Correct Error Without Radicalizing Doubt

The first time I got called a heretic, I think I was about 19. I had just started getting into theology, biblical studies, N.T. Wright, that sort of thing, and was slowly walking away from the default dispensationalism of Orange County Evangelicalism. Well, at the time I also happened to be in a Bible study at a Calvary Chapel church in Southern California and I told the guys, “Well, I actually don’t think I believe in the Rapture anymore.” Judging by the reactions, I might as well have questioned the Second Coming itself.

Things became very strained between myself and some of the guys. They started to doubt my “soundness,” and I started to wear the air of a sort of knowing, theological rebel. “Maybe I am a heretic. Maybe we are all heretics to some degree. Maybe a little heresy was necessary now and again.” No doubt, we were all being kind of dumb.

I was reminded about this by Thomas Schreiner’s piece over at TGC this morning on “Beware of Theological Dangers on both Left and Right.” After arguing against the Left on behalf of the propriety of warning against heresy and guarding the good deposit, he tacks to the Right. On that side, the issue is not doctrinal laxity, but doctrinal maximalism, that “draws lines on virtually everything.” Divergence on any issue from the age of the Earth, to the processions of the Trinity, to election, to the finer points of the ordo salutis are heightened the threat level to Defcon 1.

It’s tempting to charge someone we disagree with of being unbiblical and unfaithful when the debate we’re having is actually within the circle of evangelicalism—whether the matter is spiritual gifts, the doctrine of the Trinity, or counseling. All of us, of course, are unbiblical and unfaithful to some extent, unless we want to say that our doctrine is perfect. Beware of charging that someone is outside the bounds of orthodoxy when in fact the only issue is that they disagree with you.

In other words, we need to have a sense of doctrinal proportion. Al Mohler talks about “Theological Triage,” while Kevin Vanhoozer speaks of “dogmatic rank.” All this is sort of basic when you start studying the shape of Christian truth.

The couple of paragraphs that I found important to highlight, though, come right after this, and speak to the negative fallout of not having a sense of proportion. Many of us in conservative circles know that not combating heresy can lead to heresy, but we often forget the possibility that wrongly combating heresy can have the counter-productive effect of pushing people towards heresy:

Such zeal on the right can actually drive people away from the truth, because if we charge them with being unorthodox (when they aren’t), they may begin to find friends on the left who don’t caricature their views. Or, they might begin to think, Well, if that’s orthodoxy, then I guess I’m not orthodox. If the lines are drawn too rigidly, we might unwittingly throw friends into the arms of those who are truly unorthodox.

Now, we may want to say, “Well, that shouldn’t be their reaction. They should take things issue by issue to the Word of God, study church history, get a proper proportion for things and not just react their way into a theological position.” And that is all well and good, but that’s not always how people work. People tend to go where they are welcomed. They listen to those who listen to them. They are sympathetic to those who are sympathetic. And vice versa. All of this shades the way they think, often leading into error.

I’ve said it before, a few years ago when Gungor started to do some of his open questioning that provoked a lot of conservative furor:

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if, at this point, Gungor continued to head down a more liberal trajectory. It’s something I’ve seen before, but it still deserves comment. I’ve often wondered how much the conservative (over)reaction adds to the advanced radicalization of questioners. Opening with “Hey, heretic, you’re the worst” probably isn’t a good way to draw someone back. How much of the theological drift by questioners, notable figures included, is fueled by a sense of rejection from the conservative theological community? “Well, I’m already a ‘heretic’ in their eyes, so why not be bold and keep exploring?” or something on that order. What’s more, creating martyrs of doubt doesn’t seem to do much to shore up the faith of the faltering.

Now, with Gungor, some folks might say, “Well, obviously he was already going down that road.” Maybe. Probably. But maybe not? That’s the thing with trajectory-thinking. When you react to the perceived trajectory of a decision and then treat someone according to the “logical” endpoint of where it can go, you can end up turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So instead of considering that your harsh, over-reaction to an error, a dispute, or disagreement is part of what contributed to someone’s liberalization, you just end up patting yourself on the back and saying, “See, I saw this coming.” This is especially the case if you like to consider yourself a courageous, culture-warrior, willing to “say the hard things that need to be said.”

Where am I going with this?

Well, for one thing, I’m not saying don’t correct error and heresy. Anybody who has read my blog for long knows that I’m not above polemics or a critical review or two. And I’ve offered my own defense of the proper place for defending against error and heresy, as well as naming some disputed questions real violations of orthodoxy and catholicity.

That said, I’ll just emphasize a few things.

First, just as some folks need to remember that there is such a thing as dangerous theological error, some folks need to recognize that a failure to correct error isn’t the only danger out there, or that there are relative rankings off errors.

Second, even when it comes to serious errors, it is good to have an eye on the way you react and correct. Especially for pastors. It is necessary to correct false teaching and false teachers. But it’s important to be mindful that you communicate to your folks in the pews that they can struggle with doubts about these issues nonetheless. They need to know that you are a safe person to come talk to about their problems with this or that doctrine.  There is a way of saying, “I get why someone might be tempted to believe this, but nevertheless, here’s why that’s wrong and harmful…”

This even applies to how we correct public errors online. I’m not saying we don’t call things out as foolishness when it ought to be, but it’s just worth considering what sort of person your congregants see online.

Third,  Schreiner makes a good point about “crying wolf.”

Also, if we regularly condemn as unorthodox those who are orthodox, we’re in danger of crying “wolf!” When the real wolf comes, no one pays attention to us anymore, because we’ve so often criticized others. If we’re negative about everything except our own views, people will begin to think we’re cranky and will ignore us when there’s a real problem.

To paraphrase the Incredibles, “when everything is a heresy, then nothing is.” If your folks get used to you sounding the alarm bell every week, they’re not going to know the difference between a drill and a real fire.

I suppose I’ll just end by suggesting some time spent reflecting on this wise counsel from Paul:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:22-26)

Soli Deo Gloria

The Problem with Consequentialism in Thelogy (for Mere-O)

mdoesl of godBeware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-20)

Thus our Lord Christ on how to spot false prophets. Apple trees bear apples, and orange trees bear oranges. And rotten trees bear rotten fruits of any kind. The same is true of teachers—their lives bear out their character. Perennial wisdom for the Church in any age.

Of late, though, this dictum has been transformed into a criterion for judging not only teachers, but teachings. Or perhaps I’m only noticing it now. In either case, it’s become quite common for people to argue that we need to abandon doctrines (whether it’s our sex ethic or our soteriology) upon the judgment that it “bears bad fruit”; it leads to negative consequences of varied sorts whether historical, social, or psychological. Does a doctrine lead to positive, human flourishing (however that’s defined)? Then it’s good. If not, chuck it. In other words, it’s been transformed into consequentialist criterion for evaluating the truth of doctrine.

As with most forms of consequentialism, there’s something intuitive, straightforward, and simple about this. Sound doctrine, truth, is life-giving in Scripture. In the long run, doctrine matters for how we live. As Eugene Peterson noted a while back, “A lie about God is a lie about life,” that leads to visibly deformed ways of living.

I think this simplicity forms some of the appeal of the consequentialist move–at least on the popular level. For those who have become skeptical either of clarity of Scripture (progressive circles), or impatient with the typical modes of theological argumentation (the blogosphere), looking to “fruits” can cut through red-tape, the obfuscation, the “ivory tower speculation” of traditional doctrinal and ethical reflection. “You poindexters can trade verses and quotes from the Fathers all day, but I can see the fallout of bad doctrine with my own two eyes in the pain of my fellow parishioners, or in the godless, racist, militaristic culture of the church I grew up in.”

On the seemingly opposite end, you can find sophisticated forms of the same argument in books filled with historical footnotes, tracing theological idea A to bad consequence B. The charm of these accounts is that you get the comparative clarity of a the fruits test, with the intellectual satisfaction of being able to tell a plausible “just-so” story that isn’t easily challenged, since most folks don’t have the historical training to spot any flaws.

You can see I think there’s something problematic about the “fruits” test–at least as a primary criterion of truth and the truth of theology. The main reason is that measuring the “fruits” or consequences of a doctrine in history can be a quite ambiguous affair.

You can read the rest of my article here at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Creeds and Traditions” Aren’t Keeping Us From Seeing the Unseen Realm

One of the most fascinating works I read last year was Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. If you want a good overview of some of the argument, see Andrew Wilson’s post here. The long and the short of it is that, using much of the most recent work from Ancient Near Eastern studies, Heiser argues for taking all those weir

unseen realm.jpg

do texts involving angels, demons, Anakim, Nephilim, and especially the notion of the “Divine Council” seriously in the way we interpret the Biblical story-line. The Bible is a supernatural book, not just in its inspiration, but in its major content.

This means the book is weird. Mostly in a good way, though. He examines text after text that many of us would be tempted to skip over, or demythologize as mere hyperbole, or cultural accommodation and ask ourselves, “But does that really make sense of the text, or do I have to consider that something more is going on here?” Even when I didn’t go with him or found myself skeptical of his “supernatural” read, it was at least a challenge I needed to wrestle with.

All of this comes by way of set up for one complaint, which is to say that it suffers from a frustrating case of Biblical studies prejudice. For Heiser, the problem is that we’ve let the creeds and modern rationalism blind us to the supernatural character of Scripture and the assumptions of the Biblical authors themselves (13). And so, we need to realize that the history of Christianity isn’t the true context for reading Christian Scriptures, but rather proper biblical interpretation is largely a matter of going back behind the creeds, behind the tradition, to the “original context” of the texts largely given to us by qualified, ANE comparative scholars (after they’ve settled matters in an objective, historical, undisputed fashion).

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m all for historical studies. Again, I as I said, I largely appreciate the insights of Heiser’s book. I enjoy learning from NT scholars who specialize in 1st Century context, and ANE insights into the OT. But what amuses me about this sort of rhetoric from someone like Heiser is just how often the “new” discoveries made through ANE studies, or NT studies just end up playing catch-up with the tradition at some point.

For instance, when I first read N.T. Wright talk about translating “In Christ” as “In the Messiah” and thought, “This is amazing! What a way to solve issues of covenant, representative atonement, etc.”, what I didn’t realize was this was simply Calvin and the Reformed Tradition’s “federal headship” concept with some 2nd Temple beef added to it. Wright was correcting views, but for the most part they were those of modern, historical critics who insisted that the title “Christ” had been transformed into a name and emptied of titular significance by the time of Paul’s writing.

In the case of Heiser’s supernatural reconstruction, something similar appears to be at work. While the ANE studies he cites do end up yielding abundant fruit in understanding particular texts and (possibly) the pervasiveness of this material in the OT, this is not a major correction on the tradition. It is actually just catching-up to fairly classic, supernaturalistic teaching on angelic and demonic hierarchies.

It’s really hard to get more supernatural than the Church Fathers such a Athanasius or Tertullian who boasted of Christ’s coming as a major (visible) defeat of the demonic powers enslaving the Pagan world. Or again, Ps. Denys has an entire (very influential!) work on the Celestial hierarchies and their role in the divine economy. Thomas Aquinas is known as the “Angelic” Doctor (in part) due to his extensive treatment of the angelic and demonic realms, which play an important role in his concept of divine governance. Or again, Martin Luther literally thought he lived in a “world with devils filled”, and that he regularly must verbally challenge and curse at the Devil who was assailing him.

Or finally, one might consider John Calvin, who one might think screens out the angelic and demonic realms as superfluous due to his doctrine of providence, actually has a very expansive place for them in his view of the Biblical story-line. And it’s true, compared to Thomas and Ps. Denys, it is modest in its speculations. But skim B.B. Warfield’s article on “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation,” and you’ll find pages and pages of analysis on the extensive role angels play in creation, history, and the story-line of the Gospel. He actually spends more time in the Institutes on the doctrine of angel and demons than that of humanity because he finds it so productive for us to consider for our spiritual lives.

I could keep going here, but my point is fairly simple: had Biblical scholars, pastors, and theologians in the modern period paid attention to the creeds and tradition of the Church, the modern rationalism that infects much of our piety and scholarship might not be as severe a problem to overcome.

Thankfully some of the best NT scholarship is beginning to recognize the “creeds and traditions” can turn out to be the most useful reading strategies we have for breaking through the unhelpful binaries of modern historical scholarship. But it’s precisely for that reason we should beware that anti-creedal rhetoric of this sort only helps keep scholars, pastors, and especially Evangelicals at large, distanced from the tradition. Indeed, it is an anti-supernaturalism (disparaging the illumination of the Holy Spirit throughout the history of interpretation) that threatens to keep it an “unseen realm” in its own right.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Protestant Note Or Two on “Silence” a Year Out

silenceI know I’m late to the game, but I finally watched Scorcese’s film adaptation of  Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” this last weekend. My wife and I took it in two parts, since I don’t do well with martyrdom stories. (I don’t think I am a crier, but I confess, I weep easily at these accounts.) As everyone said, it was a well-done film; moving, beautifully shot, and offering much rich material for reflection.

I am not sure it’s helpful for me to rehash much of the commentary–certainly not as a film critic. For what it’s worth, I found Alissa Wilkinson’s review a helpful one for situating the work historically, both in relation to Endō’s novel and Scorcese’s oeuvre. She has a sensitive, critical eye. Also, Matt Anderson and Alastair Roberts had our friend Brett McCracken on an episode of Mere Fidelity to chat about it, and all three had thought-provoking input.

Beyond that, I just wanted to add a couple of quick Protestant thoughts that occurred to me while watching.

Apostasy, the Immanent Frame, and Resurrection

On what might be the central question of the film–the righteousness of Rodrigues’ apostasy in order to “save” the Japanese Christians, I found Jake Meador’s comments most helpful. As he points out, Biblical faith is the faith of the martyrs. I do think the Church is to offer grace for the weak, for the apostate–I am not a Donatist. And let’s be honest, in a similar position, I don’t know that I would have that strength.

But the faith Scripture holds out for us (that of Daniel, of Christ, of the Martyred Apostles, of Polycarp) encourages us to receive our crown for confession, not denying the Father (or the Son) before men (Matt. 10:33). Indeed, in the desert, Christ will not kneel to the Accuser for all the kingdoms of the world–imagine all the good he could do!–if that means denying God.

On a Protestant note, Calvin and many of the Reformers did not think much of the Nicodemites, those who concealed their Protestant convictions in Roman Catholic France and elsewhere, celebrating the Mass and so forth. They thought the choice was either running into exile, or public confession unto mission and the risk of martyrdom. Though, again, they believed God was merciful to those in difficult trials.

I’ll add here that Rodrigues’ assumption in trampling (and the argument of the Inquisitors to this effect) was that to save the Japanese Christians from temporal suffering was to save them from the suffering that truly mattered. Indeed, this is part of what marks the novel and the film as particularly modern, despite being set in the 17th century.  Stuck in the Immanent Frame” (Taylor), where this-worldly good is the only kind that feels truly real, the weight of God’s “silence” in the face of the death of his saints is particularly overwhelming. (One wonders how much the “New View of Heaven” Todd Billings speaks of, plays into this.)

All the same, that is not at all the presumption of Christ who told his disciples, “do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4). He even states, paradoxically:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:16-19)

Of course, this only makes sense in light of the resurrection. The same goes for many of his other promises of repayment and restoration of everything sacrificed for Christ in the coming kingdom (Matt. 10:30). Kingdom ethics has always been a death-and-resurrection ethic. Which makes sense, given that the death and resurrection of Christ are at the the heart of the Christian faith.

For Rodrigues to trample, then, was to (understandably) fail his people, by robbing them of the comfort and encouragement of the gospel of resurrection they needed in such a trying time. And this was so especially as their Roman Catholic priest.

Which brings me to another point that nagged me throughout as a specifically Protestant viewer.

Priesthood of All Believers

As I watched I was overwhelmed by the heartbreaking need of the Japanese villagers. Oppressed politically, economically, and spiritually, the villagers needed the priests. Not only as pastors offering instruction, comfort, and counsel. According to their theology of priestly mediation, they needed them to be the Church. As Rodrigues says at one point, “If Garrpe [his fellow priest] and I die, then the Church in Japan dies.” Of course, everything Evangelical in me wanted to yell, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am present!” But he was right.

There is no priesthood of all believers there. Without ordained priests, these saints could not confess their sins to one another, nor declare to one another the definitive forgiveness of Christ in the gospel. And while there were measures for emergency baptisms, none could receive what they took to be the life-giving sustenance of the transubstantiated Body of Christ in the Eucharist because there was no priest to perform the Mass. Incidentally, this is the other dimension to Rodrigues’ failure: by apostatizing, according to his own theology he himself collaborates in killing the church in Japan.

Of course, one can only admire the Roman Catholic missionaries who did go, since the reality at the time-setting of the film was that Protestants were still mostly focused on the mission to Christendom and consolidating the gains of the Reformation.

And so I watched, in awe of the faith of these heroic villagers who were oppressed by a the State for their faith, dying with the name of “Deus” on their lips, singing hymns. And yet it was beyond tragic to see the way even the form of the faith given them had denied them and their families some of the comforts of the gospel which are their right as adopted children of God.

Soli Deo Gloria



T & T Clark Companion to Atonement (Review)

companion to atonement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A thought on culture and atonement)

iustitiaI wanted to follow up that last post on Anselm and the culturally-situated nature of our atonement accounts. As mentioned, a frequent objection is that his framing is rooted in feudal conceptions of Lord and vassal relationships, and the place of honor within them, which were quite different from other social arrangements throughout history.

A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.

Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.

Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.

But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?

I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.

We could press further, consider how much of the prophetic material presupposes this legal orientation. Israel is condemned on the basis of her violation of the Law of the Lord. Yes, it is a relational reality. But it is also one ordered by Law and prosecuted accordingly. Indeed, OT scholars will tell you that some prophets even modeled key prophecies on the legal form of a law-suit, a rib. 

In my devotional reading of Ezekiel this morning, I was struck by this passage:

Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity, but I will punish you for your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 7:3-4)

The Lord God, the Judge of Israel, will punish her for her sins “according to your ways.” Why? For her abominations, both criminal and cultic. And in so doing, “you will know that I am the Lord.” God, apparently, is concerned with his Name being known in Israel and the world as a God who is just, who does not let oppression reign in his kingdom unchecked forever. Witness the confluence of themes of legality, honor, and the matter of punishment in this prophecy.

Clearly this is not all that could be said about Scripture, both Old and New (it would take little effort to find the NT riddled with legal terminology and conceptions), nor about the realities relevant to our reflection on atonement. Nor does it justify every move made by Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, or any other Western theologian who has made matters of honor, justice, and legal satisfaction central to their account of atonement.

Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.

What’s more, the question can never merely be whether our own culture resonates or connects with some theme or metaphor in the same way Anselm’s did. The question is whether there is Scriptural reason to hold on to that theme despite its counter-cultural intuition. While I have become skeptical over the years that our culture really has fully abandoned a sense of guilt, even if it had, that would not erase the fact that Scripture testifies to the problem of guilt, nor that it needs to make it into our proclamation.

Indeed, that’s why it is such a good thing to read widely in theology across time, space, and culture. It keeps us from being blinkered and beholden to our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

companion to atonement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonderegger elaborates on this point:

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria