Preaching Requires More than Biblical Theology Alone

I want to briefly follow up my earlier post on the fact that theology proper cannot subsist on biblical theology alone. Earlier this week I found out I was going to be preaching the temptation of Jesus out of Matthew 4 very shortly. And it hit me just how integrative, or multi-disciplinary you have to be (or could be) to preach this text in all of its fullness.

For instance, right off the bat, you’ve got grand-scale, Biblical theological themes. Jesus facing off against Satan in the wilderness gives us a portrait of Christ as the Second Adam, possibly New Moses, but also especially as the True Israel. Various textual features teach us to read this as a recapitulation of both the trial of Adam in the Garden, facing off against Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve through the distortion of God’s Word. Also, that this happened after the 40 days of fasting leads us to recall Israel’s sojourn and temptation for 40 years in the desert, which is only reinforced by the specific Scriptures Jesus cites against Satan from Deuteronomy.

With that in view, you could ask what this encounter means for Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. Well, it’s an initial, partial victory over the devil at the outset of his ministry, inaugurating the kingdom of God through his teaching, preaching, healing, and exorcisms, as well as a powerful confirmation of his vocation and identity as the Son with whom the Father is well-pleased.

Of course, this raises Christological issues. This is the Son who is not only human, but divine. What does it mean for the the Son to be tempted then? Did Jesus assume a “fallen” human nature? Could Jesus have sinned given his divine nature? Or how did his unique empowerment by the Spirit come into play?

These doctrinal questions are not besides the point, but have important implications for the text’s essential meaning, as well as soteriological and existential cash value.

For instance, they have an impact on how we understand this as part of the active obedience of Christ, the Second Adam, and the representative Israel’s work for us. In union with Christ, this victory, this righteousness becomes ours by faith. Or again, Jesus victory in this text becomes ours, but also so does his example. He has given us the same Spirit in whose power he overcame temptation. We have the same Word–indeed, even more Scripture–with which to resist the devil’s temptations. Both of these dimensions of reflection and application are impacted by the dogmatic conclusions we come to provoked by this text.

Beyond the biblical-theological and the dogmatic, there is much to reflect on here existentially and ethically: what are these temptations? Different ways we’re tempted to distrust God, to imagine him wrongly, and try to provide for ourselves. They are the desires of the flesh, the temptation to get God to prove himself to you, or to achieve victory, power, and the kingdom without the cross. And each of these could provoke extended ethical and ascetic reflection.

And I’m just scratching the surface here. The point is simply this: to preach and teach any text well, you need multiple tools in your toolkit. Neither systematics alone, nor biblical theology alone, nor ethical reflection alone is sufficient for unpacking the truth, the glory, and the beauty of God’s Word for God’s people. Indeed, it should be no surprise that preaching the Word in the congregation is precisely the ecclesial act that forces one to cut through the artificial divisions imposed by the specialization of the academy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Revisiting the Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere-O)

A few years ago I wrote a piece for Mere O called, “The Progressive Evangelical Package.” It probably helps to read it before proceeding. Simply put, though, before the language of “tribes” and “tribal thinking” became lingua franca, I tried to point out  that Progressive Evangelicals had a developing orthodoxy of key doctrines just as much as conservative Calvinists did. I did that by identifying seven of them, trying to pinpoint some of the underlying, causal roots funding this cluster as a whole, and inviting folks to recognize that social pressure was being exerted on them to conform to it.

My thought was that folks were starting to find each other due to certain overlapping critiques, or a couple of shared positions, and build friendships and informal coalitions. As that happened, the folks who only affirmed three or four planks would be pushed to affirm all seven or so to belong in much the same way that folks in more conservative wings did. It wasn’t meant as an out-and-out critique (indeed, I said as much), but more as a descriptive project. In a sense, I just wanted to analyze and name something I saw that I didn’t see anybody really owning.

In this post I want to briefly revisit the package and chart some points where I think I got it right, some where I got it wrong, and note some developments that have occurred in the meantime. Mostly for my own analytical benefit, I suppose, but hopefully it can also be of use to those who spend any amount of time trying to understand one corner of the ever-shifting, Evangelical public landscape.

You can read the rest at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trueman Called It

trueman

This last couple of days I have been at the Paideia Center conference at RTS Orlando, where the main subject was the doctrine of the Trinity. The lectures and panels were all excellent, but I wanted to quickly highlight something Carl Trueman mentioned in passing (and I can’t remember if it was in a lecture or one of the panels). Back in 2002 he had an editorial in Themelios, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act,” in which he warned of the deleterious effects upon theology if the curriculum neglected the historic categories and simply fed students on a diet of pure ‘Biblical’ theology of the redemptive-historical sort.

While there is nothing wrong with it in and of itself, it has it’s limits:

My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse. Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism; the theological unity of the bible will be swallowed up and destroyed by its diversity because it has no foundation in the one God who speaks; and Christian exclusivism will be sacrificed to a meaningless pluralism as the church’s narrative is reduced to having significance only within the bounds of the Christian community. I suspect that ‘Openness theism’ is merely the most well known heresy to have been nurtured in the anti-doctrinal, anti-tradition world of contemporary evangelicalism; it will certainly not be the last. And my fear is that the overwhelming economic emphasis of the biblical theology trajectory effectively cuts the church off from probing the ontological questions which I believe are demanded by reflection upon the biblical text, by consideration of the church’s tradition, and by our Christian commitment to the notion of the existence of a God who has revealed himself yet whose existence is prior to that revelation.

You can (and should) read the rest here.

I want to note a few things. First, this was fourteen years before the Trinity Debate of 2016, so I think we can all agree that despite Trueman’s notorious (and endearing) pessimism, he wasn’t just whistling in the dark. All has not been well in contemporary Evangelicalism’s theology proper for a long while.

I’ll just pitch in for myself that the problems are not just seen in things like open theism or the Trinity debate. They have had repercussions down the line into other areas of dogmatics. Atonement doctrine, for one, is a place where I have become convinced that only a recovery and appreciation of some of the classic ontological categories and judgments can make sense of our account of the person and work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection.

Without thick accounts of things like the nature of the persons, relations of origin, unity of operations, the two natures of Christ, as well as attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, we don’t have the proper grammar to explain what we mean when we say that the Son was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this has contributed to some of the blowback and problematic rejections of classic Protestant doctrine on this score.

Now, the encouraging thing is that this is changing (I think). A number of helpful retrieval projects are afoot among Protestant and Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars going to work today. Heck, the Trinity Debate itself was salutary on that score. (Which is a good reminder for those of us who tend to think all theological polemic is just divisive and unhelpful for the church.)

Still, it’s an uphill battle. I’ll only throw in my one cent of caution for the younger folks leading retrieval charge: don’t over-correct in the other direction. As one older pastor warned me, you need to do some of this overhaul work, but if you go too far in the other direction, you’ll just face the pendulum swing back in the next generation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes Judgment is Mercy

disturbing

At one point in his work Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert presses his readers with a choice, “God either is or is not merciful” (173). If we decide God is merciful, then we should recognize that all texts involving violent judgment sit uncomfortably with that basic axiom.

At which point, we might realize it is wise to make a distinction as Seibert does between the “textual God” given in these violent narratives and the “actual God” who is merciful. You can have a coherent God or try to affirm all the contrasting portraits of God in Scripture, but you can’t do both.

W. Derek Suderman raises a number to telling criticisms of Seibert’s work (“Wrestling with Violent Depictions of God: A Response to Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior” Direction 40/2 [2011]), but the one I want to focus on is his complication of the matter of God’s mercy. He does so by pointing out the apparent contrast between the prophetic portrayals of God’s relationship to Nineveh in Nahum and Jonah.

The book of Jonah famously tells the story of God’s forgiveness–at least temporarily–of Nineveh in the face of their repentance. God threatens judgment, but then relents. Nahum, on the other hand, prophesies the Lord raining down judgment, fury, and violent destruction upon Nineveh for its iniquities, sins, and gross wickedness.

What’s funny is that both Jonah and Nahum appeal to God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6-7. Jonah highlights the fact that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger” (Jonah 4:2), while Nahum notes that while he is “slow to anger”, he is “great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3). Both prophets are wrestling with what it looks like for the fullness of God’s character to be exercised and revealed in history.

Now, Suderman points out that against Seibert’s suggestion that we allow historical-critical criteria help us to discern the textual God versus the actual God, things don’t work out cleanly for him here. We know Nineveh and the Assyrians did actually have the hammer laid on them by the Babylonians. But that’s violent. Meanwhile, on a historical-critical read (which I’m not endorsing), Jonah is the historically more dubious prophecy–but it’s the nice, merciful God Seibert wants.

More than that, though, Suderman points out that the situation itself reveals how facile the choice between a God who either is or is not merciful is when posed with respect to God’s historical dealings. For one thing, mercy conceptually assumes the propriety of judgment. Second, consider the context of Nahum’s prophecy of judgment against the Assyrians: it is one of comfort and mercy for Israel!

This is what the Lord says:

“Although they have allies and are numerous,
they will be destroyed and pass away.
Although I have afflicted you, Judah,
I will afflict you no more.
Now I will break their yoke from your neck
and tear your shackles away.” (Nahum 1:12-13)

If God’s punishment upon Israel is the exile and judgment executed by the Assyrians, then the judgment of God upon Assyria is actually the exercise of mercy towards Israel. Judging Assyria is God’s way of breaking the yoke from their neck. The same thing can be seen in God’s mercy towards Judah after the Babylonian exile. Babylon had to be judged, to fall at the hands of Persia, for Israel’s salvation and rescue to come. Conversely, if God were to show mercy to Assyria and Babylon forever, he would never show mercy to the people of Israel who live under their boot.

The same tension is at work in many other texts in the Prophets and the Psalms. Consider Psalm 6, David cries out for God to have mercy upon him (v. 1), to save him from his afflictions, and by the end of the psalm we see that means turning back his enemies and putting them to shame (v. 10). God’s mercy upon David, hearing his cries and pleas, means working against his enemies.

In God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, then, it is not a simple matter of God being merciful or exercising punitive justice. Rather, the questions of whom, why, when, and how to show mercy all enter into the portrait. This is the work of merciful judgment. And at times, that merciful judgment looks like exercising punishment against oppressors.

Soli Deo Gloria

If everything is sacramental, is anything a sacrament? (creation, disenchantment, and a tweet)

wanderer above sea fogLast week I was feeling puckish, so I tweeted out, “What if, and just go with me here, what if only the sacraments are sacramental?”

I think most people got that I was being somewhat playful.  Still, some folks were, well, they weren’t entirely pleased. So I wanted to quickly unpack some very rough, very semi-developed, in-transition thoughts on that, which also happen to dovetail with last week’s short post on “disenchantment” narratives.

First, let me clear the deck and just say I am very much pro-sacraments, value baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, and understanding them to be doing something more significant than mere memorialism. I went Reformed partly for Calvin’s strong doctrine of the sacraments. They have become central to my understanding of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel, and the practice of the faith in a way they never were before.

That said, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit suspicious of a certain sort of spirituality of “sacramentality” that’s hot in, well, semi-nerdy, theology circles. Of late it’s been hot to talk about “sacramental ontology” and how terrible it is that it’s been lost due to whatever cause (Protestantism, nominalism, univocity, etc.–though often not technology, which is probably the biggest culprit), and how we need to regain it, and so forth.

The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.” Nor am I entirely sure others do when they use it.  At least, people seem to be much potential for equivocation and confusion in the midst of all the excitement. To quote the great philosopher Chazz Michael Michaels, “nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative; it gets the people going.” And so, yes, I was poking fun at that. (Maybe that’s unfair, and not really academic, but it’s Twitter, so what do you expect?)

Still, I think I get why some were annoyed. For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment. Last week I talked about one thread, or version of the “disenchantment” narrative having to do with the loss of belief in the supernatural, spirits, fairies, God himself, etc. But another thread has to do with a sense that the universe becomes a different sort of space in the modern period. Creation becomes mere nature, organism becomes mechanism, and the sense of wonder one has at beholding the stars is reduced from being a functioning of the sensus divinitatus to mere physio-psychological epiphenomenon. If you take your eyes off your phone long enough to even look up at the stars.

How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.

Now, so far as that goes, I’m all fine with that. David hymns God for the way nature declares God’s glory in Psalm 19. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the world testifies to God’s existence and power. And the seraphim remind us in their hymn the Lord in Isaiah 6 that the whole earth is full of his glory. So Calvin: “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Leaning into a solid, biblical doctrine of creation will push back on much of that sense of disenchantment.

And so, yes, from a certain angle, you can argue that one of the key advantages of the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, precisely in its rejection of transubstantiation, is a defense of created bread and wine as actual elements wherein God meets his people. In doing so, it sort of assumes this anti-disenchantment portrait of creation having a communicative telos to it. 

Some of you may be thinking, “well, Derek, if you’re willing to concede all that, then what is the complaint about?” Well, a couple of things, both of which I will admit may be (probably are) anecdotal senses to things.

As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one. 

Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc. 

Those may indeed be corollaries down the line. But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant.

But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments. Or, to quote The Incredibles, when Elastigirl tells Dash, “everybody is special, Dash,” he replies, “which is another way of saying nobody is.” My worry is that when we’re entranced with everything being sacramental, nothing will be a proper sacrament.

As I said, this is all too brief and not very carefully worked out, but there it is. I’d be happy to read folks follow-up, additional thoughts, clarifications, and so forth. But for now, I here tweet, and I can do no other.

Soli Deo Gloria

When You Sort of Miss Disenchantment

myth of dis

People who read Charles Taylor talk a lot about “disenchantment.” Well, other people to do too, but those are the folks I know. I am/have been one of them. The notion is contested, but very, very, very roughly, the idea is that part of what makes the modern world “modern” is that it’s chased out belief (and the sense) that we inhabit a world of spirits, fairies, goblins, deities, and possibly even the greatest supernatural reality of all, God.

Now, there are all sorts of explanation for what that means, why it happened, whether it’s good or bad, and so forth. One popular one says it’s largely bad and has pushed us towards a technocratic, rationalistic society that’s lost a sense of creation as a place of wonder, mystery, and so forth. And then, when you come to find out what did it, well, wouldn’t you know it’s Protestantism with its rationalistic (read ‘non-Roman’) doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that evacuated our sense of the cosmos as ‘sacramental,’ meaningful, etc., or Protestant doctrines of sovereignty that killed all sense of mediate, spiritual agencies.

I go back and forth on this quite a bit. When I read Taylor years ago, I was all in on seeing this as a thing. I had some doubts about big narratives as a whole (especially pinning the blame on Protestantism), but it sort of fit a long-running one you’ve been hearing about the West and modernity for years in various settings, so you just kind of go with it.

Then last year I read Jason Josephson-Storm’s excellent work, The Myth of Disenchantment, which casts doubt on whether things are so tidy. You can read a fantastic summary engagement with him, John Wilson, and Doug Sikkema over at The New Atlantis right now that is a welcome introduction to his thought and the wrinkle he puts in the debate.

He points out a number of problems with the big story we tell ourselves about disenchantment. For one thing, we’ve been telling stories about the loss of the fairies and so forth since about 13th century. It’s a recurring narrative trope suggesting a loss of the sense of the “magic” of the world has been with us for a very long time–at least a couple of hundred years before Calvin was born.

Second, many of the theorists of disenchantment weren’t all that disenchanted themselves. Freud believed in telepathy. Madame Curie was attending seances when she was conducting her scientific experiments. Max Weber, the grand theorist of disenchantment in the early 20th Century palled around with all sorts of spiritual weirdos. “Spiritualism” is a 19th Century, post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Indeed, Josephson-Storm suggests there is often a paradoxical relationship between theorists of disenchantment and the phenomena itself. Some theorize about it in order to bring it about, while others tell the story as a precursor to a program of re-enchantment, and so forth.

Finally, (for us), the big data point is that folks don’t really seem that disenchanted right now. People all across Europe and even the US have become less “religious”, but they have not necessarily become more “rationalist”, “secular” in the sense of completely rejecting the supernatural, etc. That’s too clean of a blank slate, replacement narrative. No, many recent studies have charted a rise in all sorts of alternative spiritualities instead.

A recent post over at Quillete, “From Astrology to Cult Politics” highlights this well:

Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.

Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.

And, of course, you can see this trend strongest in the least traditionally religious generation, the youngest:

Young adults, being less religious, are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance and spiritual energy. But it also can be observed geographically: The parts of the United States where secular liberals are predominant tend to be the same areas where the market for alternative spiritual experiences and products is most lucrative. Even prominent media outlets such as The New York Times and (in Britain) The Guardian, whose readership consists primarily of secular liberals, frequently publish articles about topics such as witchcraft and astrology—even if they are careful not to legitimize the claims made by proponents of these beliefs.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth the survey.

I remember seeing this transition in real life, as a kid I grew up with in church started to carry crystals right about the time he began expressing doubts about Christian orthodoxy. Jump over to websites like the Goop and you’ll find articles on how to purchase and select the right sort of ethically-sourced crystals that give off the right energies. You can go to upper-class neighborhoods in LA and find bookstores that sell instruction books for how to arrange them around your house for the proper spiritual effect, right next the section with artisanal cookware.

Where am I going with all this? Mostly just noting a trend pastors and observers of contemporary culture should be aware of. When it comes to “disenchantment”, be careful about confusing skepticism about Christianity or traditional religion with hard-nosed, atheistic, rationalism. Most of it isn’t.

Second, you really need to be aware about this when it comes to dealing with the spiritual challenges in your congregation. The threat of syncretism isn’t just metaphorical in the West right now. You probably have folks in you congregation who come to hear you preach on Sunday, but seriously check their horoscopes on Monday, and get worried about Mercury going into retrograde, talk about a sense of their energy being off, and so forth. It’s probably time to start reading up on apologetics against new age spirituality, astrology, issuing serious warnings about witchcraft, etc.

Yes, you need to push on late-modern, expressive-individualist consumerism, but also how easily that can coexist with checking your star sign, thinking white magic is cool, and trying to find just to right crystal to balance your energy. There is more to it than that, but these modes of thinking fit hand-in-glove.

Which is to say, when it comes to preaching out of Colossians or Corinthians, talking about Christ’s defeat of the powers, not being captive to empty philosophy, or participating in pagan feasts, you may not need to find “modern”, metaphorical analogies for your applications. All of a sudden, Augustine’s sections in The Confessions refuting astrology are worth quoting from the pulpit. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start consulting with our brothers and sisters in less “advanced” countries about how they preach the gospel to their neighbors caught up in the worship of spirits, and so forth.

Finally, returning to the earlier conversation, whether or not you buy the disenchantment narrative, it’s worth remembering that for much of the early church “disenchantment” was good news. Only they had a different word for it. It was called “exorcism”, and it was the defeat of Satan, unclean spirits, and the dark, pagan gods who haunted their nightmares and held them in bondage to sin and terror.

We may begin to miss “disenchantment” in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I completely forgot this recent piece by Ross Douthat on the “return” of Paganism, both Left and post-Christian Right. Also worth the time.

Finding Penalty Where None Should Be Found

Hilary poitier

For one reason or another, I’ve been digging around in the Church Fathers in my studies on holiness. Along the way, I’ve run across a couple of useful passages on the atonement in Cyril of Jerusalem and Hilary of Poitiers. The gist of it is this: even though we still commonly hear folks claim that nothing like a satisfaction, or a penal theory of Christ’s work on the cross was present in the Church Fathers, you can still find passages that prove otherwise.

Mind you, these are not exact reproductions of Anselm or Calvin. Doctrinal formulations develop with language and history. Still, it seems easy to see that they’re in the same, conceptual ballpark, insofar as they see part of Christ’s work answering the problem of God’s legal curse upon sin, with Christ voluntarily assuming responsibility for that curse, in order that God might not be made a liar in saving and forgiving us.

So, first, observe these two paragraphs in Cyril’s Catechetical lecture on the clause, “crucified and buried” in the Creed:

And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf. Moreover one man’s sin, even Adam’s, had power to bring death to the world; but if by the trespass of the one death reigned over the world, how shall not life much rather reign by the righteousness of the One? And if because of the tree of food they were then cast out of paradise, shall not believers now more easily enter into paradise because of the Tree of Jesus? If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in eternal life, being Himself the Life? If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind?

We see here that at least part of what Jesus came to do was, in a manner similar to Phinehas the zealous priest did in Israel, put away the wrath of God which was against mankind. This he did, not by slaying the offending Israelite, but by offering himself up as a ransoming sacrifice.

Further, he says this:

These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth. For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. Of no small account was He who died for us; He was not a literal sheep; He was not a mere man; He was more than an Angel; He was God made man. The transgression of sinners was not so great as the righteousness of Him who died for them; the sin which we committed was not so great as the righteousness which He wrought who laid down His life for us,—who laid it down when He pleased, and took it again when He pleased. And wouldest thou know that He laid not down His life by violence, nor yielded up the ghost against His will? He cried to the Father, saying, Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit; I commend it, that I may take it again. And having said these things, He gave up the ghost; but not for any long time, for He quickly rose again from the dead.

Here Cyril sets up a clear dilemma leading to the reconciling blood of the cross (Col. 1): either God could have destroyed us as the sinners we are, justly deserving of his threatened, legal punishment, OR he can cancel the sentence of death. Mind you, this is a clearly legal logic.

But how is the problem solved? God preserved both principles at work behind both options in the death of his Son, which prevents sinners from being destroyed and God’s sentence from being cancelled. The logic is very clearly one where God does not merely forgive and let the sentence go, nor does he simply destroy. He does both at one and the same time in the cross. And of course, the key is that he does this through the Son’s willing sacrifice in laying “down his life for us,” and then taking it up again.

Turning to the great Hilary of Poitiers, we see something similar in his Homily on Psalm 54. Here he offers a Christological reading that makes the Psalm a testimony to the coming work of Christ for our salvation. See what he says in these two paragraphs towards the end of the exposition:

Now in view of our repeated, nay our unbroken assertion both that it was the Only-begotten Son of God Who was uplifted on the cross, and that He was condemned to death Who is eternal by virtue of the origin which is His by the nature which He derives from the eternal Father, it must be clearly understood that He was subjected to suffering of no natural necessity, but to accomplish the mystery of man’s salvation; that He submitted to suffering of His own Will, and not under compulsion. And although this suffering did not belong to His nature as eternal Son, the immutability of God being proof against the assault of any derogatory disturbance, yet it was freely undertaken, and was intended to fulfil a penal function without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer: not that the suffering in question was not of a kind to cause pain, but because the divine Nature feels no pain. God suffered, then, by voluntarily submitting to suffering; but although He underwent the sufferings in all the fulness of their force, which necessarily causes pain to the sufferers, yet He never so abandoned the powers of His Nature as to feel pain.

Now, again, this isn’t Calvin straight up. Still, you see that Christ, the Eternal Son, was condemned to death on the cross. Yet, Hilary is at pains to confess that this was voluntarily accepted, not imposed upon him from without with respect to the agency of God the Father (presumably the action of the whole Godhead being appropriated to him). Still, what he submitted to was “intended to fuflil (sic) a penal function.”

The business about “without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer” can be tricky, though. At first it seems to deny the cross was penalty. But that makes no sense of the prior clause. The point Hilary seems to be getting at is that the divine Son did not have pain inflicted upon him unwillingly, nor did he suffer it in a servile way such that he “abandoned the powers of his Nature as to feel pain.” In other words, God submitted to suffering in Christ, but not in such a way that violated his impassible nature.

Continuing on, he says:

For next there follows: I will sacrifice unto Thee freely. The sacrifices of the Law, which consisted of whole burnt-offerings and oblations of goats and of bulls, did not involve an expression of free will, because the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law. Whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse. And it was always necessary to go through the whole sacrificial action because the addition of a curse to the commandment forbad any trifling with the obligation of offering. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed. Now of this sacrifice mention is made in another passage of the Psalms: Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared for Me; that is, by offering to God the Father, Who refused the legal sacrifices, the acceptable offering of the body which He received. Of which offering the holy Apostle thus speaks: For this He did once for all when He offered Himself up1401, securing complete salvation for the human race by the offering of this holy, perfect victim.

We see here how he is at pains to express the value of Christ’s voluntary offering in contrast to the offering of unwilling beasts. He also clearly notes the connection between the curse of death and the Law. The curse is legal in nature. And that is the curse from which Christ redeemed us, by offering himself as a holy, perfect victim to die the death of the accursed and break it’s hold upon us.

While we don’t have the exact language of Christ suffering the wrath of God as a substitute, or something like that, we do have Christ offering himself to God the Father to suffer the cursed death due sinners according to the Law. This puts us, as I said, in largely the same conceptual ballpark as both satisfaction and penal substitution accounts. And, arguably, it’s closer to penal substitution since there is no mention of satisfying God’s honor, but rather God’s requirement and curse in the Law.

There are more passages, of course. And obviously, none of this is an argument that there isn’t a wide breadth of thought on atonement in the Fathers, nor that this is the only way to think about atonement. All the same, it’s worth highlighting these today, if only to remind ourselves that the history of theology is a stranger, more complicated place than our typical, canned presentations can lead us to suspect.

Soli Deo Gloria