Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers

preaching and preachersI allow myself few reviews during the school semester, but I wanted to take a little pause between papers to highlight a new Herman Bavinck book. James P. Eglinton, lecturer in Reformed Theology at New College in Edinburgh and author of the groundbreaking study Trinity and Organism, has just edited and translated a little volume Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers. In it he collects a couple of lectures on the nature of Eloquence, the place of the sermon, reflections on language and preaching in America, as well as a translation of the only published sermon of Bavinck’s we have. (Apparently Bavinck mostly preached from sparse notes, or without any.) Eglinton also includes a helpful short biography of Bavinck as a preacher, introducing the work as a whole.

We ought to be grateful to Eglinton for filling this gap in the literature. Many of us have benefitted from the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and have seen it bear fruit in our preaching and teaching. Still, very little on has been available on Bavinck’s own theology and practice of preaching, which grew out of his exposition of the Reformed emphasis on the Word of God as a means of grace.

I won’t give a full-dress review, but a couple of points stand out in Bavinck’s assorted reflections.

First, Bavinck highlights the centrality of good preaching to the practice of ministry. If God works through his Word, then the task of preaching cannot be shirked, minimized, or given short shrift in a pastor’s ministry. Yes, there are differences in natural talents and ability according to God’s providence and gifting, but Bavinck assumes that the call of every pastor is to learn to practice, develop, and grow as an orator in order to present the Word with as much persuasive power to the hearts of their congregations as possible.

Bavinck was troubled even a hundred years ago at the new competition the pulpit had in newspapers, lecture halls, speaker circuits, and so forth. If preachers did not rise to the occasion, the danger is that the Word of God would be drowned out by every other voice under the sun. (One only wonders what he might have made of our new social media order.) Pastors may have other tasks, but they were called to rise to the occasion nevertheless, and strive to proclaim the Gospel with power.

This is not a matter of mere technique, though. “Eloquence” may involve the training of your voice, your delivery, and so forth, but it doesn’t mean engaging in cheap speaking tricks or faux theatrics. Nor is it a matter of a dazzling display of knowledge, stringing quotations and literary references together for grand effect. Bavinck is scathing of the sort of affected mannerisms and arrogant displays of knowledge paraded in many pulpits of the day.

No, eloquence is a matter of the unity of argument, description, and persuasion aimed at the heart which are ultimately effected only when they come from the whole person. In other words, it is knowing something deep in your own bones and honestly using every power at your disposal (linguistic, rhetorical, emotional) in order to convey it with force to the heart of your hearers. Which is why eloquence requires study, practice, a sense of poetry, and an integrity between the preacher and his message that can’t be faked. Eloquence in preaching is a holistic virtue that is developed over time.

Bavinck, of course, sees Scripture itself as central to that task. And not just because it is the matter to be preached. Bavinck sees in Scripture a formative power which, when studied and soaked in, trains a preacher in eloquence. It has the sort of simplicity, emotional resonance with the whole of life, poetic form of course, and moral power which can instill within the preacher a confidence necessary to go up and declare the Word of the Lord to the people of God.

Another striking point about Bavinck’s reflections is how contemporary they seem. In more than one essay he complains about the problems facing the pulpit. Shortened attention spans, the aforementioned competition from other forms of media and opinion outlets, a general sense that the service of God in the Church is less important than getting out there in the world and “doing something,” and so much else.

There are a few ways of learning from this. First, there is the realization that in many ways the challenges of contemporary preaching are less contemporary and more perennial than we realize. There has always been an issue with boredom, with attention-span, with weak attendance, with spiritual listlessness, etc. and so pastors ought not feel uniquely put upon in our age. This is why the wisdom of the past—such as the kind represented in this book—is still of use. Indeed, it can help us slow down and stop from jumping on every bandwagon fad we’re tempted to adopt in our desperation and fear.

Second, in those places where there are some unique challenges in the modern age, it helps us have a sense for how long this has been developing. Also, even in those places where it is dated, it shows us how Bavinck tried to encourage his students to respond on the basis of deeper theological principles which can continue to guide us even as the specifics change.

Finally, for fans of Bavinck, I’ll just say that a lot of the same features you love about his Reformed Dogmatics show up here too. The broadness of mind and learning, the beauty of speech, and the Scriptural basis.

With all that said, I obviously think the book is worth your time if you’re regularly teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Secret Things Belong to the Lord (Evil, the Will of God, and the Cross)

GrunewaldWhy should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

(Psalm 115:2-3)

Believers will always have questions about the will of God.

For instance, can God do whatever he wants?

Well, when reading texts like that posted above, it seems quite obvious that he can: “he does all that he pleases.” Other translations say, “he does whatever he wants.”

Beyond a simple proof-text, though, it seems very apparent in Scripture that God is not hedged in or boxed in at all. The Triune Creator freely brought everything into existence out of nothing by his word and maintains it at every moment (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). He is all-powerful—there are no metaphysical limits to stop him.

And he seems to have the right to dispose of all of his works as he sees fit—I mean, doesn’t a potter have the right to do what he wants with his works? (Isaiah 45; Romans 9) He is the Lord of history who directs the courses of nations, which are but a drop in the bucket compared to him (Isaiah 40-55). Certainly the Author has authority over his creation?

Whatever He Wants? Really?

At the same time, there’s a scary edge there, if you’re paying attention. Some people have worried about this kind of talk. I mean, can God really do whatever he wants? Can he make what we currently call evil good and vice versa? Can he break his promises or violate his word just because he feels like it at a given moment?

In other words, when some hear the phrase, “God can do whatever he wants”, they hear “God is arbitrary and capricious—he might do good and he might do evil. He can do whatever he wants.”

Now, this could truly fall into a dark, arbitrary understanding of God’s “sovereignty.” In some of the grizzlier versions of Calvinism and pop-level preaching, you can unfortunately find that. We can call that a caricature if we want, but sadly the caricatures live in real churches. For that reason, some imagine that’s the only or classic version of what that doctrine teaches.

And I get how things can get that way. Reformed theology has typically followed the great Church Father Augustine in affirming that the will of God is the deepest cause of all that exists, and why it exists. Augustine, assuming he was summarizing Scripture (especially the Apostle Paul), taught that nothing precedes God’s will or even causes God’s will to will what he does.

Of course, the hitch is in what sense have people accepted Augustine’s claim here as true?

A Non-Arbitrary God

John Calvin was very clearly (and to some, notoriously) on Augustine’s side in saying that there is no cause beyond God’s will. Quotes to this effect can be found all over his works. But at the same time, it’s often not noticed he also repeatedly condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power” (Institutes 1.17.2).

In other words, Calvin was critical of a certain ham-fisted view of God’s will. God’s enacting of his power is never divorced from the rest of who he is: loving, just, wise, holy, merciful, gracious, and so forth. God is one and so traditionally it is taught that God is simple (not made up of different, separable parts). So his act of willing is consistent with all of what he is. God won’t will or want something out of the character he has shown himself to be in history and Scripture, so to speak.

A contemporary of Calvin’s, Wolfgang Musculus, similarly said that while we should accept Augustine’s statement in the sense that “there is nothing prior to or greater than the will of God…if we understand it of those things that are not in God” (cited in R. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 437). In other words, God’s will is not forced by things outside of God (creation, other wills, etc). The things that God causes directly, or permits to happen indirectly, and so forth, happen because God has chosen to act this way or allow these things for his own reasons.

Now, God either permits something willingly or unwillingly. If he permits it unwillingly, then it’s not really permission. It’s coercion. And to say that God can be coerced—that there is a power that is greater than God and can force his hand—is repugnant to Scripture and absurd. This is why Musculus says we ought to agree with that God’s will is ultimate over and against anything outside of him.

What’s more, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition, creation is a free act of God. The only necessary object of God’s will is his own perfect life—the eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s perfect aseity or independence means that God is complete within himself. For that reason, God does not need to create, to initiate history as some sort of self-completion project.

As Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel puts it, “God is all-sufficient in himself, having had no need to create any of his creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to him” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 193-194).

But none of this means that God’s will is absolutely arbitrary in the sense that God wills things for no good reason at all or that his will could wander in any direction regardless of God’s character. As Bavinck says, “God’s will is one with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and all his other perfections” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation,  240).  God’s will is what it is—good—because he is eternally and un-changingly good.

So God can do whatever he wants, but what he wants is not arbitrary.

At this point we run up against a number of issues when we think about things like God’s will for history, his will for humans, his will for good, and the problem of evil.

Are Sinners “Doing” the Will of God?

Let’s get at the question another way. When we look at someone who is committing a sin, can we say that they are fulfilling the will of God in any sense?

When it comes to God’s will for history, Scripture points in some complicated directions worth exploring first.

Let’s start with a modest case. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16 that his descendants would be taken as slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years before they inherit the promised lands he will give them. Surely we see that he knows the evil that’s going to happen–the hundreds of years full of generations born into cruel slavery, violence, oppression, and death–and he just as surely could stop it. I mean, given the Exodus, the mighty signs and wonders he works there to set them free, and the dozens of miracles, providential turns that he works later in Scripture, he very obviously could have stopped it. But he very clearly doesn’t. Here we reach at least one sense where the evil that occurs happens only because God willingly allows it. And if he willingly allows it, then there is a clear sense in which it happens “according to his will”—at least in the sense that he doesn’t step in to stop what he could. He wills not to interfere.

Later in Genesis we encounter a far bolder sense of God’s will in relation to evil, when we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by the wickedness, jealousy, evil, and malice of his brothers. Yet when talks to them years later, he doesn’t excuse them or say they didn’t really do evil, but he also says that they did these things according to God’s will. Indeed, he goes further and said that there is a way that God was working good through their evil. Given his position in the kingdom of Egypt, he can say, “you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God did not only work good after the fact–after the brothers did what he couldn’t prevent–no, God sent Joseph ahead.

Now, we could examine any number of similar Old Testament narratives, but this isn’t only an Old Testament thing.

Indeed, we see the same thing in the preaching of the apostles about the death of Jesus. Peter preached that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Or again, in his prayer after being released from being beaten, he states that “in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

On this apostles’ read, the free actions of the evil-doers who crucified Jesus were decreed and predestined by God to take place so that the world might be saved.

In this, the disciples didn’t depart from their master. When he sent them out, Jesus told them “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Jesus’ comfort to his disciples is not merely that God sees sparrows fall. The point is that even sparrows are under God’s providence. No evil can befall them without his permission, so they should take heart in God since they are worth more than mere sparrows.

More importantly, in his hour of fear, it was to that same Father that the Beloved Son prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—right before he was led away by the hands of sinful men to be crucified so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Indeed, it was precisely for that hour that he had come (John 12:27). It is quite clear that Christ understands the events to follow—the perversity, rebellion, and blasphemy of the High Priest and Pilate—as in some sense conforming to the will of his Father. Otherwise, “you would have no power over me” (John 19:11).

The Secret Things Belong To the LORD

And with these kinds of testimonies in mind, we come to some helpful dead guy distinctions.

Even though they said that God had only one will (in the sense of “faculty of willing”), and ultimately one will for everything, texts like these pushed the older theologians to distinguish between aspects or dimensions of God’s will. While Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others carved things up a little differently, the Reformed most typically spoke of God’s “prescriptive will” and God’s “decretal will”, or God’s “revealed will” and his “will of good pleasure.”

The first is God’s revealed “will” consisting in his commands for us and our good like the 10 commandments, the promises we’re supposed to believe, specific commands given to historical figures, and so forth. There is the will of command which we can obey or disobey which verses like Psalm 143:10 talk about (“teach me to do your will”). It is moral will for our conduct that conforms to our nature as his dependent, obedient creatures.

The second is God’s ultimate will for what he will either do or permit to be done “according to his good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5; 5:10; cf. Matt. 11:26; Romans 9:19; Phil. 2:13), as we have been examining in the preceding passages. It is this God’s will of decree which is sure, constant, and unchanging like we read in other verses like Romans 9:19 (“For who has resisted his will?”), or Ephesians 1:11 which speaks of God working out his predestined purposes according to his “eternal counsel” to work out all things.

So then, there are two senses (at least) in which we can talk about humans relating to God’s will.

Many theologians have pointed out that Moses sums this dynamic up well in the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai. After warning the Israelites of the (likely) judgments they would suffer for their (likely) disobedience, he says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It’s almost as if to say, “The future is in God’s hands, though—for now your only concern is to be obedient to what he has openly commanded us.”

Of course, these sorts of distinctions are not without tensions, but I think you can see that none of this is speculative. It’s not about coming up with some perfect idea of God and then shoving it onto the Scriptures to make the verses fit. These are the kinds of distinctions that arise when you try read the narrative of Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, and especially the story of Jesus as one grand, singular drama with the Lord of Heaven and Earth as the prime (though not sole) Author and character.

So what’s the answer to our question? How are creatures who are sinning relating to the will of God?

Well, in the sense of God’s will of command, they’re obviously being disobedient. What’s more, there is a clear sense in which God hates and is opposed to those things he forbids us. And yet, it’s also clear (in at least those cases listed above) that they’re conforming to God’s will of decree. God could at any time stop, hinder, influence, etc. any of them to do otherwise and yet he does not, so at least in the minimal sense of permission, they are sinning “according to his will.”

It’s important to note that these “wills” are not ultimately at odds, since in God they are angles on one ultimate act of willing. Nor is it inconsistent for God to forbid the human sins God know he will end up incorporating his ultimate plan for all things. This is where the Creator/creature distinction plays a role in reminding us, as Bavinck puts it, that a father may forbid his child to use a sharp knife, though he himself may use it without any harm.

I should say more here, but God’s infinity needs to play a greater role in our thinking in these areas. Far too much theology operates under the assumption that God is simply a much larger version of ourselves. That God must related to creatures and the creation in the same way that we do. We forget that God’s relationship to creation is sui generis, utterly unique.

Evil, Complex Goods, and God’s Will

All the same, it’s not a wild question to ask how could God will to allow evil? Or even ordain and intend it in the case of Joseph at the hand of his brothers, or Christ at the hand of persecutors?

Well, C.S. Lewis has a very helpful passage here in his classic The Problem of Pain where he delineates varieties of goods and evils. In the first place, there are simple goods, unproblematically considered in themselves to be good (ice cream, love, sunsets). Second, there are simple evils (paper cuts, murder, 3rd degree burns). Third, there are “complex goods”, which are packages of events, states of affairs, etc. that contain “simple evils” within them, but which God uses to produce more complex, redemptive goods. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this, but Joseph’s story is as well. And this seems amply demonstrated in Scripture beyond these two.

Now, we must say a few things here.

First, simple evils can be part of complex goods doesn’t mean that—considered in themselves—they don’t remain evil. Cancer, in itself, is evil. Murder, in itself, is evil. Divorce, in itself, is evil. But what these distinctions remind us is that these simple evils take place within a nexus of a broader context that as a total state of affairs cannot be considered unremittingly evil.

Second, the older Reformed theologians were careful to point out that God’s “willing” of simple evils, sins, is not on the same plane, or in the same way as he willed positive goods. Yes, evil only comes about by God’s permission or ordination, but God does not have a “flat” will, so to speak. He only “wills” to permit evil events in a derivative way, as a necessary constituent of complex goods which are the proper object of his good will.

This, incidentally, is why I think it’s a mistake (both theological and pastoral) to speak so straightforwardly or bluntly about God “ordaining” this or that specific instance of evil. Yes, it does have its place somewhere in God’s broader providence because it happened. But very often (indeed, most often) we have absolutely no idea where it fits or why it was included. As such, it is misleading to suggest that God wanted x-event to happen for its own sake. It is wise to remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” In any case, we have a great many other doctrines with which to comfort the grieving, so it’s not always pastorally necessary or wise to immediately pull out or doctrine of providence in any given situation. (Though, see Heidelberg Catechism Q& A 26).

Third, some of you may be wondering about my jumping back and forth between the language of “ordination” and “permission.” For many this might seem like impermissible fudging. It might be. But without going into all the distinctions that I probably should, I will simply note that despite Calvin’s criticisms of abuses of the language of “permission”, the majority of the tradition still thought it useful (on this see J. Todd Billings Rejoicing in Lament).  This language of permission helps preserve the different ways that God’s preserving activity and causality are involved in human free acts.

God at every moment preserves and sustains all persons, things, acts in existence. In that sense (at least), he is the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is also the primary, non-competitive cause of free causal agents such as humans and angels. But with this in mind, we also want to say that God is positively involved causally in the good acts of creatures, enabling, encouraging, guiding, and so forth. This is essential (though maybe not exhaustive) for not being a reductionist about human freedom and divine sovereignty–recognizing that divine and human agency operate on different levels of being.

At the same time he is involved only negatively, or by a sort of absence, in not restraining the free, sinful acts of fallen humans who tend towards evil without his sustaining activity. It’s sort of like the difference between the Sun being the “cause” of heat directly (by way of proximity) and indirectly the “cause” of cold (by way of distance or a cloud-cover, etc). As Francis Turretin says, “So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 4.4.10).

In that sense, we can speak of this permission of evil acts as a form or a part of God’s ordination of history, as long as we think of this as part of the broader work of God in predestining, creating, preserving, and sustaining all things in order that he might sum them up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

The Horror of Purposeless Evil

Now, admittedly this is not all easy to swallow. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of any number of horrible events and ask, “Are you saying that God ordained this as part of his will? That it’s part of some greater good? What possible good could come from this? No, to say that this was in any way a part of the eternal plan of God is to justify it and make God complicit with evil and this something we cannot do when we look at Christ. God is entirely only opposed to evil and only ever redemptively works after the fact, fixing what we have broken, but not purposing the break which has absolutely no place in God’s eternal purposes.”

I get this line of thought. Honestly, I do. But I think it fails us for a couple of reasons we have already raised.

First, simply consider the absolute horror of what it would mean for God to have no good purposes or reasons whatsoever for allowing all of the evil that he clearly could stop. Every example of every horrible event that you just came up with, would be totally and utterly pointless in every sense, and yet something God is still responsible for because he could have stopped it.

Because—unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it; again, either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it or not.

On this point even the Arminian and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (libertarian free will or libertarian-freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably unknown) providential purposes. So if you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, etc. (a venerable move), you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one.

At which point, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. He willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order. I know there are important distinctions to be made there and I’m glancing over them far too quickly, but the point stands. It’s not only the Reformed Calvinist who must reckon with God’s eternal plan or divine reasons, at this point.

Coming back around, let me just put it this way: many will object that sounds awful, cruel, or crass to tell someone who has suffered the loss of child some pious platitude about how “God had a reason”, or “it’s all a part of God’s plan.” And done crassly, it is. But consider that it is equally awful, if not more so, to crassly say, “Thank God that was pointless”, or “Isn’t it a comfort to know that preventable evil and your suffering were allowed to come to pass for no reason whatsoever? That God stood there, doing nothing, for no purpose at all?

Unless you can say that God had purposes for his permission of evil, you’re just left with a black hole of the collateral damage of either divine apathy or incompetence.

The Comfort of a Purposeful Cross

Secondly, the “hands-off” view fails us more clearly because we have already seen in Scripture that God ordained, according to his plan and foreknowledge, the very great and glorious salvation of the the human race through the damnable evil of Christ’s crucifiers. God handed the Son over to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men in order to raise him up, justify him and thereby justify us in him.

This was no purposeless evil, then. Nor was the resurrection a happy result of God’s clever ability to turn a frown upside down—it was the center of God’s eternal plan for redemptive history.

My focus on the God’s handing over a Christ to suffer, be crucified, and then rise again is purposeful. It is important for us to know that this is not an abstract or distant will. Scripture is clear that God planned beforehand to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:11), and that he was “foreknown” for this task “from before the foundations of the earth” (1 Peter 1:20).  But this is only the case as he is also the “Lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) in order to ransom his people from their sin.

Yes, it was an hour that made the soul of the Son of Man “greatly troubled”, that tempted him to ask, “Father, save me from this hour”, but about which eventually resolved, “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). In this, the Triune God is not immune from his own sovereignty, so to speak. Rather, we see God’s will to “do whatever he wants” most clearly in his willing to be the Father who sends the Son in the power of the Spirit to become incarnate, live under the conditions of a weakness, suffer brutally, die forsaken, and rise again in glory on our behalf.

At the center of the divine will for the history of the cosmos, then, shines the blinding light of God’s self-giving beauty in the face of Christ.

Post-Script

Of course, there are are probably a dozen or so sub-topics I barely grazed in this discussion and so if you’re far from convinced, especially on the difficult issues of freedom and sovereignty, that’s more than reasonable. This is a limited (if absurdly lengthy) blog post. I think some of the resources I pointed to above are good places to go digging (Herman Bavinck, Richard Muller, and especially Todd Billings).

For instance, some will object that none of this proves his ordination of every matter in history. Yes, but I do think it does show that God has ordained, permitted, or purposed at least some. Therefore he can do so in others. And then from there it’s a matter of seeing whether the categories provided seems to present an overall consistent picture with Scripture.

To cap it off, though, for those who find themselves put off by the whole discussion, or disturbed, I’ll simply point out that Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Institutes. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to simply look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”

The secret things belong to the Lord, but Christ crucified and risen is what he has revealed to us.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Herman Bavinck is one of the, if not the, finest, confessionally-Reformed dogmaticians of the last two hundred years. Anyone who has encountered his work and knows the depth of his learning, his sound orthodoxy, and creatively faithful articulation of the Reformed faith in the face of his modern context.

Those same readers, though, could also testify to Bavinck’s credentials as a theologian of the Church catholic, despite his location at the small confessional school at Kampen. Indeed, George Puchinger notes, “History has its ironies but it cannot be denied: the most ecumenical protestant dogmatic theology in fact appeared in Kampen, the place where theology was practiced in the most isolationist manner” (cited in James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pg. 93)

Bavinck’s method of developing doctrines historically and organically certainly played a role in this. In pretty much every locus in the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck takes the time to review each doctrine according to broader cultural material, as well as the Old and New Testament witness. A large bulk of his chapters, though, consist of an extensive historical survey that give an irenic account of each topic from the Fathers (East and West), to the Medievals, through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern period across Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical traditions.

But even Bavinck’s skill as a historian doesn’t cut to the heart of his Reformed Catholicity. References to Augustine, the Cappodocians, Hilary, and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Thomas, Scotus, and the medievals all play a role in his formation of doctrine now. That’s because Bavinck had a depth theology of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church that speaks to his approach to dogmatics.

First, he notes that human knowledge, especially our theology and religion, is only and always grounded in our existence as humans in community. Long before Alasdair MacIntyre came on the scene, Bavinck knew that knowledge was traditioned:

Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.

Of course, that means that we come to knowledge of our faith on in the churches we inhabit–they are the “natural soil” of religion. There are limitations to this, of course. There isn’t one pure theology, or pure church, but many churches and many theologies. And it will be this way until the church reaches the maturity and the unity of the Son of God at the end of all things (Eph. 4). That said, the churches, for all their division, are not disqualified from the purposes of God with respect to our knowledge of the truth.

It is not apart from the existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from the different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them that the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized.

How can Bavinck affirm this in the face of all the division and doctrinal strife? Because he had a solid grasp of the now/not yet quality to the Church’s possession of doctrinal truth. What’s more, he knew that it is to the Church that God has promised the Holy Spirit:

This significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two. He promised his church the Holy Spirit, who would guide it into all truth. This promise sheds a glorious light upon the history of dogma. It is the explication of Scripture, the exposition that the Holy Spirit has given, in the church, of the treasures of the Word.

It is this understanding that reveals the root of Bavinck’s own approach to the broader church tradition in which he stood as a confessional theologian of the Church catholic. Here’s how he conceived of the dogmatician’s job in this light:

Accordingly, the task of the dogmatician is not to draw the material for his dogmatics exclusively from the written confession of his own church but to view it in the total context of the unique faith and life of his church, and then again in the context of the history of the whole church of Christ. He therefore stands on the shoulders of previous generations. He knows he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and lets his witness merge with the voice of these many waters. Every dogmatics ought to be in full accord with and a part of the doxology sung to God by the church of all ages. – Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 86

Bavinck sought to craft a dogmatics that blended its voices into the that of the broader choir of the church throughout the ages, even as he sung it in his own deep, Reformed baritone.

None of this, of course, threatens the Scripture principle. Though the dogmatician is a student of the tradition, learning from what has come before, grateful for that deep cloud of witnesses, Scripture not the Church, is still the self-authenticating norm of all theology. All the same, it is his commitment to Scripture, or rather, the Triune author of Scripture, that authorizes Bavinck’s aim to speak beyond the confines of his own Reformed tradition to speak to the broader Church over which Christ is Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt

Bavinck on the Christian lifeCrossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series has been excellent so far. And it’s about to get even better. John Bolt has just delivered the latest volume Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service that’s the bees knees. I had the privilege of reading an early copy this spring and endorsing it.

Here’s what I wrote:

“Bolt’s portrait of Bavinck and his theology captures the man himself: clear, elegant, biblically saturated, theologically rich, philosophically nuanced, irenic, and aimed at the Christian life. Drawing on a diversity of sources, Bolt not only brings the riches of Bavinck’s mature theology into conversation with current theological concerns, but also applies it to the most practical elements of faith, marriage, family, work, and culture. He ably introduces readers to Bavinck’s vision of the Christian life as part of God’s movement of grace restoring nature and a cosmic redemption aimed at restoring and elevating creation to its intended goal. Most of all, it is a vision of following Jesus out into the world as the Father conforms his children into the image of the Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of his glorious name.”

If that’s not enough, here’s what a bunch of other smarter people wrote about it:

“To use the word timely for a book about a nineteenth-century Dutch theologian may seem inappropriate. But in this case the adjective is exactly right. Many of us have wanted to spread the word that Herman Bavinck’s theological perspective can contribute much to a renewal of the church’s life and mission today. Now in this book John Bolt has made the case in a concise and convincing manner!”
Richard J. Mouw, President, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

“This obvious labor of love explores an important but insufficiently highlighted aspect of Bavinck’s thought. Leaving virtually no pertinent stone unturned throughout his life and published works, Bolt provides both a full presentation of Bavinck’s views and his own understanding of their continuing relevance for Christian discipleship today. Here is valuable instruction in Bavinck’s thought presented in a way that will also stimulate the reader’s own thinking on the issues raised.”
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary

“Trinitarian, Christ-centered, and culturally engaged, Herman Bavinck immerses us into a vivid vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His rich theological imagination provides a compelling alternative to the many vapid, pragmatic approaches to faith today. John Bolt provides an accessible and illuminating guide to Bavinck’s theology of the Christian life in the most expansive sense: the Christian life of fellowship with God and others, in family, work, and politics. Bolt skillfully navigates these waters in order to open up the treasures of Bavinck for today’s church.”
J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

“Perhaps every generation in the church age could claim a need for Bavinck’s perspective on the Christian life. We can’t let our salt lose its saltiness and our light lose its brilliance—not now. Bavinck encourages us in this regard even as we are in the world, not of the world, and sent into the world. In one seamless volume, Bolt shows how Bavinck’s contributions help correct our nearsightedness as we become tethered to his conviction that the Word of God is ever living and ever active in every day.”
Gloria Furman, Pastor’s wife, Redeemer Church of Dubai; mother of four; author, Glimpses of Grace and Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full  

“Not one square inch of nature, work, culture, or history escaped the reach of Herman Bavinck’s expansive Christ-centered worldview. Of the great Reformed theologians, Bavinck is the generous giant, with a heart as wide as his axiom ‘grace restores nature.’ Bavinck’s vision of a sovereign Savior at work in the world, carefully grounded in the gospel, suits him to speak authoritatively on the Christian’s place in this world. This book is a masterpiece from John Bolt, a man who knows Bavinck’s mind as well as anyone.”
Tony Reinke, Staff Writer and Researcher, desiringGod.org; author, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books

“Never before have I read such a fine and stimulating overview of Herman Bavinck’s life and theology. John Bolt shows clearly why the study of Bavinck is growing worldwide and why this theology is a great help for today’s Christians. Bavinck and Bolt are a great team!”
Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University of Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500, The Netherlands

If you’ve been wanting to get into the Dutch giant, but you’ve been too intimidated by the size and scope of his Reformed Dogmatics to know where to start, this is an excellent introduction to his thought. Bolt gives pride of place to Bavinck’s own words and so you get a bunch of Bavinck himself, not only commentary on him. Though, if you have read him, it is excellent commentary that will help bring out dimensions you might have missed, especially since Bolt draws on works other works beyond the Dogmatics that have yet to be translated. Beyond that, it’s just an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trinity and Organism in Bavinck (Or, Why Bother With Historical Theology?)

trinity and organismI’ve recently begun reading a fascinating work on the theology of Herman Bavinck by James Eglinton entitled Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck Organic MotifIn his theology, Bavinck frequently appeals to the motif or theme of “organism” in relation to a number of theological issues like creation, Scripture, the church, and so forth. Regularly you’ll see Bavinck put forward some modern, mechanical conception of an issue and then suggest that, instead, one ought to think of these things in a far more “organic” manner, or something like that. Up until recently, many Bavinck scholars have chalked it up to the prevalence of the idea of “organism” in the 19th-century post-Hegelian, German Idealist climate that Bavinck was working in.

This idea goes hand in hand with a very popular understanding of Bavinck forwarded by Jan Veenhof that suggested that instead of one, there were “two Bavincks” that you could trace in his works. One was the orthodox Reformed theologian with roots in the conservative secessionist churches of his youth, and the second is the modern, scientific thinker trained in the modernist academy. Apparently, if you’re really smart, you can split Bavinck’s work up into bits according to that thesis because they’re clearly incompatible, and, Bavinck just never managed to reconcile them. The fun starts when theologians then take the thesis and use it to play Bavinck against himself and pick and choose the bits you like depending on which half you find more appealing. Now, obviously, on this reading, the “organic” motif is part of the modernist Bavinck’s bag of tricks, that sits uneasily with his Reformed orthodoxy.

Eglinton sets himself to correct the historical record by drawing on recent work done by Brian Mattson, John Bolt, and others that scuttles the “two Bavincks” thesis. Instead of assuming Bavinck’s theology was a bundle of contrarieties that the great man sadly never managed to properly compose, Eglinton sets Bavinck back in his historical and intellectual context, compares and contrasts him with other movements and influences in Dutch theology at the time, rereads Bavinck carefully, and manages to present us with one Bavinck whose “organicism” has less to do with his dependence on the post-Hegelian theology, and far more to do with his thoroughgoing, Reformed, trinitarian theology. Bavinck’s “organicism” is drawn more from Calvin and Reformed Orthodoxy than German idealism.

According to Eglinton, Bavinck’s “organism” metaphor is a way of speaking of the unity-in-diversity in creation that flows from the reality that the Creator is not a mere monad, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the diversity and unity within the divine being finds a correspondence in the unity-in-diversity of creation designed to body forth the glory of the Triune God. Organism is Bavinck’s way of picking up and retooling the patristic idea of vestigia trinitatis, or “traces of the Trinity” found in creation. The Fathers and the medievals loved finding triads in creation that pointed towards the Trinity that created it. Bavinck takes up the same idea, but instead of focusing on numerical triads, he sees traces of the Trinity in the more generalized unified pluriformity and diversity of creation.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Eglinton makes his case by testing his thesis across the wide range of Bavinck’s theology, examining the organic motif in Bavinck’s doctrine of God, revelation, Scripture, ecclesiology, and so forth. In each section, he continues to do careful historical work, setting Bavinck in his own context, as well as paying close attention to Bavinck’s own usage of key terms and concepts, and not simply assuming he’s cribbing his work from his Idealist neighbors. At the end of the work, if you hadn’t before, you begin to get a beautiful vision of the trinitarian shape and aim of all of Bavinck’s talk of organism.

Why Historical Theology?

Now aside from my inherent interest in everything Bavinck, why pay attention to this kind of specialized historical work? In fact, some of us might wonder, why get so heavily invested in historical theology in general? Why worry about the nuances in the theology such and such 3rd Century bishop, or which motif does what in the thought of a 19th Century Dutch dogmatician? How does that matter to theology today, or the church today? Why not just focus on the material issues of theology according to Scripture instead of worrying about the problems of historical theology?

Because there’s a danger there, right? I mean, as I’ve started to study theology more and more, you begin to see weird, internecine academic fights about the ins and outs of Barth’s doctrine of whatever, and when you stop and consider for a moment, you begin to question, “Why does this matter?” As Phillip Cary put it in one recent article, “In most places outside Princeton, judging who gets Barth right is vastly less interesting than judging what Barth gets right—a work of discernment which belongs to the ongoing life of the tradition of Christian orthodoxy.” When you put it like that, I can’t help but agree.

Why, then, should historical theology matter to (at least some of) us? I can think of at least four reasons that I’ll attempt run through briefly.

1. Truth Matters.  The first is the basic reality that truth in all its forms matters because all truth is God’s. Indeed, we serve a God who is himself the Truth. The truth of nature tells us God’s creative work. The truth of history tells us the story of God’s providential work. This reality, not to mention various others, is sufficient enough reason for us to be concerned about the truth of any issue. I mean, this is the basic assumption that funds our conviction that the sciences and the humanities matter as subjects of study beyond their immediate, practical use.

2. Bearing false testimony. Historical theology matters as an issue of Christian truth-telling about the community of saints. The fact of the matter is that theology is taught within the Christian community, and certainly in the seminaries, as the story of teachers, preachers, saints, and professors, struggling to expound the truth of God to the men and women of their time. When we get that story wrong, when we get the theology of our forebears wrong, when we present them as less competent, fair, biblical, or orthodox (or more) than they actually were, we do them a disservice by bearing false witness against them. This is especially the case when we engage in the unfair caricature of whipping-boy theologians (Augustine and Anselm come to mind) as foils against which we can then forward our own pet theories. Christian love requires truth in speaking of our theological ancestors and often-times it means rehabilitating them.

3. Avoiding Error. It’s not just that theology happens to be taught as a story in seminaries, it’s that theology is an inherently historical enterprise. Christian theology exists only as the particular methods of reading Scripture, Creeds and Confessions drawn up around it, are passed on from generation to generation within the Church. Without historical theology, we keep ourselves from the wisdom accumulated over 2,000 years of trying, failing, and succeeding in preserving the truth of the Gospel from error and perversion. Those who ignore historical theology will almost inevitably be doomed to repeat errors the church has already discarded for some good, biblical reason or another.

4. Mining Riches. Beyond avoiding error, studies in historical theology prove that our Fathers and Mothers in the faith may still have something to new to say to us. Corrective studies like Eglinton’s have the possibility of opening up theological vistas or impasses in current theological and churchly debate because it comes from another time that’s not caught up in the assumptions we share. This is true whether it’s simply reminding ourselves of older sources we merely forgot or by gaining an understanding of their answers that weren’t properly heard the first time around. In this way, historical theology can become a timely word from another time. (Insert bit about ‘chronological snobbery’ here).

After all this, it’s wise to hear Cary’s warning stands as a valid one. Our priority as preachers, teachers, and lay (or professional) theologians is the truth about what Bavinck got right more than the truth about who got Bavinck right. Still, it would be foolish to think that our pursuit of the former won’t include an understanding of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria

Bavinck On Inequality: Culture or Sovereignty? Rousseau or Calvin?

Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)In 1913 Herman Bavinck penned a little essay “On Inequality”, in which he directed his attention to the subject of social inequality, especially the tragic sort. The study begins by examining the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the modern period, was the first person to really broach the question, and do so in such a way that his thought has reverberated throughout revolutions and societies ever since. After giving a sympathetic brief biography and exposition of his thought–especially his basic answer that the wicked development of human culture has corrupted natural human equity–in an arresting passage Bavinck unexpectedly turns his attention to set up a contrast between Rousseau and another intellectual titan of Geneva:

The name “citizen of Geneva,” as Rousseau liked to call himself after his second discourse, makes us think of another man who lived and worked in Geneva two centuries earlier: the powerful Reformed John Calvin. But what a tremendous contrast arises the moment these two names are mentioned together. Calvin, the classically formed humanist, a man distinguished in manners and appearance, with sharp mind and an iron will; over against Rousseau, the restless wanderer, who was often moody, whose thinking lacked logic, whose life was rudderless, who was a dreamer and a fanatic, and the first great romanticist of the eighteenth century! Both experienced a transformation in their lives, but with Calvin it consisted of turning away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and an embracing of the truth and the freedom of the gospel, which with Rousseau it was no more than a breaking with all culture and return to the instinctiveness of nature. Calvin had learned to see human nature as culpable and polluted in the light of Scripture, while Rousseau taught that nature, before it was contaminated by culture, was good and beautiful and without any corruption. Calvin sought the cause of all misery in sin, which was a personal act consisting of disobedience of God’s law. Rousseau blamed society and civilization, and he was moved to tears when he thought of his own goodness; no one had ever existed who was as good and compassionate as he! Calvin did not expect anything from nature but expected everything from God’s grace in Christ. In one word, Calvin cast man and all creatures in the dust before the overwhelming majesty of God. Rousseau, on the other hand, put man on the throne, himself first of all, at the expense of God’s holiness and justice.

–“On Inequality” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (pp. 155-156)

Clearly Bavinck had his preferences. But aside from the excuse to pen a bit of stunning prose, why bring up Calvin? Well, to set up a bit of a paradoxical contrast in their approaches to the issue of inequality.

Calvin, according to Bavinck, was also concerned with inequality, but contrary to the social leveler, Rousseau, it was religious inequality that bothered him most. Why do some respond to the gospel and others turn away in their sin and folly? Calvin, Luther, and others, after examining Scripture and all the other options, could ultimately only acknowledge God’s sovereign good pleasure.

Beyond establishing the certainty of faith, Bavinck says that this insight into the sovereignty of God as the deepest cause of all things gave Calvin foundation from which to build a theology of multiplicity, difference, and yes, even inequality. Nature, culture, and human choice do play their roles, but underlying them all is the sovereign good pleasure of God which sustains nature, culture, and even human choice.

Of course, Bavinck knows this isn’t an immediately palatable thought; only “a strong generation can accept” it. Still, Bavinck thinks it offers a number of blessings. First, it teaches peaceable acceptance, submission, and contentment in times of struggle and hardship. Rousseau stirred up rebellion and resentment in their hearts by blaming society and culture, which set people up for the disappointment that inequality still exists on the other side of the Revolution.

Second, Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty assures believers that no matter how opaque or inscrutable his purposes may be, they are where they are by the will of their loving Father, who cares for them and has provided a gracious salvation in Christ, not blind fate or pitiless nature. These are the comforts of the martyrs, the imprisoned, the simple suffering children of God, which Rousseau’s gospel could never offer.

At this point, Bavinck points up a third and initially surprising contrast between the two philosophies, or rather the two thinkers. Rousseau might have indeed complained, stirred the populace with his fiery writings, and turned people against their monarchs, but at the end of the day, he walked away from them. He ended up retreating to reclusion “without moving a finger to reform society.” Calvin, on the other hand? Well, he got down to business. While some might see predestination and sovereignty as cutting the nerve of social reform, it actually funded it:

If we steadfastly believe that the will of God is the cause of all things, then our reverence for that same will, which has been revealed in Scripture as the rule for our lives, must compel us to promote its dominion everywhere and as far as our influence reaches. If you believe, with Rousseau, that society is the cause of all evil, then you have pronounced its death sentence; you have given man the right to execute people, and you have legitimized the Revolution. But if you believe with Calvin that the will of God, his will of good pleasure, is the cause of all things, then that same will becomes his revealed will and the moving force and rule for our living. The words “Your will be done” encompass and provide not only the strength to acquiesce but also strength to act. (158)

A bit later he goes on to substantiate his point further by pointing out the substantial reforms initiated in Geneva and the admirable commonwealth to be found there. Indeed, in Bavinck’s opinion, Rousseau was proud to be a Genevan largely because of the ripple effect of the Reforms initiated by Calvin’s very different theology of culture, nature, and inequality.

Now, at this point, some of us may question Bavinck’s presentation of Rousseau. I suspect some of us–especially us Americans–might not understand his hostility to the Revolution, or understand the horror with which many Europeans regarded it. Still, it’s a remarkable essay and a paradoxical argument worth considering. A strong appreciation for the sovereignty of God can both keep us from the anxiety that causes us to revile the good gifts of God by identifying them with the source of evil (culture), comfort us in the midst of its difficulties, as well as the moral energy to work for its good.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Why You Should Read Bavinck

Until recently, few Americans—even in Reformed circles—had heard of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). With the publication of a beautiful translation of his masterpiece four-volume Reformed Dogmatics a few years ago, this colossal theologian is finally beginning to garner a greater reputation and increased attention in English-speaking theology. (A brief biography can be found here.)

This past January I embarked on a Saturday reading plan of the Dogmatics. Now roughly halfway through the fourth volume and on track to complete the set by the end of December, I can safely say this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my theological life. Bavinck’s accomplishment in the Dogmatics is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The expansive, nuanced, and deeply trinitarian theological vision is both intellectually challenging and spiritually nourishing. I anticipate turning to these volumes regularly in the years to come.

I’d like to offer up six reasons you ought to consider picking up the Dogmatics and working through them yourself.

You can go read the rest of the article here at The Gospel Coalition. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas: Thus God and Man are United in Christ. Thus, in Christ, we Possess God.

christ childThe heart of the Christmas message is that there, lying in the manger, lies God in human flesh. In a word, then, Christmas is about the Chalcedonian Definition (451 A.D), or rather, the other way round. If you’ve never read it, here it is:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

As technically precise as it is, many have questioned and wondered whether in defining, or at least laying down some boundaries for how to think about Christ, the Fathers have departed from the simpler, or clearer language of Scripture. The worry is that in the process of parsing of things metaphysically, through the conceptualities of Greek philosophy and terminology, the Biblical Gospel has been lost.

Herman Bavinck answers this sort of charge at length, beautifully summarizing his findings in this brief passage:

Thus God and man are united in Christ. While Scripture does not speak the language of the later theology, materially it contains what the Christian church confesses in its doctrine of the two natures…For according to Scripture, the Word that was with God and was himself God became flesh (John 1:14). He who was the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being has become partaker in our flesh and blood and like us in all things (Heb. 1:3; 2:14). God sent his own Son into the world, who was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Though existing in “the form of God,” he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7). From the fathers, according to the flesh (κατα σαρκα), comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever (Rom. 9:5). Though the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, he is nevertheless also the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:13–18); though son of David, he is simultaneously David’s Lord (Matt. 22:43); even though walking about on earth, he still continues to be “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), “the one who is in heaven” (John 3:13), and existed before Abraham was (John 8:58); in a word, the fullness of deity dwells in him bodily (σωματικως, Col. 2:9). Every moment in Scripture, divine as well as human predicates are attributed to the same personal subject: divine and human existence, omnipresence and [geographical] limitation, eternity and time, creative omnipotence and creaturely weakness. What else is this but the church’s doctrine of the two natures united in one person?

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pg. 298-299

It must not be lost to sight that all of this theologizing is done to preserve the crucial Gospel truth: it is God who is with us, to save us in Christ. Calvin comments on Matthew 1:23:

The phrase, God is with us, is no doubt frequently employed in Scripture to denote, that he is present with us by his assistance and grace, and displays the power of his hand in our defense. But here we are instructed as to the manner in which God communicates with men. For out of Christ we are alienated from him; but through Christ we are not only received into his favor, but are made one with him. When Paul says, that the Jews under the law were nigh to God, (Ephesians 2:17,) and that a deadly enmity (Ephesians 2:15) subsisted between him and the Gentiles, he means only that, by shadows and figures, God then gave to the people whom he had adopted the tokens of his presence. That promise was still in force, “The Lord thy God is among you,” (Deuteronomy 7:21,) and, “This is my rest for ever,” (Psalm 132:14.) But while the familiar intercourse between God and the people depended on a Mediator, what had not yet fully taken place was shadowed out by symbols. His seat and residence is placed “between the Cherubim,” (Psalm 80:1,) because the ark was the figure and visible pledge of his glory.

But in Christ the actual presence of God with his people, and not, as before, his shadowy presence, has been exhibited. This is the reason, why Paul says, that “in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,” (Colossians 2:9.) And certainly he would not be a properly qualified Mediator, if he did not unite both natures in his person, and thus bring men into an alliance with God…

For it cannot be denied, that this name, Immanuel, contains an implied contrast between the presence of God, as exhibited in Christ, with every other kind of presence, which was manifested to the ancient people before his coming. If the reason of this name began to be actually true, when Christ appeared in the flesh, it follows that it was not completely, but only in part, that God was formerly united with the Fathers.

Hence arises another proof, that Christ is God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16.) He discharged, indeed, the office of Mediator from the beginning of the world; but as this depended wholly on the latest revelation, he is justly called Immanuel at that time, when clothed, as it were, with a new character, he appears in public as a Priest, to atone for the sins of men by the sacrifice of his body, to reconcile them to the Father by the price of his blood, and, in a word, to fulfill every part of the salvation of men. The first thing which we ought to consider in this name is the divine majesty of Christ, so as to yield to him the reverence which is due to the only and eternal God. But we must not, at the same time, forget the fruit which God intended that we should collect and receive from this name. For whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God-man, we ought to hold it for certain that, if we are united to Christ by faith, we possess God.

This is a staggering and astonishing reality. If we are united to Christ, “by faith, we possess God.” This is the mystery, the miracle, and the grace of Christmas: in Christ, God truly gives himself to sinners for their salvation and joy.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Christ the King: Kingdom of Power, Kingdom of Grace

christ pantokratorIn a section on church government, Herman Bavinck begins to elaborate the Reformed view in contrast to a number of others by reflecting on the nature of Christ’s kingship and kingdom. Simply put, this is one of the most majestic passages I’ve ever read on the subject.

The Reformed, thanks to their deep sense of the sovereignty of God, understood this. Those who proceed unilaterally from the goodness or the love or the fatherhood of God do not come to this understanding. But those who do not just highlight one of God’s attributes but bring all his attributes to the fore and proceed from God as [the living] God have no choice but to subordinate all creatures to him, in dependence and humility. God is sovereign always and everywhere, in nature and grace, in creation and re-creation, in the world and in the church. His statutes and laws are the rule of our lives, for humans are his creatures, subject to him, and obligated to respond in total obedience.

In the church this view naturally led to the confession of the kingship of Christ. For just as in civil life God instituted the government on account of sin, so he anointed his Son to be king of Zion, the mountain of his holiness, and appointed him to be head over all things for the church (Ps. 2:6; Eph. 1:20; Phil. 2:9–11). Christ is not only a prophet who teaches by his word and example, not only a priest who atones by his sacrifice, but also the king who preserves and protects his own and to that end has been clothed with power in heaven and earth. He is king in a much more authentic sense than any secular ruler. He is that not only according to his divine nature but also according to his human nature. The human Christ Jesus has been exalted to sit at his Father’s right hand. He was all this not just from eternity and in the days of the Old Testament and during his sojourn on earth, but is still all this today and will be to the end of the ages. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Indeed, he is this now in the state of exaltation in a much richer sense than he was in the state of humiliation and in the time that preceded it. Granted, he had from eternity been anointed king and exercised this office, along with that of prophet and priest, immediately after the fall and up until his death on the cross; but on account of his humiliation God highly exalted him and gave him a name above every name. By his resurrection he was declared with power to be the Son of God, became Lord, received all power in heaven and on earth, and now reigns until he has completed the kingdom and put all his enemies under his feet.

This kingship of Christ is twofold. On the one hand, it is a kingship of power (Pss. 2:8–9; 72:8; 110:1–3; Matt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:21–22; Phil. 2:9–11; Heb. 1:6; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 17:14). In order that Christ may truly be king over his people, the king who redeems, protects, and preserves them, he must have power in heaven and on earth, over Satan and the world. It is a kingship of power, subordinate to, and a means for, his kingship of grace. It does not mean that the Father has ceased to govern the world and that now all authority in the creation comes down from Christ and is exercised in his name. But, based on Christ’s perfect obedience, God has granted the Mediator the right and the power to gather his people together out of the world, to protect them against all their enemies, and to completely subdue those enemies themselves. God so rules the world that Christ may ask for the Gentile nations as his inheritance and the ends of the earth as his possession [Ps. 2:8]. In the event of Christ’s exaltation, the Father recognized his Son and appointed him as the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2).

On the other hand, the kingship of Christ is a kingship of grace (Ps. 2:6; Isa. 9:5–6; Jer. 30:9; Ezek. 37:24; Luke 1:33; John 18:33ff.; Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19). Inasmuch as this kingship is totally different from that of the kings of the earth, the New Testament much more frequently calls Christ “the head” than the king of the church. For it is a kingdom of grace in which Christ rules by his word and Spirit. His word comes to us from the past, binds us to the historical person of Christ and to the work he accomplished in time, and asks of us faith in the sense of assent and acknowledgment. But he who descended is the same as he who also ascended far above all the heavens [Eph. 4:10], is seated at God’s right hand, and dwells in us “with his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit and never again departs from us” [Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 47]. It is the living Christ exalted to sit at the right hand of God who consciously and endowed with all power gathers his church, defeats his enemies, and guides the history of the world to the day of his parousia. As our Mediator, he is still always active in heaven and present by his Spirit on earth in church and in the offices, in Word and sacrament.

-Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. pp. 370-372

Three points I want to highlight:

  • Christ is king according to both his divine and his human nature. Jesus is the resurrected and ascended human Lord of all things who fulfills God’s intention for Adam’s race.
  • Christ is a king with power who subdues his enemies for the sake of his people.
  • Christ is a king with grace who rules by word and Spirit. It is a gospel-kingship.

May these truths fill you with love and adoration for our glorious king. Marvel before him and offer up your lives as a faithful service to the King who served us.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (500th Post)

christ-on-the-cross-1587The cross of Christ has always been a scandal and an offense. As a symbol of social shame in the Greco-Roman world, the idea of a Crucified God elicited scorn from the cultured elites. For 1st Century Jews, a crucified Messiah was a nonsensical contradiction in terms. Even today, speaking of Jesus’ death as the saving center of history provokes a quizzical response both in the pews and the marketplace. Beyond that, there has been a wide variety of debate around just how Jesus’ death saves us within the church itself. Historically, there has been no binding ecumenical statement on the issue comparable to those on of the Trinity and the person of Christ. The result is that many different approaches to explaining the way the death Christ exercises a saving function in the economy of the Triune God.

Though widely-held by Evangelicals and Protestants of all stripes (and even some Catholics like H.U Von Balthasar), among the most controversial views is that of “penal substitution” or “penal representation”, PSA for short (penal substitutionary atonement). At its heart, the idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was the divine means of dealing and dispensing with the guilt incurred by sinners who have rebelled against the true God. Humanity through its sin violated the divine law, wrecking God’s intended shalom, bringing down condemnation upon them, and alienating them from proper relationship with God. God being just as well as loving and merciful sends the Son, Jesus, as an innocent, representative person, the Godman, to take responsibility for human sin and suffer punishment on behalf of sinners. Or rather, he suffers the legal consequences of sinners, the judgment and just wrath of God against sin, thereby relieving them of guilt, bringing about reconciliation. Roughly.

As with just about any idea in theology, there has been no little confusion around this issue, provoking a number of criticisms and responses over the years. Now, I happen to be convinced on the basis of Scripture that some form of penal substitution is at the heart of Jesus’ saving work on the cross. I thought it might be helpful, then, to have some sort of post dedicated to listing and answering most of the standard objections against the doctrine, as well as engaging some of the modern objections against it. Mind you, this post is not intended to be extensive in every sense. I will not and cannot go into detailed exegetical arguments establishing the doctrine according to a number of key texts, nor establishing the long-range biblical theology that undergirds it. I think the case is there, but I will point you to resources for that along the way and at the bottom of the post.

That said, I do want to engage some of the broadly theological objections against it, as well as correct popular caricatures of the doctrine along the way. I have to say that a number of the issues that people have with penal substitution are quite understandable when you consider some of the silliness that passes for biblical preaching on the subject in popular contexts. Those who affirm the doctrine as true and beautiful do our hearers no benefit when we defend misshapen, caricatured versions of the doctrine. I’ll try to do my best to avoid that in what follows.

First Principles

A few principles will serve to ground the rest of the discussion.

First, many problems arise when advocates treat penal substitution as a totalizing theory of atonement set against Christus Victor or moral influence, or some other kind of atoning action. Proponents all-too-often hold it up as “The One Atonement Theory To Rule Them All”, as one friend put it. Instead, I’ve already argued before that all of these “theories” are more properly seen as containing insights into various aspects and angles of one great work of atonement. I do think there is a place for ordering these elements logically, and penal substitution is something of a lynchpin here, but there is no excuse for downplaying or ignoring the other themes. For more on this, see here and here.

Second, one important principle to observe is that when it comes to theology “abuse does not forbid proper use.” In other words, because the doctrine has been misused in the past, that doesn’t mean it cannot be properly taught or deployed again. Virtually any can be and has been abused at some point. Growing up Evangelical, I’ve certainly seen distortions and caricatures of the doctrine. We should be prepared to find, though,  despite the distortions, there is a properly biblical truth to be held on to here.

Well, with those caveats out of the way, let’s get to it, shall we?

1. Critics often allege that penal substitution is anti-trinitarian in that it pits an angry Father punishing a loving Son, introducing a false split in the Godhead. While this can happen in popular preaching, when it comes to the tradition, this charge is manifestly false. Penal substitution is inherently trinitarian in that it follows the best Patristic pattern of thought in seeing atonement as the work of the whole Trinity. All trinitarian action begins with the Father, is accomplished through the Son, and perfected by the Spirit. In a properly-trinitarian PSA the Father hands over the Son, while the Son willingly offers himself up in obedience to the Father, and he does so through the empowering work of the Spirit.  It is a costly work of love and sacrifice that posits no split purposes within the Godhead, but only one redemptive plan born of mutual love and mercy towards sinners.

Also, contrary to popular mischaracterizations, the Father never hates the Son, but always looks on the Son in love, even while the Son suffers the penal consequences of sin in place of sinners. Calvin says as much:

Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. –Institutes, II.xvi.11

In fact, it is precisely because of the Son’s willingness to suffer on their behalf that the Father loves the Son (John 10:18). What’s more, classically, advocates of PSA have also held to divine simplicity, thereby ruling out tout court any thought of a split in the Godhead. All of the best exponents hold this up from Calvin all the way to J.I. Packer and John Stott. For more, see Thomas McCall’s excellent little book Forsaken on this.

2. Others charge that PSA has God directly “killing”Jesus. Alternatively, in another version, the charge is that if PSA is true, then the mobs who crucified Jesus were doing God’s will. There are a number of issues with these charges. The first, and most obvious, is that it rejects the appropriateness of distinguishing divine intention from human one. If God “wills” the death of Jesus in any sense, he is a killer, or murderer, or we have no room to say that the Romans were guilty of a crime because they were only doing God’s will at that point. However, biblical thought is not that cramped.

Instead, we are trained by Scripture to see God and humanity working at different levels with different aims at their own level of being. In other words, God’s being and activity is not “univocal” but “analogical” with ours. God is Creator and so he does not operate on the same level of being as we do. His purposes for history are different than ours, even in the same events of history. As Joseph tells his brothers of their sinful actions in selling him into slavery, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” God might will an action or an event for a good reason, concurring and allowing human actions, even while the humans perpetrating it are doing so for evil reasons that God does not share. This is sort of thing is common throughout the Old Testament. Various events of judgment such as the Exile at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians are both the wicked work of evil empires, all the while being God’s own judgment through them. It is clear from the biblical witness at numerous points that God intends Jesus’ (indeed his own!) death on the cross (John 12:27; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Most of the exegetical gymnastics at this point are simply astounding. To reject the cross as divinely-intended in some sense is to simply reject the witness of the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, and Jesus himself who says that these things “must” (dei) happen to fulfill Scripture.

3. Related to the last claim, PSA has been infamously referred to as “Divine Child Abuse” and charged with encouraging victims of abuse, especially women, to identify with models of passive, redemptive suffering in imitation of the Son. Let me say at the outset, if there are people who have suffered under preaching that encourages women, children, or anyone else to passively suffer under the abuse of the violent, I am deeply sorry to hear this. This is a gross distortion of Christian doctrine that I strongly repudiate. Penal substitution properly preached does not encourage that kind of passive submission to abuse.

First, I would point out that the abuse the Son suffers is at human hands. The Father does not abuse the Son, though it is by God’s will that he suffers in this fashion. Remember that divine and human intentionality need to be distinguished here. Second, it also teaches that the Son’s work is uniquely redemptive. Moreover, this point is important. Not everything that God does in Christ is strictly imitable. You cannot create reality out of nothing. You cannot pour the Spirit out into creation. You are not the Eternal Son who is going save anyone by suffering that abuse. Your abuse is not atoning in the least bit. It is a sin against you and God is very angry with it. In fact, God’s judgment on the cross is a testimony to his judgment against abuse and injustice.

Still, there is a place for self-denial and cross-bearing in the Christian life. This is simply a matter of the biblical record and at the heart of Jesus’ own path of discipleship.  However, with every piece of biblical insight, there needs to be careful, wise application. Paul tells us that we can serve Christ in whatever station we find ourselves in, but there’s nothing wrong with getting your freedom if you can (1 Cor. 7). There is nothing in PSA that requires us to passively endure abuse in imitation of Christ. What’s more, if anything, PSA properly though through ought to be deployed as a testimony of the non-selfish, sacrificial life of all, including men, or anyone else in authority ought to lead in their dealings with others.

Finally, and this is crucial, in PSA the Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about.  Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

5. Some say that any idea of justice must not be retributive, but only restorative. It is repugnant to think that justice must include some tit for tat “balancing of the moral scales.” I would first point out that pittingretribution against restoration is a false dichotomy. Retribution has claims of its own alongside distributive and restorative concerns when it comes to a broader, holistic biblical account of justice. Theologians such as Miroslav Volf, Oliver O’Donovan, and Garry Williams have pointed out that in the biblical record, retribution is not merely about getting payment for a debt, but about naming evil. Judgment is about calling evil what it is, as well as giving it what it deserves. According to the Scriptures, a God who does not name evil, and does not treat it as it deserves is not good. Quite frankly, it is impossible to screen out any notion of retribution from the biblical account without simply chopping out verses and narrative wholesale.

Herman Bavinck establishes quite clearly the retributive principle in Scripture and worth quoting at length:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

For those interested in following up, it’s instructive to peruse Bavinck’s Scripture references, to see they are not merely proof-texts. Upon examination, one is struck by the massive amount of biblical material that has to be reinterpreted or shunted to the side in order to screen out the retributive principle. (Also, for those who have access, the entire section examining justice, retribution, and punishment is worthwhile.)

Also, it should be said here that the judgment of the cross is not simply about God matching up ounces of suffering according to some pecuniary punishment scale. It is about Jesus suffering the final, ultimate judgment of alienation on our behalf. Instead of thinking about it in terms of units of suffering matching up for sins, think of it in terms of total exile and alienation. Sin ultimately alienates and cuts us off from God in a total sense. We reject God and so in his judgment God names and answers our sin by handing us over to the fate we have chosen: exile from the source of all good, life, and joy, which is simply death and hell. This is what Jesus suffers on the cross on our behalf. He takes that situation of total alienation and damnation upon himself.

What’s more, retribution can be part of a broadly restorative aim.  Christ’s penal death was not simply a strict act of retributive justice whose sole aim was to satisfy God’s wrath or a strict, economic tit for tat exchange of punishment for sin. God could have had that by simply leaving people in their sins so that they might pay out their just wages, death (Rom. 6:23a). Instead, God’s atoning act through the cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23b). God did not simply want to deal with sin; he wanted to save sinners. God did not only want to be vindicated as just, but instead wanted to be both “just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Wrath is dealt with to be sure, but it is dealt with in Christ in order to clear the path for the gift of the Spirit that enables believers to live new, reconciled lives now which will issue in the final total restoration through the gift of resurrection. “God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love.”  The gift of God far outweighs the trespass of man (Rom. 5:16). The penal, retributive justice of God has a more-than-retributive goal; it aims at the “restoration of community and eternal peace” with God and others. Peace happens through the gift of life in the Spirit, which is peace (Romans. 8:6). Thus, the retributive justice of God has a restorative goal which transcends strict, economic justice through his gift-giving grace which comes out only when developed in light of its Triune goal: the gift of the Spirit.

Finally, for those still struggling with the necessity of thinking in terms of retribution, I would direct your attention to C.S. Lewis’ classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” Vintage Lewis, the discussion is still relevant to the issues addressed in this section.

6. From another angle, some charge that PSA encourages moral passivity. It is said that is no active ethic that can be derived from Jesus’ sin-bearing work on the cross. Indeed, it seems to mute it. There are a number of points to be mentioned here. First, we should question the idea that PSA even has to be justified on this account. We must not fall prey to the populist, pragmatic idea that for a doctrine to be true, it has to be immediately practical and imitable. As theologian Karen Kilby has pointed outwith respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, we do not need to be justifying our model of what God is like based on what kind of political programme it generates. We measure our account on the basis of what God has revealed of himself, not of what use he can be to us. The same thing is true for atonement. We affirm our understanding of atonement on the basis of Scripture, not simply because it is useful. What’s more, we have to remember that each doctrine has its place within the wider structure of Christian truth. Atonement is not the only doctrine in our toolkit for constructing our ethics. We get to work with a lot of truth. So the formal charge does not hold water.

All the same, the charge is materially false as well.  For Christ to be able to offer up the sacrifice that he did on our behalf, he had actively to resist the satanic powers and principalities arrayed against the kingdom of God. In other words, precisely through his obedience that qualified him to be our representative and substitute, he embodied the kingdom of God among us. His holy life was a perfect testimony to the perfect will for human flourishing according to God’s covenant standards. Advocates of penal substitution get to read all of the same gospel stories, teachings, commands, and so forth.

It must be remembered that PSA does not need to be separated off from other aspects or angles of the atonement such as his victory against the powers. As we said earlier, just because PSA is seen as the lynchpin securing the victory of Christ over the powers, that doesn’t mean that we have to sidelines the Gospels’ testimony about Christ’s cross-bearing life as an active resistance against the powers of oppression. That is a false dichotomy that needs to be forcefully rejected. Jeremy Treat’s newest book The Crucified King decisively answers it. Indeed, in this he is only following the tradition. Witness Calvin who seamlessly integrates both understandings:

Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf.1 Peter 3:22, Vg.]. –Institutes, II.16.11

Quotes like this could be piled up from Luther, Calvin, and countless other Protestant stalwarts.

Finally, the cross as judgment does not undermine the moral life for a number of reasons. First, we are provoked to a life of obedience in gratitude for God’s great forgiveness. Second, we only participate in the benefits of Christ’s cross-work only when we are united with Christ in the power of the sanctifying Spirit. The aim of PSA is the restored, regenerate disciple who is being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

7. Is the God of PSA a God who says “Do as I Say Not as I do?” Does he tell us to forgo vengeance and then go and exact it? Isn’t that inconsistent? Actually, no.God is God, and we are not. The Creator/creature distinction is the grounding of a lot of ethics in the Bible. God often says to us, “Do as I say, not as I do precisely because that is only mine to do.” In general, there are a number of things that are appropriate for God to do given his role as God, King, Judge, Creator of all the earth, that it is not permitted for us to do as humans, created things, sinners, and so forth. For instance, it is entirely appropriate for God to seek and receive worship. In virtue of his infinite perfections, his beauty, his glory, his majesty, his love, and goodness, God is absolutely worthy of worship and for him to demand or receive it is simply a right concern for truth. On the other hand, it is wicked for us to receive worship or to seek it. I am a created thing as well as a sinner, and therefore I am not worthy of worship.

Turning to the subject of judgment, punishment, and retribution we find Paul writing, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ “(Romans 12:17-19). In this particular passage Paul says not to inflict judgment on your enemies, not because God never does that sort of thing, but because he is said that’s the sort of thing only He should do. The explicit logic of the text is, “Don’t do that. It is my job. I do not want you taking vengeance. Vengeance is mine.” Paul was not squeamish about this sort of logic the way a number of anti-PSA advocates are because it’s all over the Old Testament. The Law (Exod. 20:5), the Psalms (Ps. 75:7), and the Prophets (Ezek. 5:8) tell us that God is the judge of the world and so it is his particular job to take care of things, vindicate whoever needs vindicating, rewarding those who should be rewarded, and punishing those who ought to be punished. He is the sovereign Lord of the world with the authority and might to execute judgments (Ps. 94). There is no thought that judgment or punishment is inherently wicked in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the hands of the righteous Lord of all the earth.

8. God tells us to just forgive, so why can’t he just forgive? Why does he need to punish us? Isn’t that the negation of forgiveness? Forgiveness at its most basic level is the generous release of an acknowledged debt. In commercial terms, which is where we derive the image in the NT, it is saying, “You owe me this, but I’m not going to make you repay.” Transferring it to the moral realm, “That was wrong, but I’m not going to make you suffer for it.” Instead of payment, though, condemnation of sin is at issue. For us to forgive someone is for us not to condemn them for an acknowledged wrong-doing. Taking into consideration God’s role in the universe, it is entirely reasonable to think that God’s forgiveness will look slightly different from ours. As we’ve already noted, God is King and Judge of the world. Part of his faithfulness to creation is to execute justice within it, to maintain the moral order he has established–which is not some impersonal justice, but one that is reflective of his own holy nature–in essence, to make sure that that wrongdoing is condemned and punished. Justice involves more than that, but certainly not less.

Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen. And it bears repeating that we don’t want him to. We honestly don’t want a God who looks at sin, idolatry, murder, oppression, racism, sexism, rape, genocide, theft, infidelity, child abuse, and the thousand dirty “little” sins we’d like to sweep under the rug, and just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go. That is a God who is lawless and untrustworthy. As a number of the Fathers said, a God who doesn’t enforce his law is a God whose word cannot be trusted.

All the same, the cross is the way that God makes that sin is punished and yet still forgives sinners by not making them suffer for sins themselves. PSA is not a denial that God forgives, but an explanation of how God forgives justly. It is how He, as King of the universe, goes about lovingly forgiving His enemies who deserve judgment. He suffers the judgment in himself. Once again, this whole explanation is articulated within a Trinitarian framework in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are all cooperating to achieve atonement. The Father is not pitted against the Son because the Father sends the Son in love and the Son, out of love, voluntarily comes in the Spirit to offer up his life in our place. The Son suffering judgment on the cross is God forgiving us.

The second thing to recognize is that our forgiveness is dependent upon his forgiveness, on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. We can let things go, forgive as we’ve been forgiven, forgo vengeance, and avoid retribution because we know that these things are safely in God’s loving hands. We do not have to exact judgment. Justice for the sins I suffer are handled the way my own sins are handled–either on the cross or at the final assize.

9. Some charge that PSA points us to a God who has to be convinced to love us. He can only love us after he gets rid of his wrath against us. Again, I am sorry if you’ve heard presentations like this, but against the classic accounts, the charge just misses the point. In PSA, the Father sends the Son precisely because he does love us. He sends the Son out of love to deal with the just judgment that hangs over us because of sin, to defeat the powers the stand against us, and to bring us back into relationship with himself, though justly. Calvin himself says quite clearly that God’s love is the deep motivation for Christ’s atonement:

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him.

I could go on to find text after text and multiple analogies here. Say my friend wrongs me. I am angry with him because he stole from me and he has made himself my enemy. I might go pursue him out of love and friendship and yet still insist that there be an apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing even while I look to forgive the debt.

I suppose it is appropriate here to clarify what is meant by wrath. God’s wrath is not some irrational flare-up of anger and foaming hatred. Wrath is God’s settled, just attitude of opposition towards all the defaces creation. It is his stance and judgment of displeasure towards sin, as well as his will to remove it. It also must be noted that God’s wrath needs to be qualified by the doctrine of impassibility and analogy. God moves to remove wrath, or his stance of opposition to our guilt and rebellion, precisely because he already loves us. It is quite possible for God to have complex attitudes towards his creatures.

For those still thinking of denying wrath, or aiming to pit wrath as antithetical to love, I’d suggest you consult Tony Lane’s excellent article on “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God.” Indeed, for those who affirm it a little too violently, I’d suggest you read it as well as it corrects a number of unbiblical exaggerations and distortions preachers can fall into in their zeal to be “biblical.”

10. Related to this, it is claimed that PSA pits divine attributes against each other. Holiness v. mercy, love v. justice, and so forth, threatening the unity of God.While some popular presentations trend this way, as I mentioned before, classically the truth of God’s action on the cross has always been held consistently with the truth of God’s simplicity. It functions as a qualifier on every statement about God’s attributes and actions. So God’s holiness is not at variance with his mercy or his love with his justice. God is fully loving, just, righteous, and fully himself in all of his acts in history. And yet in the narrative of his historic dealings with Israel, it is not always easy to see the consistency and unity of his character. At times he judges immediately, and yet in others he shows mercy and delays wrath. He is named variously as Father, Judge, King, Lover, Friend, and the roles seem to come up in apparent conflict within the narrative of Scripture itself.

Properly conceived, though, PSA is about demonstrating the fundamental unity and consistency of God’s good character by resolving the narrative tension given in the Bible’s portrait of God. In that sense, God’s action on the cross is the revelation and enactment of his mercy, justice, love, holiness, wisdom, sovereignty, power, and grace, all simultaneously displayed. It is not about pitting his attributes against one another, but displaying their glorious, harmony as the culmination of his historical redemption. It is holiness as mercy, love through justice, and so forth.

11. It is often said that PSA as an account does not need Resurrection. It just stands alone, concerned only with Christ’s death for sin.Let me say that, yes, many popular accounts have been presented in this fashion. However, once again, this is not necessarily the case. If you look at the best exponents and defenders of penal representation as a strand of atonement, there is absolutely a place for Resurrection as part of God’s act in Christ. First, the resurrection is the public announcement that Jesus’ death for sin counts. Second, resurrection is itself the public vindication and justification of the Messiah and his people. As Paul says in Romans 4:25: “he was handed over for our sins, and raised for our justification.” According to N.T. Wright, Michael Bird, and a number of Reformed theologians, resurrection itself is the justifying act. The cross clears away our guilt, but it cannot stand alone.

Also, again, PSA is an angle on, but not the only truth of atonement. It deals with guilt, wrath, and the grip of death, but not death itself. Resurrection is still very much needed to accomplish Christ’s victory over all that stands against us. You can find this in Calvin, Bavinck, and many other stalwart defenders and exponents of penal substitution. There simply is no conflict and definitely a place for the resurrection in a system with penal atonement in it. On all of this, I would further suggest Michael Bird, Michael Horton, and Robert Letham as well.

12. Penal substitution is presented as an abstract legal transaction that sort of floats above history, concerned with a sort of celestial mathematics to be solved. It is a legalistic abstraction. While this might be true of Evangelical youth camps, it is definitely not of classic Reformed presentations. The “law” whose judgments must be satisfied is not some abstract idea floating around with other Platonic ideas in the realm of the forms. No, the idea of the law is grounded in the history of the covenants, which are inherently legal documents.

Adam broke the covenant in the Garden by explicitly violating God’s express command. That law is God’s revealed will in history. Law refers to God’s covenant charter with Israel expressed in the Sinai covenant, the book of the Law, and the Deuteronomic covenant. You can think of these laws as Suzerain-Vassal covenants where Israel’s love and loyalty are pledged, and blessings are given out with obedience, while curse/punishment is threatened for disobedience. Or again, it is like a marriage covenant, a set of promises with binding stipulations enforced by law. There is the promise of love, blessing, and joy with fidelity, but for infidelity/disobedience there lies the curse of divorce from the covenant God. The concept of law, blessing, and curse is present throughout the whole of Torah, the historical narratives, the Psalms, and the Prophets who act as God’s covenant enforcers. This is the background for Paul speaking of Christ suffering the curse of the law for us. It is within this framework in which Christ acts as the covenant representative. On all of this, I suggest consulting Michael Horton’s Lord and Servant.

We have, then, not some abstract legal theory foisted upon the text because Anselm could not think past his medieval, feudal context. Indeed, if anything, this was something that Anselm’s feudal context allowed him to pick up on better than our modern one can. No, in PSA we have careful reflection on the shape of the biblical narrative and an atonement derived from its own categories.

13. Another more political charge is that somehow PSA is tacitly supportive of the status quo and prevailing power structures of oppression. Honestly, I have a hard time taking this one as seriously as the others because the connections are so tenuous. It is usually caught up in the dubious narrative of the Constantinian fall of the Church, Anselm accommodation to the cozy church/state relationship, and other theological conspiracies. Still, say for the sake of the argument that PSA has been associated or used as a way of supporting power structures, I would argue that it is not inherently so. If it has, this is an abuse of the doctrine and the quirk of historical happenstance, not the necessary inner-logic of the position.

First, we must again note that PSA is not necessarily separate from Christus Victor themes. To the extent that it has, that has been a serious a doctrinal mistake. Through the cross Christ is reestablishing his rule against the powers, exposing their false claims, and releasing people from the fear of death. Beyond that, it’s been often pointed out by advocates of other theories that on the cross, God stands with the victims by identifying with them. I think there is a real truth there. Still, I would move on to say that the unique contribution of thinking of the cross as judgment is that it stands as a warning against oppressors. Yes, there is repentance available because Jesus has dealt with sin on the cross, but also note that God’s judgment is coming. Those are your options: repentance and forgiveness, or God’s just wrath against your consistent oppression of the weak, the poor, and the powerless.  This seems to be is a powerful witness against oppressive power structures that deface and destroy all that God loves.

14. It could also be argued that  PSA could be used as a supporter of inequality among the sexes or races. If guilt is simply atoned for, we can passively accept unjust social situations. If people have used PSA as an excuse to sit comfortably with abuse, this is a gross abuse and caricature. The cross as judgment for sin is the great leveller of human pride that declares all have fallen short of the glory of God, Greek and Jew, male and female, and all stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and the mercy offered. All have offended against God by violating his law and in violating each other, his Image-bearers in some way or another. And so all go to Christ together for mercy. Indeed, the cross is where these inequalities go to die. As the old phrase has it, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

By placing the vertical claims of justice at the center of the cross, PSA does what Christus Victor and many of the other atonement angles can’t do: reconcile us to each other by dealing with the history of wrongs, sins, oppression, guilt, shame, and violence. In Christ, the dividing line is torn down through the blood of his cross and one new humanity is wrought in him, the Church (Col 1:15-20; Eph. 2:10-20). For a beautiful exposition of the way Jesus’ cross-work brings about reconciliation and repentance, see Trillia Newbell’s little book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.

15. Many charge that PSA is legalistic due to its narrow focus on law, punishment, and so forth. While we’ve already dealt with this to some degree, the Bible does say that while it is more than this, sin is at least law-breaking (1 John 3:4). The legal dimension of sin is real and needs to be dealt with definitively. In that sense, PSA is as legalistic as the Bible is. Now, it is true that insofar as PSA has been divorced from other angles on the cross it becomes narrowly legalistic, sure. But as we’ve seen over and again, that need not be the case.

16. Many claim that PSA encourages violence. Divine violence against sin is imitated by humans on earth, unleashing violence against one another.First of all, this objection usually assumes a theological pacifism based on quite contestable interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount (and even then, usually only a few verses within it). Then, this pacifistic hermeneutic is extrapolated and superimposed upon the entire Scriptures. Often it is connected with some Girardianism that sees “violence” as the aboriginal heart of sin to be avoided in all instances. Despite the copious amounts of biblical evidence that God uses force or “violence” in his judgments, an idiosyncratic, non-violent Jesus is held up as counterpoint that rules all of that out. Indeed, in many cases this hermeneutic is used to simply eliminate texts from the canon, or create an overriding canon within the canon that simply rules out key verses on atonement.

But for those intending to be faithful to Scripture, it is simply a matter of the biblical record that God is not personally a pacifist. Hans Boersma has argued that God’s hospitality requires him to employ coercive force and violence. God hates human violence, but in a violent world, at times God deals in the violent exigencies of history. God judges the unrepentantly violent by handing them over to their own chosen means of living and dying. God is not violent in his being, but in order to hold back the tide of chaos and rage that threatens to destroy creation, he says, “this far you may come and go no farther”; and he backs it up.

Beyond that, this objection, again, assumes that all divine action in Scripture must be imitated. But this is simply not the case. In fact, there is plenty of space for those wanting to maintain a generally pacifist stance to see God’s judgment in Christ as his exclusive prerogative. In fact, Miroslav Volf has argued that the soundest basis for rejecting violence as a path for dealing with conflict at the human level is if we reserve it for the just, perfect judgment of God:

One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? Recalling my arguments about the self-immunization of the evildoers, one could further argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. Here, however, I am less interested in arguing that God’s violence is not unworthy of God than in showing that it is beneficial to us. Atlan has rightly drawn our attention to the fact that in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence. Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

–Exclusion and Embrace, pgs. 303-304

So then, even for those who accept a pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not clear at all that one must embrace contemporary non-violent atonement theories.

17. A fairly important charge that is often made is that PSA is simply not found in the Fathers. It is a theological novelty that ought to be at least suspect.There are two responses to be made here. First, I am a Protestant and so while I hold a significant place for the witness of the tradition and the theological interpretation of the Fathers, what matters most is whether the doctrine is found in Scripture. As I indicated earlier, I think a very strong exegetical case can be made that it is indeed in the Bible and that has been amply demonstrated.

All the same, a number of scholars have been doing more research in the Fathers and indicating that while penal motifs are not the dominant picture of salvation in the Fathers, it’s definitely an exaggeration to say it is entirely missing. Indeed, there is good evidence that Fathers like Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Hilary of Poitier, Augustine, and a number of other Fathers included considerations of Jesus’ death as penalty and curse born on behalf of sinners. Consult the link for extensive quotations.

18. Some have charged that PSA is an inherently individualistic theology of sin and salvation linked to Western, modern categories of jurisprudence. It should be clear from what was said above about Jesus as our Messianic representative that this is simply not the case when it comes to a more classic Reformed account of things. The whole logic runs against individualistic notions of sin and punishment. Now, it is true that it has often been presented individualistically in our modern context. But that is nowhere inherentto the theology. Instead, penal substitution is the work of our covenant head Jesus, who takes responsibility for the sins of his people, the Church. My sin and guilt are dealt with as I am united to Christ and brought into the broader family of his forgiven, set-apart people. For more on this and the similar charge made against Anselm, see here.

19. PSA as a theory is fairly divorced from the narrative of the gospels, floating above them, like oil on water.While many have constructed the doctrine on the basis of Pauline proof-texts, I cannot see this charge holding water. I myself wrote four papers in seminary demonstrating penal dimensions to each of the Gospel-writers thought about the cross. Consulting N.T. Wright or Jeremy Treat’s work, or any number of other scholars doing biblical theology will reveal the way penal representation fits squarely within the mission and message of Jesus. I can’t to the exegetical work here, but roughly, Jesus came to restore the kingdom of God, fight the great battle against God’s enemies, and bring about the end of Exile of judgment for Israel. Jesus does this in accordance with Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant, David’s Seed and true heir, who brings about a New Exodus by suffering a representative Exile for Israel on the Cross. This is how the great forgiveness of sins is brought about and the basis on which people are invited into the new Israel of God that’s been reconstituted in the person of Jesus. Again, roughly. For those who know the biblical themes, it all starts fitting together quite nicely.

I don’t have the time or the space, but we could talk about the Temple theology here, or Jesus the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, or Jesus the innocent sufferer, or the ransom-sayings, or A.T. Lincoln’s work on the trial motif in John, and a half-dozen other sub-themes that connect Jesus’ mission in the Gospels to the penal dimension of his work. Indeed, N.T. Wright has said that his own work in Jesus and the Victory of God as the most extensive modern defense of penal substitution grounded in Jesus’ own self-understanding. Penal substitution isn’t an extraneous, foreign element needing to be grafted onto the Gospels, but an idea that sits quite comfortably at their heart.

Conclusions and Resources

While this has been absurdly long for a blog post, I’m well aware that this is ultimately inadequate. I am sure there are a number of questions I’ve left unaddressed, or addressed too quickly to be satisfactory for some. Still, I think it is been demonstrated that a number of the largest objections rest on misunderstandings, or mischaracterizations of the doctrine. What’s more, though I did not address every variation and objection out there, I think the seeds and forms of basic answers to those challenges are present in the various responses given. Many of the new objections are simply variations on older themes.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those looking for more concrete resources, I would point you to these excellent works.

Articles

Books

These are generally holistic accounts that do an excellent job with the biblical material:

  • The Cross of Christ by John Stott. The classic Evangelical standard.
  • God the Peacemaker by Graham Cole. A newer, all-around balanced account.
  • The Crucified King by Jeremy Treat. New favorite on reconciling PSA and CV, and setting them both in biblical-theology categories
  • The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris. Older, but still solid exegetical and linguistic work.
  • Mysterium Paschale by H.U. Von Balthasar. Though this only has 30 pages on Good Friday, they’re absolute gold. I cannot overstate how good that chunk is.
  • The Glory of the Atonement An excellent collection of biblical, historical, and theological articles on atonement. Vanhoozer’s essay on atonement in postmodernity alone is worth the price.

For those interested in postmodern critiques from violence, Girardianism, feminism, postcolonialism, and so forth, I highly commend these works:

(Finally, I must say thanks to Alastair Roberts and Andrew Fulford for looking at earlier drafts. Their advice made this much better than it was. Any failures that remain are mine.)