• Theology •
May 9, 2007
April 27, 2007
The movement toward gender-neutral language for God has picked up steam in recent years, and liberal churches have been busy rewriting language for worship and theology. Just last year the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to “receive” a document that called for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be replaced or supplemented with triads such as “Sun, Light, and Burning Ray,” “Overflowing Font, Living Water, and Flowing River,” and “Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides, and Storm that Melts Mountains.”
April 26, 2007
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church USA visited Boston this week and while there granted a noteworthy interview to The Boston Globe. Her comments regarding those Anglican provinces that take issue with the more liberal ECUSA are the starting point for our conversation today.
April 24, 2007
April 17, 2007
April 16, 2007
April 13, 2007
Theologian J. I. Packer delivered an historic defense of objective significance of the cross in “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Substitutionary Atonement,” his 1973 Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture at Cambridge University.
Packer starts by describing that the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement “by and large, is a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity.” It is noteworthy that Packer expected his audience to accept that statement at face value. Just over thirty years ago it was safe to assume that most evangelicals understood the penal substitutionary view to be paramount.
In his words:
Broadly speaking, there have been three ways in which Christ’s death has been explained in the church. Each reflects a particular view of the nature of God and our plight in sin, and of what is needed to bring us to God in the fellowship of acceptance on his side and faith and love on ours. It is worth glancing at them to see how the idea of substitution fits in with each.
There is first, the type of account which sees the cross as having its effect entirely on men, whether by revealing God’s love to us, or by bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or by setting us a supreme example of godliness, or by blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or by so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. It is assumed that our basic need is lack of motivation Godward and of openness to the inflow of divine life; all that is needed to set, us in a right relationship with God is a change in us at these two points, and this Christ’s death brings about. The forgiveness of our sins is not a separate problem; as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once. This view has little or no room for any thought of substitution, since it goes so far in equating what Christ did for us with what he does to us.
A second type of account sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces external to us which are held to be imprisoning us in a captivity of which our inveterate moral twistedness is one sign and symptom. The cross is seen as the work of God going forth to battle as our champion, just as David went forth as Israel’s champion to fight Goliath. Through the cross these hostile forces, however conceived — whether as sin and death, Satan and his hosts, the demonic in society and its structures, the powers of God’s wrath and curse, or anything else — are overcome and nullified, so that Christians are not in bondage to them, but share Christ’s triumph over them. The assumption here is that man’s plight is created entirely by hostile cosmic forces distinct from God; yet, seeing Jesus as our champion, exponents of this view could still properly call him our substitute, just as all the Israelites who declined Goliath’s challenge in 1 Samuel 17:8-11 could properly call David their substitute. Just as a substitute who involves others in the consequences of his action as if they had done it themselves is their representative, so a representative discharging the obligations of those whom he represents is their substitute. What this type of account of the cross affirms (though it is not usually put in these terms) is that the conquering Christ, whose victory secured our release, was our representative substitute.
The third type of account denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further. It grounds man’s plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God’s daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever. On this view, Christ’s death had its effect first on God, who was hereby propitiated (or, better, who hereby propitiated himself), and only because it had this effect did it become an overthrowing of the powers of darkness and a revealing of God’s seeking and saving love. The thought here is that by dying Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’, Whether this Godward satisfaction is understood as the homage of death itself, or death as the perfecting of holy obedience, or an undergoing of the God-forsakenness of hell, which is God’s final judgment on sin, or a perfect confession of man’s sins combined with entry into their bitterness by sympathetic identification, or all these things together (and nothing stops us combining them together), the shape of this view remains the same — that by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’, and so saved us. All forms of this view see Jesus as our representative substitute in fact, whether or not they call him that, but only certain versions of it represent his substitution as penal.
Packer’s defense of the substitutionary character of Christ’s atonement is irenic, thoughtful, understandable, and very difficult to refute. In his judgment, the substitutionary aspect of the atonement is “the heart of the matter.” In its essence, this is just a clear and biblical way of affirming the great truth that Jesus died for our sins.
We can only pray that this truth will be once again “a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity.”
April 12, 2007
April 12, 2007
Last week, with the cross and resurrection of Christ prominent in many public conversations, several figures launched direct attacks upon the idea of penal substitution. Most notably, The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey John of the Church of England rejected the doctrine as “repulsive” and “insane” [see here]. Following in this line, Dr. Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, affirmed John’s argument [see here].
Now, with the press having moved on to other pursuits and interests, we should return to the question and remind ourselves of why penal substitution is so important and essential to New Testament Christianity.
To that end, I commend an excellent article written almost a year ago by Dr. Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. In “Nothing But the Blood,” published in the May 1, 2006 edition of Christianity Today, Dr. Dever presents one of the best and most succinct summaries of the doctrine and its importance.
As Dr. Dever observes, “Few other doctrines go to the heart of the Christian faith like the Atonement. Congregations sing at the top of their lungs: “My sin, not in part but the whole, has been nailed to the cross, so I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” (“It Is Well with My Soul”). The priestly work of Christ separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam. Not surprisingly, the Cross has become the symbol for our faith.”
Our prayers and hymns betray the fact that the idea of penal substitution is central to the faith. (Actually our prayers and hymns are often more orthodox and biblical than our theological talk.)
Still, God’s work on the Cross leaves us with plenty of questions. In fact, there have always been a few Christians who question whether we need the Atonement, including, in recent years, some evangelicals who have challenged the dominant understanding of Christ’s death on the Cross as the substitute for our sins.
At stake is nothing less than the essence of Christianity. Historically understood, Christ’s Atonement gives hope to Christians in their sin and in their suffering. If we have any assurance of salvation, it is because of Christ’s Atonement; if any joy, it flows from Christ’s work on the Cross. The Atonement protects us from our native tendency to replace religion with morality and God’s grace with legalism. Apart from Christ’s atoning work, we would be forever guilty, ashamed, and condemned before God. But not everyone these days sees it that way.
Dr. Dever’s article is kind but clear, generous but also emphatic. He acknowledges the significance of several theories of the atonement, and affirms that the penal substitutionary model does not exhaust the New Testament witness.
Still, he insists that the idea of penal substitution is central and essential to understanding the Gospel. Beyond this, he argues that the concept of penal substitution serves as a control on our theological formulations of the cross.
In his words:
Still, when we give attention and authority to all parts of the New Testament canon, substitution becomes the center and focus of the Bible’s witness to the meaning of Christ’s death, and the measure of God’s redeeming love. As New Testament theologian George Eldon Ladd said, “The objective and substitutionary character of the death of Christ as the supreme demonstration of God’s love should result in a transformation of conduct that is effected by the constraining power of that love.” Theologian Donald Bloesch is in line with this when he insists: “Evangelical theology affirms the vicarious, substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ. It does not claim that this theory does justice to all aspects of Christ’s atoning work, but it does see substitution as the heart of the Atonement.”
The heart of atonement. Yes, and a precious and life-transforming perspective into the heart of God the Father, who is shown in the cross of the Son to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus [Romans 3:26].
This is an unavoidable dividing line in Christian theology — and increasingly in what is called evangelical Christianity.
April 6, 2007
April 6, 2007
The Very Reverend Dr. Jeffrey Philip Hywel John believes that the church’s traditional understanding of the cross of Christ is both “repulsive” and “insane.” His comments on the cross and atonement ignited a firestorm in Great Britain and the controversy has now spread to America as well. Anglicanism does not seem to have whatever it takes to deal with heretics these days, and so the church simply leaves them in places of influence, such as Dr. John’s position as Dean of St. Albans.