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Molech’s Fury & God’s Passion: A Response to Michael Hardin Part 2

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Categories: The Atonement

moloch39[1]“In the beginning was Non-retaliation, and Non-retaliation was with god, and Non-retaliation was god… and then, Non-retaliation struck a tent in human flesh… and they named him Michael Hardin.”

Let me explain. I am currently locking horns with a great theologian (you guessed it, Michael Hardin) over the issue of whether or not there is any penal (however nuanced) element within the atonement wrought by God in Jesus Christ (His initial post, my response, and his response). But, as is the case with these sorts of complex discussions, one quickly realizes that he is not discussing one matter, but perhaps two or three. You see, normally an appeal to the text as the grounds and conceptual matrix for theological formulation (yes this includes our informed and uninformed presuppositions etc.) is a way to navigate between the contesting positions, but with Hardin this is not the case. Appealing to a passage here or there (or in this case nigh everywhere) is unpersuasive because for Hardin these text(s) are simply wrong in light of his overriding theological abstraction of non-violence and non-retaliation.

If I culled a text, for example, that illustrated God exacting punishment upon some disobedient Israelite he might reply with describing it as something like a Sitz im Leben:

I would say that in scripture when we find stories of God punishing humanity we are reading stories from the perspective of the persecuting community that justifies itself with an appeal to a god they have made in their own image.

Or if I appealed to St. Paul, or even Jesus on the matter then he may say (and did): “I also acknowledge that both Testaments contain elements of myth (sacrificial thinking) and gospel (non or anti-sacrificial thinking).” So, over the course of the discussion, I quickly realized that it is not a matter of finding swaths of Scripture to support penal aspects in the atonement, but one of a theory of revelation. It is not easy to win a game when the opponent makes all up all the rules in their favor. Enter my re-work of John 1:1, 14; you see, for Hardin, the revelation of God is not primarily through the person and work and teachings of Jesus, the Logos en persona per se, but through an abstract theory of non-retaliation which has embodied his theory of divine revelation. For him, the darkness of mythically violent Scripture (even the non-western ones!) shall not overcome the light of the principle of non-violence.

Now, notice I did not use words like “plenary inspiration” or “inerrancy” (if you want my ontology of Scripture here), but if we are going to do theology, one that is born out of the revelational work of God in history through and by human beings, then Scripture must be granted some level of principled authority. No doubt all theological positions have some texts that refuse to be stuffed in the box, but when we see something (God executing judgment) in both the OT, in Jesus, and in Paul (Hardin acknowledges its trans-testamental presence) we might have sufficient support for shifting or moderating a theological position. Unless, of course, we have chosen a meta-principle (I see it as ultimately “abstract” if Jesus does not support it either in his teaching or work) that overrides all contrary evidence, in Hardin’s case, the logos of non-violence.

The second issue at play here is that Hardin is not truly consistent about non-violence per se, because when taken at his own words his theory of atonement is in fact “penal”:

However, I would argue that it was exactly a human attempt at propitiation that was occurring on Calvary; an attempt that was subverted by God. Jesus, on Calvary is a ‘propitiatiatory offering’, not of humanity to God, nor even of God back to God’s self. Rather the cross is God’s offering of God’s self to humanity in Christ. We are the propitiated ones, we humans are the ones with anger management issues, not God.

Now, one can forgive Hardin for what is possibly a poetic outburst of penal sacrificial awe, but ultimately Hardin’s (if he didn’t momentarily lose his hermeneutical principles) theory of atonement is an anthropological form of PSA. Only God, working within a top-to-bottom economy of exchange, must sacrifice himself to appease the wrath of the human gods, either way a “sacrifice is still needed for salvation.” No doubt Molech would be jealous. It seems, to me, that Hardin is not even able to escape his own critique precisely at this point. Or to say it another way, because Hardin lacks a stronger theory of biblical revelation to ground his theological formulation he ends up with an anthropological form of the Molechian brand of sacrificial atonement.

This is why we must grant more revelational credence to the OT than Hardin will allow. Its way of subversion is not that there is no exchange, or that there will be no punishment, or that there will be no sacrifice, but that God himself will be the Subject of all these things. Hardin is correct, this subversion takes place as early (even earlier if you ask me) as Genesis 22 when God provides a ram rather than accepting Isaac at the hand of Abraham, surely the ram wasn’t offered to Abraham!

Now if this was merely, some reflection of ancient Israel exchange culture (intersting that Hardin says this is “western” but if it is in fact present here it would be quite “eastern”) we might expect to see it subverted in the NT, but this is precisely what we don’t see; in fact, echoing this passage St. Paul states:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?[1]

 Interestingly, in what is arguably the climax of the letter, we see both a penal nuance (“He condemned sin in the flesh”) and a notion of “exchange” (“gave him up for us all”). The OT here serves as the conceptual matrix for Paul’s theology of atonement, and rather than subvert the sacrificial elements of exchange seen in the Abraham story, we see it fulfilled and brought at last to its intended telos. Moreover, as I noted in my last post, God is everywhere active Subject (“he did not withhold his Son”) of the atonement worked out in and by the Son, we get absolutely no sense that God sacrificed his Son to appease humanity’s Molechian wrath. I can say it no better than N.T. Wright here:

How does this ‘atonement theology’ actually work? Paul is writing in great excitement, but also with great precision. First, God sent his own son, which as we saw in 5:8 meant that God has not sent someone else, but has come in person. For the entire passage to make sense, we have to presuppose that by ‘God’s son’ here Paul means, not just Jesus as Messiah (though he means that too; it is vital in his argument) but Jesus as God’s own second self. Next, the son came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’; in other words, to the very point where the problem of chapter 7 had been identified (see particularly 7:14 and 7:25). Sin, as we saw in 5:20 and 7:13, had become ‘exceedingly sinful’ through the law; God specifically intended that it should. Now Israel, in whom that increase of sinfulness had occurred, was summed up in one man, the representative king, the Messiah. The weight of the world’s sin was focused on Israel; the weight of Israel’s sin was focused on the Messiah. And the Messiah died a criminal’s death, with ‘King of the Jews’ written above his head. At that moment, God condemned sin. He condemned sin ‘in his flesh’. He had cornered it and condemned it. As the prophet had said, ‘the punishment that brought us peace fell upon him; and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5).[2]

The only true way to escape the entail of retaliation is not avert it to man (Hardin), much less from man to God (Molech), but to see it dealt with by God Himself in and through and by the Son Jesus Christ. No Abraham, we will not need to sacrifice our sons, because “God will provide Himself (literally!) a Lamb.”

[1] Romans 8:1-4, 31-34.

[2] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), pg. 137-138.

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A Ram In the Thicket & Molech’s Displeasure: A Response to Michael Hardin

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Categories: The Atonement

imagesNXA00HUAOne of the most besetting problems within any theological camp is choosing one line of truth and pushing it to a supreme all-encompassing logical end which is then used as doctrinal bludgeon upon any and all contrary evidence or truth(s). A recent example, and to which I shall be responding, is Michael Hardin’s recent blog post Is Molech Hidden in Christianity?, in which any and all notions of “punishment” are deemed as Molechian residue which distorts the non-retaliatory nature of the Gospel into an ungodly “economy of exchange.” For example, he remarks:

The moment you incorporate punishment into your theology everything changes. When you make this move you have brought the revelation of God under the control of an economy of exchange, you have turned the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer of creation and all humanity into the likeness of every god of human imagination from the dawn of time.

I guess the first problem that struck me is that “punishment” is ipso facto taken as something like the pagan child sacrifice of the Canaanites to the deity Molech, a sacrificial exchange to appease the wrath of the gods (more on this later on). The second issue, perhaps, is that Hardin uncritically (at least it appears that way) and breathlessly moves between “punishment” and “sacrifice” and “economy of exchange” as if the mere mention of any of these is to affirm the rest, and in their worst possible construal. It doesn’t seem to dawn on him (again at least in this post) how these notions can be present in the OT and NT, but in decidedly different ways that ultimately distinguish them from the Molechian-like brand. However, rather than throwing the penal baby out with the Molechian bath water, we should be able to explicate how elements of punishment are indeed present in the Atonement, but in a way that doesn’t say “God punished his Son Jesus.”[1]

Take Hardin’s equivocal use of “punishment.” Why this word has become the atonement boogey-man in Progressive theology like “works” in some Reformed circles is beyond me. Seems to me, for example, that when pressed we can and should be able to show how on one page Paul can denounce “works” while on another saying we are to do good “works” (even a soteriology that can explain the complex reality that we will be ultimately judged according to our “works” despite not being justified by them in the present!). The same goes for “punishment.” Again, the simple presence or use of the word doesn’t imply all that is thereby assumed.

I also fail to see how an appeal to Genesis 22 and Isaiah 53 affirm his basic thesis here. No doubt Genesis 22 is a way of subverting child sacrifice, but it doesn’t do anything like rid all notions of sacrifice altogether, just the active child killing kind. In fact, God doesn’t say, “Abraham what are you doing with a sacrifice don’t you know God despises all forms of sacrifice?” (this would be odd knowing that he asked Abraham to do it in the first place); rather, we get something like, “God will provided for Himself a ram.” And he does. You see, this is the actual point that Hardin is missing: YHWH is different not because there is no concept of sacrifice at all, but rather because he doesn’t require it at the hands of his people precisely because he is Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides it himself. This, after all, is the proto-theological (theology proper starts most likely with Paul) truth of Israel’s sacrificial system, that the sacrifices they perform are a testament to the grace that God Himself has already provided. T.F. Torrance is worth quoting at length here:

God is primarily the subject, for it is ultimately God himself who atones, who blots out sin, pardons it, casts it behind his back, invalidates it or annuls it. Even when the priest carries out the liturgical act of atonement he does what is appointed by God, does it in the presence of God, and what he does liturgically is to cover the sin with the blood of sacrifice, but that is by way of witness to the fact that it is always ultimately God himself and only God who can atone sin and put it away. Moreover, the blood of sacrifice which is used cultically to cover and so atone sin is explained as God’s gift and appointment, so that the very use of sacrificial blood in response to the divine requirement points directly to the divine will as the sole reason and source of atonement…[2]

God, then, is not “under the control of an economy of exchange” because there is no exchange present at the Cross, but because he is free to exchange himself by providing a sacrifice quite apart from human attempts at propitiation which are handed over from their end. It isn’t the case that all notions of sacrifice, exchange, and punishment present in pagan sacrifices were an exercise in totally missing the point, but rather that their conceptions were confused and blurred and ultimately man centered. In pagan sacrifice and exchange man provides a child sacrifice to appease the god, but in Scripture sacrifice and exchange are provided by God himself who suffers death on behalf of his people rather than require it at their hands.

A judge (who is also the offendee), for example, who freely took the place of an offender would not be called “unforgiving.” She would be marvelously forgiving and through her personal exchange would still meet the basic legal structures she promised to uphold but in a new and astounding way that would also subvert them forever, what C.S. Lewis would call “deeper magic.” Is there an exchange? Yes!—God exchanges his own life in the person and work of his Son, not our lives. Is there punishment? Yes!—but God freely and actively takes it upon himself rather than be forced to exact it upon humanity. Is there sacrifice? Absolutely—One who Jehovah Jireh provides. You see, we do not have to rid ourselves of these realities altogether, we simply must show how they are reshaped, transformed, and corrected through the person and work of Jesus who is one in nature and purpose with the Father. I’ll shut up now with a quote by Leon Morris I think captures my point (and Paul’s is Romans 3):

There is no antithesis between God’s justice and his mercy. Paul is saying that it is not simply the fact that God forgives that shows him to be just. Indeed, that fact by itself raises a question about God’s justice. As Barclay puts it, “The natural thing to say, the inevitable thing to say, would be ‘God is just, and, therefore, condemns the sinner as a criminal.’ ” But if God had simply punished sinners, while that would have left no doubts about his justice, it would have raised questions about his mercy, and the God of the Bible is both just and merciful. What Paul is saying is that the cross shows us both. It is the fact that he forgives by way of the cross that is conclusive. Grace and justice come together in this resounding paradox (cf. Ps. 85:10; Isa. 45:21; Zech. 9:9). God saves in a manner that is right as well as powerful. The claims of justice as well as the claims of mercy are satisfied.[3]

At Calvary Molech was very displeased.

 

[1] Hardin is an able are qualified theologian so my rhetoric here should not be taken too literally.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), pg. 34.

[3] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pg. 184.

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Pro-Israel Supersessionism: A Missiological & Christological Perspective

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Categories: Current Affairs

2215110_orig[1]We are still breathing the air of the post-Holocaust era. That said, the world must forever remain vigilant that it doesn’t repeat its past errors in regards to the Jewish people; whether this means participating in authentic anti-Semitism, failing to condemn it when others engage in it, and not aiding and abetting them if it should ever rear its obscene head in Europe or anywhere else for that matter—or all three if necessary.

There is also, what I would style, “theological errors” to be denounced—one thinks here of “replacement theology” or better, Supersessionism (more or less that the Christian church has superseded Israel as God’s people); for theologies (whether this or the pagan meta-narrative offered by the Nazis in the twentieth century) are never far beneath the surface or geo-political events of this nature. Thus often, and ironically as you’ll soon see, many (including myself) like the Apostle Paul in his Romans epistle must re-affirm time and again that Israel remains God’s precious and chosen people and that all of our actions to them should be ultimately shaped by this reality.

So, with these truths in mind (and rightly so), many are unreservedly pro-retaliation in response to Hamas rocket fire. So, let’s begin here. Yes, Israel, as any other conceivable nation, should reserve the right to be able to respond with their military forces in order protect their own citizens; such is the nature of the world, I get that. However, what many miss (both outside and inside of Israel) is that simply affirming all that Israel does and at any level of force she so dictates also functions as a subtle brand of Supersessionism; simply, that Israel is not accountable and summoned to her vocation both in the OT and to Christ’s teaching to be a light to the world. We must never forget that Supersessionism has a Messianic guise that seeks to sever the Jewish people from her Messiah and his teaching. For example, one scholar writes:

Supersessionism undercuts the promises of the gospel by reducing the boundaries of compassion so that they extend no further than the Christian’s own faith community. As a consequence of massive ethical failures, Christians can no longer evaluate the moral content of their tradition on the basis of its treatment of fellow members or potential converts. The ethical character of a religious tradition is embodied in the community’s response to the stranger. The virtue of hospitality, so pivotal in the ancient world, has reemerged as a vital gauge of the church’s moral character, and this generosity of spirit calls for a nonsupersessionist worldview.[1]

I would add that Superssessionism not only undercuts the “promises” of compassion, but the very call of the Gospel to follow Jesus, his teaching, and to participate in his mission to the world on behalf of the Father. It seems to me that if we are to truly avoid the Supersessionist pitfall that we not narrow the Gospel by one yod or tittle as extending to the Jewish people and nation. The question, then, becomes with the current level of response that Israel is presently demonstrating (the one that has lead to the death of hundreds upon hundreds of men, women, and children) is Israel acting in her capacity as God’s chosen people, the one which is to be a light to the whole world, reflecting as it were the compassion, love, and mercy of the One Creator God? Does the pummeling of civilians by fighter jets look anything like the God who sends his Christ to love and to heal,  to serve and to reconcile?

Or is that merely the sole property of Christians’?—again, the subtle and functional replacement theology already here discussed.

If Israel remains God’s people, the people of the Messiah, then they are summoned to participate in his mission to and for the world as revealed in Jesus the crucified Messiah. In fact, was Jesus not speaking to Israel first when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “blessed are the merciful”? Or has this call merely been passed on to Jesus’ “Christian” followers, who ironically in many corners, have absolved themselves and Israel of this missiological task with this current abominable retaliation against Gaza?

 

[1] Christopher M. Leighton, Charles Arian, in Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Vol. 3: The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999-2003), pg  59.

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Israel & Palestine: A Malacandrian Perspective

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Categories: Blogs, Current Affairs

out-of-the-silent-planet-pawel-klarecki[1]When issues are complex, made up of a tangled knot of international politics, sociology, and yes, religion—it is easiest to paint things in black and white. Take, for example, the current missile exchange between Israel (now occupying on foot) and her neighbor, Palestine. In many discussions, whether on social media threads, blogs, or other media, stances are depicted as either Palestine’s fault (initiating conflict, advocating genocide, permitting violent groups to work in and among them) or Israel’s (steady occupation, monopoly on resources, cruel and unusual retaliation, etc.), but any close examination of any fact of history will quickly prove such conflicts are always far more complicated than our either/or positions would typically suggest.

That said, those engaging the issue must be able to stand back and detach themselves from the situation (as much as this is possible) so that we can see more clearly where both sides can receive their due and necessary criticisms. To gain not a little distance from our current embroilment will help us to also be self-critical, to see where we have been so often blind to the validity of other’s positions and vice versa. For example, we lose nothing, by acknowledging that people often act violent when they are slowly herded into smaller and smaller specks of land (I’m looking at you Israel) and we gain nothing per se by condemning acts of terror against Israeli citizenry by the former (i.e. Palestine). You see, when we transcend this way we are no longer caught with something like having to choose between two teams in the World Cup final.

Now I’m no pacifist per se but my biggest quip with both sides is this notion that we must use “missiles” to overcome the current obstacle, as if any other answer is nothing more than dreamy romanticism because we all know that war is the only real feasible answer. In fact, I think countries should have military in order to defend themselves, particularly their people, from invasion and imminent attack from outside sources, but as I see it, this should always be the final resort, not our first as Iraq has hopefully taught us. The danger with preemptive and immediate retaliation is that you yourself can wind up being the criminal in an ironic twist of events.

Point being: there are other possibilities for dealing with international strife that doesn’t necessarily end in innocents living under the constant threat of mortar shells, and the children who ultimately succumb to them. In fact, the idea that all things must be solved by warfare might be what we could call a long held “earthly indoctrination.” A doctrine so long held that we can no longer see any other way, truth, or life. C.S. Lewis wonderfully portrays this reality in his little sci-fi book Out Of The Silent Planet; in the twelfth-chapter he details a conversation between Ransom (who has been taken captive and is now on the strange planet Malacandra) and Hyoi (a native of the planet and of the species known as the hrossa) about the relations between the three rational inhabitants of the planet, particularly the threat of conflict should it arise:

THEY WORKED hard at Hyoi’s boat till noon and then spread themselves on the weed close to the warmth of the creek, and began their midday meal. The war-like nature of their preparations suggested many questions to Ransom. He knew no word for war, but he managed to make Hyoi understand what he wanted to know. Did séroni and hrossa and pfifltriggi (the sentient beings of Malacandra) ever go out like this, with weapons, against each other?

 “What for?” asked Hyoi. It was difficult to explain. “If both wanted one thing and neither would give it,” said Ransom, “would the other at last come with force? Would they say, give it or we kill you?” “What sort of thing?” “Well – food, perhaps.” “If the other hnau wanted food, why should we not give it to them? We often do.” “But how if we had not enough for ourselves?” “But Maleldil will not stop the plants growing.” “Hyoi, if you had more and more young, would Maleldil broaden the handramit and make enough plants for them all?”

Though the story is fiction, Lewis is using his narrative to make a larger point, drawn as it is from principles within our world: that our answers, and yes our reasons, for war are not the only option, and that it is possible for beings, in this case the hnau to find alternatives to “com[ing] with force.” For the hrossa the answer to the séroni and pfifltriggi wanting their food (and presumably anything else) is to simply give it, because Maleldil (the supreme deity of sorts) has provided enough to sustain them all. On Malacandra, the initial response to need is to give, not hoard and defend.

 In fact, this current conflict is largely about two people refusing to give. Both people have needs—Palestinians and Jews—but the problem is that both refuse to give and share and so martial conflict becomes and appears inevitable. It seems, to me, we believe sharing instead of fighting is  only useful for the schoolyard but geo-politically speaking fighting is the official “grown-up” answer.

 But this is where Jesus comes in.

For Jesus, national conflict included a tense relationship between Jews and their in-house neighbors, the Samaritans. This is largely the context for his teaching concerning the gratuitous Samaritan recorded in Luke 10. N.T. Wright makes a similar point when he writes:

 The hatred between Jews and Samaritans had gone on for hundreds of years—and is still reflected, tragically, in the smouldering tension between Israel and Palestine today. Both sides claimed to be the true inheritors of the promises to Abraham and Moses; both sides, in consequence, regarded themselves as the rightful possessors of the land. Few Israelis today will travel from Galilee to Jerusalem by the direct route, because it will take them through the West Bank and risk violence. In exactly the same way, most first-century pilgrims making the same journey would prefer, as Jesus himself did, to travel down the Jordan valley to Jericho and then turn west up the hill to Jerusalem. It was much safer.[1]

Jesus’ answer about their conflict, reflected in the question posed by his interlocutor in the parable is that they are to be neighborly one to another. Jesus neither embroils himself in their conflict—blaming one and taking up the cause of the other—but re-directs their national conflict to that of giving and sharing. Apparently, being neighborly not only works on Malacandra, but on earth as well! I imagine, then, if we were to ask Jesus about potential violence between Palestinians and Jews over land and resources Jesus might answer similarly to Hyoi, “But YHWH will not stop plants from growing.”

Such an answer would not be science fiction for Jesus, because his Father was the type of God that “let it rain on the just and the unjust”—and who more importantly summoned his image-bearers to do likewise. Thus, our answers to national strife will and should be informed by Jesus’ answer to internal conflict for Israel within his own generation (remember, the conflict between Jews and Samaritans was politico-religious in nature and yes, social and geographical): neighborliness. As I see it, neighborliness is the meta-principle by which we should formulate all answers for Israel’s modern conflict—war being the final and solemn answers, lest we think Jesus a pious dreamer and the war mongering politicians then and now the true realists. I should think not, for Jesus is always standing in wings of history saying to future generations, “Go and do likewise.”

malacandra[1]

 

[1] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone  (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), pg. 127.

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The Victim & the Rebel: Or Why We Need Christus Victor & Penal Substitution

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Categories: The Atonement

IThirst006[1]Failure to appreciate the paradoxical (and unapologetically so) nature of Scripture and the all-too-human-tendency to band-wagon and carry things to their “necessary” logical conclusions (let’s call this “rationalization”) lead to unbalanced doctrinal and theological systems. Perhaps nowhere is this sort of thing more apparent than the setting of Christus Victor (that in Jesus’ death God destroys the power of evil, sin, and death over humans and the creation) against Penal Substitution (where God in Christ suffers the punishment for sin and rebellion); or as some tend to put it a “loving” and a “forgiving” God vis-à-vis a God “who needs to punish in order to forgive.”

Now, the rejection of Penal Substitution (in whatever form) is usually accompanied by the claim that it is a late articulation by Anslem who basically articulated the crucifixion within the conceptual framework of the feudal lord system and therefore should be rejected (though such a claim is open to a the charge of genetic fallacy). Now this true as it goes, but it doesn’t therefore mean we should reject all forms of this doctrine. There is plenty of divine punishment throughout Scripture, not least Romans 2:6-11, that to simply use Anselm’s particular model to reject any idea that Jesus suffers the wrath of God as punishment for our sins deeply problematic and unsustainable exegetically.

However, there is a correlate anthropological issue that is integrated with these two views of the atonement that mirror the discussion. The under playing of human guilt in favor of the very Scriptural notion that we are also victims of forces—Sin, Satan, death, etc.—greater than us; perhaps, and this is just a hunch, many of us grew tired of the over-emphasis of our guilt before an “angry God” that we wildly swung the pendulum in the opposite direction entirely in favor of the line of atonement that stressed our needing rescue and God’s accomplishment of that rescue in his own the death on the cross?

But should we not rather hold the two together paradoxically?

Namely, that we are both the victims of a force more powerful than us and yet we nevertheless are the responsible and willing participants in sin and evil. And that Calvary astonishingly deals with both sides of this human predicament: our helplessness and our guilt. Graham A. Cole said it well in his God the Peacemaker when he concluded:

We human beings are paradoxes: capable of both greatness and unspeakable evil. This is unsurprising if the biblical story is believed. We remain images of God (the glory) structurally and functionally—albeit damaged though we are. Yet we are sinners (the garbage). Any account that does not reckon with the paradox is flawed. We are not devils, even though we can act like them. Christians ought not to be misanthropes. But we are not moral innocents either…[1]

The choice between these theologies, let alone their antithesis, then, is a false one. Penal and what we might call divine conquest themes are, in fact, often interwoven in Scripture (e.g. Col. 2:9-15; Rom. 5:6-11; Rom. 8:1-4) and address two angels of the human condition before God. On Colossians 2 N.T. Wright adds:

In particular, the ‘handwriting that stood over against us’ has nothing more to say. This refers to the Jewish law, the law of Moses, which prevented Gentiles from getting in to God’s people, and condemned Jews for breaking its commands. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, Paul declares, this written code was nailed there with him. Now it has nothing more to say to those who belong to Jesus. ‘There is therefore no condemnation’, as Paul says in Romans 8, ‘for those who belong to King Jesus.’ He’s forgiven you all the sins and offences that might have counted against you. In dying with him you have come out from under them all, and from all the condemnation they might have pulled down on your head.[2]

Ironically, then, it precisely the legal or forensic guilt humans bear that the powers (both Caiaphas and Satan and Caesar) use to place God in a quasi-divine-predicament; think here of Zechariah 3:1-5 where the Accuser stands before God condemning Joshua the high priest before the heavenly court. Thus, if we are to have anything like a full orbed account of the human problem (and its divine answer) we must hold together the fact(s) that humanity is propelled and dominated by a force greater than itself,  that we are also willing accomplices in our actions great and small despite our weakness, and that the same forces, including God’s own judgment, are there to hold us all in the doc worthy and helpless before the divine judgment seat.

Enter the cross of Jesus of Nazareth…

The atoning cross, you see, deals with all of these integrated and paradoxical human issues. God had always intended to come in the person of Christ (this makes God’s act prior to the cross and thus reveals God is not the object of atonement but its own free and gracious satisfier) to both gain victory over the forces of sin and death in his own person and at the same time undergo his own verdict and judgment against guilty sinners; thus, disarming any legal/forensic claims made by God’s enemies. The bloody and awful death of Jesus—God with us—is God’s unexpected and yet foretold answer to all that ails us helpless-rebels and we should not take it upon ourselves to lessen the scope of the cross one jot or tittle, but rather do our best to not  separate what God has himself joined together in the person and work of Jesus Christ.



[1] Graham A. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), pg. 66.

[2] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,2004), pg. 171.

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