The Biggest Problem For Atonement Theories?

The Biggest Problem For Atonement Theories? October 9, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.42.26 PMWhat do you think?

Thomas Andrew Bennett, in his book The Labor of God, contends the biggest problem with atonement theories is that they resolve a problem but not the fullness of the problem. Here are his words in the next four paragraphs:

Of the idiosyncrasies characteristic of contemporary atonement theology, perhaps the most peculiar is that atonement, based as it is on the “at-oneing” of God and humanity, never appears to be concerned with a fundamental change in us. …

Models involving some sort of divine victory are revelatory—Christ exposes the powers for what they are—and efficacious—Christ breaks the chains the powers impose on us. But aside from clarifying the state of the world and perhaps clearing out some barriers to certain life patterns, it is again hard to see how this brings union to God and humanity.

In some ways the cross as the labor of God is a work of protest— protest against every proclamation of the cross that concedes the church’s increasing irrelevance by ratifying the status quo in which hearts remain unmarked and unturned and unchanged in the face of the crucifixion of the Son of God. What does the cross accomplish? What does it gain? What life is born from the cries of birth and their accompanying scars? The framing of the question itself points us in the direction of the answer: the divine labor creates new life, new people who bear the nature not of earthly parents but of the true fathering and mothering God. The cross creates a new race, a different sort of people with different blood, different parents, different DNA, even a brand new extended family. …

Penal substitution and satisfaction, for example, give fine accounts for how the cross removes a bone of contention between us and God, but they do not explain how the cross renews us. That is to say, they do not connect the sufferings of Christ to a new nature or a new life. Properly speaking, that job belongs to somebody else, the Holy Spirit perhaps.

Bennett studies sin in the Bible and shows convincingly and compellingly — few seem to see how big of an issue this is in atonement theology — that sin is bigger than, but includes, guilt. Sin is big and is active; it attacks and confounds and kills. More is involved than moral agents making morally bad decisions and more is involved than guilt; the more that is involved the more is needed in atonement theology. He’s right: “the biblical and theological vision of sin bears little resemblance to crude forensic interpretations” (65). a gospel, let this be said with force, that is not shaped by this more will be a little gospel, which is precisely what the soterian gospel is — a little gospel dealing with one fraction of the sin problem.

Thus, Bennett is asking if our soteriology matches our hamartiology. In a day when more and more are convinced sin is also systemic, a soterian gospel will not cut it.

A theology of the cross, he is arguing, must be a theology of rebirth.

Bennett points us to Titus 3:5:

he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

And to 1 John 3:9-10:

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

What we need, then, is total rebirth:

Spiritual birth is best described in the following manner: At the cross, Christ labors to bear spiritual children, replacing minds corrupted and hollowed out by sin with minds that firmly and completely grasp their true origin. Christ extricates them out of corrupt familial webs, systems of relationships wholly mired in spiritual blindness, birthing them into a new family, God’s family, the church (74).

So what’s the problem the gospel resolves?

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  • fb

    Agree that we need total re-birth, but an honest question: does that have to be accounted for in the atonement?

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I am aware that the New Testament says that the resurrection of Christ is a type of birth, e.g. Colossians 1:18, I Peter 1:3, and Revelation 1:5.

    I am also aware that the New Testament speaks of spiritual birth being produced by the Holy Spirit (e.g. John 3 and Galatians 4:29) and the word of God (e.g. James 1:18 and I Peter 1:23).

    Paul spoke of himself as giving birth to Christians in I Corinthians 4:15 and Galatians 4:19. In fact, in the latter passage, he told the Galatians that he was in labor “until Christ be formed in you”–which is something both pastors and laity should contemplate.

    I wonder if there are any passages of the New Testament that refer to the Crucifixion or to atonement in terms of birth–and, if so, whether one will be mentioned in the next article in this series on *The Labor of God*.

  • scotmcknight

    Both of you are asking the question I myself have. But remember that an atonement theory is larger than any verse and term. It has been an encompassing construct.

  • David C Woodard

    This is, I think helpful and needed discussion. At what point do we need to separate out differing facets of salvation and how much do they overlap? I know it is error to say things such as (as I have pushed back against in my own tradition) that justification and regeneration are synonymous. They are not; they are different aspects necessarily related. Scott is right that we can draw too tight a definition, but how encompassing is it/should it be? I look forward to the comments and future posts in this vein.

  • James

    I have read a lot of Gordon Fee and I believe he would argue that the theology of rebirth, at least for Paul, would be found primarily in a robust Pneumetology. I am trying to remember if he deals much with how that connects to the cross/atonement, nothing comes to mind. Now I need to get my copy of “God’s Empowering Presence” off the shelf.

  • At what point, if at all, is it helpful to think of much of our theological language (in the NT and beyond) as more poetic, more as artwork inspired by real events (with physical and spiritual dimensions), than as a technical owner’s manual? It seems to me that Paul and the other NT writers (and Jesus himself leading the way with his parables), are trying to communicate truths not in the style of an owner’s manual for a car, but are instead using more layered artistic expressions that welcome a reading that is more than one-dimensional. I wonder about this frequently lately as I’ve been looking back at Church history, specifically during and following the Reformation, in regards to the intense debates between Luther and Zwingli regarding, for example, how literal vs. metaphorical Jesus is being in saying “This is my body.”

    I am deeply grateful for much of what Luther and the other Reformers accomplished, but don’t we also have to ask ourselves the hard questions about the approach to the scriptures and to theology that would produce the fruit of harsh condemnation by Luther of Zwingli and other radical reformers? I see the same thing in Calvin as well and many sons of the Reformation today. An overly technical approach to the language of the scriptures results in an oft-repeated claim of some particular interpretation being “central” to the faith (Luther’s approach to presence in the Eucharist; double imputation, etc.), even when a survey of the NT would never produce such claims. To be blunt, it seems that an overly technical reading results in the “smallness” that the post references, but also directly feeds into the problem of schism and division that has multiplied in the Church since the Reformation. There is, in a nutshell, a repeated tendency to miss the forest of God’s truth for the trees.

  • Patrick

    My experience with serious experiential change happened a long time after I first believed. I cannot say I was seriously changed until I was much older and I can’t say for 100% certainty why I was then.

    I can say why I think I was because the 2 events were simultaneous.

    There was a point in my life where I was led to approach church and the bible to learn from both as opposed to finding validation to satisfy my pre conceived notions. It was not a particular doctrinal change although that happened a lot.

    I think it occurred when God had succeeded in opening my heart and mind to His reality somehow instead of mine. Don’t ask me why He did when I was much older, I assume I was in effect saying, “not interested” earlier.

    The change occurred before I realized penal substitution theory was flawed. The change era( which is ongoing) led me to see Christus Victor as more accurate if not perfectly accurate.

  • Tom Bennett

    I don’t think it *has* to, but I do think it should. My gut says that the reformers’ practice of making strong conceptual distinctions between, say, justification and sanctification led to categories being unnecessarily reified.

  • Tom Bennett

    From a systematic perspective, it is true that classical Protestant categories like justification and regeneration get blurred in the Labor of God, but that is part of the point. Maybe the systematic conceptual distinctions are going about things the wrong way. By looking at the cross in a different way, we can maybe be alerted to our conceptual blind spots and get a fresh, biblically sourced grasp on what “soteriology” is really about.

  • Stephanos Grammateus

    By my reading of the New Testament, Jesus did not set out to establish a systematic theology. Nor did Jesus instruct or imply that his disciples should convert/develop his teachings into a systematic theology. The clearest attempt at systematization was brought by Paul (who, interestingly, was the one apostle who did not know Jesus in the flesh, did not walk and talk and minister with him directly). The other apostles in the New Testament (who knew Jesus personally and witnessed everything firsthand) evince a more direct, experiential understanding of salvation and the kingdom of God. I take that as instructive. I concur wholeheartedly with Mr. Bennett: The gospel is ultimately about transformation — I would say, transformation at an uncomfortably personal level. The goal is to transform our hearts and minds and souls — the very stuff we are made of, the stuff God is trying to extricate us from, which holds tentacles at very deep, core levels — not to transform our understanding of theology, soteriology, hamartiology, or any other ~-ology. Intellectual theorizing is interesting and fun, and occasionally useful. But it’s important that we not let it take our eyes off the real prize, which is Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit within us — no matter what theoretical construct you conceive as explaining it. I’d love to hear more from Patrick (below) about his personal change experience. In his epistles, written as an older man, John says that we will know our brothers and sisters by the evidences of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I would love for this article to tip us into a deeper dive into the experience of transformation, regeneration, and reunion with God.

  • Jamin Andreas Hübner

    Interesting…and makes us question again the argument for infant baptism 😉 (see Conner, “Covenant Children Today: Physical or Spiritual?”)

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    From what I have learned and remember about Luther, I do not think that his approach to the Scripture and theology are responsible for his harsh condemnations of other Reformers with whom he disagreed. With all due respect to the great man, I think his conception of himself as the leader of the Reformation and the work of the Devil are the two most important factors. From what I have read, he seemed to be unwilling to believe that theologians like Zwingli who disagreed with him were sincerely trying to interpret the Scriptures correctly, and he was prone to believing that they had been misled by the Devil. Thus he saw himself confronted not with honest differences, but either dishonest ones or honest ones caused by the Devil. It is good that he took doctrine and the wiles of the Devil so seriously–but, to me, extremely sad and distressing that he was not more magnanimous toward the theologians with whom he disagreed.

    I’m not certain I understand what you mean by “an overly technical reading”. It seems to me that the best way to understand the Scriptures is in the exact words and terms it employs. I do not consider that overly technical–I consider it safe. This is not to say that there are no good and useful extra-scriptural analogies, illustrations, and terms–just that if we are less likely to err if we use the intra-scriptural ones.

  • Rod Bristol

    Bennett shines a much-needed light!

    We too often bog down in semantics and parses, which insulate us from the shocking, transforming gospel. The toughest barrier to the gospel is our self-righteousness, often sustained by intellectual prowess. The cross of Christ has power to overwhelm my self-righteousness, like nothing else ever could. Of all the people whose encounters with Jesus are recorded in the gospels, the one with the highest spiritual attainment was the one Jesus told he had to start all over, to be born again (John 3).

    In recoiling from the false notion of salvation as a reward for works, we have obscured the participative life of a disciple. Jesus said that acknowledging him as Lord is meaningless unless his followers do the will of God (Matthew 7:21). Jesus prayed for mutual indwelling with his followers (John 17:20-26). That mutual indwelling gives the church the power to behave as the body of Christ, so that God’s will can be done on earth. Peter said that God gives power to share in his own nature to those who diligently follow his call (2 Peter 1). Paul said we should glorify God in our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). When we “spiritualize” discipleship, we are following Platonic philosophy, not the gospel of Jesus.

  • “he seemed to be unwilling to believe that theologians like Zwingli who disagreed with him were sincerely trying to interpret the Scriptures correctly, and he was prone to believing that they had been misled by the Devil. Thus he saw himself confronted not with honest differences, but either dishonest ones or honest ones caused by the Devil.”

    But that outcome is a natural outcome of a view that treats the text more as a technical owner’s manual rather than seeing the authors as intentionally using artful language. It is easier to think that those that disagree with us are demonized or even just operating in bad faith if we think our view is obvious, as it often is in technical writing with very narrow and precise language. It is harder to think as Luther did about those that disagree if we see the text as more artful than technical in its prose.

    Please understand this is not a statement that doctrine is unimportant. What I’m asking is whether the failure to appreciate the artful use of language, first by Jesus but also by the NT writers makes the kind of stances by Luther (and many sons of the Reformation today) vis a vis those that disagree with them (whether on the particulars of Eucharist, or baptism, or double imputation, etc.) almost inevitable, whether we see demons as involved or not. I do think that the Church has had many schisms in the last several centuries that strike me as adventures in missing the point, as straining at gnats while swallowing camels. But as that phrase illustrates, much of the scriptures are written in artful metaphor, even when Paul gets his headiest.

  • David C Woodard

    I am very open to this type critique. I have found in many areas that while I wasn’t in the end led to abandon previous positions, often times challenges from differing perspectives help me to be rounded or filled out into a more biblical balance. Of course some times… I’ve just been convinced to change. My (current) sense in this topic is that the distinctions ought not be done away with (else risk misuse of texts which do say what they say and don’t say what they don’t), but probably could use to be held a bit closer together than I and others often do.

  • Sharon Soper

    Love your yhoughts.epecially first paragraph. Thank you.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I did not think that you thought that “doctrine is unimportant”–I was merely explaining why Luther condemned those who disagreed with him so harshly. One reason why is that he had a proper regard for the vital importance of sound doctrine–a regard that is not common among Christians in America today, including those who belong to Protestant denominations. One should also bear in mind that in the dispute between Luther and Zwingli, the unity of the Reformation movement was at stake–the importance of which is difficult for us to understand and appreciate, hundreds of schisms later, today.

    I do not think that the approach of Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers toward interpreting Scripture made it “almost inevitable” for them to have uncharitable attitudes towards those with whom they disagreed. It is true that the *possibility* of intellectual arrogance goes along with it, but not all of the Reformers were intellectually arrogant. Consider Philipp Melanchthon, a brilliant theologian who was Luther’s closest colleague in the Reformation, and who established and maintained good relations with other theologians who were not followers of Luther. Consider also the famous expression, which was employed by the Calvinist Richard Baxter, among many others: “In necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in all things love”.

    It sounds to me as if you may be advocating for a subjective understanding of the Scriptures as opposed to an objective understanding of them. Is this right?

  • Mark

    “In necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in all things love”

    At the risk of sounding flippant, isn’t this the problem? We have division because we don’t know what is “necessary” and what is “uncertain.” That becomes the battleground and love is forsaken.

  • No; I’m not arguing for a subjective versus objective understanding. I’m saying that these letters are often using poetic language and imagery, or other artistic literary approaches, intentionally, to give insight into concepts and activities and accomplishments and features of God that are too large, too resplendent, to be fully captured by any language let alone narrow, technical language. Consider, as an extreme example, all the parables that Jesus tells to tell us about “the kingdom.” All the parables are true, obviously. Nor is Jesus saying that we can only understand the kingdom subjectively versus objectively. But the parables all give us a few somethings about the kingdom and the players it concerns, even though the parables are wildly different from one another. The letters often also use poetic or other imaging language about the kingdom, the Spirit, Jesus, the atonement, the Father, or our status in Christ, etc. Many of these descriptions are not intended to be exclusive, but are giving, like the parables, an important insight about something too grand for just one illustration.

    As for the Reformers, I’m not saying there are not instances of gracious Reformed or Lutheran theologians. But I am saying that the technical and systematic approach to the scriptures and theology that largely began with the Reformation often and repeatedly resulted, from then to now, very public and sometimes even intensely violent conflicts and schism within the Faith that led to the harshest of judgments against other Christians over lots of “uncertain” things and about how “necessary” they were. Many of these fights (wars?) were over matters that are themselves embodied poetic expressions that are both physical and spiritual: baptism, Eucharist, and other co-operations b/n people and the Spirit. Again, by saying that these are poetic is not to say that there is no “objective” truth to be had, and certainly not to say that all is subjective. We are to understand as we are called to love: with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength–but significantly it’s worth noting that the scriptures make it clear that the things of God will be enough to fill up and go beyond all of these facets individually and together. We have peace and love from God that we pray to understand, even as we know it is beyond understanding fully. We only see partly. And no eye has seen and no ear heard all that God has in mind. It’s these realities that make the poetic language (and an approach to them as such) a necessity. We are scraping around on the tips of icebergs whose depths are beyond imagining but can be pointed toward in artistic language and work. Again, that’s not to say “there’s nothing we can know” or any such silliness. But Church history and its many violent schisms that grew out of a mistaken or prideful attempt to nail too many of God’s mysteries down with measurable precision, and with a confidence necessary to condemn and attack others with is worse than silliness. But it is a key part, taking the good with the bad, of the Reformers’ legacy in and to us that began in their lifetimes and continued for centuries since over every area of theology. I’m simply saying we do well to see it, be aware of it, if we are to have any hope not to repeat it, both in discussions like the one in the post and many beyond.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    The famous remark does not solve all problems and heal all divisions–but it does address the question as to whether one can disagree in a charitable way. As long as we take doctrine to be a matter of spiritual life and death (I Timothy 4:16) and contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3), we will have serious disagreements and arguments over doctrine–but that does not mean that the arguments must be unloving. We cannot have a charitable attitude toward those with whom we disagree, seeking their benefit, and the benefit of the entire Church, while we are in dispute with them.

    As we see from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, there are instances that call for a strong condemnation of false doctrine–especially doctrine about the Gospel (Galatians 1:8-9 and 5:12). Yet the same Paul wrote II Timothy 2:24-26, which in the ESV reads as follows:

    And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, table 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.

  • Consider, as an illustration of the approach we’ve inherited, the typical practice of expository preaching. “This passage means this.” And “this” is often a particular piece of the systematics of the pastor/tradition. And we do this repeatedly, often for years as the central sacrament of the evangelical Church. This is obviously not the way that preaching and teaching was done in the first or even first several centuries, which is not bad in and of itself, but the particular difference is evidence of exactly the approach to the scriptures I’m talking about. When we go verse by verse, and say for each, in effect if not explicitly, “this is what this passage means” we are flattening it out. We are reducing the biblical text to our systematics. We grab a few small, manageable truths and speak of them as the totality. I hope this is making my point clearer.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I agree with you that a preacher who delivers an expository sermon which he believes is *the* definitive exposition of a particular passage of Scripture, he is mistaken–indeed I think he may well be delusional. I think, though, that if you were to take a survey of expository preachers in which you asked them if they believe that they ever preach definitive expositions, most of them would say no.

    This is not to say that there is anything wrong with expository preaching and teaching per se. Its origin is not in the Reformation, but in the Old Testament. Consider Nehemiah 8:7-8, Malachi 2:7, Luke 24:24 and 47, and Acts 8:30-35, 17:1-4, and 28:23.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    Systematic theology began long before the Reformation. I think that if you were asked who the greatest systematic theologians of history are, you might well name Thomas Aquinas, who lived and died in the 13th Century, long before the Reformation began. Aquinas was not the first systematic theologian–the Wikipedia article “Systematic theology” mentions Church Fathers as systematic theologians. There were others between the death of Aquinas in 1274 and the start of the Reformation in 1517–including contemporaries of John Wycliffe and Jan Huss. Luther himself was aware that his strengths in theology were not as a systematizer. Ironically, it was the irenic Melanchthon, not the polemical Luther, who was the first great Lutheran systematic theologian–followed by Martin Chemnitz.

    Therefore, I respectfully disagree with you that “the technical and systematic approach to the scriptures and theology” is the cause of “very public and sometimes even intensely violent conflicts and schism within the Faith that led to the harshest of judgments against other Christians”. I refer you to my reply in this comments section to Mark, in which I mentioned the Apostle Paul’s strong condemnation of false gospels in his epistle to the Galatians. We know from that epistle, from I Corinthians 11:18-19 and Titus 3:10-11, from the epistles of II Peter, I John, II John, and Jude, and from the Lord’s messages to the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira recorded in Revelation 2, that heresy, dissension, and schism began in the Apostolic Age.

  • Yes, there are other instances of something akin to our modern practice of it, and my point is not to say it is inherently wrong or should never be done. My point is simply to show that the dominant practice of it now is a good illustration of the kind of approach to the scriptures in a technical way that can present interpreted (and often systematic) “meaning” of the text as exclusive rather than contributive. I’m sure you’ve heard the maxim, “one interpretation, many applications.” While such a bit of wisdom has some merit, it is often used in exactly the way I’m arguing against here, especially when combined with (exclusively) expository preaching.

    But again, my point is that many of the scriptures are intentionally written with metaphors and other artistic language. The drive to explain the scriptures as much as possible, which is good, can unintentionally be oversold and done with too much confidence, which, again, church history since the Reformation has shown repeatedly and at very high costs, from the very beginning to the present day. It can also replace the mystery inherent to so many of our topics (the atonement, the Spirit’s work, God himself, etc.) with answers that may be true, but not true enough, not complete, which our limited perspectives always entail. To fail to give appropriate acknowledgement to the inherited and repeating pattern that stems from how we routinely approach the scriptures (and then, each other) only increases the chances of it continuing. I see that as relevant to the post and its subject.

  • Yes, schism and (rightful) declaration of heresy is going to be required as part of being the Church. But, and this is key, I don’t see the huge swaths of schism and division since the Reformation as falling in that category. Hence my initial point about Luther and Zwingli. And, yes, systematic thinking has been around as long as people have thought about God. But there was a shift at the Reformation, and no small part of that shift was the basis for “unity” and the role that agreement about various doctrines, large and small, would play in that unity. Further, one consequence of “sola scriptura” was that there was more pressure on how we read those scriptures and what we drew from them. This is not bad in and of itself, but it does make the stakes higher, as the many schisms since the Reformation illustrate. I’m not saying that heresy is an empty category, or that systematics is bad (or even possible to avoid). I’m saying that Luther’s approach to the scriptures (and that of several other Reformers and those in their footsteps) was directly related to the multitudes of schisms that followed that were frequently not, in the judgment of history, over matters that justified the harshness, excommunications, and even violence that resulted.

    In a nutshell, schism over a genuinely false gospel is appropriate. But the problem is that we have had loads of schisms and false judgments since the Reformation that were not justified. Its not doing any systematics that are the problem. It’s not investigating the scriptures and counting on them to be authoritative for our faith. But history would demand that there is something about the way that the Reformers and their progeny approach the scriptures and their related systematics and ecclesiology that created a repeating pattern of false judgments and unwarranted schism. Do you disagree with that?

    *EDIT: Please note, I say this as a Protestant. I am not Catholic or Orthodox. But we have our own issues and this is clearly one.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I do agree that some well-intentioned Christians go too far in trying to explain the Scriptures–indeed, it has long been a concern of mine, too. Anyone who believes in the doctrine of the Trinity must acknowledge that there are some things about God that are beyond our ken. Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers did. Luther himself taught that reason should be used in service to the interpretation of Scriptures and spoke strongly against regarded reason as superior to the divine revelations recorded in the Scripture.

    Ironically, one of the reasons why Luther and Zwingli disagreed over the doctrine of the Real Presence is that they disagreed over the use of reason in understanding the Lord’s Supper. Luther was willing to accept by faith that which Zwingli argued against with reason. Knowing this can help one to understand why Luther was so strongly opposed to Zwingli. It wasn’t just a matter of disagreement in interpretation: it was a matter of a difference in approach to interpretation.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I am trying to understand exactly what it is about “the way that the Reformers and their progeny approach the scriptures and their related systematics and ecclesiology” you believe “created a repeating pattern of false judgments and unwarranted schism”. Exactly what is it about “Luther’s approach to the scriptures (and that of several other Reformers and those in their footsteps)” do you believe is “directly related to the multitudes of schisms that followed”?

    I think that the reasons for the problem may not be where you think they are. Consider what Catholics say about it. They argue that the reason there has been so much schism among Protestants is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura itself. They say that without the authority of the magisterium, schism is inevitable: therefore, all Christians should accept the authority of the magisterium, which is grounded in the doctrine of Apostolic Succession.

    I myself say that part of the problem is in too low a regard of the importance of unity. In 1517, Christians in Europe took the prospect of schism with the utmost seriousness. Today, we do not. I suspect one reason why Luther was so displeased with the Reformers who disagreed, and condemned them, is because he believed that they were causing schism. (Note: Luther did not declare independence from the Catholic Church. He remained a Catholic until he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1520.)

    One of the doctrines over which Protestants have disagreed over the last 500 years is: When, if ever, does heresy call for excommunication or for schism? I think it is not right to say that the Reformers are responsible for every one of the various answers that have been given.

  • danaames

    Part of my questioning as I set out on my journey was indeed “What is it that happens to us on/by means of/because of the Cross?” The answer that made sense to me was that all Jesus did had its precedent in the Incarnation. Jesus can’t make something happen to us by an action alone; only if the Divine nature/ousia of the Second Person is united with the human nature he received in the Incarnation can any action of his be effective for us, as we receive the benefit of that union of natures. This is assumed throughout the NT, but it is not fully explained. The explanation unfolded over the next couple of centuries with the aid of the Greek language/vocabulary, reaching its fullness in the consensus of thought of Athanasius & the Cappadocian fathers. This is what the Orthodox Church believes today, btw.

    The best presentation of this that I’ve found has been given by Dr. Ben Myers, an Australian Methodist/Uniting Church-er (!). Here’s a video of his presentation:

    Usually it’s easier for me to listen, but in this instance, the written version was easier for me to follow (appears in this post as a scribeD document):

    There are plenty of places in the OT that says God simply forgives; he doesn’t need payment to satisfy his justice. The Cross is the ultimate display of his Forgiveness, as he allows evil to do its worst to him (NTW) with our collusion in it.
    The Jewish sacrificial system was about union of the offerer with the offering in order to restore the wholeness of the communion of the community – even on the Day of Atonement. It was not about blood per se; it was that the LIFE is in the blood. “The blood” is nothing more or less than the life of the offerer/offering.
    Our most pressing problem is DEATH as in Heb 2.9-17 (another place where the hypostatic union of the Incarnation is assumed but not delineated). We are enslaved to sin because of our fear of death (actual or “psychological”). What happens on the Cross – what is changed in us – is that Christ as God enters into the realm of death, and in his Resurrection he undoes the power of Death, granting everyone resurrection because of the hypostatic union. When we are Baptized, the full effect of that is unlocked as we sacramentally enter into the death of Christ and are reborn into a life without fear of death in the promise of the Resurrection.

    Of course, because of the fallen condition of creation and our own tendency to sin because of our mortality, we don’t pop out of the baptismal waters and never sin again. But if we live into our Baptism by remaining in a sacramental kind of life with prayer and humility, we begin to partake of that Resurrection life. The grip of death on us gets loosened, and over time, as we struggle to be the humans we were created to be, holiness takes hold. The Cross & Resurrection opened the door; all we have to do (!) is put one foot in front of the other and walk with the Lord.

    The thing that is missing from Bennett’s presentation (as summarized by Scot) is the Incarnation. In the non-sacramental Protestant world, it seems to mean nothing more than Jesus getting a body that could be sacrificed. It’s so very much more – it’s the key to all of Jesus’ acts, and the key to our deliverance and healing (soteria – salvation).


  • On the reason for repeated schism in the Protestant Faith: “I myself say that part of the problem is in too low a regard of the importance of unity. In 1517, Christians in Europe took the prospect of schism with the utmost seriousness. Today, we do not.” I think this is true, and I’d go further. Valuing unity or anything is always relative to other values in terms of controlling actual conduct. I may value being married, and value a job that has me on the road 8 months out of the year, but life will often force me to choose to love one more. Luther may have hated schism and valued unity, but not as much as he valued his inferences regarding Eucharist, specifically as to how metaphorical Christ was being when he said “This is my body.”

    I’m not saying that the Reformers are to blame for all schism since the Reformation, though I do think their approach to the scriptures and to the very definition or “marks” of a valid church play a significant role in exactly what you pointed out: we Protestants don’t care that much about unity (relative to other priorities or values). The earliest Protestant “marks” (around which there was, of course, some disagreement) consisted of “pure preaching of the gospel; . . . pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; [and] church discipline for correcting faults.” There seems to be more agreement around the priority of the first than the next two, even during the Reformation, and certainly since in many camps.

    This has profound implications today and, again, demonstrates what I’m talking about (and also the relative lack of value for unity). If purity or rightness of one’s preaching or doctrine or sacrament practice is essentially how we Protestants measure our validity as a Church, then any “wrong” doctrine becomes a threat to our very identity. Or, to put it another way, having right doctrine (at least from our leaders) is what validates our communities as proper Churches of Jesus.

    I realize that Catholics say the “marks” of the Church come from the creeds and are “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” which, of course, are their own terms of art in respective Protestant and Catholic camps, especially by those that recite and affirm the creeds. But before we get to the problems of how Catholics define “one . . . catholic and apostolic” it is worth noting that some degree of unity is at least fundamental to the very Catholic notion of “church.”

    Much more could be said regarding how both the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of “Church” apply here, but for now I’ll just add a couple of things. First, in line with the reality that, even if the Reformers did value unity, they clearly valued doctrinal purity or correctness more and such preference went beyond the gospel itself, certainly in the matter of what made for a valid church. I would argue today that this priority value of doctrinal correctness often has a displacing effect not only on the value for unity, but also for orthopraxy (as opposed to orthodoxy). I should mention that the emphasis that we are saved by grace through faith (not by works), also often has a diminishing effect on the relative value of orthopraxy as a whole, of which unity may be a part, especially considering that the “faith” necessary for salvation is often debated for doctrinal correctness and/or completeness.

    While I disagree with how Catholics have come to both conceive of and practice unity (as well as their working definitions of “apostolic”), I agree that their determination to see the definition of “Church” as more than orthodoxy alone is on the right track, and that a real expression and pursuit of unity is a necessary part. Jesus said that the world would know that that we were his disciples by the way we loved one another. Further, it is through our unity, Jesus says to the Father, that “the world may know You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Therefore, to some extent our failure to be as one before the world works against the world knowing that Jesus was indeed sent from the Father, and that the Father has loved us as he loved Christ himself.

    If only the first two were at stake, or, frankly, the second by itself, the issue would be critically important. But in history and today in the Protestant Church we have deemed a variety of doctrines as more important to our identity and mission than our unity. I don’t know if there is a doctrine we haven’t split over at one time or another. I cannot help but think that our shift toward sola scriptura and our shift to sola fide have worked together with our historic conceptions of what makes a church a valid church of Jesus (pure or correct doctrine, not unity or love or other orthopraxy) to put inevitable, one-way pressure on having correct doctrine, making acknowledgement of much in the way of mystery and/or disagreements about doctrine impossible to maintain. If our validity, as a church (or individually as a matter of salvation) depends on our correctness in belief and teaching, then even vague language can be a threat, and disagreement certainly is, because it means that one of us is wrong, and being right means so much more in the Protestant conception of both salvation and church validity. This changes our approach to the scriptures and toward those with whom we disagree. It also, necessarily downplays the significance of not only unity but love, at least as it pertains to those with whom we have doctrinal differences.

    A comment section really isn’t conducive to working this out with appropriate depth, but I think the history of the many branches of the faith within Protestantism, and how they came about makes it unavoidably true. We may value unity and love, but not as much as we value doctrinal correctness. Uncertainty and disagreements concerning doctrine threaten our very communal identity and individual security in a way that is unique to Protestant faith because correctness of “faith” (including our gospel at least and then also sometimes other doctrines and sacraments) has always been central to how we judge our communities as valid churches and even our own salvation.

    But I don’t think that sola scriptura has to lead us there. I think there is ample justification in the scriptures to approach all these matters differently.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I have read your last, very long, set of remarks–I will be brief in my responses to them:

    First: Regarding ” being right means so much more in the Protestant conception of both salvation and church validity”: Do you believe that Protestants care more about pure doctrine than does the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church cites I Timothy 3:15 in support of the authority of the magisterium. It teaches the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. I’m sure that if you were to ask the College of Cardinals who cares more about pure doctrine, the Reformers or themselves, they would give you a unanimous answer–you can guess what it would be.

    Clearly a preference for purity of doctrine over unity predates the Reformation. We see it in the New Testament. We see it in the Inquisition. We see it in the trial, condemnation, and execution of Jan Huss, and of other Christians who were tried for heresy. We see it in the excommunication of Luther.

    Both Catholics and Protestants have cared about orthopraxy, too–enough to excommunicate people for unrepentant sin.

    Second: Sound doctrine is of vital importance for spiritual life (I Timothy 4:16). False doctrine can lead to spiritual death (Galatians 5:1-6).

    Third: There is nothing wrong with having a love of the truth. If you were a Catholic, and you came to believe that the Scriptures teach something contrary to what the the magisterium teaches, and you confessed this to a priest, you might well be told that you should abandon your conviction and believe the teaching of the magisterium. Are you willing to do such a thing?

    Fourth: Regarding the importance of “the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them”: I have been taught that at the start of the Reformation, the cup was withheld from the laity during the celebration of the Eucharist. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why the proper administration of the sacraments was so important to the Reformers. What is more: the administration of the sacraments was a matter of obedience to Christ Himself. Would the Lord have approved of their administration in way that was a disobedient to Him for the sake of unity?

    Fifth and lastly: You blame Luther for insisting on the doctrine of the Real Presence to the detriment of unity. I have heard that the doctrine of the Real Presence was mentioned in one of the writings of Justin Martyr, who lived in the Second Century. It is my understanding that it was an official doctrine of both Catholic and Orthodox Christians for well over one thousand years before the start of the Reformation. Is it any wonder that Luther was not willing to allow for a difference of opinion about it? Especially the opinion of Zwingli, which Luther believed was based upon a preference for human reason over divine revelation? Furthermore: Both Catholics and Lutherans understand I Corinthians 11:27-30 compels them to believe that the doctrine of the Real Presence is of vital importance and hence worth insisting upon for all Christians.

  • My comment was long; thanks for working through it. In brief, you keep saying that the values and approach I ascribe to the Reformers and their progeny are present in the Catholics as well, before and after the Reformation. Of course they are. But, again, my point was the relative importance. Of course there were and will be ex-communications and schisms outside of the Reformers and their approach. But the historical record of the sheer number of schisms since the Reformation, within Protestant churches, makes it plain that the relative value of unity in Protestant circles is simply lower than doctrinal purity. The facts are plain and you’ve given no alternative explanation for the explosion of schism over the centuries since the Reformation within Protestant camps, and over a very wide variety of doctrines that history has not held as critical to orthodox faith. And that’s because there is no defense to the charge that one’s actions reveals one’s priorities. Unity simply takes a backseat to doctrinal purity in Protestant circles as a general rule.

    And I’ve never been arguing against “sound doctrine” or arguing for “false doctrine.” I’ve been arguing against the tendency to place doctrines about the nuances of Eucharist, or about the particulars of baptism, or about the Charisms of the Spirit, or about virtually anything, above unity, which is exactly what Protestants have done, over and over and over again for centuries.

    This is not about giving up a love for the truth. It’s about whether we prioritize, for instance, a conviction about sprinkling vs. immersion, more than the bonds of brotherhood in Christ. The list we could make of particular, technical issues over which Protestants have broken fellowship is both shamefully long and painful. It’s not about loving and following Christ’s commands and desires for us (or it is, but not in the way you think.) It’s about where we place the call to unity, love and grace for our brothers in Christ among those calls and commands of Christ. History would say of Protestants, not very high at all. That is both a problem of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, or, in alternative language, a problem of understanding and obeying Christ in central matters, considering the high priority and emphasis that Christ himself put on the commands to love our brothers, and the calls Paul made for being of one mind and heart, bearing with one another in love. It is also tied, given the role of the scriptures as the ultimate rule of faith and practice in Protestant churches, to how we approach the scriptures themselves.

    I mentioned Luther’s treatment of Zwingli as an obvious case of how such a priority of various technical doctrinal nuances over unity and grace for brothers has been with the Protestant Church from the beginning. Yes, I see how Luther made the choice. And I see how all kinds of churches saw this or that conviction as essential and therefore, worthy of schism. But God continued to work through and with those that were supposed heretics, time and again. So, to be blunt, Luther may have been right about “Real Presence” but he was wrong about Zwingli and the anabaptists. He was wrong about how to treat his brothers and sisters who disagreed. And many Protestants after Luther and Calvin and the rest have repeated the same errors and mistakes over and over again.

    My point, using Luther as a case in point, remains: it’s hard to tell if Luther was right about exactly what kind of “presence” is in the Eucharist (and the Lutheran view is not the same as the Catholic view, both of which are different from the view of the bulk of Protestants), because the scriptures almost always intentionally use metaphoric and artful language about such matters and not the technical language of a theological treatise. By contrast, the scriptures use every kind of language, including the plainest of language, and repeatedly for emphasis, to urge us to bear with one another, forgive each other, and most of all, and stated with utmost priority and repetition, to love one another as Christ has loved us. Now, we all know that Christ loves us even with inevitable flaws in our theology. We know that Christ has been willing to not only love but continue to work with the many churches who disagree with Luther about Real Presence. And we know Christ has done the same many times over with multiple churches and movements that one Protestant branch or another deemed demonic or labeled as false teachers. What does that difference in treatment tell us?

  • Tom Bennett

    This is a great critique and one I haven’t heard before. It’s true that in the book the incarnation lurks on the margins rather than taking center stage. This is probably because when I was beginning to write, I was knee-deep in the the standard problems for atonement that academic theology has pointed out over the last forty or fifty years: sin, violence, gift and so I began by thinking about how the Labor of God might help to address those problems. By the end of the book, I realized that atonement was much bigger than fixing a few problems. Creation, divine pathos, trinitarian thought about perichoresis and the divine processions: all get some treatment when viewed through the lens of labor. I now want to add incarnation–and really, Christology in general–to that list because I think you’re right, there are surely some really cool insights into the being and nature of God that labor might bring out. I hope you’ll read the book! It’s not long and I’d love to hear more of your critiques.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    Regarding your statement that begins: “I’ve been arguing against the tendency to place doctrines” and ends “above unity, which is exactly what Protestants have done, over and over and over again for centuries.”: How do you think the Catholic Church would handle differences of opinion on such doctrines? I know of at least three possibilities: rebuke; forbidding to teach and publish; excommunication. Those who are so punished are free to repent, recant, and stay in the Church–which many do, because they believe that the Catholic Church is the One True Church, and that there is “no salvation outside of the Church”. Not all do, though: some choose to leave–as many have done and continue to do since the Second Vatican Council. A Catholic who denies the doctrine of the Real Presence or who says that infants should not be baptized is subject to excommunication.

    Regarding your statement that begins: “The facts are plain and you’ve given no alternative explanation for the explosion of schism”: Indeed I have given an explanation, and you said in response to it “I think this is true, and I’d go further”. I will give you two other reasons. One is that some Protestants rightly argue that true unity must include unity in sound doctrine. Hence some devout Christians are at least wary of ecumenicism, if not outright opposed to it, because it can give a false sense of unity where in fact it does not exist. (Note that likewise, at least until recently, Orthodox bishops have been wary of meeting with Catholic bishops, wanting to avoid giving a false impression that there was more agreement between Catholic and Orthodox than in fact there was.) Another reason is the famous exhortation to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).

    Please note that I do not believe that you have argued against sound doctrine nor for false doctrine. I mentioned them in my previous comment to you, and cited I Timothy 4:16 and Galatians 5:1-6, by way of explaining why some Protestants prioritize purity of doctrine over unity–indeed, why they believe there cannot be unity without purity of doctrine.

    Regarding “the calls Paul made for being of one mind and heart, bearing with one another in love”: Paul also said: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). And: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). And Philippians 1:27, II Thessalonians 3:6, and Titus 3:10-11.

    Regarding Luther’s attitude toward Zwingli and the Anabaptists: How do you think it differed from that of Catholic clergy? Do you think a Catholic bishop, for example, would have been willing to sit down with Zwingli and try to come to an agreement over the Eucharist? He had already been excommunicated by the Catholic Church by the he met with Luther in Marburg. Despite their differences, Luther, Zwingli, and the Catholics all were opposed to Anabaptism–and Anabaptists were opposed to them.

    Less importantly, regarding “the Lutheran view is not the same as the Catholic view”: Both believe in the Real Presence. They differ in how it comes about. Catholicism teaches that, upon consecration by an ordained priest, the bread and wine are entirely changed into the body and blood of Christ–thus what looks, feels, smells, and tastes like bread and wine are not bread and wine but the “body, blood, soul, and divinity” of the Lord Jesus. Lutheranism teaches that, upon consecration, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine, but the body of the Lord is “in, with, and under” the bread, and the blood of Christ is “in, with, and under” the wine.

    Lastly, and maybe most importantly: I share your concern and distress over disunity among Christians–I am just not convinced that, as you said yesterday, “Luther’s approach to the scriptures (and that of several other Reformers and those in their footsteps)” are responsible for it.

  • Pieter

    @disqus_hfsXSSguoO:disqus I think your writing about Ps 90 did the job for me already. You introduce the Psalm as a mortal complaining: the eternal God producing eternal things does not understand the pain of mortals producing mortal things. God does not understand our pain nor our mortality. But Creation, Incarnation, Good Friday and Easter give hope. First of all, God knows about the pain and the joy (of labor). He knows about this already in creation. Secondly, the immortal God became man (i.e. mortal, flesh), so he knows about mortality. Thirdly by his joyful suffering on the cross and his resurrection he lets us be born again in immortality. And this whole thing combined is a powerful narrative that the eternal Son of God became mortal and died in order to let us be born again in immortality. Of course this may be to crudely stated, but I hope it is not far from Athanasius. @Tom

  • Tom Bennett

    Interesting. I just reread that section in light of your comment and have to admit, the language does have implications for Christology: labor, manifested in the incarnate God on the cross, draws divine implacability to human impermanence in order to bear divine life into the world. I’m not sure that I meant to write any of that, but you’re right, the narrative is there (and gives me hope that the Spirit was involved!).

    One thing you and Dana point out is that if the labor model is close to any “classical atonement theory,” it is probably most like a Patristic, quasi-Irenaean “healing view,” since labor is concerned with the cross producing divine life in new birth. This sounds similar to me to views in which, through the incarnation, God takes on human nature and purifies it by connecting it to the divine nature. One of the nice advantages of Labor is that it makes explicit why Jesus’ death is necessary on such a scheme. In order to bestow divine life, God must labor and give birth, just as he does in creation.

  • danaames

    It’s a privilege to interact with an author; thanks for reading.

    “…the standard problems for atonement that academic theology has pointed out”… have been discussed basically without reference to Eastern Christian thought. We like the Cappadocians (and lately Athanasius) because of the theology they gave us regarding the Trinity, but we ignore both their context and the continued post-400 AD patristic understandings, assuming them to be the same as in the west. They are not. They were already beginning to diverge with Tertullian.

    For Eastern Orthodoxy, there is no “atonement problem.” Over and over on Pascha and in the weeks thereafter we hear: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” That’s the interpretive liturgical/theological declaration of the solution given in Heb 2, and elsewhere in the NT, particularly in Paul – that the ultimate problem resolved by the Incarnation, Cross & Resurrection is death (with sin following along in the wake of our fear of death/non-existence, and the two mutually feeding off one another). I believe this interpretation to be that of the 1st century Church, and came to it from reading NT Wright, with his delineation of what “forgiveness of sins” meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day, a few years before I found it in EO. In many ways, Wright prepared me to enter the Orthodox Church…

    Go East, young man 🙂


  • What Christ asks of us is crystal-clear in the gospels. And nowhere does Christ ask us to study texts or to theorize about atonement. Atonement *is* to become like Christ, and thus to be like Jesus Christ was, and thus to do what Christ in the gospels asks of us. His crucifixion is not about making things easy for us, it is about showing us how He is what what it means to follow Him. That to enter the Kingdom you overcome this world, that to have life you overcome the fear of death. Christ suffered for delivering God’s message to us, the least we can do is not water it down. The greatness and glory of God does not in any way imply that we are passive puppets. Quite on the contrary: the way of atonement – for us to freely love God and because of that love to choose to do what Christ asks – is what speaks of and reveals the greatness and glory of God.

    Somebody here wrote about the “false notion of salvation as a reward for works”. Which is true: for whoever does good works for their reward is not doing good works. Good works are inspired by one’s love for Christ and by one’s desire to be close to Him. But having present the glory of atonement is a big help, and that’s why Christ in the gospels speaks about building treasure in heaven and indeed about what profits us. When you fall in love and desire to be close with the beloved you long for the glory of that union.

    Equally false is the notion that at the cross Christ paid a price, as if God is a merchant. Christ’s incarnation and partaking in the world’s suffering is an act of creation, the connecting of earth and heaven. Atonement is thus made possible by Christ’s incarnation, this is true. But atonement is realized by one’s becoming like Christ. Why? Because Christ is the incarnation of God, and thus for us incarnated persons atonement with God is to become like Christ. There is nothing to understand about atonement: “atonement” means to become like Christ. Nobody unlike Christ is close to God, and nobody like Christ is far from God.

    As for what it takes to become like Christ, that’s not even theology but anthropology, it’s a matter of the human condition which we know by observing it. It takes the power of faith. It takes loving Christ which inspires faith, it takes becoming aware of the beauty of God as revealed by the ever present divine Spirit which too inspires faith, it takes prayer which inspires faith, it takes taking part in the life of the church which inspires faith. It takes being humble and forgiving and suffering for the good of others which is all the previous rolled into one. It takes experiencing the great joy that there is in Christian life, in the life of walking with Christ.

    So what about grace, isn’t God’s grace necessary for salvation? If by grace we understand God’s power given to us then of course it does, but this is only a truism. After all it is only by God’s grace we are able to move a finger. But God’s grace is there for the taken; we live in God’s grace like the fish in the sea, like we breath air. It’s not then about grace itself, but about us filling ourselves with God’s grace and following Christ. Don’t fool yourself, there is no other way but Christ’s way. Christ is our shepherd, the good shepherd who loves each one of us and never tires looking after us, who calls us to follow Him into the house of our Father. But nobody and nothing will carry you there. For if you don’t love God you can’t enter the house of whom is love; but if you do love God you will go there yourself, and nothing can stop you.

  • Pieter

    @disqus_hfsXSSguoO:disqus Maybe a bit playful, but look at the end of Psalm 90:

    May your deeds be shown to your servants,
    your splendor to their children.
    May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
    establish the work of our hands for us—
    yes, establish the work of our hands.
    Who else is the splendor of God than the Word incarnate? Which deeds are shown other than his suffering? To what effect, that we and our works are established. If you allow me to play on: listen to prayer in C and think about Psalm 90 and the things we are discussing here. Thank you once again for your book.

  • Tom Bennett

    Lol, love it. Pushes against my Goldingay-influenced Old Testament sensitivities, but, from a theological perspective all I can say is “Indeed!”