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

Two New(er) Atonement Books You Should Read

Atonement theology is one of my passions. The cross of Jesus Christ is at the heart of our faith and the task explaining and displaying it’s ironic beauty the glorious means of our salvation is an unavoidable call for any preacher of the gospel. For that reason, atonement is one of the subjects I spent a good amount of time (and money) reading about in seminary. While I thought I had most of my ducks in a row, I’ve recently dipped back into exploring some recent work in atonement theology that’s been very helpful in sharpening up my thinking in these areas. I wanted to briefly commend two excellent works to you, my readers, for your attention and edification. Hopefully, you read this in time to update your Christmas list!

crucified kingFirst, is Jeremy Treat’s offering The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Systematic Theology. In one sense, I found it to be a gravely disappointing book. It’s disappointing because Treat has written the book I wanted to write on the subject. Giving equal attention to biblical theology and systematic categories, Treat reunites what never should have been divorced in much modern theology: kingdom and cross as well as Christus Victor and penal substitution accounts of the atonement.

One of the key strengths of his biblical theology section is his ability to go beyond key proof-texts to showing the broader, redemptive-historical framework in which the kingdom and cross fit beginning with Genesis through Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, and into Revelation. From there he examines the important concept of the threefold office of Christ, and argues that for too long we have failed to recognize the way Christ’s kingly work is central to his cross-work and vice versa. Christ brings the kingdom through the cross; Christ conquers his enemies and saves his people by dying a penal death in their place. Beyond that there are some excellent sections engaging Wright’s conception of the ministry of Jesus, Moltmann’s account of the kingdom, and challenging reflections on the cross-shaped kingdom Christ invites us into.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this is the work future theologians and biblical scholars will need to reckon with when writing on the relationship between kingdom and cross. In my opinion, it also definitively puts a nail in the coffin of any attempt to bifurcate or oppose Christus Victor accounts and penal substitution. This can only be done by ignoring both the broader sweep of the biblical narrative, and key texts linking the two firmly together.

For a good preview of what this all looks like, check out this short article by Treat over at the Gospel Coalition. If all this isn’t enough to persuade you, just know two things: this is basically Treat’s dissertation written under Kevin Vanhoozer’s direction. Also, I met him at ETS and he’s a smashing chap.

viduSecond, in a very different register, Adonis Vidu has delivered an important contribution in the ongoing conversation about cross in his sophisticated Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural ContextsTheology happens in complex social, intellectual, and philosophical contexts. Oftentimes we fail to appreciate the thrust and shape of historical theological positions because we do not attend the way dominant intellectual frameworks shape the language used and intellectual and moral concerns of the time. This is eminently true of historic and contemporary atonement theology.

Vidu aims to provide an account of the history of atonement theology down into the present that presents theologians against the background of the various legal and political theories dominant at the time. In this way, we can begin to appreciate better the way these theological concepts shaped and were shaped by their native settings. Five judicious, careful, and lucid chapters are devoted to the descriptive task, focusing on Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, modern, and contemporary periods. (All of the chapters are well worth the time, but he chapter on contemporary atonement theologies is very helpful for navigating the complicated and less accessible literature.) What’s more, along the way, he corrects a number of common misunderstandings and caricatures of historic positions.

For instance, in the first chapter, Vidu corrects the oft asserted charge that the newness Christian theology was its assertion of the gratuity of forgiveness as the mere release of debt without the need for repayment. On the contrary, given Hellenic conceptions of justice as order, positive law, and the maintenance of relations, there was no “cold legality” being overturned here. Indeed, he shows the way these ideas influence patristic accounts for understanding the nature of God’s law and their tendency to attribute the retributive function of the law to the accuser, instead of considering it a necessary expression of his just will. In this, then, certain Christus Victor accounts rest on common, Hellenic intuitions about justice.

At the heart of the book lies the contention that all the shifting paradigms for relating law, justice, and atonement are, at bottom, debates about God’s nature and agency in the death of Jesus. For this reason, Vidu’s last chapter argues for the importance of not neglecting the doctrine of God’s simplicity in our account of God’s atoning action in Christ. Though there are currently some heavy objections being lodged against it, Vidu forcefully makes the case that abandoning simplicity will have serious, deleterious effects for our ability to understand the unified, non-conflicted, saving activity of God through Christ’s cross. Instead, he delivers a nuanced, modified account that is able to preserve penal atonement accounts from the sort of mistakes and caricatures it is often saddled with by both detractors and proponents. While I’m reticent about a couple of the moves Vidu makes with respect to relating the agency of Father and Son on the cross, this is an overall salutary contribution on the subject.

I have not even begun to do either of these works any justice. I do hope that some of this whets your appetite and inspires you to check out either one or both of these timely and edifying works. For more, you can check out my larger post on 19 Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, in which I tackle related issues and point you to more resources.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If you’re interested in atonement, check out the line-up for the January 2015 LA Theology Conference all about atonement: Ben Myers, Elenore Stumpe, Michael Horton,  Bruce McCormack, and a whole lot more. Sign-ups are still going here.