A Response to Kevin DeYoung’s Response to Tom McCall’s Christianity Today Article on the Atonement: A ‘Depth Dimensional’ Consideration

Christianity Today shared an article written by professor Tom McCall (a friend of mine) just as we were upon Good Friday; it had to do with the atonement and the cry of dereliction ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?’ that Jesus cried out on the cross. Kevin DeYoung, a few days following offered a response article via The Gospel Coalition. In conclusion he challenges McCall’s reading this way:

Hodge would agree with McCall’s point that Christ did not suffer exactly what sinners deserve, but would McCall agree with Hodge that Christ suffered the weight of what sinners deserved? More to the point, would he agree with Hodge’s understanding of forensic satisfaction? “The essence of the penalty of the divine law,” Hodge writes, “is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favor. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God.” For sinners this would lead to “hopeless perdition,” but for Christ it meant “a transient hiding of the Father’s face” (473). And lest this be confused with a breach of Trinitarian relations, Hodges makes clear that the “satisfaction of Christ” was a “matter of covenant between the Father and the Son” (472).

Granted, McCall is from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so he may deny all that Calvin and Hodge affirm. But at the very least, they show us a way to deny what McCall wants to deny—a crass Father versus Son Trinitarian breach—while still affirming a wrath-satisfying, God-appeasing, Father-turns-his-face-away penal substitutionary atonement. Whether this way is a better way is beyond scope of this post. But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us. (source)

DeYoung, predictably, is arguing, because he’s concerned, that McCall just might not really be on board with the classical Protestant understanding of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) after all. We see this particularly as DeYoung leaves off with this quip: “But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us.” Yet, this makes one wonder, at least it makes me wonder, does DeYoung really think that “God’s wrath” can only be understand from a forensic/juridical frame? Indeed, I’m positive this is the only way that DeYoung sees God’s wrath vis-à-vis the atoning cross-work of Christ.

But this clearly is not the only way, nor should it be construed as THE way wherein God’s wrath is most severely focused. As an Evangelical Calvinist I will contend, along with Thomas Torrance et al., that the source of God’s wrath is ultimately creational rather than juridical; that what God is most wrathful of is that his good and very good creation has been polluted by the dregs of sin to the point that God’s intended desire to fellowship with us in the ‘cool of the Garden’ was disrupted. In other words, what it means to be human was distorted to the point that its intended telos or purpose has lost orientation; that human being itself has become so sub-humanized that the only hope was for God to assume humanity, all the way down to the very heart of it all, and redeem through recreation/resurrection from that depth; to rehumanize through the recreation wrought by the resurrection of the forever God-human, Jesus Christ. This was the ultimate source of God’s wrath; that a foreigner like sin would seek to so disrupt his good and very good plan that his love fellowship with his graciously created counter-points in creation was lost. Yes, the forensic was present, but there is no forensic without the creation first—noting not only the logical but chronological and priority of the ground of ‘being’ that precedes all else.

In an attempt to detail this further let me share something I have written previously with the hopes of potentially identifying one way in which there is a greater depth, and as such, a greater wrath of God to be understood in and through the revelation of Godself in the atoning work of Jesus Christ; a work that started in the manger (temporally). You will see, I hope, how what I’ve written applies to this current discussion; and you might see further how it’s possible to think of God’s wrath with greater theological acuity than DeYoung himself seems to think. Beyond that, it identifies the type of space that I think McCall might just have been suggesting is needed in discussions like this one.

For Thomas Torrance the atonement is the contradiction of sin by which Godself inserts himself into the brokenness and fallen-ness of our humanity, through the humanity of Christ, and by so doing vanquishes sin—its death and destruction—by his very own and sui generis being as God and man in Christ. We left off in the last post referring to sin in the theology of Torrance, let me briefly touch upon that further here.

For Torrance sin isn’t simply a transactional or legal situation it is something that touches the deepest reaches of what it means to be a human being; it sub-humanizes people because it disintegrates the koinonial bond that was originally inherent to what it meant for a human to be a human created in the image of God as an image of the image who is Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). This is why for Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what was required in the atonement was that our very beings as human beings be recreated in the human being that Jesus assumed enhypostatically as the man from Nazareth. You won’t find this type of penetrative consideration in the forensic framing of atonement that you find in Federal or Covenantal theology; or for that matter, as a subset, what you find in more basic accounts of Reformed theology as we see typified in what is popularly called Five-Point-Calvinism.

Here is an example of how Torrance thinks about the depth dimension of salvation/atonement:

On the cross, the oneness of God and man in Christ is inserted into the midst of our being, into the midst of our sinful existence and history, into the midst of our guilt and death. The inserting of the oneness of God and man into the deepest depths of human existence in its awful estrangement from God, and the enactment of it in the midst of its sin and in spite of all that sin can do against it, is atonement. In a profound sense, atonement is the insertion of the union into the very being of our alienated and fallen humanity. That insertion of oneness by atonement results in koinōnia, in the church as the communion in which Christ dwells, and in which we are made partakers of the divine nature. The koinōnia thus created by the atonement and resurrection of Christ is fully actualised in our midst by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and is maintained by the power of the Spirit as the church continues in the fellowship of word and sacrament….[1]

As we have been emphasizing, for Torrance, and then us Evangelical Calvinists in his wake, salvation is an ontological occurrence; of necessity. The Apostle Paul is quite clear about the depth and reach of sin’s impact, which is why he emphasizes creational and new creational themes so frequently (cf. II Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:18ff; Col. 1:15ff; etc.). Torrance along with a part of the Christian tradition simply notes this reality in the Apostolic deposit found in the New Testament and seeks to develop the inner logic being presupposed upon by Apostles like Paul et al.

Here is one more example of how Torrance thinks salvation. Here we have an example of what Torrance calls the ‘ontological theory of the atonement,’ it is in line with what we just read from him previously:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

We see the ontological aspect noted once again, and even further we see Torrance, in step with Barth, highlighting how even the knowledge and depth of sin can really only be understood Christologically; as we understand its depths through dwelling upon the reality of what actually was required for salvation to be accomplished. We see in this quote components that we find in Patristic thinkers like Athanasius, and even Maximus the Confessor; particularly as the latter gets into proposing things along the lines of the logoi thread that is interwoven throughout the created order as its taxis or order.

These are ways into a discussion about the atonement and salvation that are lacking, typically, in the Western mode. John Calvin, though, is an exception to this rule; and we could say this is because of his hyper-Christ concentrated approach. If a thinker genuinely focuses on the deep Christologicalness we find in the New Testament it is almost an axiom that that thinker will end up pressing into union with Christ themes that look something like what we find in Torrance’s presentation. Federal theology and the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology does not have this emphasis when thinking salvation; it is framed forensically and under a legal strain, necessarily, precisely because their hermeneutical system starts with a Covenant of Works only to be succeeded by the Covenant of Grace. Some will argue that this does not give Covenant theology a necessary legal character, but I think the proof is in the pudding.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 173.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

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5 thoughts on “A Response to Kevin DeYoung’s Response to Tom McCall’s Christianity Today Article on the Atonement: A ‘Depth Dimensional’ Consideration

  1. Bobby,

    I hope all is well, it’s been a while since I have stopped by. I think that you are onto something that is profound when you contend that wrath is creational. I wonder if you mean by creational that the wrath of God is (in a manner of speaking) passive as opposed to active, simply a byproduct of Divine love. I realize that this way of talking about wrath can be pushed too far. But I do think that Divine simplicity implies that God is extending himself in creation in the plentitude of his Godness and manifold perfections. We can rightly ascribe wrath to God in an improper sense, but it only inheres to the proper attributes of love and righteousness.

    I’m not altogether certain if this is the best way to speak of wrath, but the overblown theology of penal substitution does great damage to the satisfaction elements that are present in the atonement. But, I do think that whatever wrath is being satisfied on the cross, it for the revelation of God’s kindness not his anger. Thoughts?

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  2. Hi Jed,

    No, I don’t necessarily mean that God’s wrath is passive, per se. I believe it is active and intentional in the sense that it is engendered by his deep love for his creation; that it is animated by his love for the other (per his own inner life) as that is given counter-point, asymmetrically, in the creation (particularly in the crowning jewel of his creation). As that is thought out, by way of theological order (taxis) Christophonically as we think in terms of Deus Incarnandus/Incarnatus; that this ultimate relationship was disrupted by the entrance of sine; that this ultimate relationship was love conceived of to begin with by the Father and the Son in the bonding fellowship of the Holy Spirit. I see this as the basis of God’s wrath; his forever love for the other.

    I’m not going to appeal to Divine Simplicity at this point; at least not in an unqualified way. I’ll let the Christic categories of Deus Incarnandus Deus Incarnatus do that type of ontological/economic work for me; if that makes sense. I can explain that further if you want. Yes, ultimately the frame is God’s love, not anger; that there would be no anger/wrath without love first. This is the deeper dimension that a forensic-alone approach cannot account for.

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  3. My question doesn’t really apply to this post but to the name of you blog.

    Could you explain what you mean by Evangelical Calvinism? I thought all Calvinists were evangelicals.

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