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

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

Irenaeus and the Problem of (Greater) New Testament Wrath

kotskoIn his stimulating work The Politics of Redemption (88), Adam Kotsko calls attention to a fascinating, if a bit counter-intuitive, passage on the judgment of God in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. We encounter it in a series of chapters written against the Marcionites and their criticism of the violence and judgment of the Old Testament God. Ireneaus will have none of it. He argues in several chapters that God authored both testaments and displays the same character in both testaments, including the righteousness leading to wrath and judgment.

Here Kotsko calls attention to the way Irenaeus “revers[es] the normal stereotypes of the Old and New Testament.” Ireneaus goes further than many and argues that–if anything–the problem of wrath is worse after Christ:

Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, “But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth”), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it — the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment; and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born, (Matthew 26:24) and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples. (Matthew 10:15)

(Against Heresies, IV.1)

Even those of us who are not Marcionites, or try to avoid pitting an angry, Old Testament God against a loving New Testament God, tend to see a softening in the portrait from Old to New. But Irenaeus thinks that, if anything, the judgment we see in the Old Testament is lighter, being partial, limited, and therefore mitigated. Instead, in the New Testament Jesus himself threatens that the judgment of God waiting for those who reject him is worse than it was for those in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The problem of New Testament wrath, then, is at least two-fold. First, now that more revelation is available in Christ, there is less excuse for the hard-hearted wickedness of the disobedient. To disobey and shun righteousness now, to not believe the Word of God now, is to “despise his advent,” which merits a greater punishment. The logic here is similar to (though not exactly) that of the author of Hebrews who says:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb. 6:4-6)

Or again, he quotes Paul in speaking of the Heretics who reject God’s word:

For the apostle does also say in the Second [Epistle] to the Corinthians: “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them which are saved, and in them which perish: to the one indeed the savour of death unto death, but to the other the savour of life unto life.” (2:15-16) To whom, then, is there the savour of death unto death, unless to those who believe not neither are subject to the Word of God? And who are they that did even then give themselves over to death?

Second, not only is the responsibility level higher, the stakes are higher. Ireneaus looks to Jesus and says, “For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, in the everlasting fire,’ (Matt. 25:41), these shall be damned forever,” just as those who heed his word are saved forever. Again, the Old Testament judgments were often temporal and limited, but Christ speaks of the absolute finality of eternal wrath and judgment.

Given my continuing interest with the problem of continuity between the testaments, judgment, and wrath, I want to point out a few things.

First, Ireneaus’ logic here is entirely driven by Scripture and Christ. I note this against Kotsko who seeks to find an explanation for Ireneaus’s non-universalist views, given his understanding of God as a non-violent, “saving being.” Kotsko suggests that Ireneaus is understandably frustrated at the perversity of his opponent teachers who are “culpably stupid,” “unpersuadable,” and seem “impervious to reason,” because “if people cannot accept the gospel, there is simply no hope for them.” Irenaeus, therefore, inconsistently ends up demonizing his opponents, mired in wicked unreason and deceiving others just as the Devil does, leaving God a perpetrator of the greatest exclusion and violence imaginable.

Now, that some of this is part of Ireneaus’s logic seems clear. But contra Kotsko, this is not a logic fueled by mere frustration. It is rather one he derives explicitly from both Old and New Testaments, but most clearly from the words of Christ himself and the unique, epoch-transitioning work of the Incarnation of the Son. Only the assumption that Ireneaus was retroactively applying texts to fit a logic derived independently of them (an assumption belied by Irenaeus’s programmatic attention to the authority of Scripture), could lead one to miss this point. Ireneaus, therefore, seems to define the peace and salvific nature of God according to the historical works of God revealed in Scripture.

Second, it is worth noting that, much as with Cyril of Alexandria, Ireneaus takes a cue from Christ’s words and assumes that God is the active agent of judgment in both the Old Testament as well as in eternity. And this is born out in the several chapters surrounding this one.

Third, it is common to some advocates of revisionist approaches to the Old Testament that you can more commonly find Church Fathers accepting OT passages of active, divine judgment and wrath at face value, post-Constantine, largely because the Church became accommodated to the ways of Empire and power. I simply want to note that Ireneaus of Lyons (along with Tertullian and arguably Lactantius) places a very large question-mark on that thesis.

Irenaeus was not a comfortable 5th Century bishop. No, he was a 2nd Century bishop who wrote this work around 180 AD. He died around 202 AD. This is long before (100 years or so), before the rise of Constantine or the birth of the Imperial Church. He was alive for the persecution of the Church under Marcus Aurelius. He succeeded the prior bishop at Lyon because he was martyred for the faith. Ireneaus was manifestly not someone who had been rendered comfortable with the notion of divine, active judgment because of his desensitization to the violent, coercive ways of Empire.

Instead, it seems better to recognize that Ireneaus read the Bible the way he did, and posed the problem the way he did, precisely because as a biblical theologian (arguably the first), he was radically attentive to the unity of God’s works and ways in the economy of salvation. Much as we ought to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

Triune Atonement in Westminster

the trinityEvangelical and Reformed accounts of atonement emphasizing the penal and substitutionary aspects of Christ’s work are frequently maligned as subtrinitarian, or rather binitarian; a transaction carried out entirely between the Father and the Son. While that may be true of some popular preaching, it’s manifestly not the case in the tradition’s careful exponents and its confessional documents.

I know I beat this drum a lot, but looking into the Westminster Confession of Faith, I was struck again by how thoroughly its account of Christ the Mediator (chapter 8) is permeated by trinitarian terms and shaped by its categories, and specifically, how many references there are to the Spirit’s work in his mediation.

Here are a few of the articles:

II. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

III. The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a Mediator and Surety. Which office He took not unto Himself, but was thereunto called by His Father, who put all power and judgment into His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same.

V. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.

The second paragraph clearly lays out a Nicene and Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ, with the consubstantial Son assuming humanity, being conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. Because the Reformed tradition has always strongly stressed the real humanity of Christ, the Second Adam, and the importance of both his passive and active obedience in the on our behalf, the third paragraph emphasizes the sanctification and anointing of Jesus’ humanity by the Spirit, empowering him to take on his office in obedience to the Father. And in the fifth paragraph, we have a clear invocation of Hebrews 9:14, where Jesus our representative high priest makes his self-offering to the Father only “through the eternal Spirit.”

Pour through the entire chapter, as well as the rest of the Confession for that matter, and you’ll see every part of our salvation is expounded with reference to three persons and their one work on our behalf.

All that to say, when contemporary Reformed theologians make a big deal of emphasis the trinitarian shape of Christ’s Mediatorial work–even on the cross–they’re not doing anything new or fancy, or fixing an inherent deficiency. They’re simply staying true to the roots of what we’ve always said: atonement is the work of the thrice-holy Trinity,  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria