Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Some Thoughts on the Atonement I 

Having commented a few days ago on the matter of scapegoating in the Reformed community and mentioned the fact that I had been enjoying reading Girard of late, I thought that it might be worthwhile to post some of the ideas that his work has served to stimulate for me. As I have been thinking about a number of other aspects of the meaning of the atonement over the last few weeks I thought that I might as well put them all together, during a brief hiatus from my Wright postings. The following are some of the thoughts that I have been having on this subject, approaching the subject from a variety of different angles. At the moment they are somewhat disjointed and are to be read as suggestive thoughts on the subject, rather than as any final word. I have arranged them in the following scattered manner because I did not want to spend too much time organizing them into a coherent post as I hope to get back to work on Wright as soon as possible. The opinions that I express here are not ones that I would like to finally commit myself to holding; I haven’t had enough times to probe the possible implications for that. Nevertheless, I do find these positions increasingly persuasive.
The most popular forms of Reformed and evangelical doctrines of the atonement are flawed in many and various ways and should be rejected. Bringing the wrong questions to the text, doctrines of atonement have been formed that would seem strange and alien to the authors of the NT. We need to wrestle with the fact that the cross was not designed to answer our questions. Once we have appreciated this, much else follows.
I have expressed reservations in the past concerning the doctrine of limited atonement (see, for example, my brief article Limited Atonement in Perspective or my post The Limited Atonement and the Sacraments). I would now reject the language of ‘limited’ atonement in favour of ‘efficacious’ atonement, or something like that. Not only do I believe that this is a more accurate way of describing the position of the Reformed churches (as Bavinck and Berkouwer have claimed), but I also believe that limited atonement is biblically untenable and has the tendency of narrowing the scope of the atonement to a dangerous degree.
There are, of course, different forms of the doctrine of limited atonement. I find John Owen’s form of the doctrine especially obnoxious. I would not for a second think of denying that Christ’s death was efficacious, nor would I deny for a moment that the Father had a specific purpose in the giving up of His Son — a purpose that will infallibly be achieved. However, I do not view the cross as accomplishing the salvation of individuals in isolation from the work of the Spirit in conversion, for example. Owen, by speaking in terms of the cross ‘purchasing’ blessings (e.g. saving faith) for particular individuals and for them only, seems to view the cross in just such an isolation. Those who have treated the cross in this sort of manner tend to hold to a form of theology in which the resurrection, the ascension and Pentecost are eclipsed by the cross. Compare the amount of space given to the treatment of the cross in the average Reformed systematic theology to the amount of space given to these other redemptive historical events and my point will be perfectly borne out. Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith is a classic example of this: the resurrection and ascension are given sixteen pages, almost all of them devoted to the question of historicity and no pages are given to the question of the theological significance of the resurrection. In contrast to this, the cross is given about eighty pages and almost a further one hundred pages are devoted to ‘the application of the benefits of the cross work of Christ.’ This wording alone has the tendency of marginalizing the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. When one reads theologians like Calvin, the cross is not absolutized in this same manner (see, for example, Institutes III.i.1).
When substitution is understood through the lens of participation, many of the common forms of limited atonement collapse. With Owen’s doctrine of limited atonement it is hard to present Christ as the One who died for the sins of the world and as the object of faith; your faith merely becomes the evidence that Christ died for you. If you are not aware of faith in your heart it is hard to know whether Christ really died for you. Faith is thrown back on itself, which is always fatal. However, if the blessings of the death of Christ are seen to be offered to all freely by the Gospel in the Word and the Sacraments, faith can be surely founded on something external to itself. Owen’s doctrine makes one wonder why faith and repentance are really needed. Were you to die prior to faith and repentance would you be subject to God’s condemnation? If Christ truly died for you then can God require you to pay the debt that Christ has already discharged at the cross on your behalf?
The doctrine of limited atonement mutes the universalistic emphasis of much NT soteriology. Whilst it is certainly not the case that each and every individual will be saved, God’s plan of salvation involves fulfilling His purpose for humanity as a whole and not just saving a few individuals — fragments as it were — from the old fallen humanity. Christ took away the sin of the world, not just of a few individuals. The effect of the cross is cosmic in its proportions. The doctrine of limited atonement is far too individualistic. Christ died for the sin of the world, not just for the sins of elect individuals. Whilst I reject the Arminian error, I no longer find the doctrine of limited atonement persuasive or biblically plausible. The atonement was not a shot in the dark from God’s perspective; God knows exactly what He wants to achieve by it and there is no doubt that this will be achieved. However, the doctrine of limited atonement seems to make presumptions about the character of the imputation of sin to Christ (among other things) that strike me as unnecessary. It seems to result in the downplaying of the apocalyptic character of Christ’s death and its cosmic implications in favour of largely atemporal and individualistic interpretations of the significance of the cross.
One of the biggest issues that I have with common evangelical doctrines of the atonement and with the doctrine of limited atonement in particular is the manner in which they abstract the cross from covenant history. N.T. Wright has commented in the past on the manner in which historical and theological reasons for the atonement tend to become separated. I have given occasional thought over the last while to the question of how to more closely correlate these two aspects and I would be interested to hear some of the thoughts that others might have on the matter. I am frustrated with many of the common evangelical accounts of the atonement; although they are well-intentioned, they strike me as largely detached from the narrative of Scripture itself. Common evangelical approaches seem to abstract the cross from all historical particularities that may colour it. The cross almost becomes an event that occurs without respect to history. When I read the Gospels I am continually struck by the historical particularities that others seem to bypass as mere ‘accidents’ and I wish to do justice to them. The fact that many popular evangelical notions of the cross can’t even present us with much of a reason why Christ needed to be the Jewish Messiah in order to die for the sins of the world troubles me. The whole covenant history of the OT is largely sidelined. It is relegated to the status of mere types and shadows. I believe, however, that God’s means of redeeming the world was put into operation back in the OT, even before the incarnation. The election of Israel was essential to God’s plan for the salvation of the world. We cannot just jump from Adam to Christ.
I believe that we must accept that, in some manner or other, the history of Israel is necessary for the atonement to ‘work’. When Christ dies, He dies when the time has come — when His time to die has come; when the time for Israel to die has come. The casting away of Israel for the reconciliation of the world (Romans 11:15) is inseparably connected with the Messiah’s casting away for the world’s salvation. Christ’s death, like that of a seed falling into the ground, is only possible because the ground has already been prepared.
Under the question of the mechanism by which sin is imputed to Christ we find perhaps the strongest movement away from an historical rooted doctrine of the atonement. Many of the evangelicals that I encounter seem to think in terms of the idea of the discrete sins of elect individuals being imputed to Christ in some extrinsic and atemporal manner. The accumulated demerit of the sins of the elect is totted up before the sins have ever been committed and Christ undergoes the required amount of punishment. I am increasingly dissatisfied by this approach. Somehow or other, I believe that it is by means of Israel that the sins of world were laid upon Christ. The Torah draws onto Israel the sin that will be dealt with by Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. The imputation of sins is in some sense, therefore, to be understood as an historical process taking place in Israel. The Bible speaks of sin not being imputed where there is no law (Romans 5:13). The purpose of the Torah was, among other things, that of turning sins into transgressions and imputing sin to Israel. For Christ to take the burden of the sin of the world upon Himself, He had to take that burden up at the point where it had been placed — under the Torah. To do this it was necessary that He be the Christ or Messiah of Israel — the one in whom the whole nation is represented. We must always appreciate that sins are not the same thing as trangressions (cf. Romans 5:13-14). Transgressions are sins committed under Law. The Torah was never something general to the whole of mankind. Only Israel received the Torah and, consequently, only Israel was in a position to transgress the commandment of God in the same sort of manner that Adam was. This, by the way, is one of the observations that, in my understanding, reinforces the notion that the Law is always to be thought of as a covenant document. The Torah was something that was exclusive to Israel. Consequently, the ‘curse of the Law’ was, I am convinced, in its most important sense, Israel-specific. Although the curse of the Law (Torah) had ramifications for the whole cosmos, Israel’s relationship to the curse of the Law was very different to that of the Gentiles. When Paul speaks about Christ dealing with the ‘curse of the Law’ in His death (Galatians 3:13) we should recognize that it is simply not the case that every Christian was under this curse before they were converted, or even that every human being before the death of Christ could truly be said to be under this curse; being under the curse of the Law was something peculiar to Israel.
I believe that we should have the courage to admit that the Westminster Confession, among many other Reformed documents, is wrong, both in equating sin with transgression and in generalizing the ‘curse of the Law’ (WCF VI.6). Confusion in these areas will hamper our attempt to understand Pauline theology.
When the Bible speaks about the relationship between Christ and sin it does not, I believe, speak of the imputation of sin to Christ in terms of some external forensic transaction, but in terms of personal identification. Saying that Christ was ‘made … to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21) goes far further than merely saying that our sins were ‘put to His account.’ The apostle Paul speaks of Christ being born under the Law and coming in the likeness of sinful flesh. The atonement that Christ achieved in His death necessitated His identifying with the people of Israel under the Law. The Torah had imputed sin to Israel, not as an external transfer of guilt or sin from one group to another, but as a result of that which was in reality true of Israel. When Jesus died He died as the Messiah, as the one who summed up this sinful covenant-breaking Israel, the Israel that was still in Adam, in Himself. In order to act as a saving representative and die vicariously Christ had to personally identify Himself with Israel under Torah, which is what He did in His incarnation and ministry. In the OT Israel inherits the role of Adam. After the calling of Abraham the hope and destiny of humanity as a whole devolves upon Israel. When God’s new humanity will be formed, it will be formed through Abraham’s seed. The messiah is the one in whom the whole covenant people is summed up. In the light of all of this we see that, when Christ died, He died as the One carrying the destiny of the entire human race — as the representative of all of humanity, as the second Adam or the true Man. It was the role that Jesus played as the Messiah of Israel that made His death vicarious.
The death of Christ takes place at a specific time — a climactic moment in covenant history. Christ’s death spells the end of the old covenant order and establishes the new covenant order. It is an apocalyptic event and it was necessary for it to take place at a particular time in history. I have never been entirely satisfied by the treatment that these things receive in many evangelical doctrines of the atonement. The individualistic approach that they adopt tends to abstract the cross from covenant history and also end up losing sight of the radical newness of the new covenant.
The sin that is dealt with by the cross should be thought of in a covenantal manner. When Christ died for sin He was not dying for the accumulated total of the demerit of the sins of the elect throughout history, rather He was dying in order to deal with the old world order that had been established by the sin of Adam and with the old covenant order under which the burden of the sin of the old world order had been gathered. The Scripture declares: And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15). Christ died for us in order to save us as individuals; however, the sins which He bore were those that had bound the old world and Israel in particular under the slavery of Sin — not so much for the discrete sins of elect individuals throughout history, as for the covenant-breaking of Israel. He died in order to establish the new covenant and do away with the broken old covenant. Whilst every Christians should confess with Paul: ‘[the Son of God] loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20) — any account of the cross that somehow empties it of its deeply personal character is a false one — we should never lapse into individualistic accounts of what the cross was designed to achieve.
We should appreciate that, whilst it is in the cross that we find our sins dealt with, the manner in which the cross deals with our sins is not as atomistic acts of disobedience, but as part of an overarching reality. The Bible speaks of Christ dying to sin in His death and of our dying to sin with Christ in the rite of Baptism (Romans 6:1-11). ‘Sin’ is here seen as the domain of Sin, a power and a realm of control. Sin had made the Torah into its royal palace and its central stronghold. In order to deal with Sin, Christ came to the place where Sin’s power was concentrated; He came in the likeness of sinful flesh and was born under the Torah. In His life and ministry Christ took the battle to where the Accuser was. He exorcized demons that controlled the synagogues of Israel. In His death, burial and resurrection, He wrested control of the world, the grave and the heavens from Satan and enabled the people of God to enter into the promised inheritance. In His death Jesus, dying as Israel’s Messiah, bore the full burden of God’s penalty upon His people for their unfaithfulness under the Old Covenant. In the process He condemned the whole old world order that had existed, stripped its powers of their strength and established a new realm in Himself. The demonic powers had gained their strength by the judgment of death held out over the old realm. Christ took this full judgment upon Himself in order to bring His people out from slavery and into freedom. He emancipated the saints in Sheol; He dealt with the Law that shut in Israel and which shut out the Gentiles; He threw Satan down from the heavens and brought His people in. It is within Baptism that we are set free from the old world order and brought into the new world order — the new covenant and new creation — established by Christ. We are baptized into His death, and are raised up as participants in the new creation order. Our sins are dealt with as we die to the old world order and are engrafted into Christ in Baptism. In Christ the judgment of death no longer hangs over us because, by our Baptism into Christ, we have passed through this judgment and out the other side. Our death to sin(s) in Baptism is a definitive, one-off event and should not be thought of in terms of a gradual process. The fact that we have died to sin(s) in this manner prompts us to live as those of whom this is true. Our death to sin lies at the start of the life of holiness and should not be thought of as the result of it (1 Peter 2:24; Romans 6:1-11).

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