Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd (Long Review)

sinners in the hands pic

(The review that follows is lengthy, so I’ve linked a PDF copy here.)

Introduction

“God is wrath? Or God is love?” This dichotomy printed in bold on the back drives the argument of Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Zahnd is the pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He’s made a name for himself among the progressive Evangelical set for his powerful preaching and his no-holds-barred rhetoric against his opponents on issues like Calvinism, just war, and so forth.

This book continues the trajectory. As the title signals, Zahnd’s driving interest is to proclaim the good news that God is not fundamentally a God of wrath such as the one Jonathan Edwards preached in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There’s nothing petty, vindictive, vengeful, punitive, or violent about him—instead he is a truly loving God. He doesn’t sit there disgusted with sinners. He’s not one of the angry, dark gods of the pagan myths.

God is the one we see in Jesus Christ—the true Word the Father has spoken—crucified by the world’s sin, all the while holding out the forgiveness of the Father. God’s singular disposition towards the world and towards his creatures is a pure, benevolent, non-violent love. There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore—Jesus is what God has to say and Jesus is forgiving love.

Along with this positive message, of course, there is a heavy critique of a variety of teachings Zahnd believes incompatible with this news of God’s singularly loving nature: Old Testament violence such as that of the Canaanite conquest, the notion of God’s personal wrath, any sort of atonement connected to penalty or satisfaction, any sort of reading of Scripture (or view of Scripture) that supports them, as well as some doctrines of hell, and the end-times.

Reactive Theology

Now, normally when I review books, I try to find some positives before moving to critique. So, here’s one: Zahnd is an effective writer and you can tell he’s probably one hell of a preacher. Also, you can tell his main heart is for people to know and trust God. I don’t doubt that for a minute.

Beyond that, the negatives of the book heavily outweigh the positives. On the whole, it is a rhetorically-explosive collection of false dichotomies and theological half-truths aggressively pressed against misrepresentations, gross caricatures, or extreme examples. Zahnd relishes aggressive, unfair rhetorical flourishes and seems incapable of representing any of his opponents fairly.

I’m not trying to be harsh or a jerk, but in this case, Zahnd shot first. He pulls no punches talking about the sadistic, cruel, bloodthirsty,  “monster God” he opposes—and presumably those teaching penal substitution, etc. believe in. Nor does he mind delving into some unfair, armchair psychologizing about people who need to believe in such things, explaining their views in a light they’d be reticent to own.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that he is very explicitly writing against his old self. By his own confession he was a fire-and-brimstone, turn-or-burn evangelist, who prayed to have visions of hell so he could preach it more earnestly. It sounds unhealthy and I’m honestly happy he’s moved past some of that. But it’s also a very unrecognizable portrait of the theological psychology or logic of millions of those believers who hold versions of positions he is criticizing by way of reaction. In which case, the choice presented to the readers is a false one. In that sense, I suppose it’s a different sort of “turn or burn” message.

It’s an example of something I’ve talked about before. Often when someone changes views, it looks like “I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful reason Y. Reason Y must be the only reason to believe position X,” only here it’s “I used to believe position X in this stupid, hateful way, ergo, this is the only way to believe X.” It’s a failure of the intellectual imagination that comes when you absolutize and project your theological experience onto others.

Now, I’m not saying Zahnd is imagining problems with the doctrines he’s writing about. Nor am I denying they’ve been poorly handled in the past (and present). I’ve wrestled a long time with many of them and tried to critique and correct these walking caricatures myself. My point is that Zahnd’s cure for this diseased theology is the sort that ends up killing the patient.

Though the review that follows is long—stupidly long, really—I can’t engage all the points or serious errors he makes. Instead, I’ll simply note that if you’re interested in the difficult subjects of wrath, judgment, Old Testament violence, the cross and so forth, even the end times, and the fate of people in other religions, Joshua Ryan Butler has written two very fine, sensitive (and readable!) works on the subject The Skeletons in God’s Closet, and The Pursuing God, which do all that Zahnd is rightly attempting to, without making the serious mistakes Zahnd does in the process.

Finally, despite the length and force of the review, I have tried not to be unfair. If I have spoken falsely anywhere, I do ask for pardon.

Well, with that all said, let’s get on with it.

Scripture and Jesus

Instead of Edwards’ portrait of a God holding people over the fires, disgusted, ready to respond to sin in retributive wrath, Zahnd wants us to see God as Jeremiah portrays him:

Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord. (Jer. 31:20)

A beautiful passage to cling to, to be sure. The problem, though, is that Zahnd admits there are plenty of texts in Scripture that go on at length about God’s retributive wrath and anger towards sin, so, “if you want to find passages like that in the Bible, you can” (9). “If we want a vengeful God of retributive wrath meting out violent justice upon his enemies…we can find that depiction of God in the Old Testament” (35).  How does he deal with them?

Well, there are at least two strategies. Zahnd’s account of Scripture is actually very important to the revisionary work he’s trying to do, so I’ll camp out here for a bit first.

Zahnd: Jesus, not Joshua

The first is to make a wedge between the Bible and the Bible. So, we have all these texts about God’s love, the portrait and reality of it in Christ and so forth, but then these texts about wrath, violence, and even the “genocide” of the conquest of Canaan. Here he poses a trilemma: (1) we accept the genocide of the conquest as commanded by God and worry that God is a “monstrous” God who could ask it of me, which is abhorrent; (2) we admit that God can change and develop and deny God’s immutability, which is heresy; or (3) we admit we need to start reading our Bibles differently (26).

Zahnd suggests we should opt for door three. But what he means by “read the Bible in a different way”, means less a rereading of those verses, and rather a rethinking of the nature of Scripture. Instead of reading it flat with the OT as authoritative as the NT, or as a unified, seamless book, we need to resist making “the Old Testament univocal.” We need to see that is gives us many portraits of God, not just one (14), and “they’re not all in perfect harmony” (15). Does God require animal sacrifice or not? Leviticus seems to think so, but David seems to suggest otherwise (Ps. 40:6). We can’t make all the texts sing together.

That’s because for Zahnd the Old Testament is “a journey of discovery”, of “progressive revelation” (15), where Israel slowly came to learn to know her God until the point where Jesus arrives (31). God didn’t change, but Israel’s understanding did. For a time, God allowed Israel’s “Bronze Age” assumptions about the violent gods who fought and punished to get baked into their conception of God as they told the story, but slowly they came to know better. And finally, Jesus shows up and “closes the book on vengeance.”

God says, “Listen to my Son” on Mt. Tabor and sometimes the Son who teaches us to love our enemies, forgive them, and turn from violence overrules and contradicts Moses and Elijah, whom he supersedes (57). We need to recognize parts of the Bible may be wrong, sinful even, and obsolete, but “nothing about the risen Christ is obsolete” (61). When Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4, he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor but leaves out “the day of vengeance of our God”, improving Isaiah’s message by purging it from a nationalist lust for retaliation (41). Jesus’ Sermon the Mount, not Joshua’s conquest, is authoritative for Zahnd, since he is a “Christian, not a Biblicist” (60). And Jesus, the true and final Word of God, comes telling us about a God who is like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who forgives without anger or atonement, and whose judgment is never retributive.

Reading the Bible this way, then, saves our view of God and saves us from ever being tempted to use texts of judgment or war to justify our own wars against our enemies. And so on.

Revisiting the Wedge

Obviously, I can’t do the whole argument justice, but you get the drift. So, is there really a problem here? Call them Legion, for they are many.

First, when it comes to Zahnd’s Canaanite wedge, I’ll just note that people use just about any sort of text to justify going to war and violence against their enemies. People often forget some of the most cited texts justifying the Crusades were not the Conquest narratives (not really cited at all), but Jesus’ own words about abandoning all, suffering loss of riches, health, and life for the sake of following Christ and loving their brethren—which in this case meant going to liberate Eastern Christians and the Holy Land who had been overrun, slaughtered, and oppressed by Muslims. I’m not defending or critiquing the Crusades here. My point is that if “these texts have been (mis)used to justify violence and war” is a valid criterion for grabbing the scissors, Zahnd might lose more verses than he wants.

That said, I do think we need to re-read the Scriptures. Justifying genocide isn’t a great option, nor is a mutable God. But Zahnd’s simple trilemma gives the reader no sense that there are other ways to re-read the Bible. And that’s exactly what scholars have done, helping us to see that the conquest narratives are not describing divinely-sanctioned genocide (a freighted word which appears nowhere in the Bible).

But Zahnd never utters a word about developments in understanding the way hyperbolic, Ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric shapes the narratives, or about the Biblical emphasis on driving out the Canaanites from the land instead of killing them, or the emphasis on the forewarning given them, or of God’s patience, or any of a half-dozen other important exegetical, historical, and theological considerations OT scholars and theologians have raised to help us better understand these texts. Instead, your option is to read them the way Richard Dawkins imagines Christians ought to, preparing yourself for God to show up commanding genocide at any time, or avail yourself of Zahnd’s scissors.

(Incidentally, Paul Copan & Matthew Flanagan’s book “Did God Really Command Genocide?” deals extensively with all the issues Zahnd raises, including more. In the meantime, here’s a good article by Copan, and another by Alastair Roberts. Oh, and again, Butler’s book.)

Jeremiah the Split-minded Idolater?

Beyond the wedge, though, there are other problems to Zahnd’s approach towards accommodation and progressive revelation in the Old Testament. I believe in both doctrines, but Zahnd’s specific versions yield severe problems.

First, recognizing multiple voices in the OT need not yield contradictory cacophony. It’s possible to discern a complex polyphony among the choir of the apostles and prophets, which is indeed harmonious when seen in light of the Old Testament’s fulfillment in Christ. More on that later. Still, Zahnd’s portrayal leaves us not only with Old Testament authors in dialogue with each other, but even divided contradicting themselves. Because there isn’t a major prophet that doesn’t have glorious prophecies of redemption and love right alongside devastating texts of retribution and judicial wrath.

Take Jeremiah. Yes, we’ve got the agonized cry of love in Jeremiah 31. But also, chapters upon chapters of threatened judgment at the hands of enemies God will call from the North as judgment on their idolatry:

Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place,
upon man and beast,
upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground;
it will burn and not be quenched. (7:20)

Such judgment is what Jeremiah depicts him as enacting in the Exile and judgement of Judah:

Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’ But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods. Therefore my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, and they became a waste and a desolation, as at this day. (44:4-6)

Or again, even in his prophecy of salvation and hope in chapter 31 we find those terrible, retributive texts:

All your lovers have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
because your sins are flagrant.
15 Why do you cry out over your hurt?
Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are flagrant,
I have done these things to you.
16 Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
17 For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal,
declares the Lord,
because they have called you an outcast:
‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’ (Jeremiah 31:14-17)

Here the Lord promises to heal and save and bring them back from exile, yet he nonetheless claims credit for bringing the nations in to judge them “because your sins are flagrant.” What’s more, his merciful salvation will consist in punishing the nations whom he used to judge them since they did so sinfully.

Which Jeremiah ought we believe? The one in this verse in chapter 31, or the other verses in chapter 31? The one that sounds most like Jesus, says Zahnd. We’ll get to Jesus, but stop and think for a moment about what this means about God’s revelation in the Old Testament. He gives his people prophets—and makes a really big deal about not prophesying falsely in his name and misrepresenting him (Deut. 13, 18; Jer. 18). But then apparently allows all of them to grossly misrepresent him to Israel for hundreds and thousands of years, giving them true testimony about him right next to false testimony in the space of a few breaths?

Really think about this. Does that make sense in light of the huge premium God places on not making up false idols and representations of him (Exod. 20:4)? And yet Zahnd’s theology of progressive revelation and accommodation would have us believe that right at the center of Israel’s Scriptures God tolerated an idolatrous depiction of him as a “monster” of the worst sort—a far greater issue than imagining his strength to be symbolically represented by a calf.

Accommodations: Augustinian or Socinian

This is where we come to the difference between the sort of accommodation taught by the Augustinian tradition, and the later Socinian revision. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between telling your kid babies come from the love of a mother and a father while skipping some of the details, or telling your kid babies come from the stork. One is accommodation as adapted but true communication, while the other is a (white?) lie.

Now, God has accommodated himself to us in Scripture, both in general because of our cognitive differences, but also even allowing for some cultural and historical accommodation. That means all language about God in Scripture is anthropomorphic and analogical. What’s more, it also means that God may patiently work in different times and places in less than ideal ways. Jesus says Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of human heart (Matt 19:8), and even Calvin followed this insight teaching that the OT slavery laws were moral accommodations and limits for a harsh time, which God purposely intended to pass away with the old dispensation.

Or when it comes to things like the sacrificial system—the heart of Old Testament religion—Augustine says that, yes, it is a form of religion adapted to the time and place, but it is an appropriate adaptation. It’s the same religion before Christ, whose signs and figures point ahead to Christ, but a God-ordained similarity so that there is basic unity of God’s ways and works across dispensations, or stages in covenant history. On this view of accommodation, God does not lie, nor does he abandon his people to lies about his character. And this progress of revelation is that of a continuing, unfolding storyline told by a self-consistent, self-revealing Author.

Zahnd’s approach is still more radical. Instead, he takes what amounts to an old-school, German critical evolutionary view of the Old Testament as developing primitive religion—scrubs some of the worst anti-Semitism originally associated with it—and repackages it as the complex option which honors the Bible’s mystery, Jesus, and so forth. What’s really going on is that instead of seeing the tensions, wrestling with them in order to be blessed with a fuller portrait of God, you get the easy resolution of finding out the early Biblical authors (with their primitive, “Bronze Age” ideas) were just grossly and radically confused about God the whole time, inadvertently lying about him. And God was letting them.

Zahnd would rather admit contradiction for the sake of simple consistency (or, simplistic) and shave off any hard edge that doesn’t fit instead of doing the hard work of thinking through a complex consistency which incorporates all the evidence. It is the classic example of a canon within a canon, of chopping verses to make it fit your system—of implicitly telling God to shut up because you don’t like what he’s saying.

I know Zahnd is not trying to rehash “liberal, sloppy, pick and choose theology” but push deeper into the revelation of Christ (97). The thing is, that’s not really fair to classic liberal theology. The old-school liberals were careful and always claimed a deeper fidelity to the person and spirit of Christ and the Father he came to reveal, over and against the mere letter of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Despite his best intentions, Zahnd’s project ends up treading some old, liberal ground in a way that would make Albrecht Ritschl and Adolph Harnack proud.

The Spirit of Marcion

Here I sense, as the great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel said of the German historical critics in his own day, “the Spirit of Marcion, hovering invisibly over many waters, has been brought to clear expression” (The Prophets, 390). Zahnd explicitly repudiates Marcion (60). And it’s true, he doesn’t have a total rejection of the Old Testament, he believes in a unity between the God of Israel and the God of Jesus, the Creator and the Redeemer, etc. But let’s be honest, chalking up Old Testament portraits of God, the sacrificial system, etc. to leftover “Bronze Age” religious impulses isn’t a good non-Marcionite move.

Marcionism isn’t just a matter of a strict dichotomy between OT and NT, but also certain judgments about what is fitting for God to do. Go read the church Father Tertullian’s The Five Books Against Marcion or Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. It’s not simply a matter of a Creator God versus a Redeemer God, but rather whether a good God could also be a God who has wrath and executes judgment against sin.

For that reason, it’s appropriate to see Zahnd’s hermeneutic as a sort of cross-Testamental, Neo-Marcionism. Both Marcion and Zahnd tell us that looking at Jesus means massive, sweeping portions of what the prophets and apostles testify about God (in both Testaments) is categorically false.

And to be honest, I am not so sure he can keep the two Gods together cleanly. I’ve argued this before, but in the Old Testament, YHWH just is the God of the Exodus and is known by what he did there, not just the salvation, but the plagues and forceful judgments (including the death of the firstborn). That’s at least as “violent”, if not more so than any Conquest text. And yet, if Zahnd is right, God couldn’t have performed any of those acts of judgment.

In which case, confessing the God of Israel as the God of Jesus Christ becomes a much dicier proposition.

(Since posting, Mike Skinner has critiqued the Neo-Marcionite label, and Mark Randall James has defended it.)

Jesus v. Jesus?

Which brings us to Jesus. Zahnd’s big trump card is Jesus, or rather, a particular reading of Jesus and a hyper-Christocentrism that even Barth would shake his head at. It is a version of what Andrew Wilson has called the “Jesus-Tea-Strainer” v. the “Jesus-Lens.” Let’s leave aside whether the Sermon on the Mount amounts to a call for pacifism. I’ll concede it for now. There are plenty of Pacifists who don’t project that pacifism up into the heavens. The question before us is whether that non-violent, non-retributive Jesus Zahnd holds up, doesn’t just strain out Old Testament texts, but also New Testament texts including some of the witness of Christ?

For instance, Zahnd holds up Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Father as the ultimate portrait of God’s loving, non-retributive nature (Luke 15). And I love that parable. I love grace. I love forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s heart. I’ve preached that to my students week in and week out.

But what of Jesus’ other parables? In the very same Gospel of Luke, Jesus also tells the parable of the Vineyard Owner and the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-18). At the end of it, after the tenants kill his son, Jesus asks, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyards to others.” Lest we miss the point, the Vineyard Owner is God in this story, the Father who avenges himself on the foes of his Son.

Or again, at the end of the parable of the Wedding Feast, Jesus says those who come unprepared will be thrown out of the party into the darkness (Matt 22:1-14). Or again, in the parable of the faithless servant who abuses the other servants in his master’s absence. This one is actually pretty grisly, with Jesus declaring that upon his return, “The master will cut him in pieces and make him share the fate of the disobedient” (Luke 12:46).

Even more shocking, think of the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35). This is the punchline to his parable on why we ought to forgive our brothers just as God does. Jesus apparently saw no contradiction between threatening retribution against a lack of mercy.

Of course, you may argue that single-parables aren’t the way to do theology, in which case, I’d agree (hint, hint). But surveying a variety of the parables, you’ve got a pretty good blend of Old Testament-sounding retribution in Jesus’ portrait of his Father.

Jesus also speaks directly of Old Testament accounts of retributive justice and affirms them. In Luke 10, his woes against Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum presumes that the judgment against them was from God and that they stand under similar threat. Similarly, in Luke 17, Jesus talks about the judgment coming at the end and compares it to the judgment of God which came against the world “in the days of Noah” as well as “in the days of Lot”, which Genesis clearly attributes to God. And yet Jesus doesn’t repudiate it or explain it away but says such a judgment will befall when the Son of Man returns again.

I could go on with text after text where Jesus pronounces or threatens judgment, or assumes that a principle of reciprocity and retribution (more on which later) is at work in God’s dealings including his own future works as the Judge (John 5), who will send his angels to “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt 12:41-42) at his Second Coming. Incidentally, this is probably where people got the idea that the Second coming of Jesus might involve a bit more judgment than his first coming. Not their need for vengeance or simply a bad reading of Revelation (172); Jesus seemed to say so himself.

This also seems connected the answer to Jesus leaving off the day of vengeance line from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4. The problem with Jesus’ contemporaries was not that they were confused in thinking God would judge their enemies, or that Roman oppression was damnable and needed punishment. Their mistake was excluding themselves from the category of sinner who stands under judgment alongside of them. They didn’t realize that if the Day of the Lord’s judgment came at that time, they would stand condemned alongside them. They were wrong, because they were unwilling to see themselves as recipients of undeserved mercy, being offered the same chance to repent, as well.

Jesus v. His Personally-Anointed Apostles?

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Jesus disciples seem to have no problem speaking of God’s retribution and judgment.

Luke thinks God directly struck down Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) as well as Herod (Acts 12:20-23).

Or think of the apostle Peter, whom Zahnd highlights as holding up a high view of Christ (58), since he was “an eyewitness of his majesty” who walked, talked, was commissioned, and inspired by Jesus to bear testimony that we “Listen to the Son” (2 Pet. 1:16-19). In the same letter Zahnd cites, Peter dedicates the next chapter to warning against false teachers and heretics who have condemnation waiting for them and “their destruction has not been sleeping” (2:3). Indeed, God will judge them as he condemned the wicked angels casting them into hell (2:4), flooded the world in Noah’s day (2:5), and turned Sodom and Gomorrah into ash as an example of what happens to the ungodly (2:6). The hits just keep coming when you press on into chapter three where Peter assures his readers God’s present lack of judgment is just God being patient (3:9), but don’t worry, his fire is ready for “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (3:7). Essentially, the whole book is, Be righteous, don’t worry, God is going to punish your persecutors.

Paul similarly encourages persecuted believers that God is going to punish their persecutors, “since God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day” (2 Thess. 1:6-9).

Paul speaks plainly of God’s future judgment whereby God “will render to each according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-7).

What’s more, in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul references OT acts of divine judgment against sin—23,000 being struck down, God sending serpents, the Destroyer, etc.—and says, “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (v. 11), as a warning for us not to similarly test Christ. Indeed, if you read him closely, he is arguing that Christ himself is the agent of judgment in these OT texts. So, yes, Paul agrees with Zahnd that Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, but contrary to Zahnd, he makes a connection between Christ and the OT narratives which puts Christ in the middle of them, instead of using Christ to gut them. Paul says, don’t test Christ the way Israel tested God in the Wilderness, otherwise you will provoke him to jealousy (10:22), and presumably judgment. The example works because presumably the same God is at work.

Maybe He Meant All of It

Look, believe me when I say I am not obsessed with judgment, wrath, and so forth. It shows up in my preaching only as often as it does in the text. And to be honest, I worry about playing it up, so I’ll often tip-toe. Still, when I survey a lot of these texts—and there are many more—I have to ask: is Jesus, the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15-20), teaching a Monster-God? Is Paul? Is Peter? I mean, those guys knew him. They had special revelations from him. They encountered him from heaven and performed miracles in his Spirit. Did they miss something? Did they just not read enough Rene Girard, or what?

What’s more, am I ready to clip these texts too? Are they all part of the dialogue that we can’t harmonize so we have to choose?

Or maybe texts about retribution and wrath in both Old and New Testament are more than just petty vindictiveness or simple bloodlust? Zahnd touches on some of these texts later with his other defusing tactic—and we’ll get to that in a moment—but we need to reckon with the fact that all of these texts are there in the New Testament from the mouth of Christ himself and his apostles from whom we’re allegedly getting our “Jesus is What God Has to Say” theology.

Perhaps Jesus’ fulfillment, completion, and, yes, abrogation of some of the Old Testament (as a covenant) is not one of contradiction and supersession, but is a lot more continuous than we might initially be comfortable with. Maybe when Jesus said that the Scriptures “bear witness about me” (John 5:39), and that “Scripture cannot be broken” because it was “the word of God” (John 10:35), he actually meant all of Scripture? And when “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), he didn’t use a red pen to cross half of it out?

Upon reviewing the material, then, it seems ultimately quixotic to try and pit Jesus against his Bible on the subject of wrath, retribution, or judgment.

Well, these points made, that leaves us to actually wrestle with the issues surrounding the meaning of these terms.

Wrath, Retribution, and a Forgiving God

As I mentioned earlier, Zahnd has a couple of moves regarding wrath, retribution, and so forth. One had to do with rethinking how much of Scripture reveals God and suggesting it’s less than we think. The other is to rework our notions of things like wrath and judgment to suggest they’re not what we think they are.

Metaphorical Wrath

Take his treatment of wrath. He rightly notes that much of the challenge of God-talk is the issue of speaking of the infinite God with finite language, concepts, images, and so forth. Older theologians spoke of depictions of God’s emotions, body parts, and so forth, as anthropomorphisms, or anthropopathisms. Or again, God takes up many names and images for himself in Scripture (farmer, hen, husband, tower, etc.) to talk about God’s activities, stances, and relations towards his creation. Zahnd notes this—though he lumps it all under the concept of metaphor—and he says this is the reality we’re dealing with when it comes to God’s wrath.

“The wrath of God is a biblical metaphor we use to describe the very real consequences we suffer from trying to go through life against the grain of God’s love” (16). Or, quoting Brad Jersak, it is “the divine consent to our own self-destructive defiance.” In other words, it’s the pattern of cause and effect at work in the world which brings bad consequences down upon bad choices—the stomach-ache after the food-binge, the counter-punch to the punch thrown, etc. Psalm 7 offers the clue:

God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.

12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
14 Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
15 He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
16 His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.

Here Zahnd sees the Bible tipping its hand that we should understand language of active, personal judgment and indignation on God’s part as a way of speaking of human duplicity caving in on itself (18). And that just is what is the wrath of God. But, really, “God’s spirit toward you is one of unwavering fatherly-mother love” that is never actually mad at anyone (19), even if his withdrawal lets them suffer consequences from time to time. Don’t literalize the anger metaphors.

Passive Wrath Is Not the Whole Story

Now, as far as it goes, this isn’t that bad. It’s clear in Scripture that much of God’s judgment has the shape of God “handing us over” to the consequences of our sin (Romans 1:24-25).  Scripture also talks about God handing people over to their stubborn hearts (Ps. 81:12), or hardening their hearts in response to their own self-hardening (Deut. 29:4) and so forth. One sees it also in the narratives in Genesis or the latter prophets, especially with the way sinful power politics goes bad for wicked Israelite kings. Older theologians used to call this the “passive wrath” or passive judgment of God to distinguish it from varieties of active judgment, whether direct or indirect.

In any case, the strain is strong enough that in the middle of the 20th Century some Old Testament scholars like Gerhard Von Rad and Klaus Koch questioned whether the Old Testament or books like Proverbs even had a retributive doctrine, suggesting we should talk about “Act-Consequence” schemas, or a “destiny-producing sphere of action.” On the New Testament side, scholars like A.T. Hanson and C.H. Dodd argued similarly that in Paul, the wrath of God had become a mere metaphor for the impersonal process of cause and effect much as Zahnd suggests.

As initially tempting as it is, the model was heavily critiqued, though, by scholars such as Leon Morris, R.V.G. Tasker, and Old Testament scholars on a number of levels. For one thing, the model is flawed as a total explanation of the Biblical material. Many of the same biblical authors who portrayed sin as bearing evil fruit in this fashion, such as Genesis, the rest of the Torah, and the Latter Prophets also contain numerous examples of direct acts of divine judgment (the Flood, the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, consuming Korah, plagues, etc.). The same is the case throughout both the Old and the New Testament. While the Biblical authors saw cause and effect at work, they also testified to clear instances of the active intervention of God.

Second, theologically, this paradigm doesn’t adequately reckon with the fact that God is the Creator and sustainer of the world order. Yes, Zahnd talks about it as God’s permission, but overall this is a distancing and depersonalizing God’s relation to negative consequences. But Aquinas reminds us that “the order of the universe, which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God” (ST, 1.q.21, a.1). God created the universe in such a way that it works according to his own moral righteousness and he freely sustains it as such. God’s permission is not mere permission, but always in accordance with his good works and ways. Even if “God does not actively inflict punishment…the punishment is retributive because the punishment consists in a harm that the sinner incurs due to the harm that the sinner has inflicted” (Matthew Levering, “Creation and Atonement”, Locating Atonement, 62). God sustains the world in such a way that negative consequences to sin reflect God’s judgments about good and evil.

Put it another way, even the consequences of sin are upheld by God in God’s world precisely as just punishment for sin.

Indeed, look at Psalm 9:15-16:

The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.
The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

The Psalmist, goes out of his way to do the opposite of what Zahnd is suggesting. He wants us to know that when the nations get caught in their own trap, it’s not just circumstances working out—“The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment.” God claims personal credit for consequences too.

Active Wrath, Passive Wrath, and Just Retribution

And here’s where I think we need to see that passive wrath and active wrath shed light on one another. Zahnd looks to reduce wrath to a mere metaphor for God’s consent to our suffering the consequences of sin. Why? Because it seems a little more hands off, and I think we can all agree to the fairness of sort of receiving back upon yourself the consequences of your actions. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

I want to suggest we see this principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry” of judgment. So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of direct, eschatological judgment by God upon sinners. Indeed, we see this in Romans 1, where Paul’s talk of God’s “handing over” of sinners to passive judgment and ends with a litany of sins. Paul says not only that these sins lead to bad consequences, but that it is “God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32).

Instead of reducing all talk of active wrath to passive wrath and a mere metaphor for consequences, we can begin to appreciate the fairness, the non-arbitrariness, the non-petty, the non-vindictiveness, the justice of all of God’s judgments in Scripture.

Analogy and Anger

Let’s turn again, though, to the issue of wrath or anger in God. It’s admittedly a very complicated subject that has been treated a few different ways in church history, even in the Reformed tradition I typically appeal to.

It’s important to note that generally, the theological tradition spanning from Fathers like Ireneaus, to Augustine, to Aquinas, to Reformed types including Calvin and Turretin (who are credited with coming up with penal substitution), all affirmed God’s impassibility: God is not subject to overwhelming passions which cause his nostrils to flare, or his testosterone to pump. God is perfect, immutable, spiritual, and independent of all things. Whatever God’s wrath is—if it is an affection somehow “in God”—it can’t be just like ours.

As Tertullian noted, no human affection or emotion—even the positive ones like mercy, compassion, etc.—ascribed to God can simply be read back up into God since “in the human being are rendered just as corrupt by the corruptibility of man’s substance” but we should know that “in God they are rendered incorruptible by the incorruption of the divine essence.” This is why we ascribe these things to God anthropomorphically and know that our language about him is analogical, so we must purge it of anything unworthy of God—including pettiness, vindictiveness, and so forth.

I would tentatively suggest we think of the anger or wrath of God as something akin to a mode of the eternal God’s encounter with the fallen world—specifically the reality of sin. It is his negative evaluation of it and will to make an end of it in judgment.

Love and Wrath Are Not Opposed

Here we’re getting closer to an answer to the questions on the back of the book, “Is God wrath? Or is God love?” The Bible (and the tradition) seems to say that God is love, therefore God has wrath.

Let me put it this way: Is God love? Yes. Is true love righteous? Well, yes. Is it not righteousness to promote good and oppose evil? To stand against evil? To even hate evil? Yes. I mean, that’s what Paul tells us to do (Rom. 12:9). So if God is the sort of love that is righteous love, will his love not include a white-hot opposition to evil? Yes. Well, there you go. The love that God is involves God’s inherent, innate opposition to, hatred of, and will to oppose sin because the love that is the life of the Triune God is a love which is righteous.

Let me put it this way: Jesus is God in human flesh, come in the power of the Spirit. If you want to know what God’s love is like when translated into a human key, you look at him. Well, Jesus had wrath. When the Pharisees opposed his healing of a man in bondage because it was the Sabbath, “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” and healed him anyways (Mark 3:5). That same blindness and self-righteous wickedness provoked him to angrily pronounce woes against them before the people (Matt 23). And that same zealous anger, jealous for God’s name, leads him to pronounce and enact God’s judgment on the Temple (John 2). God’s love in the flesh flips tables.

If you want to know that the perfect love of God isn’t opposed to the righteous anger or wrath of God, just do what Zahnd keeps telling us: look at Jesus.

The Wrath of God as the Care of God

Of course, Zahnd’s worry is a punitive, petty God ready to let loose a lightning bolt, of whom we always have to be fearful because we never know what he’s going to think. He worries anxious vengeful hearts have projected a monster God up into the heavens (91). And that is a real worry. I’m sure people have taught God that way. But it’s not the only worry.

In a world wracked with sin, with oppression, with outrages like slavery, ISIS slaughtering innocents, oppression of the poor by the rich, crass militarism, corruption and greed which grinds the weak into the dust, Fleming Rutledge asks, “Where’s the outrage?” (The Crucifixion, 129). For the weak, for the underprivileged, for the outcast, the problem is not that of a punitive God, but of a distant God who seems to let things go with impunity. Or worse—who’s too weak to do anything about it. In other words, the corresponding danger is projecting a 21st century Western, Rogerian, therapeutic, purely affirming God out of our fear of shame and guilt, who lightly puts our hearts at ease, but can’t rightly deal with the sin of a broken world.

Here is where Abraham Heschel’s insight is crucial: “The secret of anger is God’s care” (The Prophets, 374). Divine anger in Scripture refers to “righteous indignation, aroused by that which is considered mean, shameful, or sinful” (363). Or again, “Anger is an emotion attendant upon God’s judgment, but not identical with it. It is the personal dimension of God’s justice” (376). And so Heschel argues we must recognize, “Divine anger is not the antithesis of love, but its counterpart, a help to justice as demanded by true love” (381).

Language of wrath and anger in God in Scripture speaks to the fact that God takes humanity’s works seriously—for good or ill. There is always in him the profound, unshakeable, unalterable goodness and love which is utterly opposed to sin, corruption, idolatry, murder, rape, lynching, pride, and all manner of ungodliness as well as a willingness to do something about it. If God does not look at the shooting of an unarmed black man, or the kidnapping of a child, or the systematic subjugation of nations and people groups with something analogous to anger—what is wrong with him?

Miroslav Volf still has one of the best comments on the issue worth quoting at length:

            I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of  God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pp. 138-139

This is not a mere lust for blood. It’s not petty. It’s not vindictive. In the heart of every Image-bearer is a knowledge that injustice deserves and cries out for an answer. And the God who is truly love is disposed to give it. Indeed, this is something he has promised us—He is a God who “who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod. 34:7). He has covenanted with the world (Gen. 9) and with Israel that he will answer sin with judgment.

(For a more careful examination of wrath and love, see the linked article by Tony Lane “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God.”)

Retribution and Truth

This promise brings us to the issue of retribution and punishment. Zahnd thinks God’s judgment is only restorative, never retributive (44). I think based on the texts I reviewed above, that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments, including Jesus) teach that retribution has a place in our theology of judgment. Indeed, I think there is a false dichotomy there.

Retribution, as I’ve been saying, is not about vindictiveness, or pettiness, but rather is about notions of desert and truth. Purged of sin, it is a matter of reckoning—of naming sin as what it is and treating it as it deserves. When Peter says we call “Father” the One “who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17), retribution is that impartial judgment applied to wicked deeds. As an aspect of distributive justice, it is God paying out what is due.

Looked at from another angle, Oliver O’Donovan has suggested we think of retributive punishment as an aspect of “attributive” justice—as a matter of truth-telling about persons, about acts, about offenses. When society punishes murder with prison time (or even the death penalty) it is saying something about the act of murder, about the value of the victim, and about the status of the victimizer. To leave sin unpunished is to lie about—to say that the victimizer was right to do what they did, that their victim didn’t deserve better, and that the act of taking their life was a lite thing.

Whichever way you take it, it names a reality which, in light of the atrocities of the 20th Century—the Holocaust, the Killing fields of Cambodia, the Klan lynching black men in the Jim Crow South, child sex scandals in the Church—cannot be waved off. Indeed, it seems callous to write off people clinging to the promise that the blood of their loved ones will receive an answer as merely people trying to cling to “their religion of revenge” (43). The comfort of God’s judgment and retribution is that I don’t have to cling to revenge—I know that God will have an answer to every crime, so I can let it go (Rom. 12:14-21). God takes personal vengeance out of our hands, not because he eschews retribution altogether, but because he is the only one who can ultimately be trusted with it. I can rest knowing that because God is not a liar, he will tell the truth about sin and do the truth just as he said he would.

Disarming Sin by Taking “sins” Seriously

At this point we come up against the problem with Zahnd’s attempt to swap in Rene Girard’s -end-the-scapegoating atonement theory. Zahnd thinks seeing the cross as a penal substitution “fails to take sin seriously” (106), because it makes everything a matter of alleviating our personal sin debt, but leaves “the principalities and powers to run the world.” In other words, the deep problem with our world is the massive powers of systemic injustice and violence which penal substitution leaves untouched. Instead, we should see the cross as the exposure of all our violent systems of power which led to the scapegoating of the Son of God. It’s the end of sacrifice because it reveals the violent, sacrificial logic of the systems we’re caught in, so “once we see it, we can repent of it, be forgiven of it, and be freed from it” (114). Sort of a neo-Abelardian, Moral Exemplar deal (and yes, I know even Abelard wasn’t an Abelardian). There is no real atonement, only enlightenment.

The problem here is that Zahnd’s solution doesn’t really reckon with the fact that our problem is both Sin (as power) and the guilt of sins that need an answer, a reckoning (Fleming Rutledge is right to emphasize both). Having our violent systems of power exposed is a good thing, and something the cross does do. But having systems exposed does not give an answer for specific crimes by specific sinners against specific victims committed within them. The cross as God’s condemnation of sin in Christ says that every name is known and the cry of every victim will get a reckoning.

Second, it’s not just about dealing with the guilt of victimizers out there but with my own guilt, my own shame, my own crime that needs an answer. I know it’s cliché to refer to Anselm’s line to Boso “You have not yet considered the weight of sin”, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Zahnd goes on a tear of rhetorical questions about whether people really deserve the tortured judgment of the cross (108). And when you think about your grandma (if she’s like mine), or a five-year old kid, sure, I balk. But this is also right before Zahnd tells us that it was human society, violence, selfishness, greed, and lust for power (in which we are all complicit) that managed to take the Son of God—pure love incarnate—lacerate, beat, and torture him, and then drive nine-inch nails into his hands. That’s some pretty dark sin.

And what’s crazy is that it actually does dwell in some very average people. We always think Auschwitz was a matter of Nazi soldiers and Hitler. If you study the history, it was also a matter of bakers and butchers and school teachers and professors and good, simple church folk handing over their neighbors to the charnel house.

Concern with personal guilt and complicity is not petty, which is precisely why we have Psalms of personal as well as corporate confession, provisions in the sacrificial law for the same, and texts in the New Testament as well. 1 John tells his flock to confess their sins that they might be cleansed and forgiven (1:9), and the assurance of that is we have an advocate in Christ (2:1), who has made atonement (expiation or propitiation) for “our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:2).

This is Christ the righteous, not only exposing systems of Sin, but dealing with the sins, the crimes, the atrocities of real sinners. This is precisely why I have assurance in those moments of guilt and doubt—I know that my “sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.” For that reason, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Dealing with sins is also at the heart of the exposure of the powers going on in Colossians 2:15, which Zahnd appeals to. He ignores the fact that it follows right after verse 14 which states that we have been forgiven because he has “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” Christ disarms the principalities and powers through exposure, yes, but also by robbing them of the power of accusation. This is how “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down” and why the saints “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:10-11). They no longer fear death—the ultimate threat of the powers—because they no longer fear God, for their sins no longer stand between them. (On all this, see Jeremy Treat, The Crucified King, chapter 4).

Once again, Zahnd gives us an false binary that is unhelpful and should set aside.

Retribution and Restoration

Speaking of false binaries, also note that affirming God deals in retributive justice does not rule out God’s restorative justice. Even in punishment intended to reform a prisoner (or even a child), there is an element of retribution—it’s only right to do so if the person actually deserves it. There’s no call to subject them to any treatment against their will if it were not in some way merited.

When it comes to the atonement, satisfaction theories or penal substitution are making precisely the claim that God miraculously accomplishes his restorative justice precisely by way of his retributive justice enacted in the cross. God doesn’t have to put aside his law to save law-breakers. He can be just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26) who punishes sin while reconciling sinners to himself.

And let’s just add that admitting a retributive moment in the cross does not for a minute mean you must ignore the restorative value of his saving life, his resurrection, or ascension into the heavenlies. This is why Zahnd railing against purely retributive justice of petty appeasement is a red herring (84). He’s arguing against a position no classic penal substitution advocate holds. So Herman Bavinck: “we must reject the notion that Christ was solely a revelation of God’s punitive justice” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3., 369). Indeed, restoration to right relationship with God through forgiveness and the renewal of our nature was always the aim. So even if they didn’t use the language, penal substitution advocates have always taught God’s restorative ends in atonement.

God’s Own Justice

With all these points in view we can also see why Zahnd’s combative jabs about the demand of God’s justice in the cross are misplaced (102). For one thing, it’s not about God being bound by the chains of some standard of justice outside of himself (“goddess Justice”). No, the demands are God’s own just as the Law is God’s own. It is about God not denying himself (2 Tim. 3:13), to keep his word in both salvation and judgment.

As the Church Father Athanasius (not Augustine or Anselm or Calvin) notes in On the Incarnation (4), it is God who promulgated the law connecting sin and death in the Garden and it would be “monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation” (7.1). Alvin Rapien notes, “There is a logic at work here within Athanasius’ proposal: the law of death cannot be undone because God must remain consistent with the very law put in place by the Divine.” Athanasius believes that the God who casts his word and his law aside is the true monster.

A Forgiving God?

But we still might have trouble holding together the truth that God’s fidelity to himself and his word requires the punishment of sin as well as the fact that he’s a forgiving God. Doesn’t the one nullify the other? Is payment the opposite of forgiveness? And didn’t Jesus show us what God is like? In which case, didn’t he walk around simply forgiving sins without requiring atonement all the time (103)?

I’ve tried to deal with these objections elsewhere, but briefly, a few points since it’s so important.

First, I would argue that Jesus is able to walk around forgiving sins precisely on the basis of his own future sacrifice, just as God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins through the Temple system was all pointing to and dependent on Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the cross.  In that sense, as the Mediator, the efficacy of Christ’s work is trans-temporal.

Second, Jesus walking around forgiving sins demonstrates God’s forgiving heart, yes. Hear me—God is a forgiving God. God is inclined towards mercy. His heart delights in reconciliation. God doesn’t have to be convinced to love us. In fact, contrary to Zahnd’s cheap-shots, John Calvin never taught that God had to “expend his anger upon an innocent victim before he could find it within himself to forgive sin” (101). Instead, he taught that, “by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ…” since God loved us first.

            “…because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace.” (Institutes, 2.16.3)

All the same, we need to understand two things. First, it’s possible to distinguish God’s disposition to forgive from the actual accomplishment and enactment of forgiveness. Second, the accomplishment of God’s forgiveness will, of necessity, look different from ours. How could it not? He’s God.

God is uniquely related to all of humanity as “also Creator, Maintainer, Ruler, Sovereign, Lawgiver, Judge, and so on, and it is one-sided and conducive to error if one takes one of these names—disregarding all the others—to be the full revelation of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, 372). And so, yes, our forgiveness is the mere cancellation of a debt—the assumption of the burden ourselves and not making the other pay. But the debt of sin to God is not a simple financial matter. Nor is it a mere relational fault one can set aside. It is against God as he is the guarantor of justice for the entire world.

Instead, the marvel of God’s forgiveness at the cross is that it’s both like and unlike our forgiveness. As the Messiah, representing Israel and thereby the world, God himself assumes responsibility for our sin by becoming one of us, taking on its burden, suffering the curse of death on our behalf. And in this way, he actually wipes out sin’s guilt and debt himself on the cross. Only God’s forgiveness, then, is the sort that erases guilt and debt in an absolute sense. The cross shows us who God is, yes, but it also shows us what God does—he accomplishes forgiveness in his own body and blood.

We may wonder at the mechanics of representation, or how things are accounted—and I think there are decent answers connected to union with Christ, etc. that start to get at it—but at this point we do come to the summit of a holy mystery; the glory of the Incarnation itself.

Truly Confessing the Scandal of God Crucified

Which brings me to Zahnd’s critiques of atonement theories as “attempts to reduce the scandal and mystery of the cross to rational and utilitarian formulas” (82), which nullify the shock, the horror and sublime glory of the Christian confession that on the cross we see God crucified.

The irony here is that’s essentially what Zahnd’s been doing throughout the whole book. The Old Testament chop-job, revising wrath down to mere metaphor, shrinking judgment, and so forth. Then—and this is the kicker to end all kickers—doing this as part of a program to swap in Rene Girard’s 20th Century, Western European scapegoat theory of atonement to explain the cross. Girard’s mimetic theory of sacrifice, violence, and culture is insightful as far as it goes. But as we’ve seen, it simply can’t go far enough to do justice to the message of the New Testament. Even in Girard’s own discipline of comparative literature, it’s been derided as a reductionistic “theory of everything on the cheap.” Which is part of why it’s so tempting to non-specialists, but typically ignored by actual anthropologists or specialists in the literature of sacrifice. Heck, even other hardcore, pacifist, anti-penal substitution advocates like Darrin Snyder Belousek, and Gregory Boyd don’t touch it. Because it’s the dictionary definition of attempting to give an a priori “nice, tidy” explanation of culture, sacrifice, and the cross. (For a theological critique, see Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross, 133-151.)

No, Christian faith is scandalous precisely because it looks at the human travesty of justice, the godlessness of the cross, and calls it the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Paradoxically it sees an innocent man crucified by lawless men and confesses nonetheless that this man was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); it confesses that “God has human executors of his justice who are nonetheless not exonerated from the blame of their actions” (H.U.V. Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 110). It recognizes the great revelation of God’s Fatherly love (Rom. 5:8) when God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). That somehow God is most pleased with the Son’s obedience at that moment when he willingly gives his life to suffer the penalty for disobedience, only to take it up again (John 10:17). That the cross isn’t just God choosing to forgive in the face of the violence of his enemies, but God accepting upon himself the judgment for the violence of his enemies in their place and as their forgiveness.

That is scandal. That is mystery. That is the account of the cross which honors the glory of the Son revealed in being lifted up before men to bear their sin and shame, and in so doing drawing all men to himself (John 12:32).

Claims to the contrary, affirming a doctrine such as penal substitution is not a matter of painting ourselves into a theological corner to maintain the logic of the system (108). It is a matter of taking God at his word, who reveals himself on every page of the Scriptures to be, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7). This is the God whom Jesus claimed to be, when he confessed that “before Abraham was, ‘I AM’” (John 8:58), because he is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). This is precisely who he reveals himself to be in the unity of judgment and forgiveness, and ultimately, love, on the cross.

It is him we aim to confess, not simply our systems, but Christ crucified and risen. I will preach, sing, and even boast that this Christ is “the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 9:24). I will trust his hands to love, to forgive, to hold, and to heal.

Conclusion

As I said, I still haven’t dealt with all of the various criticisms and problems in Zahnd’s work. (I do think I’ve covered a number of them here in my mega-post on penal substitution.) All the same, it felt necessary to engage at this length and depth, not out of spite or animosity, but really, because the subject matter is so important and the stakes are so high. This gets said about far too many issues, but in this case, the gospel—and God himself—really is at stake. With that in mind, I pray this is helpful for the teaching and preaching of the gospel in the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

 

N.T. Wright’s Assault on Moralistic Platonic Paganism? (A Review)

the-day-the-revolution-beganI suppose I’ll begin with a bit of a confession: I’ve been an N.T. Wright fan since I was 20, or about 10 years now. During that time I’ve read all his major monographs and most of his popular works (excluding the commentaries, of which I do own the majority). Surprising as it may be for some, before I read Calvin, Bavinck, or even Vanhoozer, I was reading Wright. While I have become critical of certain elements in Wright’s work, I cannot stress how massive his (massive) works have been in shaping my broader Biblical and New Testament theology. This is especially the case with his atonement theology, which I have discussed and defended here).

When I heard he was coming out with a big book on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began, I was very excited. Having read it now, I will say it’s vintage Wright in just about every sense of the word. Whether it’s the story-telling, the punchy language and style that grips you and carries you along (I read the 400 pages in about 2 days), the stimulating biblical insight, the pastoral application, and the passionate polemics—good and bad—it’s all there in spades.

Against MPP

I mentioned the polemics because they’re central to his project. Wright wants to explain how Jesus’ death at 6 on a Friday managed to launch the revolution of love which transformed the cosmos. But he thinks in the Western church that message has been overshadowed by another, cut-rate gospel. Instead of worrying about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), though, Wright is interested in correcting Moralistic Platonic Paganism (MPP). He says the church has all too often moralized our problem (making sin about bad behavior instead of its root, idolatry), we have platonized our eschatology (making it about going to heaven instead of resurrection and New Creation), therefore paganized our soteriology (making it mainly about an angry Father randomly punishing an innocent Jesus, instead of the loving self-offering of God).

This alternative set-up he calls the “works-contract.” It’s a cut-down story that sounds a lot like some 4 Spiritual Laws, or “Romans Road”, or Chick-Tract presentations of the gospel. Humans are supposed to be good, they fail, God is angry with them, but Jesus comes and obeys for us, suffers the wrath of God in our place, and so we get to go heaven with a much calmer God now. Against this, he sets a much more comprehensive story beginning with Adam, continuing on through Abraham, Israel, the Exodus, the Exile, and down on into Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s ways with us. For those familiar with Wright’s earlier works, the story is fairly familiar.

Before jumping in, I’ll say that I think Michael Horton has given a very fair-handed summary and review of the work. He touches on a number of issues I pass over and probably better worth your time than the lengthy business which follows.

That noted, I’ll first note a number of the positives of Wright’s work and then jump into a couple of lengthier engagement/critique sections.

The Goods

First off, this is a good distillation of Wright’s broader project of telling the story of Jesus in the New Testament in its many-splendored dimensions. Wright is at pains to keep the story of the gospel properly complicated because historically-situated. Or rather, he wants to make sure that we appreciate the fullest sense in which the death of Jesus makes sense “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15).

And so, Wright tells the big story about God’s creative purpose in Adam, and the winding plan of setting that purpose back on its course through the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, and so forth. His expansion (not correction) of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works as the “covenant of vocation” is fruitful (on this, see the Horton review). What’s more, his foray into the prophets, especially his examination of the prophecies of the Servant in Isaiah are also very insightful.

This is also important because there is a tendency in some recent works in atonement theology to emphasize that language about atonement (sacrifice, justification, ransom, etc.) is metaphorical. Which is true enough as far as it goes. But some take that so far as to suggest that the metaphors were chosen by the apostles in a joyfully, haphazard way (and therefore culturally-relative one) to communicate something great had happened. Wright firmly insists that the apostolic presentation, indeed that of Jesus himself, is not random, nor interchangeable, but must and can only be understood in relation to the story of Scripture—as the culmination of the God’s works and ways with Israel.

Beyond that, his chapters on the First Century context and the Gospels might be my favorites. In a sense, much of this isn’t new, since the seeds were present in his Jesus and the Victory of God. That said, his special focus on showing Jesus’ self-understanding to be the broader matrix of the Passover and New Exodus, the forgiveness of sins which establishes the Kingdom of God is crystalized here with a clarity and specificity with respect to the atonement that hadn’t always come through in earlier works.

Indeed, I took particular delight in the section on the atonement in the Gospel of Luke. I took a special reading class in my M.A. in which I had to write on the atonement in each of the Gospels. Given the state of much of the conversation, I had a difficult time of it especially since I was probably too fixated at the time on finding particular sayings like the so-called “ransom saying” of Mark. But Wright’s attentiveness to the narratival-theological construction allows him to draw out representation, substitution, and the victory of the king in the stories of Barabbas, the encounters with thieves on the cross, and Jesus’ own depictions of his own suffering on behalf of Israel (213-216).

Which brings me to a final point of appreciation: Wright never loses sight of the fact that all of Jesus’ work must be held together, especially the cross and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the goal of the cross and the cross is the shape of the kingdom. What’s more, the threads weaving the two together have been there from the very beginning of the story until its grand denouement.

As such, there is much to be commended and plenty that will preach nicely throughout any Lenten season series any pastor reading this may be planning.

These things being said, I must turn to a couple of criticisms and critical questions. This will be lengthy, but please bear in mind that the book is 400 pages long, so to engage any of his multiple arguments with any coherence requires more space than usual.

On Caricature

Probably the most distracting and potentially misleading part of the work is Wright’s polemical engagement throughout with his “works-contract” construct. It’s reminiscent of Douglas Campbell’s “Justification Theory”, an amalgamated construct of errors cobbled together to set up as a foil for his own reading of Paul, which Wright rightly dinged him for in Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Now, Wright has a sense many will suggest that’s what he’s doing: “Some will no doubt accuse me of caricatures…” (147). So he clarifies that what he’s describing is quite real in much of the popular preaching and teaching in the church and the experiences of average lay-people.

That is something I think we need to be prepared to admit. And not just as a concession that is a set-up for a counter-argument. I think there is plenty of bad cross-preaching of all sorts and much of it verges into the works-contract kind. Conservatives, especially the Reformed sort, need to be careful to correct the sorts of mistakes (trinitarian, Christological, covenantal) which lead our people to “hear” the sort of Moralistic Platonic Paganism Wright talks about. Indeed, we shouldn’t just avoid it, but actively try to correct it. Insofar as Wright is correcting those accounts, there is much that is helpful in his reframing of the narrative. (Though, that said, I think at the popular level, Joshua Ryan Butler’s recent work The Pursuing God probably is more helpful still.)

The problem, though, is at times he lets on that it’s not just bad pop-accounts under his scalpel. Rather, he suggests even the more nuanced accounts of the older views that “theologians” (those sad, well-meaning blunderers), fall prey to many of his criticisms. This actually comes out heavily in his big chapter on Romans 3, where he throws out about 15 reasons why the “old” reading of the text doesn’t work. Again, if he’s talking about a simple 4 Spiritual Laws reading, sure. But if he’s addressing the nuanced views of say a Greg Beale, John Stott, Michael Horton, Jeremy Treat, or even more older covenantal thinkers like a Herman Witsius (see his Economy of the Covenants), I think only about 2 or 3 of those points would receive pushback. More on this later.

This is part of the problem of mounting the sort of criticisms he makes in a popular-level book. It’s “popular” in that it has no footnotes or endnotes, which is no sin in itself. But he is making much more complicated arguments than typical “popular” treatments, like certain arguments going on within NT scholarship (such as his subtle digs at the Apocalyptic school, etc.). It seems that if you’re going to be throwing around charges like that, it’s only fair to name the names. It’s not only that the accused have the right to face their accuser—they ought to know if they’re being accused.

Which brings me to the point about novelty and the rhetoric of newness I have raised before. I joked online earlier that a key point in Wright’s book is that he’s “not a specialist in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries” (32). Which is fine. We have other specialists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for just that sort of thing. (I’m not one to talk as I’m not a specialist in anything yet!) The only problem comes when you decide to set up your own construction by way of explicit contrast with what was taught in those centuries. In which case, not misrepresenting or bowdlerizing them becomes more important.

With Wright, you get this sense that between the 1st and the 21st Century some decent things happened, but, it’s now that we can really get things sorted out. Past theologians are there mostly to be patted on the head for those things they didn’t botch, then corrected, but not so much to be learned from currently.

Now, I’m all for Sola Scriptura, subjecting our tradition to the word of God afresh and so forth. There are any number of places where I’m going to side with Wright’s exegesis over, say, Calvin’s. But this sort of approach of Wright’s tends to have the danger of reinforcing in younger Christians a curiosity which is intoxicated with the novel and the “fresh” for its own sake. It’s the sort that leads you to think reading Calvin’s or Aquinas’ or Irenaeus’ exegesis probably isn’t worth your time in the first place. In which case, in our attempt to get free of 16th century cultural presuppositions, we’re exposed to the greater danger of becoming ensnared with 21st century ones.

Or again, for the parishioner who reads the book and loves it, if their pastor manages not to frame things exactly as Wright does here—if they happen to use theological shorthand at times that resembles the “works-contract” because they don’t have space to recap the entire biblical narrative—well then they’re now guilty of peddling MPP. I don’t think that’s Wright’s intent, but given the rhetoric, it might be (and likely will be) what people hear.

Puzzles Over Punishment

Moving to issues more properly exegetical and theological, I’ll admit that the status of punishment and propitiation in Paul leaves me a bit confused. I think it’s the result of Wright saying what he does not mean before he gets around to saying what he does mean. But even then, things don’t come out so clearly. Of course, it could just be my poor reading skills, but Horton also noted some confusion at this point, and Dane Ortlund was quite…frustrated  about this section.

What is clear is Wright doesn’t want to tell a story about an angry, vindictive deity who is annoyed we’ve done bad things and just needs to punish (i.e. kill something) to blow off steam so he can love us in heaven. Good. Which is fine. None of us should.

That said, Wright also doesn’t fit the vibe of the non-violent, post-Girardian (J. Denny Weaver, Brian Zahnd), or Neo-Anabaptist (D. Snyder Belousek) paradigm. Much of his rhetoric flirts with them at points, but at points he still says very clearly that God has wrath, that he punishes sin, that Exile is the punishment of sin, and that punishment can even be a part of the righteousness of God insofar as it is part of his faithfulness to his covenant (in which he threatened punishment as the result of idolatry). In all of this, Wright’s very good aim seems to be to show that there is nothing arbitrary about the connection between sin and the punishment of death. Choose the God of life, you get life. Choose the non-gods, the idols, obviously that will pay out in death.

The problem begins when you see that his account of divine agency in punishment gets fuzzy. On the one hand he admits God is at work in the process in order to rule out a simple, mechanic process of cause and effect (338), but then goes on to the very next page to almost reduce punishment language to merely a way of talking about the natural consequences of sin (339). So he seems to take with his left what he gives with his right at times in a way that is confusing.

But beyond that, in dozens of places, Wright says Jesus suffers the punishment of exile, the consequences of Israel’s sins, the curse of Torah, and so forth as their representative and therefore their substitute. The forgiveness of sins, “comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole” (211; cf. 240, 337). So, again, this is quite explicitly not an anti-penal-substitution work per se.

Second, it is also clear he wants to make sure that nobody ever tells the story of Jesus and the atonement without setting it within and as the culmination of the story of Israel. That is precisely when the image of “punishment” can threaten to become central to the whole story, and turn things from a Biblical drama, to a pagan one (339). This is also an important thing to be avoided.

He affirms most of the component pieces of penal substitution, then, even if he rearranges some of them and modifies others, especially in the reading of key texts, especially in Paul. And it’s there in these modifications that many questions arise for me, and I think might confuse others.

Romans 8:1-4

In Romans 8:3, for instance, he repeats his long-standing claim that Paul God condemns “Sin in the flesh of Jesus”, but not Jesus himself. Okay. On one view, that might mean something like, “Jesus, enters the story of election as the True Israel, enters their accursed state, assumes responsibility for it, for all their sin and idolatry, and suffers the penal consequences in a representative, substitutionary way in his death. In that death, God condemns our sins, but we know what he really thinks about Jesus.”

Here’s one oddity about that view.

Right before that, Wright makes a point of saying that Romans 7 is telling us that the Law was given to Israel (at least in part) so that “Sin” could be drawn to one point, heaped up and shown for what it is, “so that it could be condemned there once and for all” (282). But “Sin” in the singular refers to “the powers unleashed by idolatry and wickedness”, a sort of short-hand personification of this, and maybe even “the satan” (284), who dominates and enslaves humans who have handed over their power to the powers in their idolatry; sins lead to and become and empower Sin (280). And so he says:

But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives…Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus.  Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself… (287)

And so, he sees it as “penal” and even “substitutionary” since because of it “sinners who are ‘in the Messiah’ are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not” (287).

I have to be honest, I still don’t understand what it means that God condemns Sin personified in the flesh of Christ. Again, if you’re trying to parse the difference between condemning Jesus as a sinner loaded with guilt, or the one who assumes guilt for others, or the one who assumes liability to punishment, there are a number of scholastic distinctions that can help clarify this point. If that includes “the totality of what sin causes in the world and its nastiness”, sure.

But once you throw in condemning Sin as the powers, or even as the satan himself, there is a bewildering lack of clarity, as there seems to be no mechanism for metaphysical or moral identification in which Christ’s death equals the condemnation of the powers or Satan. Nor is it at all clear how this condemnation of the powers or Satan or the total situation deals with the guilt and liability of human punishment. So this is a coherence question I’m left with.  (If you have any suggestions as to where I’ve gone wrong, feel free to comment below.)

Romans 5:8-11

Another section I have questions about is Romans 5:8-11. Admittedly contradicting his own earlier reading in his commentaries and books (272), Wright rejects the view that Paul says Jesus saves us from God’s coming anger (5:9), by being a present propitiation, having wrath fall on himself instead (connecting it with Romans 3:24-26). He thinks that doesn’t make sense anymore, though, because being “being justified in by his blood” is supposed to save us “from the wrath or anger that is still to come.” But if wrath has been meted out in Christ in Romans 3:24-26, “why would Paul speak of it in chapter 5 as still future”, or as a store of wrath still to come (2:5)?

Now, on its own, I’m not convinced that argument is very strong. It seems easy to speak of a proleptic wrath executed now in the Messiah which counts for believers, which anticipates and corresponds to a judgment of wrath still to come in the future and would fall on them were they outside of Christ. Or it is at least analogous to speaking of a proleptic resurrection in Christ now, which corresponds to a resurrection still to come in the future. I suppose that we could be dealing with a proleptic declaration that no wrath is coming for you because of the event of the cross, but it’s not at all clear or necessary. Not enough to make me prefer Wright’s new exegesis over his old, at least.

Wright says again later on in his discussion of Rom 3:26-27, that if in 5:9 (which he takes to be summarizing the effects of 3:26-27) being “justified by his blood” just means “being saved from wrath”, 5:9 would be a tautology “(“being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath”). To this, I’ll simply note that some repetitions, or pleonasms, can be clarifying since it’s really a way of speaking of the same reality from different aspects.

Second, it is not necessarily the case that if 5:9 is summarizing the effects of 3:26-27, we have a strict tautology. Rather, it could mean that “being justified by his blood” (being declared in the right in the court, etc. etc.), Paul is clarifying that one of the effects is being saved from wrath in the future.

These linguistic or exegetical points aside, I suppose my theological question is whether Wright believes Paul to be saying that wrath is something entirely future, which is staved off by an act which is definitely not the execution of wrath or propitiation in the present. Based on certain passages, that’s very fuzzy (see 330-331).

But then I wonder if Paul thinks “condemning Sin in the flesh of Jesus” in the present is an act of God’s wrath? In the Old Testament, wrath is not simply an emotion, but often is another way of speaking of God’s judgment, his condemnation in accordance with his law. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7 clusters wrath and anger with the punishment of idolatry together as largely the same thing (cf. also 2 Kings 17’s narrative of Israel’s deportation). Another way of saying it is that condemnation or punishment is wrath considered legally.

In which case, if Romans 8:3 does speak of the condemnation of Sin because of which those who are in the Messiah no longer face condemnation in the future (8:1), it seems that Paul does think that at least Sin has suffered the wrath of God upon himself in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, though there will be wrath meted out in the future against sinners as well.

On a similar note, jumping out of Paul (and I suppose that’s dangerously systematic), when Jesus speaks of drinking the cup of God’s wrath in connection to the cross (Mk. 14:36; Matt 26:39; p. 221 in Wright) does he drink it then? Because that would seem to be the natural reading (see Jeremy Treat’s examination of the removal of wrath through Jesus in the gospel of Mark in The Crucified King, 132-133).

And if so, does Paul disagree that is what’s happening there on the cross (that Jesus is experiencing God’s eschatological wrath then)? Or is it just that Wright thinks Paul is speaking of a different sacrificial logic in this passage? Or maybe it’s a different kind of wrath at the end-time? In which case, is Wright simply saying that in those verses (Romans 3:24-26, 5:9, 8:3) Paul isn’t talking about wrath being suffered by Jesus, even though if you asked him, he would of course affirm he had on an independent logic? But if so, does that deflate the argument that Paul pointing to the deflection of wrath in the future means he can’t be relating it to the suffering of wrath in the present by Jesus?

I get that Wright’s a biblical scholar who looks askance at certain systematic constructions for flattening out, or dehistoricizing too many edges of the various texts. At some point, though, the systematicians get to look back and ask whether those edges are too sharp that they’ve become a reading hazard.

Of course, on Wright’s older reading, the reading where Paul talks about Jesus propitiating God’s wrath against sin now in the cross, saving us from his eschatological wrath in the future, it appears there is an easier, or more straightforward fit with Jesus’ and within Paul on this point. In which case, for now I suppose I’ll retain that version of Wright.

Romans 3 and Purgation

Now, I should say something very brief about his argument in chapter 13 about Romans 3:21-26. In the first half of the chapter he drops anywhere between 10 to 15 arguments against taking it in a way that fits with a “works-contract” view, both the “bargain-basement” outline he sets up (301), as well as the more nuanced versions. Now, about 12 of them are great arguments against a very simplistic “Romans Road” presentation, but I think the points behind them can be easily incorporated in the “nuanced” versions as well (including Wright’s older view).

One point which doesn’t fit so easily concerns what he says about the redemption or Exodus that comes through putting Jesus forth as a hilasterion of Romans 3:25. Wright has changed his views from his commentaries and earlier books here. He still thinks the term refers to the lid of the ark, or the mercy seat in the Tabernacle or Temple. But Wright no longer connects it to the logic of covering (327), nor to propitiation as he used to, where in the past God over-looked sin, but now he punishes it in Christ. According to Wright, if that was the logic, then Paul shouldn’t have connected it with the Day of Atonement (330).

Instead, he has adopted a different view which connects the logic of the Day of Atonement with cleansing and purgation, not covering or punishment (though for that matter, he thinks covering didn’t imply punishment either). On this view, the death of the sacrifice is ancillary to the all-important releasing of the blood which the priest manipulates in the Day of Atonement ceremony. This blood symbolizes the power of life which cleanses. So death is necessary to the release blood, but isn’t central to its meaning in that sense (329).

The idea is that through idolatry, humans become sinful, their sins leads to and bring the pollution of death. But death is contrary to God who is the source of life and is a defilement of God’s holy Temple. This defilement accumulates throughout the year around the people, the land, and the sanctuary. In order to enter the Presence of God, then, “the sacrificial blood is the sign of God-given life, a life more powerful than death, a life therefore that purifies both sanctuary and worshipper. Cleansing thus enables meeting” (334). Jesus is the place where God and man, heaven and earth, meet, and this is enabled by his cleansing blood.

In the end, it seems he’s suggesting some sort of “propitiation via expiation” view whereby wrath is turned away by cleansing. Or in light of the way he connects it to the other texts above, a “future propitiation via present expiation/purgation” view. At least that’s the best I can come up with given the back and forth of affirmations and denials gives in the chapter.

Now, Wright has many things going for him. For one thing, he’s right that not every sacrifice in the OT has mainly to do with punishment and too often they have been treated as such in popular accounts. What’s more, there is definitely a clear element of purgation and cleansing in the Day of Atonement rituals as scholars as Jacob Milgrom and others following him have shown. Some of the more interesting bits of recent scholarship on sacrifice of late has been around pinning down just how that is supposed to work.

In response, though, I’d like to note a few things to complicate matters and suggest that death is significant as death for more than its life-blood releasing function.

First, I suppose I simply disagree about the blood. Leon Morris’ old linguistic work on the meaning of “blood” still has merit. Considering the wider use of the term blood in the Old and New Testaments, the dimension of life released by violent death within it cannot be entirely erased or reduced to life simpliciter.

Second, and this may be too broadly formulaic, but ever since Genesis 2-3, death just is the punishment for sin, the curse of the Law, the outworking of wrath, etc. in Scripture. While not all deaths are suffered as the direct judgment of God, theologically there is no death which is not the result of the curse and wrath of God. It seems very hard, then, to eliminate this meaning entirely from the Day of Atonement sacrifices.

Third, I am not sure Wright lets the Passover and the Day of Atonement interplay do enough work. At the Passover, though atonement isn’t the main point, the blood on the door acts as a covering protecting Israel from the angel of death, the judgment and wrath of God destroying the sinful flesh of the representative firstborn of every house. In the Passover, there is protection from the wrath of God against guilty sinners, yes through the covering of blood, but also through the death for death equation.

Finally, I can only note that Leithart’s recent account of sacrifice in Delivered from the Elements of the World (91-121) as a very helpful alternative. He takes into account all of the most recent developments in the very dense literature of sacrifice and comes up with a nuanced account of substitution and sacrifice, which includes all that Wright says and more. So he has purgation, but he also manages to retain the notion “covering” in kipper and kapporeth translated to hilasterion without reducing it strictly to purgation. What’s more, he also maintains the importance of the death of the sacrifice dealing with the problem of sinful flesh. Perhaps his attunement to the ubiquity of that problem accounts for much of their differences.

Or again, you could go back to Wright’s older reading.

I realize this last section on Romans 3 is my weakest in the subsection, but it’s gone far too long anyways, so let me make just one last criticism.

Disarming the Power of Prosecution

As I noted earlier, Wright is very helpful in not separating what God has joined together: kingdom and cross, the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of the powers. The quibble I have here is that I think he’s missed a key, linking element.

Take Colossians 2:13-15. Here Paul talks about the ironic stripping and defeat of the powers in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. For Wright, the powers are both the earthly principalities, rulers and authorities (Herod, Caesar, Caiaphas, etc.) as well as the “dark powers that stand behind them and operate through them”, or the demonic (259). How does the forgiveness of sins coming through the cross which “blots out the handwriting against us” (Torah which excluded Gentiles and condemned Jews), lead to victory over the powers?

Wright thinks that it happens because the powers gain power precisely in our idolatrous worship of them. We hand over power to them and they enslave and dominate us. But “when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power” (259). Because sin is defeated, the idols power is broken. Because I am dead to the Law, it’s divisions don’t divide, and the blessings of God can flow to the Gentiles. Now, this is all true, but I think it misses the fact that part of the power of the powers is that of accusation.

The Devil is the Accuser, and part of his power over sinners the judgment of the Law itself which rightly condemns them for sin, even if Satan a perverted prosecutor. We are guilty. We do stand condemned, exiled from God’s presence. So when the powers accuse, they have a point. That is, until they are stripped of that point. Verse 15 logically follows off of verse 14 because the forgiveness of sins comes in doing away with our guilt and sin in it condemnation in the cross of Christ.  This is how we are “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It’s also why in John’s vision, in one of the great cosmic battle scenes, the saints are said to conquer over the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) by way of “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but since one of the strongest points of Wright’s work is to tie these two themes together, that this key bit of analysis remains murky is puzzling and weakens the argument as a whole.

(For more on all this, Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King is the best work to date treating both biblical and systematic categories. On Colossians and Revelation, see 111-127)

Conclusion

I suppose I’ll cap this all off by saying, this I think Wright is eminently helpful on the atonement in general, but that he is even more so in his earlier works. There is plenty to take, digest, preach, and indeed, live in this volume. But I worry, though, if this is someone’s first or second volume on the atonement or the cross, especially someone without theological training, the heavy polemic as well as a couple of the material proposals would be confusing and misleading. Of course, no volume is without its flaws, so go ahead and take it up, just bear some of these things in mind.

That said, I will continue to read Wright with anticipation and delight, and continue to recommend his books, but on the subject of the atonement, I will likely be referring to his earlier works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: If you’re looking to read or recommend accounts that avoid MPP, but don’t quite fall into these issues a few volumes come to mind. I’ve already mentioned Joshua Butler’s popular work as well as Jeremy Treat’s. Both are top notch. Also, Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed is fantastic. Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker didn’t get a lot of attention, but I think that’s a mistake since it’s a very balanced, recent offering.

Finally, I have my big, long post on answering objections and correcting mistakes around Penal Substitution which has more recommendations at the bottom.

 

Mere Fidelity: The Pursuing God with Joshua Ryan Butler

The Pursuing God.jpgJoshua Ryan Butler is a friend and one of my favorite newer authors. I got to know him after I reviewed his last book The Skeletons in God’s Closet for the Gospel Coalition and ended up loving it.

Well, now he’s back with a follow-up book The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home.  In this book, he tackles the difficult issues like incarnation, atonement, wrath, and the Trinity in order to show that the God of the Gospel really is good, and the gospel really is good news.

Now, I’d typically give you a full review, but I sort of already blurbed it, so I’m just going to share my endorsement and urge you to pick the thing up:

Joshua Ryan Butler is enthralled by the vision of a beautiful God whose goodness goes down deep into his bones and he wants us to share it. Unlike so many today, though, his way of inviting us into that vision is not to paper over the dark stains that mar our popular pictures of God, but to face them head-on. In The Pursuing God, Butler sets out to restore a portrait of the biblical gospel of God’s incarnate, crucified, and risen Son, correcting our worst caricatures of sacrifice and atonement, and revealing the glory of the triune God who has been relentlessly seeking to restore us to himself.

Honestly, this is one of those books I’m sort of bummed I didn’t get to write myself. That said, I’m also glad Josh did. He’s got a way with images and metaphors that flip things on their head and show you that all the stuff in Christianity that we’re tempted to do away with are actually what we need most.

Also, I have to say, I was extremely impressed with the way he was able to take some of the best, recent scholarship on the issue of wrath, judgement, and penal substitution, and present it in a non-academic, life-giving way, without selling you short theologically. This is probably now my favorite, popular-level book on the subject to date, and I think it’s the place to start if you’re either having trouble with these issues, or are looking to preach to those who do.

Buy it. Read it. Get copies for your friends and family and you’ll have birthdays and Christmas covered for the next 6 months.

But in case none of this has sold you, yet, Alastair and I had Josh on the podcast to chat  about the book. I hope this whets your appetite to pick it up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Historical Penal Substitutionary Atonement

pannenberg volume 2Wolfhart Pannenberg is known for many elements of his theology—eschatology, history, the resurrection, the Trinity—but I rarely see him brought up in discussions of the atonement. This is a shame, because as Peter Leithart recently reminds us, in both his classic Jesus-God and Man and his magnum opus, three-volume Systematic Theology Pannenberg has one of the most helpful treatments of recent times.

I can’t go into all the details, but I simply wanted to highlight a few of the key, brief points, skipping and condensing a large amount of careful material.

First, Pannenberg tries to make sense of the extensive New Testament (especially Pauline) witness about Jesus death being “for us” in an expiatory sense as an interpretation of Jesus’ history. In other words, he tries to trace out the logic of the apostles as they reflected on the history, acts, and words of Jesus to make sense of the death of Jesus as happening “for us.”

Second, the resurrection is actually a key part of that logic. Aside from the strong emphasis on eschatology and resurrection Pannenberg develops in general, he sees it as crucial to the recognition that Jesus’ death happened for us.

If we follow the Gospel accounts, we recognize that Jesus was accused by the priests and teachers of the Law on the basis of the Law. In their eyes, Jesus was a blasphemer and the rebellious son who was trying to lead Israel astray and so they prosecuted him (and with the Romans) executed him accordingly.

But “the resurrection reveals that Jesus died as a righteous man, not as a blasphemer” (JesusGod and Man, 290). The resurrection, for Pannenberg, proves what the apostles testified to over and over again, that Jesus knew no sin—for God would not resurrect him if he had any of his own sin to die for.

Given this resurrection, we realize that Jesus’ claims about his relationship with the Father are vindicated. In which case, “those who rejected him as a blasphemer and had complicity in his death are the real blasphemers. His judges rightly deserved the punishment that he received. Thus he bore their punishment” (ibid). Or again: “The Easter reversal of the significance of the events that had led to the crucifixion of Jesus shows that Jesus literally died in the place of those who condemned him” (Systematic Theology, Volume 2,  425).

One may even want to strengthen this by appealing to the Law which states that false witnesses are to suffer the judgment which they meant to fall upon the innocent they had accused maliciously (Deut. 19:16-21).

Third, Pannenberg highlights the representative dimension to this death. In their condemnation, the Jewish leadership did not merely act as a collection of individuals. They acted on behalf of their nation and as such, the nation condemned this true Israelite as a blasphemer. Jesus dies in place, not only of the leadership as such, but for Israel as a whole.

Pannenberg connects this to Paul’s statements in Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:3, which only make sense in connection to Jesus’ condemnation under the Law:

As Paul saw it, God himself by means of the human judges not only made Jesus to be sin but also had him bear in our place (and not merely in that of his Jewish judges or the whole Jewish people) the penalty that is the proper penalty of sin because it follows from its inner nature, i.e. the penalty of death as the consequence of separation from God. (Systematic Theology, Volume 2,  426).

Jesus’ death bears the character of the natural, non-arbitrary, and just penalty and consequence of sin—separation from God.

But as highlighted by this quote, Pannenberg sees Christ’s death not only as occurring for Israel, but also for the Gentiles. He was handed over to the Gentiles. “Roman participation in the events leading to the crucifixion was perhaps the occasion for extending the understanding of the death of Jesus as expiation to the Gentile world represented by Rome” (ibid. 426). Pilate’s death was not merely an irresponsible act of judgment, but one that involved the collision of human kingdoms with God’s eschatological representative.

What’s more, from another angle, Pannenberg notes the representative character Israel and her Law bore in relation to the nations beyond its borders. Israel is a representative nation and her Law testified not only the particular covenant relationship of God with Israel, but of the moral relationship of the whole world to its Creator. All had fallen under the predicament of death as penalty for sin and Israel represented the world in this. And so, in this way Jesus truly did die “for all” (2 Cor. 5:14), “thereby effecting representation in the concrete form of a change of place between the innocent and the guilty” (ibid. 427).

Fourth, it must be noted that for Pannenberg, the “substitution” in question is not an “exclusive” one, but “inclusive.” Jesus death is, in a very real sense, for us and in our place. We don’t die that death on the cross, he does: “only he died completely forsaken” (Jesus-God and Man, 296). All the same, his death does not exclude our own or mean that we ourselves do not die. Rather, it means that by faith we are included in his death—our deaths are linked with his in such a way that he dies our death for us. In which case, our death no longer means exclusion from the presence of God, but contains the hope of resurrection life which is worked out even now in a life of righteousness (Rom. 6:13).

Each of these points can and should be worked out at length. What’s more, many of the fine-grained discussions of historical theology, Old Testament sacrificial texts, and so forth, which Pannenberg masterfully engages with remain unaddressed. All the same, it should become clear that for Pannenberg, penal substitution is no abstract doctrine disconnected from the history of Jesus, or his resurrection, but as Leithart comments, it’s a plot summary of the hinge events of the Gospels.

Hopefully this whets your appetite to dig into Pannenberg yourself. For all of Pannenberg’s oddities, its a nuanced, robust, orthodox presentation of Christ’s work of reconciliation that might spare us some of the worst mistakes made in popular preaching today.

Even more importantly, it should serve as a reminder that our doctrines are not abstractions floating free from time and space, but rather they serve us best as hermeneutical keys enabling us to understand more fully what the God who does exist beyond time and space has accomplished for us and our salvation through Christ in the midst of history.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Three Mistakes to Avoid in Good Friday Preaching

Preaching “Christ and him crucified” is core to the job description of any minister of the Christian gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Good Friday drives this home more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher’s task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the Son of God murdered upon Golgotha is “good news.” How is this moral rupture the center of God’s great act of atonement–of God reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19)?
Christ’s cross itself has always provoked hostility and scorn whether among pagan Greeks or Jews and is, in many ways, no easier to stomach now than it was then; it still confronts us with our sins and bids the old Adam to come, submit to death, so that the New Adam may rise to new life. But that’s not the only difficulty involved.
The fact of the matter is that many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross–especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions–in the past. When we make mistakes in this area, it’s easy to give people a distorted and destructive view of both God and the gospel. This is tragic. Both because we deprive people of the beauty of the cross, but also because, as C.S. Lewis points out, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Much as a doctor cannot be careless in wielding a life-saving scalpel, so preachers cannot treat the preaching of the cross lightly or carelessly lest we bring death instead of life.
While there are a number of ways preaching the cross can go wrong, here are three key mistakes to avoid in your preaching of the cross this Good Friday.
You can read the rest of the article over at Reformation21.
Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

crucifixion rutledgeWhy the cross? Why this particular, bloody, grotesque means of execution? Why was this the necessary mode of the Savior’s redemption of the human race? Why not a life, leading into old age and peaceful death leading into resurrection? Why the seemingly Godforsaken horror of it all? This is the motivating question at the heart of Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome The Crucifixion: It’s Meaning and Significance. After over twenty years study, research, and meditation, Rutledge has delivered a stunning piece of theological and pastoral reflection on the cross of Christ.

I originally intended to work through it for my Lenten readings every morning (being far too addicted and Protestant to give anything up for Lent), and found myself running far ahead of my intended, daily page-count. It’s really a beautiful piece of theology.

Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.

In what follows, I’ll simply highlight what I take to be some of the significant features (both positive and negative) of the work and hope that gives you something of a feel for the whole.

Sin and sins

One of Rutledge’s chief concerns is to get her audience to reckon with the reality of sin. Coming out of the Episcopal mainline, this is unsurprising given the theological trajectory much of the church has taken over the last forty years or so. Rutledge is not dour, or morbid, but after years of preaching, teaching, advocating for justice (especially on social and racial fronts), she is not naïve about the pervasive wickedness and corruption of both human nature and human cultures. As one of the blurbs put it, she wants us to “get real” with ourselves, open our eyes and truly look at the world as it is, and reckon with our dire need for redemption. Her work is a bracing antidote to any last vestiges of cheap sentimentalism in our doctrine of humanity that would blind us to our need for the kind of salvation only a bloody cross can bring.

Connected to this, Rutledge doesn’t simply want us to recognize personal culpability and “sins”, but rather the Power of Sin. This is partially due to her heavy leaning on the “Apocalyptic” school associated with J.L Martyn, De Boer, and the Union School. For Rutledge, we need rescue from the Powers of Sin, Law (used by Sin), and Death. We are not only culpable, but captives, sold and bound under the dark dominion of evil that overwhelms us and keeps us oppressed in sin.

Deliverance AND Substitution

It is this sense that gives shape to Rutledge’s main argument, which I take to be the resituating of the “substitution” motif within an Apocalyptic understanding of the Christus Victor motif. Because she takes both sins and Sin seriously, she wants to take both of those master motifs and develop them as well.

When it comes to substitution, Rutledge does a fantastic job slowly, carefully, and piercingly drawing our attention to the problem of injustice in the world. Whether to apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for racial equality in the Civil Rights movement, child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, to the millions of petty, untold sins in our own lives, she forces us to deal with both the biblical and the theological need for satisfaction, for an atoning sacrifice, for a judgment that says no to a culture of impunity, to cheap grace, or the sort of “forgiveness” that makes a mockery of the victims of violence throughout history. What’s more, she does it in such a way that is appealing, not so much to theological conservatives, but to those with more progressive and liberal sensitivities. You might say that as someone who has taken the social gospel seriously, Rutledge knows that you need a more classic theology to undergird it.

But, of course, we need not just sacrifice but redemption. The Exodus is a good model here. In the Exodus, the Israelites received both atonement in the slaughter of the lambs at the Passover, but also redemption from the social, political, and yes, spiritual, powers of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Rutledge forcefully argues that the cross of Christ (and his resurrection) were at the heart of a liberation, a deliverance from the powers of Sin, the Law (as used by sin), Death, and the Devil. In him, we have a liberating “Lord”, who transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son, who frees us for his glorious service.

And these two halves point to the broader concept of righteousness and justification she embraces. Following much 20th Century scholarship, for Rutledge, God’s righteousness is his saving justice that is more than forensic, but also transformative and liberative. She translates “justification” as “rectification”—God’s justification of the ungodly, then, is not merely their forensic vindication, but their total deliverance from the Powers and their “setting right.”

This “rectification”, though, that comes by way of the cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely individualistic in nature. In this regard, she joins the choir of many other recent voices in proclaiming a “cosmic” salvation, in which God sets the whole world to rights through the Son in his cross, bringing about a New Creation, while the rectification of individual comes within that broader schema. Indeed, over and over again, Rutledge emphasizes the “cosmology” implied in Paul’s theology (because this is a heavily Pauline work), in regards to both the aim and the characters involved.

Multiple Motifs

Within those two broader motifs, Rutledge does a good job at trying to give voice to the broader range of New Testament motifs surrounding the death of Christ. Sacrifice, justification, ransom and redemption, Apocalyptic war, and the descent into Hell. In many ways, this is one of the chief strengths of the work. I would say, though, in comparing it to Jeremy Treat’s similar project The Crucified King, Rutledge’s treatment could have benefited from a more synthetic, redemptive-historically organized account.

While she is no Marcionite (she makes fantastic use of the Old Testament, connecting it to the New), there is something of an atomism, typical of much of the critical scholarship she draws on, at work in the treatment of the themes that could be integrated to greater effect. That seems to be something of a side-effect of her Apocalypticism which makes less use of unifying, covenantal themes, and places a greater emphasis on the disjunctive, in-breaking work of God. Again, though, overall, she’s got a very sensitive eye for the diversity of the New Testament witness to Christ’s work. There’s nothing reductionistic about it. And this, I think is probably because she’s not exclusively “Apocalyptic” in her orientation, but has a strong regard for certain traditional, Western exponents such as Anselm, Calvin, and others.  Still, I would probably add Treat’s work as a complementary one, in this regard.

The Problem of Theodicy

Given her concern with the necessity of the cross, justice, and sin, it’s no surprise that the question of theodicy is a running theme throughout the work. Indeed, much like the great theologian of “holy-love” P.T. Forsyth, Rutledge connects the cross with the issue of the “Justification of God.” There is much to commend in this regard. I will say, I had my qualms about this thread in her work, though, as it drinks quite deeply from the Dostoyevskian/Hart-style anti-theodicy. There seem to be some equivocations at work with respect to thinking about evil as “purposed” by God, or “part of God’s purposes” because of a failure to distinguish different senses of the will of God, the decree, and so forth.

Again, though, she does tap the breaks on the cheaper, hasty work of theodicy that we see all too often from the pulpit and the counselor’s office. So there is much benefit in the section.

Defending Substitution

One of the major sub-themes of Rutledge’s work is defending the substitutionary motif both against critics and misguided supporters. I have to say, her work here is simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite segments. Connected to the themes of justice and God’s rejection of a culture of impunity, Rutledge has excellent discussions of the pastoral use of the doctrine of the wrath of God. She does fantastic work defending the different, mutually supporting elements of substitution and representation in Christ’s work. Also commendable is her repeated, careful emphasis on the perfectly and beautifully Trinitarian character of the Son’s cross-work. And I especially appreciated her exposition of Karl Barth’s contribution to the subject and the way his work can help us think more carefully about the notion of God’s agency in the cross, guarding against some of the more ham-handed expositions we’ve all heard.

That said, there were moments I thought she gave too much ground to the critics of “cruder” expositions of “penal substitution.” While there’s plenty right about those criticisms, I think there are not as many as Rutledge credits, or they don’t have quite the force she accords them. Also, her tendency to beat on the Post-Reformation Orthodoxy and their schematizing, propositionalizing, depersonalizing, etc. ways, grew a bit tiresome, but that’s probably just some of the Post-Barthian influence.

Overall, for those of us in more Reformed, Evangelical circles, it’s a very helpful exercise reading Rutledge’s defense of substitution within a church context that in many ways has left it by the wayside long ago.

Indeed, this could probably said about many of her discussions. Yes, there are tell-tale marks of the liberal tradition she’s engaged with that I just won’t agree with. For instance, Rutledge will follow Riceour on the nature of the Adam narrative (no historical Adam), and gesture towards either annihilationism or universalism in her discussion, all the while giving us a discussion of both radical evil and the realism of hell that’s still quite useful in pastoral conversations and preaching about the issues for those rejecting some of her premises. This is particularly relevant for more conservative readers since many of the theological tendencies Rutledge is speaking to are still with us and more widespread than simply the mainline.

Conclusion

Instead of wrapping up with my words, I figured I’d give you a taste of Rutledge’s own work drawn from her concluding summary:

The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, there cannot be serious talk of forgiveness for the worst of the worst—the mass murderers, torturers, and serial killings—or even the least of the worst—the quotidian offenses against our common humanity that cause marriages to fail, friendships to end, enterprises to collapse, and silent misery to be the common lot of millions. “All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.” This is what is happening on Golgotha.

All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Jesus Christ. (610-611)

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Questions To Ask Of Any Atonement Theory

atonementI’m something of a student of atonement theology. The funny thing about atonement theology is that, no matter how many books you read on the subject, there’s always one more angle (or multiple) to consider when trying to understand and explicate the saving significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Which is why I was delighted to get my hands on an advanced copy of Biola Professor and atonement expert Adam Johnson’s elegant little work Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed last week. There are a number of features that separate this work from a number of the recent entries into the field, but the biggest that comes to mind is that it’s not just a book on atonement theology, but a book about how to do atonement theology. It’s a “guide for the perplexed” not only as to the content of the atonement, but how to approach the problem of atonement theology in general.

All too often theology finds itself falling into familiar grooves because classic dichotomies are set up somewhere along the line, battle lines are drawn, and doing theology becomes a matter of picking between better and worse options without questioning whether they should accept the given categories in the first place. Johnson aims to shift up the conversation in atonement theology by pushing past the familiar terms of the debate between penal substitution, moral exemplar, and Christus Victor “theories” of atonement by encouraging us to turn and mine the many-splendored riches of Scripture and history for describing the unfathomable fullness of Christ’s work on our behalf.  Why settle for one when you can have all and more? Notions of victory, sacrifice, recapitulation, penalty, theosis, governmental, and so on down the line have a role to play here.

Johnson plays the role of guide in a number of ways. He clears the ground by critiquing some of the earlier conversations on the topic, less by way of negative polemic, and more by way of a dazzling invitation into a theological world unencumbered by the narrower discussions of the last century and half. He also tries to help us think through the trinitarian grounding of all atonement accounts, as well draw our attention to the importance to of attending the role the various attributes of God play a role in all of our theologizing about atonement. In these, and various other ways, Johnson aims to help us understand just how important it is for us to avoid doing our atonement theology without paying attention to the various other doctrines (God, Christology, anthropology, etc.) it depends, or impinges on.

Beyond that, Johnson actually does a ton of helpful constructive work to display to us the various facets or aspects of Christ’s reconciling life, death, and resurrection, drawing on Scripture as well as such diverse figure as Irenaeus, Von Balthasar, Calvin, Edwards, Aquinas, and, of course, Barth. While there’s plenty in Johnson’s that even the enthusiastic reader will be left chewing on (the nature of God’s suffering, the nature of atonement for the angels, the non-priority of penal substitution), the good thing is that it’s not intended to be the final word on the subject. It’s constructive as well as being suggestive for further work down the line.

Five Key Questions

While there are a number of fascinating and helpful sections in the work, one section that is particularly helpful is Johnson’s outline of five questions we should ask of any theory, dimension, or model of the atonement (pp. 47-50).

1. What is the key cast assembled in this work on the atonement? Every atonement account has a cast of players. God, humanity, demons, or angels, and so forth. Asking the question about the cast helps us understand, not only who is involved, but also what role the characters play and what emphasis a theory places on the players. Is it mostly about God? Or the human problem? Or are the demons center stage? Does it exclude those it should include, or focus too tightly on one to the exclusion of others.

2. What divine attribute, or set thereof, does this particular theory of the atonement emphasize? One of Johnson’s main theses is that every account depends on a focus on one or a couple of key attributes of God. Penal accounts might emphasize the need to satisfy justice as well as the apparent tension it causes with his love. Others such as victory accounts might focus on God’s faithfulness to his creation or his sovereignty. We need to be able to identify these, and even more, we need to ask careful questions about the way they are emphasized. Are attributes pitted against each other? Are some sidelined in favor of others? Are the ones highlighted treated according to the full witness of Scripture or is a muted picture presented?

3. What aspect of our sin does this particular theory focus on? Atonement deals with sin and different atonement accounts deal with different dimensions of sin. We need to ask which dimension this particular theory tackles. Is it focused on sin’s essence, or its effects? Is it personal, social, political, or cosmic? Is sin treated as sickness, rebellion, or bondage? Is the main problem guilt, or shame or even death? More importantly, are these set up in a way that only one is treated as the “real” problem? This is where I’ve seen problems show up in the various, reductive accounts on offer. Yes, shame needs answer, but so does bondage. Yes, we need new life, but does God grant that to those still bearing their guilt?

4. How does this particular theory develop Christ saving us from our sin? Obviously, this one follows off of the last. If atonement deals with different dimensions of sin, then there are correspondingly different methods. Does Christ pay a penalty and do away with our guilt? Unmask the powers of evil? Conquer the power of death? Heal the corrupting effects of sin in our souls and our bodies? Liberate the oppressed from unjust political systems? Hopefully, you answered yes to all of them. Still, each theory tends to focus on one or a couple of these. Asking these questions helps us identify areas of critique or needed expansion and addition to fill out our view of Christ’s full work. If your theory doesn’t admit of that, if it rules out further dimensions, then that might be a problem.

5. How does this theory develop Christ saving us for life with God and others? Finally, we need to remember that atonement is aimed, not only at saving us from sin, but for life with God. Every theory or aspect under consideration should point forward towards the resurrected life, just as atonement does not stop with the cross but continues on through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. How is that result described? Is it union with God? Is it a new life of righteousness? Is it warm, reconciled family relations? Is it physical wholeness in the New Creation? Does it have implications for our life now, between the comings of Christ? Each aspect or theory of atonement ought to have something to say here. Now, note, not each dimension has to say everything–I’ve seen criticism of penal substitution that fault it for dealing with problems that other complementary dimensions deal with well (social, political, etc) and simply written off because people are under the impression you can’t have more than one aspect doing work at a time. That’s akin to faulting a hammer for not being wrench because you’re too silly to realize you can use both.

In any case, these five questions (and I’ve only scratched the surface of Johnson’s development of them) are a good place to start considering the various proposals, historic and contemporary, for understanding the grand, comprehensive work of Christ’s atonement. I know the book doesn’t release for a couple of months, but for serious students looking to dig deep into the manifold wisdom of God’s saving work in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I highly commend preordering or wish-listing this book.

 Soli Deo Gloria