Friday, March 20, 2009

Grappling with the atonement

I've been getting to grips with the atonement this afternoon as I'm doing a lecture to a third year NT group at spurgeon's on it next week.

I shall be outlining and reflecting on Howard Marshall's paper The Theology of the Atonement which he produced for the recent LST/EA conference on the subject in the wake of controversy over Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus. I have to say, it's not Marshall's finest work but it is the text that the students have been given to read.

Then I'll be suggesting other approaches before doing a little exegetical work on Galatians 3 and Romans 3 in the light of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and seeing where we end up.

It's been interesting to see where the debate among evangelicals is. It isn't between those who hold to a penal substitutionary view and those who don't. there are so few evangelicals for whom that view is not at least part of their understanding of the atonement.

The key issue is where it fits in scripture - where Tom Wright takes issue with those reformed evangelicals who dismiss the NPP as hopelessly flawed - and what its consequences are in the world.

I've read some good stuff by Wright today and one or two other essays exploring other approaches that have not been quite so convincing. In particular Christopher Marshall's attempt to find a via media between more traditional models and the Narrative Christus victor model advocated by the Mennonite scholar J Denny Weaver is interesting but unconvincing - though not as unconvincing as Weaver's approach!

I found myself agreeing with Wright that while the Christus Victor model is the key one, penal substitution is an essential facet of it and to strip any idea of substitutionary atonement from one's overall approach suggests that we take neither sin nor God's love very seriously. I think this is a shift of position on my part - so preparing lectures is good for one's thinking!

In passing in a very good paper he wrote last year in response to Jeffrey John's Lent talk and the Oak Hill book Pierced for our Transgressions (neither of which he rated very highly), he made this nice observation: 'when I sing that interesting recent song In Christ Alone my hope is found, and we come to the line "And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied", I believe it's more deeply true to sing "the love of God was satisfied". I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.' (I love that last sentence for it doesn't say!).

The reason for his emendation is that the cross satisfies God's love rather than his wrath. John tells us not that God was so angry with the world that he sent Jesus, but that he so loved it. God's wrath is provoked by human sin that requires judgment. His love is displayed, however, in him absorbing that judgment in himself in the person of his Son - the atonement is deeply, sublimely, mysteriously, wonderfully Trinitarian.

So, I'm enjoying myself and will be for a couple of days - it'll be interesting to see how it comes out. I wonder if the students will enjoy it as much!


Craig Gardiner said...

I always sing 'The love of God was glorified' and have done since I first heard the song. I've suggested the 'alt. rewrite' to the composer, (with the hope that it be adopted by BUGB Assembly)but alas no response has graced my in-box.

Because in part I have always sought a discipling understanding of atonement that fitted with the motifs of alternative kingdom/ alt. powers/ non violence and shalom/ (cos it seemed that was what Jesus was about)I like Denny Weaver's take on it all, (although I admit it has its weaknesses) I don't deny the strand of subst atonement in the scriptures, but i can't agree that it is as dominant a theme there as in our preaching and hymnody (esp recent stuff). I suspect its impact on our discipleship and mission has done as much harm as good in many cases.

Be that as it may, any chance you'll post the lecture?

simon said...

Thanks for those thoughts. Because I take a new perspective view of righteousness/justification texts - that they are about being part of God's people and not just about my status before God - I want to explore the disicpleship consequences of the atonement.

I will post the lecture when it's done. It'd be good to have comment on it.

Craig Gardiner said...

I've now had a response on the song and for theological and copyright reasons the lyrics need to stay as they are.

simon said...

The copyright reasons I understand - Christian music publishers guard their products jealously.

I suggested changing it the last time we were planning to use it and the person leading worship objected on theological grounds, so we dropped it!

I can't get to the bottom of what the theology is that insists on wrath rather love.