Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.
Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement. Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death. He offers an illustration:
Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries. The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled. Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again. The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed. Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it. Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).
I have been reading a beautiful and challenging collection of sermons by Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death. Here is an excerpt from her 1991 Palm Sunday sermon titled “The New World Order.”
Of all the days in the Christian year, this is certainly the most disconcerting. Even the most seasoned churchgoers tend to forget, each year, exactly what we are in for when we come to church for this occasion. We start out in gala mood; Palm Sunday has always been a crowd-pleaser. The festivity of the triumphal procession, the stirring music, the palm branches, the repeated hosannas all suggest a general air of celebration. It comes as a shock to us, year after year, to find ourselves abruptly plunged into the solemn, overwhelmingly long dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. It’s a tough Sunday. Its begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe. We come in prepared to part, and we leave as if we were going to a funeral. We come in joyful and we go out stricken. All in all, it is a most perplexing day – and for those who are unprepared, it can be downright threatening.
It would be tempting, on this day, to follow good American practice and tone down the depressing parts – “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Many American congregations have attempted this. Were it not for the ancient liturgical wisdom given to the church, it would be perfectly possible to go to Sunday services two weekends in a row – Palm Sunday and Easter Day – without ever having to face the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal on the Friday between. Our historic liturgy, however, guards against this fatal misunderstanding. […] In this way, the church announces for all the hear that the Crucifixion of Jesus is the main event. There is no passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday. […]
This week, the church of Jesus Christ gathers around the heart, the center, the guts of its claim to know the truth. Continue reading
In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption. One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14). This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only. However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent. He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another. An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:
Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).
Having given a summary of Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (InterVarsity Press, 2009), I’ll offer some reflections and another invitation to more interaction on a few of its themes and lines of argument.
On the whole, I think the book could serve as a reasonable introduction to the mosaic of biblical teaching on the atonement. At the same time, I felt that, given the measure of specificity granted to the volumes of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, it would have been good in some places to slow down and go for depth over breadth. For example, chapter eight broaches a dizzying number of dimensions of the Christian life but could have concentrated on those more closely tied to living in light of the cross.
Released in 2009 as an addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series from InterVarsity Press, Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom bears the characteristic marks of that series: attentiveness to pertinent biblical texts, concern for theological articulation, awareness of contemporary debates, and sensitivity to the dynamics of Christian discipleship. Each volume of the series unpacks a particular scriptural theme and, says Cole, this one centers on atonement both broadly conceived as ‘all of God’s saving work throughout time and eternity’ and more narrowly conceived in terms of its ‘central component’, the cross (p. 24).
The first chapter frames the atonement with a consideration of the divine attributes, especially righteousness, holiness, and love. The first and second of these precipitate the need for the atonement while the third precipitates the provision of the atonement. All three are revealed on the cross and among them there is no conceptual conflict, even if we experience a ‘psychological strife’ in reconciling divine wrath and mercy, which are contingent expressions of holiness and love, respectively (p. 51).
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable. Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.
One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147). Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death. Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship. The Father loses his fatherhood as well. The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80). Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation. The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.
Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way. Continue reading
Describing the crucifixion, “God on the Cross”, Nietzsche reminds us of its perennial ability to disturb: “Till now there was never and nowhere such an audacity in reversal, something so fearful, questioning and questionable as this formula.” And in our day we continue questioning, probing, reformulating, and grappling with the possible – and impossible – implications of it. A live example is the current discussion on the link between violence and the atonement. Is the cross an instance of divine and human violence, or is it an instance only of human violence – of evil plotting alone?
Having recently reviewed a book on nonviolent atonement theory, Stricken by God?, I was left with a question to which I only hinted in the review and would like to explore further here. Why is the doctrine of providence and its relationship to atonement rarely, if ever, discussed? Related to this, why do I think this is noteworthy or even just curious?
Atonement and Providence
To invoke the doctrine of providence is to bring two issues to the fore – both of which have direct significance for doctrines of atonement: (1) the character of the actors in the drama of redemption (God and creatures) and (2) the relationship between divine and human action.
With that in mind, I have two suggestions. First, if it does concern itself with those realities then the doctrine of providence, though not mentioned in the present discussions about the relationship between atonement and violence, has determinative significance for one’s doctrine of atonement. Second, by allowing the doctrine of providence to function more “transparently” we gain a sense for how doctrines of the atonement assume certain models of providence and, just so, become more informed to judge whether they can be sustained, given their implications for providence.
Part of my concern is pastoral and the other doctrinal. Continue reading