stott sees a presentation which highlights the costliness of the conflict between what God “ought to do because of his righteousness and what he cannot do because of his love.”

He goes on to point out various phrases in Scripture which highlight a “‘duality’ within God,” such as Exodus 34, or “the kindness and sternness of God”, or “grace and truth”—couplets where “two complementary truths about God are brought together” as if to hold them in explicit tension. Following Emil Brunner, he sees this as Scripture’s way of remembering God’s “dual nature” as both Love and Holiness and not simply collapsing the one into the other in a manner that simply reduces holiness into love or love into holiness without any conceptual distinction between the two attributes.

Instead, we should recognize that the self-substitution of God for sinners in the cross of Christ reveals a God who fully enacts both aspects of his character in our salvation. It is the cross which enacts “the Holy Love of God”, in the words of P.T. Forsyth.

What’s Else Is Going On?

Now, on the face of it, there seems to be a clear affirmation of the strife of the attributes for the understandable reason that Scripture seems to do something similar. But it turns out things are a bit more complicated than that. Especially when you consider this key paragraph towards the back half of the section:

At the same time, we must never think of this duality within God’s being as irreconcilable. For God is not at odds with himself however much it may appear to us that he is. He is ‘the God of peace’, of inner tranquility not turmoil. True, we find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the images of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and of the Lover who must find a way to forgive them. Yet he is both, and at the same time. In the words of G. C. Berkouwer, ‘in the cross of Christ God’s justice and love are simultaneously revealed’, while Calvin, echoing Augustine, was even bolder. He wrote of God that ‘in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated US’. Indeed, the two are more than simultaneous, they are identical, or at least alternative expressions of the same reality. For ‘the wrath of God is the love of God’, Brunner wrote in a daring sentence ‘in the form in which the man who has turned away from God and turned against God experiences it’.

What’s fascinating about this passage is that—when you consider the fact that Stott admits the language of Hosea is anthropomorphic—it is very close to an expression and affirmation of the point that divine simplicity and impassibility express.

As Vidu has it, in recognizing the non-composition of the divine nature, simplicity is helpful in ruling “out any prioritization of any divine attribute, whether justice or love,” as well as any thought that God is some being who must choose between his love or justice, or any of his attributes. God is his attributes in such a way that God is all that he is in all that he does. In which case, God’s attributes are never actually at odds with each other. God’s holiness is loving, his justice is kind, his mercy is righteous, and so forth.

Now, I think Vidu is absolutely right to argue the traditional language is more helpful (necessary even), than Stott’s formulation. But it appears that without using the language of the tradition, Stott was nonetheless trying to affirm the heart of its teaching in this regard. God must present himself, his acts, his intentions in history in ways that are accommodated to our finite and situated being in such a way that we can best understand them. And this may involve apparent tension, paradox, and difficulty—but we must take care not to collapse it too quickly or write off some of the material. We must affirm both the “kindness and severity of God” without imagining that in God’s eternal being they are different realities, or that God must choose between different aspects of himself.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think Stott picked a fight with Forsyth (and the tradition) that he didn’t need to, since I’m fairly sure Forsyth would agree there’s a duality or strife in the historical presentation of God’s attributes despite the actual inner unity. But also, just for that reason, those more classically-inclined might ease their worries about Stott on this point.

Young Guns, Fathers, and Grandfathers

With that discussion in view, I’d like to turn to the issue of engaging our theological fathers and mothers.

Christopher Cleveland had an insightful article over at Mere Orthodoxy on the Trinity debate that frames the problem historically. Without summarizing the whole thing, he calls attention to the way an earlier generation of conservative, evangelical scholars were often trained by critical scholars who rejected the tradition, so they were less conversant and concerned with it. Instead, these Evangelical scholars focused on Biblical studies, exegesis, defending Scripture and basic orthodoxy against critical scholars, but in ways that tweaked some traditional doctrines in the process (e.g. upholding the Trinity, but using Eternal Subordination to distinguish the persons instead of traditional doctrines like Eternal Generation).

Well, along comes a younger generation of theological students are being trained in a way that is more familiar (and sympathetic) to the classical categories and modes of theology developed in the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed Orthodox periods (think the post-Muller Renaissance for scholastics). As they take advantage of the retrieval and ressourcement movements afoot, they take a look at some of their Evangelical “fathers” and find themselves frustrated at hasty dismissals of the tradition, or cringing at some of the newer formulations. They then begin engage in their “corrective”, or restorative project.

In which case, you end up having what looks like a bunch of young guns correcting respected, theological “fathers” on behalf of their “grandfathers.”

Since these sorts of debates and arguments seem increasingly inevitable, what ought we do? How should we proceed?

  1. Resist Name-Making Pride

Thinking of myself first, I think it’s important to simply sit with the fact that for many of us youngsters there is a deep temptation to prove and make a name for yourself early on. Whether or not you’re right on an issue, it is easy to give in to the urge to write that takedown demonstrating your knowledge, your exegetical skill, your mastery of the most recent studies which overturn the scholarship the prior generation was dependent on. But this is not honoring to God since it proceeds, not from a faith that wants to see the truth made known, but an insecurity that needs our name to be known.

Remember, in twenty years, the scholarship may again change. Different academic winds will blow, and a new crop of up-and-comers tempted to make a name for themselves on the back of the older crop of scholars and writers. And it may be it is “with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2).

I am not good at this, but polemical correction ought to proceed only with prayer and a humility before God and the Word. Many of the teachers that you are engaging are men and women who have poured out years into the local church, their seminary students, and their schools in order to further the name of the Lord. I think of John Stott’s work and ministry and pray that God would allow me to do 1% of the good for the kingdom that man accomplished through his preaching, writing, and ministry.

In which case, it is good to remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father… older women as mothers” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). I think this sort of consideration will help curb the odium theologicum motivated by pride that poisons debates at times.

  1. Undue Deference Is Not Necessarily Better

That said, Paul does encourage Timothy to encourage older men in the congregation—presumably indicating that Timothy is not absolved from a responsibility to instruct, correct, or encourage these older men and women towards holiness on the basis of God’s Word. Honoring our elders, respecting their service, and resisting the temptation to make a name for yourself at their expense does not mean remaining silent if you see error—especially serious error.

At times in Evangelical and Reformed circles, there is a default deference which treats certain figures (writers, pastor, professors) of certain standing as above all criticism. That is not proper either. We are bound to the Word of God.

In which case, I think we should be slow to see all critical engagement as necessarily disrespectful, dishonoring, or contentious. Indeed, as I mentioned above, often the motive in critiquing a “father” is defending a “grandfather.” Especially as we come to appreciate the formulations of a grandfather can end up cutting off some nasty problems that end up developing later on.

Again, Stott opts for affirming a “strife of the attributes” at the level of Biblical presentation in explicit disagreement with Forsyth. Is it disrespect or pride to think Forsyth has the better argument of the two? Or as Mark Jones asked recently, is it really arrogant to prefer and argue for the consensus of Westminster and most theologians prior to the 20th Century on a subject to that of some contemporary Evangelical theologians? It does not seem so.

  1. Confusing Language with Thoughts

In many ways, theology is a linguistic task. Minding your prepositions, keeping your terms straight, and even missing a single letter in a word can throw entire doctrines askew (homoousios v. homoiousios). But it’s also more than that. We need to keep our language about God straight because language keeps our thoughts about God straight. At least most of the time.

I bring this up because it’s worth slowing down in these debates to consider how often it is a matter of disputing over terminological and conceptual differences rather than actual differences of judgment (to invoke David Yeago’s distinction). Looking at Stott’s discussion again, it seems that he was trying to say close to the same thing that the tradition has when invoking the language of simplicity. In which case, what initially appears to be a large divergence is much smaller.

Given some of what Stott says elsewhere, I do think there is probably a material difference as well. Following Moltmann, along with many 20th Century theologians, Stott rejected impassibility. Now, I think that’s a mistake as well. But given his line about God being a God of inner tranquility and peace, I think an argument could be made that he was thankfully inconsistent in his passibilism.

This is important because recognizing that changes the way you approach a conversation. Instead of launching a broadside against grave error, we may find ourselves able to make a more persuasive plea to move closer to the tradition by explaining how close a person already is. This isn’t always the case, but I suspect it applies more often than we might expect.

  1. Preachers v. Scholastics

On a related note, I think considerations of genre and office ought to be considered in these conversations. For instance, the difference between a preacher and a scholastic. This cuts both ways, by the way. The Reformed scholastics were often criticized for having a dry, lifeless piety on the basis of their scholastic manuals. But as Richard Muller has pointed out, these were meant to be textbooks, not sermons or devotional guides. Precision and clarity are the goal, not devotional lyricism. But that doesn’t mean that doctrine can’t be preached with power. Just read Thomas Watson.

I think the reverse consideration holds true now. It is true that, as Barth said, dogma is the criticism of proclamation. But for types who have come to appreciate the beauty of fine distinctions and carefully delineated doctrines, we may be tempted to look at devotional writings, or listen to popular preaching with eyes and ears that are too critical. Preachers who could give you a textbook answer in a doctrinal exam, will nonetheless speak with a sort of looseness in the pulpit that so that their people will get the gist, or that Scriptural truth can land with emotional resonance. Trial by blog post may not be the best way to handle that.

Yes, preachers should strive for precision and for power. But even in a Puritan as careful as Watson, you can find gorgeous turns of phrase that warm your heart but that taken strictly may not make sense if you needed to defend them in a disputation. In which case, we have even greater reason to slow down in jumping all over a certain generation of preachers as well, for what may be a mere linguistic infelicity instead of a full-fledged heresy.

  1. Beware the Pendulum

Finally, I think it’s important we keep aware of the pendulum. A while back I was talking to an older, experienced preacher about some of these issues. He largely agreed with the doctrinal correction that was taking place, but he was also worried that if people weren’t careful, they’d end up over-correcting and provoking a corrective reaction of their own. I think that’s wise.

Some of us younger types who have been striving to recover classical categories, modes, etc. need to be careful we don’t do so simply by explaining the older view more plainly and leaving it at that. At times rejections are based on historical confusion, but at other times, we may find we need to re-situate older doctrines or break new ground to present them in a way that addresses contemporary concerns.

Recovering older patterns of exegesis may be part of the solution, but working constructively with the fruit of recent Biblical studies will also be necessary for showing that classical doctrines function to explain, not veil the text. Real gains have been made in Biblical studies and if there is one thing that absolutely admirable about the last generation of scholars is their commitment to the Biblical text. It’s something they share with the classical tradition.

At the popular level, we need to be careful our desire for doctrinally pure preaching does not kill our ability to apply that doctrine in ways that reach down deep into the lives of our people. It can be that your sermon on the cross has a quite clear, Christological underpinning, but the glory of the Godman’s suffering for me may be muted in the process.

I could go on further, but I’ll leave off here for now and simply end with a basic point: speaking of God is a difficult business to be undertaken with fear and trembling, joy and delight, humility, and finally, much prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria