Divine Magistracy, Retributivism, and Inference

just vengeanceA few weeks ago, I touched on the matter of consequentialist logic in theology. One of my arguments was that we need to be wary about rejecting some theological premise just because we are used to seeing it attached to some inference, some conclusion we don’t like. That’s because folks can rightly or wrongly draw all sorts of conclusions from the very same premise, depending on what other premises they attach to it. Or how smart they are.

I ran across another good example of this in Timothy Gorringe’s volume God’s Just VengeanceIn a chapter on the atonement theology of the 18th century, he notes that it was the century of the “magistracy”, and if there was one universal across a variety of theological camps, it was the invocation of the image of God as the universal magistrate, the perfect, moral governor of the universe. But the theological conclusions of that shared premise when it came to atonement or the practice of justice were not always alike, depending on which other principles were invoked (is punishment rehabilitative, punitive, deterrent), or how analogous you took God’s magistracy to be with regular, human magistrates (very much, or not at all), or how highly you evaluated the ability of human justice to approximate divine justice.

The moral philosopher William Paley is a good example of the rather odd configurations you could get. Gorringe cites a long bit from his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (God’s Just Vengeance, 164):

A Being whose knowledge penetrates every concealment, from the
operation of whose will no art or flight can escape, and in whose hands
punishment is sure; such a Being may conduct the moral government of
his creation in the best and wisest manner, by pronouncing a law that
every crime shall finally receive a punishment proportioned to the guilt
which it contains … But when the care of the public safety is entrusted
to men, whose authority over their fellow creatures is limited by defects
of power and knowledge … a new rule of proceeding results from the
very imperfection of their faculties. In their hands, the uncertainty of
punishment must be compensated by severity. The ease with which
crimes are committed or concealed must be counteracted by additional
penalties and increased terrors.

Here we see that Paley believes God is a perfect judge and magistrate who is able (and willing) to administer perfect retributive judgment, giving every sinner his just judgment. So far, he’s got a basic retributivist outlook. Beyond that, God has entrusted the moral government of the world to those put in authority. Okay, makes sense.

The problem for Paley is that they are not perfect justices. They are finite, unable to discern the heart, the truth of a given case. And so, human justice must be carried out, not attempting perfect distributive or retributive justice, but rather with an eye towards either deterrence or rehabilitation. But since he thinks rehabilitation rarely works, precisely for that reason, punishment should err on the side of severity! Only by punishing crimes with great severity will you get folks to knock it off and promote peace. (This was during the years the Black Act under which something like 350 types of cases were liable to death penalty.)

While the logic is intuitive enough at one level, there are a couple of ironies to the position.

First, the common assumption is that his theological retributivism is what would make Paley more prone to harsh punishment. But the reality is the opposite. It seems that precisely because he did not take the retribution of God seriously enough, he did not take seriously the danger of facing the judgement of a God who equally hates convicting the innocent as well as acquitting the guilty (Prov. 17:15), or the punishment of a crime in a way that violates proportion.

(This is actually at the heart of C.S. Lewis’s famous defense of retributivism: all sorts of atrocities and infringement of liberty could be justified under the banner of deterrence or rehabilitation if nobody stops to ask the question of whether or not someone deserves such treatment.)

Second, the moral he draws from his epistemological judgment is suspect. One might just as well take the position that precisely because human judgment is fallible, weak, and imprecise, we must lean towards leniency in punishment.  If you don’t know if someone’s a murderer, don’t shoot ’em. But again, that only follows if you take retributivism seriously as a principle of judgment.

Again, though, a very different use of the image was made by others at the time. Socinians like Joseph Priestly agreed that God was a divine magistrate. What’s more, they agreed that his justice was perfect and different than that of finite human judges. But that precisely for that reason, he did not have to punish as they did. He could see human hearts and understand who was truly penitent and forgive them, unlike human judges who could not. So this theological leniency doesn’t necessarily cash out in practical, juridical leniency.

My point isn’t to settle the issue of which use of the image of the divine magistracy is the correct one (fwiw, neither of these two are good), but simply to illustrate again the fact that the very same images, principles, etc. can be used to come to very different conclusions. So we ought to be hasty in our evaluation that one necessarily causes damage or ought to be discarded.

Instead, what this variety reinforces for me once more is the need to let Scripture norm our concepts. To let God define for us, what it means to be King, Judge, and Father.

Soli Deo Gloria

You Want a God of Judgment (TGC)

gavelWill not a righteous God visit for these things?

Frederick Douglass asks this question in his autobiography after recounting the tragedy of his grandmother’s death. After a lifetime of bondage and servitude to her masters, when she was too old to be of use to them, they callously sent her off to die alone, apart from her family.

Douglass could’ve asked the question, though, at nearly any point in his harrowing story of hope and fortitude amid inhumanity and cruelty. The beatings. The murders. The calculated theft of time, family, and dignity. Since I read his story, that question has been reverberating in my mind.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

It continues to echo, though, for more than just the past injustices of American slavery. The crimes and atrocities reported by the 24-hour news cycle—the cycle that threatens to churn up our souls most days—lead me to turn this question over and over again in my mind.

Every headline I read about yet another sexual abuse victim coming forward, testifying to abuse by a major Hollywood mogul. Or worse, by the victim’s famous youth pastor and the church who covered it up.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every victim of political injustice who makes the nightly news, both abroad and at home.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every report of a child who has been abused and traumatized in an immigration detention center for the last few years (despite the fact most of us are only hearing about it now).

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every day abortion mills are open in America, legally ending the lives of thousands of unborn children—children never held, never loved, never even given the dignity of a name. Children we never think about because their lives are snuffed out behind closed doors in sterilized rooms with white-gloved hands. Children known only to the all-seeing God.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

You know I could go on because you know the crimes, the depredations you can’t think on too long without shutting down for the day. One person captured this feeling well when he tweeted, “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.”

But while the strain of our anger-inducing media culture affects us all, there is at least one small benefit. We’re finally in a place where we can see the goodness of David’s praise: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).

You can read the rest of my post at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

An Obedience More Pleasing Than Punishment

the cross owenIt is Holy Week and therefore right meditate on the sufferings and passion of Christ in the flesh on our behalf. One thing we ought to do, though, is consider them in their fullness.

John Owen helps us do that in his work Pneumatologia, wherein he considers the person and work of the Holy Spirit. At one point he specifically considers the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s mediating work. He comments on the verse, “he offered himself up through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14), arguing that “in all that ensued, all that followed hereon, unto his giving up the ghost, he offered himself to God in and by those actings of the grace of the Holy Spirit in him, which accompanied him to the last.”

Owen lists four graces of the Spirit which enable and render Jesus’ obedient self-sacrifice excellent, worthy, and efficacious on our behalf: first, the great love and compassion he had for the Church and for sinners; second, his “unspeakable” zeal for the glory of God—to manifest both his righteousness as well as his grace and love towards sinners; third, “his holy submission and obedience to the will of God.” Though fully divine, Jesus still works in the power of the Holy Spirit to work the will of the Father in his atonement.

This brings us to an important section of the work I want to quote at length. Here he notes three important points about the way these gracious actings of the Spirit in Christ’s soul actually rendered his work an atoning sacrifice:

(1.) These and the like gracious actings of the soul of Christ were the ways and means whereby, in his death and blood-shedding, — which was violent and by force inflicted on him as to the outward instruments, and was penal as to the sentence of the law, — he voluntarily and freely offered up himself a sacrifice unto God for to make atonement; and these were the things which, from the dignity of his person, became efficacious and victorious. Without these his death and blood-shedding had been no oblation.

First, though the death was “violent and by force inflicted on him” at the human level, Owen is clear that Jesus voluntarily submits to the passion. That is why it is a sacrifice of oblation, freely-given by the glorious Godman. If the Son had not freely given himself it would have been a simple act of meaningless violence, instead of an epoch-shattering act of salvation.

(2.) These were the things which rendered his offering of himself a “sacrifice to God of a sweet-smelling savour,” Eph. v. 2. God was so absolutely delighted and pleased with these high and glorious acts of grace and obedience in Jesus Christ that he smelled, as it were, a “savour of rest” towards mankind, or those for whom he offered himself, so that he would be angry with them no more, curse them no more, as it is said of the type of it in the sacrifice of Noah, Gen. viii. 20, 21. God was more pleased with the obedience of Christ than he was displeased with the sin and disobedience of Adam, Rom. v. 17–21. It was not, then, [by] the outward suffering of a violent and bloody death, which was inflicted on him by the most horrible wickedness that ever human nature brake forth into, that God was atoned, Acts ii.23; nor yet was it merely his enduring the penalty of the law that was the means of our deliverance; but the voluntary giving up of himself to be a sacrifice in these holy acts of obedience was that upon which, in an especial manner, God was reconciled unto us.

Here is the key part that many of us often lose in our rush to defend penal substitution: “God was more pleased with the obedience of Christ than he was displeased with the sin and disobedience of Adam.”

Owen does think that Christ suffering the penalty matters for removing our guilt and sin. But he places a special accent on the beautiful obedience of Christ, the self-surrender, the self-giving love of Christ for the Church, and his glorious submission to God as a sweet-smelling savor. God is greatly pleased with the Son precisely in the moment when he offers himself up on behalf of his people. And without that positive obedience underlying the negative suffering of death, there is no effective atonement.

Reflect, then, and let the Son’s obedient sacrifice become a sweet-smelling savor to you this Good Friday.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Wrath-talk is Justice-Talk in Ezekiel (And in the Cross)

I have been reading Ezekiel in my devotions of late and I must say, the prophet has some of the most furious and instructive passages on the wrath and judgment of God in all of Scripture. While many texts extol the Lord’s coming salvation and eschatological restoration of Israel, few proclamations of judgment against Israel and her enemies are fiercer than Ezekiel’s (or the descriptions of her violent idolatry more grotesque, for that matter).

Consider a few snippets:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to the land of Israel:

“‘The end! The end has come
upon the four corners of the land!
The end is now upon you,
and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you. (7:1-4)

I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. 35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. 36 As I judged your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Sovereign Lord. (20:34-36)

30 “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (22:30-31)

14 “‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (24:14)

17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’” (25:17)

The first text from chapter 7 can stand for the whole. It’s worth examining a few elements of the judgment of God upon Israel.

First, God’s judgment is “according to your conduct” and is a repayment “for all your detestable practices.” These phrases are repeated in the passage to be underlined. This characteristic is also present in most of the other passages. In that sense, it is retributive, and in kind. This fits with the principle of retribution articulated throughout Torah. There is no hint of arbitrariness, sinful vindictiveness, or overkill. God will, at worst, only bring “down on their own heads all they have done.

Second, especially in the first passage, you can note that despite God declaring “I will have no pity” and “I will not spare you”, these are acts of judgment long in the works. Now, finally, after much waiting, much excuse-making, much leniency, “the time has come to act.” God has been patient. At one point, he was looking for someone to stand in the gap, to build a wall, but when no one was found, he said “enough is enough.” The rhetoric of fury should not deceive us here or mislead us into picturing God has prone to anger, or liable to fly off the hook.

Third, there is a very clear conceptual and linguistic collocation of the judgment and punishment of God with the wrath and anger of God. For God to punish and judge sin is for him to execute, expend, and pour out his wrath and anger. They are two sides of the same coin, speaking of the same reality in a different idiom. Or rather, they are dimensions of the same reality. God’s wrath is a way of speaking of the retributive dimension of God’s justice in an affective register, as a matter of his will, inclination, and action connected to his moral character.

This is why the old Dogmaticians would say things like:

God’s anger is an excellence of his own essence, by which it is so displeased with sin, as it is inclined to punish the sinner; or a settled and unchangeable resolution to punish sinners according to their sin. (Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity, II.ix)

Or again:

What must we understand by anger in God?

Not any passion, perturbation, or trouble of the mind as it is in us, but this word Anger when it is attributed to God in the Scriptures signifieth three things.

[ 1] First, a most certain and just decree in God to punish and avenge such injuries as are offered to himself, and to his Church; and so it is understood, John 3. 36. Rom. 1. 18.

[ 2] Secondly, the threatening these punishments and revenges, as in Psal. 6. 1. Hos. 11. 9. Jonah 2. 9.

[ 3] Thirdly, the punishments themselves, which God doth execute upon ungodly men, and these are the effects of his anger, or of his decree to punish them; so it is taken in Rom. 2. 5. Mat. 3. 7. Eph. 5. 6. (James Ussher, A Body of Divinitie)

That last quote, in particular, shows a care in paying attention to the manifold nature of Scripture’s attribution of wrath to God. Sometimes it speaks to his inner disposition of justice, other times to his public threat of it, and at times to his public administration of it. And this is all consistent with what we see in these texts in Ezekiel. And indeed, one could go ahead and reproduce the same logic elsewhere in the prophets and the rest of Scripture.

Now, where am I going with all of this?

Well, one objection I see in disputes on penal substitution is that no verse explicitly states that Christ suffers the wrath of God poured out upon him. And this even from some who admit that there is a penal and legal dimension to the cross.

While I would argue that there are some texts which could be read as implying this (“let this cup pass”, Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2, etc.), I simply want to note that in Scriptural thought, to speak of the judgment, or punishment, or condemnation of God, is to speak of the wrath of God. If in Christ, “he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), so that there is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), it’s roughly theologically equivalent to saying, “he poured out his wrath in the flesh,” so now there is “no wrath for those in Christ Jesus.” These concepts are irrefragably bound up together.

As always, there’s more to say. I’ll conclude by noting again that to speak of a doctrine as “Biblical” does not always mean “there’s a verse that directly spells out this exact idea.” Often it involves gathering together various Scriptural judgments into synthetic wholes which flow as “good and necessary consequence” from the text. Much of our Trinitarian and Christological doctrine works this way. Why imagine the atonement would be any different?

Soli Deo Gloria

T & T Clark Companion to Atonement (Review)

companion to atonement

It is something of a cliché to say that “no area is more contested in contemporary theology than” and then insert whatever subject you’re about to touch on. But when it comes to the doctrine of atonement, that may actually be the case. Indeed, the conversation has become wild and woolly for all sorts of reasons: recent winds in Old and New Testament scholarship, revisions in the traditional telling of dogmatic history, and shifting cultural challenges. For any student trying to get a handle on the situation, it’s hard to know where to turn for a reliable, up to date introduction to the wide variety of issues or figures worth addressing to understand them all.

And this is exactly what makes T&T Clark Companion to Atonement edited by Adam Johnson such a valuable resource. It is now the most comprehensive, up-to-date, multi-author volume on the matter. Johnson has really pulled out the stops, pulling together dozens of top-notch contributors to deliver 103 chapters (18 full papers, 85 short essays) covering a wide variety of subjects and important figures in relation to the atonement of Christ. This really is a must for any theological school library.*

I couldn’t possibly give you a comprehensive review of the whole, so I’ll limit myself to a few important features, flag a few favorites, and register a critical comment or two.

First, though there are some excellent essays addressing biblical material and subject matter, Johnson clearly and explicitly places an accent on doing theological retrieval. Close to half of the major papers and dozens of the smaller essays cover figures covering the full range of Church history, be it patristic (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory, the Apostolic Fathers, Augustine), Medieval (Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Hugh of St. Victor, Catherine of Sienna), Reformation and Post-Ref (Calvin, Luther, Cranmer, Grotius, Edwards, Owen) and modern (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Ritschl, Forsyth), and much more.

Besides offering sympathetic expositions and corrections of popular misconceptions, both the papers and the essays serve as excellent places to build your own bibliography for study of these key figures. The essays especially are not always meant to be comprehensive in themselves, but orientations and pointers to further research with suggested readings and volumes.

Relatedly, it should be clear after this volume that one can ever only use the Aulen three-fold typology of atonement models (Christus Victor, Moral, and Latin) as a very, quick and dirty heuristic tool (if at all). Essay after essay complicates that story for the historical figures usually pointed to as representatives (McGuckin on Gregory, Sonderegger on Anselm, and Johnson on Abelard), while other methodological chapters (esp. Oliver Crisp’s typically lucid discussion), draw out the conceptual problems with thinking in these terms. Stephen Holmes’s point that penal substitution fits best as one element among many works for the nugget of Scriptural insight found in most of the other “theories”, as well.

Another feature to note is that Johnson has tried to grab scholars from a wide variety of perspectives for their competence on the subject matter, not necessarily because they present a single, unified view. And so you’ll frequently have essays covering related subject matter contrasting one another in a helpful, corrective manner, displaying the nature of current debates within the volume itself.

For example, while you may find Adam Kotsko’s discussion of the Ransom theory of atonement stimulating theologically, McGuckin and Sonderegger would probably challenge his accounts of Gregory and Anselm historically. Or again, while Stephen Chapman’s essay on atonement in the Old Testament seems more focused on letting you know about all the ways it’s not simply penal substitution (or maybe not at all), T.D. Alexander’s essay on atonement in The Pentateuch seems more amenable to seeing a related theology of “ransom” at work as part of the larger whole, and cites a few different relevant works.

Now, a few favorites. First, Fred Sanders on Trinity and anything is always going to be a good time. Adam Johnson’s introductory essay should not be confused with a simple bit of scene-setting before real contributions start—it is a programmatic vision worth pondering. Sonderegger on Anselm was a stand-out, which I’ve already highlighted. I also deeply enjoyed Paul Dafydd Jones’ essay on “The Fury of Love” who draws out the multi-faceted character of Calvin’s biblically-driven atonement doctrine (though, I demur from his comments on Christology). Thomas Weinandy on Athanasius was fun as well, even if I don’t buy his fallen humanity reading. And Ivor Davidson on Incarnation and atonement reminded me I needed to add more of his work to my Amazon list. I enjoyed many others, but these stood out.

As for criticisms, they more have to do with material disagreements with particular authors than with the quality of work in any given essay. For instance, Joel Green’s essay on the New Testament continues his well-established anti-penal-substitutionary read of the material and I continue to find some of it wrong. But Green is a good scholar. Or again, as I already hinted at it, I find Kotkso’s portraits of both Gregory and Anselm to be misleading, but even more so, the general thrust of his argument—that if you downplay the role of the devil as Anselm does, eventually God must play his role in the new salvation schema—as confused and misleading as it was in The Politics of Redemption and for the same reasons: it depends on a sort of optical illusion by way of formal analysis which misconstrues the motivations and particularities of satisfaction and (later penal) accounts (let alone addressing their biblical logic). All the same, it’s an engaging essay. Much the same could be said of several other essays.

At the end of the day, though, Johnson has done everyone involved in the conversation around atonement a magnificent service. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this volume time and time again.

Soli Deo Gloria

*And I do mean library, since the price tag is quite prohibitive for the average student—at least until a paperback is released or something. (And yes, I got a review copy, though, without any expectation of positive review, etc.)

“feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine”? Sonderegger on Anselm and the Debt of Sin

companion to atonement

“Perhaps no other theologian was so honored in his day and rebuked in ours as St. Anselm of Canterbury.”

So opens Katherine Sonderegger’s essay, “Anselmian Atonement” in the new T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. There are many reasons for this disparity in evaluation, of course, but at the heart of it is the split between what Sonderegger dubs the “Theological Anselm” (the dry, cold, logician consumed with merciless ruminations on divine justice and honor known in modern, theological texts) and the “Historical Anselm” (the humane, prayerful, passionate churchman known to medievalists).

Despite the vast advances in historical scholarship helping us understand the latter, the former portrait lives on, dominating the discussion, and spoiling our view of the doctor and his work, especially with respect to atonement. Sonderegger’s own exposition aims to bring a sort of reconciliation between the two, showing a coherence between the two portraits which corrects the distortion. And she does so magnificently. At least to my sympathetic, non-specialist’s eye.

A bit of her exposition I found particularly helpful came in her treatment of one of Anselm’s central claims: to sin is an offense against God’s honor. From there the logic runs that since God is infinite, an offense against his infinite honor is proportionately infinite as well. In which case, only an infinite gift or an infinite punishment will do to atone for it. This basic argument passed into the theological tradition and has been a mainstay ever since.

Now, there are at least two main objections that may be lodged against it: first, that is is culturally limited, and second that it is simply wrong. Sonderegger takes them in turn.

First is the common argument that all of this is a cultural imposition of Germanic feudalism upon the Gospel:

…to our modern ears all this sounds like so much feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine. To be sure, “honor,” especially as it is to person and office, belongs squarely in imperial, monarchical societies. But we need not reduce theological idiom to the culture out of which it springs. Indeed, our very ability to learn from the doctors of the church rests on a non-reductive account of theological discourse…

Could we not say, in more modern idiom, that certain acts take on a measure of harm or cruelty or folly in proportion to the significance and intimacy of the person wronged?…Consider the long overdue phone call to a neighbor and to one’s mother…The intuition may be argued against on certain abstract principles, but it is the rare conscientious son or daughter, I would wager, who would treat the slight of a missed telephone call as “all the same: between the neighbor and the mother. Our intuitions are strongly formed, I would say, by ties of loyalty, intimacy, and obligation; and to our flourishing. The salience of the person—her irreplaceable significance in our lives—weighs heavily in our moral reasoning. When we object—“You did that to your own mother?”—we replicate the form of Anselm’s claim that sin is principally a wrong against the Person and Honor of God. (182)

In response to the cultural objection, Sonderegger tells us we can’t be blinkered historicists. Yes, culture impacts our theological discourse, but it is not an imaginative or conceptual prison out of which we cannot escape. Sonderegger’s intellectual sympathy translating medieval concerns into modern ones in a way is an outstanding example of that. (As a side-note, though: Mary Douglas has suggested that the best analogy for Leviticus’s theology of “atoning” for the altar is, in fact, Medieval honor societies.)

But the second half of the quote begins to answer the second objection, which is to simply to challenge Anselm’s formula as straightforwardly false. I have to confess, the “infinite honor of the person” to the “infinite offense” formula was not always appealing to me. Considering the unique relation in which one stands to a parent or some other beloved highlights the propriety of a proportionate reckoning of offense against persons.

Your neighbor is a person worthy of respect, kindness, and so forth; there is a real obligation. Your mother, though? She gave birth to you. Fed you. Cleaned you. Nurtured you. Your obligation to her as a person outstrips your debt to your neighbor inestimably. How much more, then, your obligation to God your Maker, who created you and sustains your very being with a loving intimacy that is sui generis? Such an obligation must be absolute.

Sonderegger elaborates on this point:

Such a “personal calculation” remains notoriously difficult to fix. Anselm wisely refrains from offering a mechanism for weighing such loving fealty. Rather he appeals once again to our intuitions. When we fervently admit—“we would do anything for her!”—we do not offer an enumerated list of the tasks we would undertake for the beloved, nor do we aim to express the conviction that fifteen acts of love would be far more acceptable than twelve. We intend something far more tangible, earthy, and global than all that. Our deeds carry our heart: that is closer to the calculus here. The Good who is God outweighs infinite worlds of worlds: indeed, outstrips the good of saving them. God’s Goodness is Infinite, then—“positive Infinite,” in later scholastic terms. But unlike the negative form, the positive calculus remains ineffable. It is just who God is, what I mean by the very word “God,” that He is beyond any creaturely worth. Always he is greater: from this worshipping impulse springs the Name of God evoked in the Proslogion, “That than which none greater can be conceived.” (183)

This quote highlights something else we need consider. When thinking of the weight of the offense of sin against God, we can’t limit it merely to his “irreplaceable significance” to our lives in terms of his creative provision. There is also the simple beauty of God’s being in himself.

Return back to the analogy of an offense against your mother. It’s not just that she’s your mother who has done all of these wonderful things—it is the recognition that she herself, in her person beyond her relationship to you, is simply wonderful, who deservedly provokes a response of “loving fealty.” In that sense, it’s not just a matter of saying, “you did that to your own mother?”, in a generalizable sense of “we all owe our mothers a debt,” but that your own mother in particular is wonderful in a way demands a universal respect.

I’ll leave things here for now, but this is just one small sample of the way Sonderegger’s essay is a model of sympathetic exposition and the possibilities of an atonement theology which retrieves the insights past teachers without merely repeating them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Johnson on the Proper Shape of Atonement Doctrine

companion to atonement

With his various works on the subject, especially his Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Adam Johnson has become something of a go-to guru on the subject matter. Editing the recent T&T Clark Companion to Atonement cements the deal. While I plan on reviewing it more fully later on, I wanted to briefly draw attention to his valuable programmatic comments on the nature of atonement doctrine in his introductory essay in the volume:

The goal of this doctrine is to understand and expound: the sanctified intellect’s joyful act of worship, as the church and its members seek to understand the God who revealed himself in his saving act, by means of God’s chosen witness to that act, Holy Scripture. Developing this doctrine is thus first and foremost an act of submission, of learning, recognizing, and understanding the witness we have received, for its origin lies in the decision and act of God, who does not merely seek to save his creatures, but to be known and worshipped by them as he is, as the Savior.

Only in a secondary and derivative way does the doctrine of the atonement dwell upon and respond to the challenges and heresies of its day. Biblical, theological, philosophical, religious, ethical, and other critiques have their vital role to play in the development and formation of doctrine (not least holding it accountable to its true vocation). But as the church’s calling and freedom to develop doctrine stems from the being and act of God, such critiques and questions play at most a significant ministerial role in holding the church accountable to its primary calling: joyful and rigorous reflection upon and development of the scriptural testimony to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. This is all the more true, given that the church’s primary end endures beyond all conflict and error, joining the angels in their never-ending privilege of worship, singing “blessed is the lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12) in ever new stanzas and choruses (Ps. 96:11).

–“Atonement: The Shape and State of the Doctrine”, 1-2

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I have spent a fair amount of time (more than I like really) engaged in theological polemic surrounding the atonement. Indeed, polemic writing seems to be the most common mode of discourse on the matter both online and in academic circles. And there’s really nothing surprising about that. The cross of Christ has always presented itself as a stone of stumbling offense to the heart and mind (1 Cor. 1-2). And we should always be prepared to grapple at that level.

Still, Johnson rightly reminds us that polemical engagement is not the point of reflection on Christ’s work. The point is proclamation leading to doxological expression; preaching that produces praise. Forgetting this can lead to important distortions in both our spirituality and in the doctrine itself.

When it comes to the doctrine, preoccupation with polemics can lead you to get a misshapen sense of the whole. For instance, being entirely fixated on rightly defending penal substitution (which I do frequently), can tend to push you to ignore the many other facets of Christ’s work which the New Testament expounds. Or, flipping it around, a desire to recover neglected aspects can lead you to unnecessarily downplay those you think get too much attention.

This is where Johnson’s emphasis on rigorous reflection and attention to the witness of Scripture is vital. When we’re attending to the text carefully, we allow the Word to exert a pressure on our sense of the whole in proportion to its own testimony. We learn to emphasize what God emphasizes through his prophets and apostles, and how to relate the parts to the whole in the way he has inspired them.

And this must be true in our preaching as well. Preaching must include apologetics and polemics at times. If you’re going to reach the world, you must be dealing with the world’s arguments. All the same, the priority must be to preach the truth of Christ’s work in the text and order our polemics and apologetics to that end.

Soli Deo Gloria