Question from an old friend:
“Is it not possible to accept that penal substitution is only one Pauline model of the atonement and that those of us who find it fails to communicate the Gospel in many cultural contexts prefer to use other models/metaphors (whether Pauline or non-Pauline)- without us all being denounced us “liberals”? Isn’t it also high time we moved away from such misleading and irrelevant theological labels as “liberal” or “evangelical” which are largely Anglo-American cultural imports?…there is no way Stott’s and Morris’s insistence that this [hilasterion] means “propitiation” can be defended in the light of both Jewish and recent Christian scholarship. In any case, you well know that words don’t derive their meanings from dictionaries but from usage in larger literary contexts.”
1) Regarding atonement models – Of course I agree with you that there are many valid models of the atonement. Notice I mentioned that the classical Confessions did not ‘canonize’ any one model? I further argued that because of PSA, I can believe in CV? But that doesn’t mean that I cannot argue that PSA is foundational for the other models. Whether one agrees with me or not is a matter of theological exegesis. Everyone is free to take a position on this matter.
I agree that witnessing in some contexts may require giving greater priority to some models of the atonement over others. I am aware of situations where the proclamation of the Christ to rural tribes results immediately in power encounter (and therefore CV) before anyone raises theological issues like PSA. Nevertheless, these same tribal groups are even more sensitive & receptive to the teaching of the wrath of God than most city folks, folks who have what I call “modern sensitivities.” These tribal groups also understand the need for propitiation and respond to the message of PSA. Actually, they need less persuasion to be convinced about PSA. Naturally, both models (PSA and CV) work in together in mission context.
I am interested to know from you those places or situations where PSA “fails to communicate the Gospel.” The question is raised with awareness that despite contextualization requirements, still, in the end we need to go beyond cultural accommodation (in communication strategy and priorities) and present the whole gospel (including PSA) so that the gospel judges culture (or sin) and brings forgiveness, assurance, reconciliation, liberation, justice etc. How else do we get people to repent? In the end we will need to deploy the whole range of models of the atonement (and perhaps even new models if they emerge in new theological and mission contexts).
2) Regarding evangelical-liberal debate. I thought for over 20 years that the debate is no longer relevant in my context. After all, what message does classical liberalism have to offer in the Asian context with its own millennial long religious heritage? For some sociological reasons, I find certain doctrines once associated with classical liberalism now coming back into churches which identify themselves as evangelical – doctrines like assertion of errors in the bible, acceptance of Welhausen documentary hypothesis – its derivatives and ramifications, some rather radical results of atheistic historical criticism of the history of Israel and the origins and formation of the gospels, openness to Walter Bauer’s hypothesis of diversity (non-unity) of doctrinal development regarding orthodoxy-heresy in early Christianity, denial of the historical Adam, denial of eternal hell (keeping the difference here in perspective), open theism, some degrees of ‘tolerance of LGBT [‘tolerance’ to be defined] and denial of penal substitution (I think you may disagree with me on penal substitution). I personally will not draw the liberal-evangelical line with penal substitution, although I find it interesting that the doctrines I listed seem to cluster together like a package deal, especially among the younger Christians.
Question: Let’s say we avoid using the traditional terms like ‘theological liberalism’ – how would you describe people or groups of people who promote these doctrines? What handles would you depend on to discuss these doctrinal differences which I think are more than trivial. What theological matter matters and how do we prioritize our engagement/challenge? I am also prepared to say that for me some doctrines are non-negotiable (of course this depends on our understanding of what semper reformanda amounts to). How would you describe your approach?
3) To some degrees you are right. The liberal-evangelical divide does seem irrelevant nowadays but the reason for this may be different between us. First, what becomes of evangelical identity if the cluster of doctrines listed above has become accepted by leaders who call themselves evangelicals? It only testifies to the sad state of the evangelical theology rather than the emergence of tolerant doctrinal maturity. Notice I do not go around identifying who “so and so” is a liberal? I have kept my critique to doctrines of liberal theology and use the term ‘liberals’ as a short hand for people who endorse these doctrines. But I do not attack individuals or question his or her faith. If necessary I engage with a prominent scholar if he provides a convenient foil for theological debate or where this influential scholar has critique classical evangelical doctrines. The influential scholar requires a response. He will have to accept being critiqued as this is a price of fame and influence. Second, the debate is irrelevant to many contemporary evangelical leaders who are not interested in doctrines [I hope to explain the reason for this doctrinal indifference should I write and introduce my readers to the Dayton/Olson vs Marsden/Horton debate on evangelicalism]. I may not go so far as D.G. Hart or Carl Trueman as to suggest that we deconstruct and abandon the term ‘evangelicalism’. Still, I wonder if term “evangelicalism” has lost is usefulness and if one now needs to identify oneself as some kind of hyphenated-evangelical – you may know where I am personally heading if I suggest some of us need to identify ourselves as ‘confessional evangelicals’. Btw, I came to this conclusion of confessional evangelicalism fully on my own and not through reading American stuff.
I have already written the article on ‘hilasterion’, but decided to release it later next week so as not to overwhelm my less theologically trained readers. Not sure what recent Jewish and Christian scholarship you have in mind? Sanders? Sorry he has been sufficiently challenged so as not to have the last word; McKnight? Not that I pretend to be anywhere near his biblical expertise, but theologically I am confident enough to disagree with him on some matters; apocalyptic Pauline scholarship? Actually, we don’t have to be force to dichotomize between the different models of atonement or schools of Pauline scholarship. Specifically, I include both aspects of propitiation and expiation even though I side with Morris-Nichole. Of course new scholarship needs to go beyond just the Dodd-Morris debate, but I think the Morris-Nichole’s foundational critique remains valid. To be sure, I do not simply rest my theology on isolated linguistic analysis and etymological studies of theological terms (would be silly after James Barr’s critique in his The Semantics of Biblical Language). In general, my difference with ‘liberals’ reflects not our lack of exegetical-theological skills but our different mindsets that influence how we read the interconnected texts and doctrines. But will highlight how technical terms are still vital if we read them within the canonical context.
Meanwhile, will continue with short posts. Even though I am only writing short blog articles and not theological treatises, I hope to be able to respond to interesting questions from my readers.