The Atonement of God in Christ: Covenant Theology, Penal Substitution, Ontology Atonement, Brian Zahnd, and Life Everlasting

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist we like to emphasize God’s grace, ‘all the way down’ as it were. We see this a necessary course correction given the imbalance that has been present, in particular,  in the Western enclave of the church;  since at least the mediaeval period, and working its way through Reformation and Post Reformation Western Europe and finally to the shores of the Americas (North to be specific). I am sure, intelligent reader that you are, you know what I’m referring to; i.e. the impact, on the Protestant side (which is simply my focus here, we could also bring up the Roman Catholic roots of the Protestant past and present), that Post Reformed orthodox theology has had upon the development of what counts today as conservative evangelical theology (think, as a type The Gospel Coalition and the theology it distills for evangelical churches and pastors throughout the United States and beyond). We necessarily have been bequeathed a ‘legal’ faith which flows organically from the Covenant or Federal theology developed by the scholastics reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, because of the ‘Covenantal’ framework defined by its two primary covenants, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, Covenant theology starts its way into a God/world, God/humanity discussion from a soteriological perspective that is grounded in a relationship that is contingent upon a ‘mercantile’ or contractual understanding. And so what gets emphasized in this theology is a God who relates in a kind of “bilateral” way wherein he makes a pact (‘pactum’) with the elect where they will ostensibly live up to their end of God’s bargain by actuating the effectual faith they have been given, by God, in order to stay in good stead with God; a God who has made sure that all the ‘legal requirements’ of the broken covenant of works have been met by his sending of the Son, in Christ, fulfilling the righteous requirements of the covenant of works (i.e. the ‘law’), and thus instigating or establishing God’s covenant of grace. What happens here though is not an abandonment of a legal strain in God’s relationship between himself and humanity instead there is a reinforcement of that type of relationship; albeit it is now contingent upon Christ’s active obedience for the elect rather than on human beings without that type of grace. We could say more, but hopefully the gist has been felt.

Laudably people like Brian Zahnd have been trying to come up against this type of ‘legally strained’ theology in an attempt to emphasize God’s grace and compassion apart from the forensics of it all. Unfortunately, as is often typical when we react, some things get lost in translation. In Zahnd et al. we almost end up with a type of antinomianism wherein the ‘legal’ aspects of Scripture’s teaching (now in contrast to the Covenantal framework) are completely vanquished from the picture; I don’t think this ought to be so. That said, we want to emphasize that God is gracious, and that his relationship to humanity is based upon His creative and first Word of grace; since this is what he has revealed to be the case in his Self exegesis in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth, of all people (can you believe it?!), offers an alternative and more balanced account (juxtaposed with Zahnd’s) when it comes to thinking about God’s relationship to humanity; when it comes to thinking about how God can still be thought of as someone who still has wrath and anger towards sin; and how that gets fleshed out in a radically Christ concentrated atonement theology. George Hunsinger helps us think about this in Barth’s theology, and he alerts us, along the way, to Barth’s own words on this:

2 The saving significance of Christ’s death cannot be adequately understood, Barth proposes, if legal or juridical considerations are allowed to take precedence over those that are more merciful or compassionate. Although God’s grace never occurs without judgment, nor God’s judgment without grace, in Jesus Christ it is always God’s grace, Barth believes, that is decisive. Therefore, although the traditional themes of punishment and penalty are not eliminated from Barth’s discourse about Christ’s death, they are displaced from being central or predominant.

The decisive thing is not that he has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, and therefore the punishment which we deserve. This is true, of course. But it is true only as it derives from the decisive thing that in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in his own person he has made an end of us sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the one who took our place as sinners. In his person he has delivered up us sinners and sin itself to destruction. (IV/1, p. 253)

The uncompromising judgment of God is seen in the suffering love of the cross. Because this judgment is uncompromising, the sinner is delivered up to the death and destruction which sin inevitably deserves. Yet because this judgment is carried out in the person of Jesus Christ, very God and very man, it is borne only to be removed and borne away. “In the deliverance of sinful man and sin itself to destruction, which he accomplished when he suffered our punishment, he has on the other side blocked the source of our destruction” (IV/1, p. 254). By taking our place as sinners before God, “he has seen to it that we do not have to suffer what we ought to suffer; he has removed the accusation and condemnation and perdition which had passed upon us; he has canceled their relevance to us; he has saved us from destruction and rescued us from eternal death” (IV/1, p. 254). The cross reveals an abyss of sin allowed up by the suffering of divine love.[1]

There’s something rather profound about this; we can still speak of God’s unrelenting judgment, it’s just that it is redirected in such a way that the focus comes to be on his desire to actually save us from our own self-destruction by giving us his own Self-vitality and eternal life in and through his Self-offering in Christ. The frame is one of eternal life and death; it is no longer about God meeting some sort of Self-imposed legal conditions so that he can have a relationship with his creatures.

I find this to be a much more winsome way, much more biblically and Christ-centered way to think about a God-world relation versus the one offered by Covenant theology and its covenantal schema of works/grace. In Barth’s alternative what’s at stake is not Penal Substitutionary atonement, but instead what Torrance calls an ‘ontological theory of the atonement.’ That is, the idea that reconciliation with God, i.e. salvation, is about pressing deep into the inner reaches of humanity’s real problem in relation to God; its problem with sin, and how that has plunged humanity into sub-humanity and living in a life of non-life and das Nichtige ‘nothingness.’ We see here in Barth, as we do so often with Thomas Torrance, the influence of St. Athanasius, and even an ‘Eastern’ understanding of what salvation entails in its most Christological senses.

God is still all about judging sin; he’s still wrathful and angry about sin; he still is all about righting the wrongs, and making the crooked straight; it’s just that, contra what I would contend is an artificial way to think about the Bible and God’s relation to the world in the Federal schema, the real issue is highlighted. The real problem with humanity’s plight is elevated to the level it should be at when we think about God and salvation; viz. what it means to be human before God. All of that is dealt with by Jesus, according to Barth [and Torrance] when God freely elects to become human in Christ for us, for the world.

I realize that those who are committed to Federal or classic Covenantal theology won’t have their minds changed by this; although they should. But I hope that for those of you with an open mind that this makes sense; that what God in Christ did, and is doing is not framed by a type of legalism (as it is in Federal theology – just go read some books on its history and development), but instead is framed by God’s gracious gift of eternal life for the world in himself, in Jesus Christ. And that because of this, because of who he is in this way for us, he graciously steps into our situation, and as the Judge becomes the judged. Has he met some  sort of ad hoc legal conditions in this process; is that what he was ultimately about in reconciling the world to himself? Nein. Instead, he ‘elevated’ or exalted us to his position, by the grace of his life in the vicarious humanity of Christ, and recreated anew humanity in Jesus Christ. This is what salvation, and atonement was about; and it is out of this new eschatos humanity, Christ’s, where we participate daily in the triune life of God. This is the great salvation Paul tells Titus to be looking for; it is the one that was won in the incarnation and atonement of God in Christ.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 142-43.

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The 16th and 17th Century Reformed Covenantal Roots of the 21st Century evangelical and Reformed Theological Understanding of a ‘Legally Strained’ Gospel

When I can, I like to highlight where the legalistic character of the contemporary evangelical and Reformed faith came from. I realize that for many, maybe even most at this point, doctrine doesn’t really mean much these days for evangelicals; but there are still obviously large segments of evangelical Christians who actually do care about what they believe and why—so I write posts for folks
like that in mind. It would be difficult to detail a kind of ideational genealogy in regard to tracing how something like Covenant theology has made its way into 21st century evangelical and Reformed systems of theology. So for lack of doing such genealogical work I will write towards people who are enamored with the theology that The Gospel Coalition distills for the evangelical masses.

If one were to go to TGC’s website you could read up on their confessional or doctrinal statement, and you’d pick up almost immediately—if you were so tuned—the type of legal framework for understanding salvation that they promote. Like I noted, we won’t be able to draw the hard and fast lines between the forensic Gospel promoted by TGC with its predecessor theology found in historical Covenant theology (in a lineament[al] type of way); instead we will just have to leave such linkage at a suggestive and inchoate level.

With the ground cleared a bit, for the remainder of this post I wanted to survey, with M. Charles Bell’s help, the whence from where legally oriented, performance based conceptions of the Gospel came from; to do that we will look at an early Scottish proponent of what is called Federal or ‘Covenant’ theology. Maybe you have never heard of Covenant theology before, but at its base it is made up of two covenants (as a hermeneutical construct): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Robert Rollock was a Scottish theologian who operated in the late 1500s in the Scottish Kirk; as Bell develops, Rollock was one of the first Scots to propose and advocate for a Covenant theology in the Scottish Reformed church. As we look at Rollock’s take on Federal theology, my hope is that the reader will organically ‘get’ what I’m suggesting in this post in regard to the antecedent theology that funds the mood we find being promoted in theology offered by associates of The Gospel Coalition. Without further ado, here is Bell’s sketch of Rollock’s understanding of Covenant theology (and as you read others Rollock’s view of Covenant theology is quite standard when it comes to the basic structure and emphases).

The Covenant of Works

Rollock states that the covenant of works is a ‘legal or natural covenant’ founded in nature, and God’s law. For when God created man, he engraved his law in man’s heart. After the fall of man it was necessary to republish this covenant, which was done at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the written tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people. The substance of this covenant of works is the promise of eternal life for those who fulfill the conditions of holiness and good works.

In grounding this covenant in nature and the law, and making the substance of the covenant a conditional promise of eternal life, Rollock denies any place to Christ in this legal covenant. Christ is not the ground of the covenant, its substance or its mediator, he states. In fact, this covenant has no need of a mediator. This is so because the covenant was first made between God and Adam before the fall. Therefore, asserts Rollock, this covenant does not involve Christ in any way. It is not faith in Christ that is needed, but knowledge of the law and obedience to it. The covenant of works relates to Christ only as a means of preparing the individual to receive Christ in the covenant of grace. Rollock stresses time and again that law precedes grace or the gospel. First the covenant of works or the law, is set before us, and only when this works in us a feeling of our miserable, sinful estate are we ready to proceed to the next step of embracing the covenant of grace. The doctrine of the gospel begins with the legal doctrine of works and of the law.’ Rollock insists that if this preparationist ordo is not followed then the preaching and the promises of the gospel are in vain.

The Covenant of Grace

Although the covenant of works is the major concern within the Old Testament, Rollock insists that the ‘mystery of Christ’ is to be found in the Scriptures from Adam to Christ, thought this covenant of grace is expounded ‘sparingly and darkly’ in shadows. This covenant of grace is not entirely a new agreement between God and man, but is actually a ‘reagreement, and a renewing of an old friendship betweene two that first were friends.’ However, because of the breach between God and man since the fall, this second covenant is grounded upon the blood of Christ, and God’s free mercy in Christ. Moreover, the promise of this second covenant is not only that of eternal life, but, because of the fall of man, must involve also a promise of imputed righteousness which comes to us by faith and the work of Christ’s Spirit. On the other hand, like the first covenant, Rollock insists that the covenant of grace is conditional. The condition, however, is not one of works, but faith, ‘which embraces God’s mercy in Christ and makes Christ effectual in us’. Furthermore, this condition is not fulfilled naturally by us, but the required faith is itself God’s gift to us.

Rollock does not, however, do away with the requirement of works in the covenant of grace. The natural works of man have no part in this covenant, since the works of unregenerate man are of no value, and the covenant of works is abolished as a means of salvation for all who are in Christ. However, works are required of the believer not as merits on our part, or as ‘meritorious causes’ of our eternal life, but rather, as tokens of our gratitude and thankfulness to God for his grace. They can also be considered as the means by which we progress from our initial regeneration to eternal life, and so, in a sense, may be deemed ‘causes’, but only when they are first understood as themselves caused ore effected by ‘the only merit of Jesus Christ, whereof they testify’. Rollock is clear that these works do not proceed naturally from us, in our own strength, Rather, these works proceed from us, in our own strength. Rather, these works proceed from, and are produced by ‘the grace of regeneration’. They are God’s doing and not man’s. They are, as well, not perfect works, but merely ‘good beginnings’. Their perfection ‘is supplied, and to be found in Christ Jesus’.

Rollock attempts to make a strong case for the objective ground and nature of salvation in Christ, and the covenant of grace. He states that God’s grace is the ‘sole efficient cause’ of faith, hope, and repentance. Although in the ministry of reconciliation there are two covenant partners involved, Rollock stresses that the initiative for healing lies with God and not us. God the Father seeks and saves us. It is his love manifested in our healing. His call in the gospel comes to us; we do not seek it. Echoing Calvin, Rollock writes that the cause of our salvation lies in God alone, and ‘na pairt in man quha is saved’. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in his writings that because of his conditional covenant schemed and his preparationist ordo salutis, in which law precedes grace, he is forced to return to a subjective basis within man for one’s final assurance of salvation.[1]

There is a lot in there. Rather than attempting to unpack it all, I want to essentially let it stand as is and simply be a kind of proof of where evangelical and Reformed theology’s ‘legally’ flavored conception comes from; as I read it, it is rather self-evident.

To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest that in every detail the Gospel preached by something like TGC is corollary, one-for-one. Instead what I’m hoping the reader can see, especially if you have never been exposed to this, is where the roots are for contemporary 21st century understandings of evangelical and Reformed soteriology; one could also think of the resurgence of Reformed theology we find in the so called Young, Restless and Reformed. I’m not wanting to suggest that all of this type of retrieval and resurgence among the conservative evangelical and Reformed wings of today is one wherein a full blown recovery of Covenant theology is taking place (although for some that’s exactly what is happening). Instead, I’m hoping that the reader will be able to see the framework, in a general type of way, wherein a ‘legal’ performance based understanding of salvation comes from. Many of those retrieving the historical Reformed faith are Baptists; they typically are not Covenantal like what we find in someone like Rollock, or later in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the forensic way for conceiving of salvation, whether someone is a flaming Federal theologian or not, for the evangelical, comes from something like what we see evidenced in the theology of Robert Rollock. This is, I would submit, the mood of theology that gives us the idea that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory of the atonement that is the bedrock Gospel understanding of what the Gospel actually is; I contend that without Covenant theology PSA would never have come to have the prominence it does for evangelical and Reformed theories of the atonement and the Gospel itself.

One other point, before we go; I think of the work that someone like Brian Zahnd is doing. His most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, is intended to offer an alternative conception of the Gospel wherein a Gospel of grace and love is presented; i.e. in contrast to the type of theology he is riffing on like what we might find in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Zahnd is all about critiquing the ‘legal strain’ sense of the Gospel we find say in the theology presented by TGC et al. But I really think that if he wants to offer a full blown critique he needs to engage with the antecedent theology informing the theology he is attempting to critique. He often attributes all of this to Calvin, as if Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. But that’s just not the case, and so his critiques often miss the target when he is attempting to critique a legal forensically styled Gospel. I think he would do better to engage with the type of Post Reformed orthodox theology (of the 16th and 17th centuries) that we are covering here in this post. It helps to provide more context for people in attempting to understand where this type of ‘legal’ quid pro quo Covenantal theology comes from. It also is more honest and truthful as it gets into the actual meat and development of theology that indeed does offer us the ‘legal’ categories for conceiving of salvation that we still work under today in the evangelical and Reformed world.

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 53-4.

Brian Zahnd and Friedrich Schleiermacher: §1. How Does Zahnd Compare to Schleiermacher on “How Does Dying for our Sins Work?”

Brian Zahnd, about a year or so ago wrote a blog post entitled: How Does “Dying for our Sins” Work? For the remainder of this post we will engage with what Zahnd wrote, and then we will compare Zahnd’s theory of the atonement with German theologian’s, ‘Father of Modern Theological Liberalism’, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of the atonement; I see some similarity between christcrucifiedZahnd and Schleiermacher (not total, but some). We will be using George Hunsinger’s treatment of Schleiermacher’s view as the template by which we attempt to provide some historical precedence, at a material level, for Zahnd’s approach. (Obviously since this is a blog post things will remain unfinished and suggestive)

Zahnd has an allergy to Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and to framing what happened at the cross in forensic terms (at all), it appears. He seems to have given into the idea that is very popular today that PSA represents Divine child abuse, he writes:

I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus![1]

Zahnd is also repulsed by Covenant theology’s conception of the atonement wherein God ostensibly elects certain individuals for salvation, sends the Son to die for the elect (alone), pays their penalty (again in forensic terms), resulting in God’s ability to love these elect people whom he purchased by His cross-work in Jesus Christ. Zahnd writes:

Neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love. An “economic model” of the cross just won’t work. It’s not as if God is saying, “Look, I’d love to forgive you, but I’ve got to pay off Justice first, and, you know how she is, she’s a tough goddess, she requires due payment.” This understanding of the cross begs the question of who exactly is in charge — the Father of Jesus or some abstract ideal called “Justice”?[2]

We see, briefly then, what kind of conception of the atonement Zahnd rejects; and we also see inklings of what he proposes instead (in the last quote from him). Besides the false dilemma Zahnd creates between Justice as an ‘abstract ideal’ and God as God, we will press onto to stating just exactly what it is that Zahnd sees as the correct approach towards articulating what the atonement of Jesus Christ actually entails and what it accomplished.

Zahnd is very straightforward about what he thinks the atonement of Jesus is, he writes (at length):

Let me suggest that when we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving us. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was not asking God to act contrary to his nature. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was, as always, revealing the very heart of God!

At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first world [sic] of the new world:“Peace be with you.”

When I say “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are the very political and religious systems that executed Jesus. At the cross we see where Adam and Eve’s penchant for blame and Cain’s capacity for killing have led us — to the murder of God! At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!

So let’s be clear, the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god. The cross is about the revelation of a merciful God. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. Once we understand this, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: We are seeing the lengths to which a God of love will go in forgiving sin.[3]

Zahnd has some compelling language and even truthful things communicated in his presentation, but there is some other stuff mixed in that I find problematic; particularly the section I have italicized and emboldened above.

What is it that Zahnd actually believes in regard to the atoning work of Jesus Christ? In some ways it is somewhat difficult to tell. We see him affirming an apparently high Christology, but then at points promoting a low and/or middle view of salvation. When he writes, “At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!” and then he writes, “The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” It is at these points that I smell Schleiermacher lurking, at least at a superficial level.

As usual these types of posts run long, quickly! I will break this into two posts, this one and the forthcoming post to follow this one. Now that we have an idea about what Zahnd is against and what he is for, respectively, in regard to how he understands the atonement we are better situated to do a comparison and contrast between him and Schleiermacher. Although, my guess is that the next post will have to be an introduction to Schleiermacher’s own view, and then we will be set up for a third post wherein we will finally be ready to compare and contrast Zahnd and Schleiermacher (according to Hunsinger).  

 

[1] Brian Zahnd, How Does “Dying for our Sins” Work?(Missouri: BrianZahnd.com, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.