Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing

Comment from a reader: I hope to see in a subsequent post the question answered as to whether Barth has a place within orthodoxy if he denies that God moves from wrath to grace in the history of the believer.

Response: Ah, Barth reminds me of my previous life when I wrote my doctoral thesis on him 30 years ago. Sadly, I have not continued my engagement with Barth since coming back to Malaysia. I just simply could not find someone who is interested even to survey the imposing theological Alpine Mount Blanc (yes! Barth was a Swiss, not German) from a distance using a telescope, much less climb its treacherous cliffs and dizzying heights. No one can theologize alone. Hence not much Barthian rumination in my life for the last 28 years. Pastoral necessity forced me to stay in the lowly valleys and grasslands of theology. To theologize Barth would indeed be an indulgence. But then why not once again for a change? Maybe just a quick shot at the problem?

Barth sounds like an evangelical when he talks about the cross. He deploys words like judgment, wrath, representation and substitution. He writes, “the Son of God fulfilled the righteous judgment on us men by Himself taking our place as man and in our place undergoing the judgment under which we had passed. That was why He came and was amongst us.” (Church Dogmatics CD 4.1.222). Barth adds, “His doing this for us, in His taking to Himself – to fulfil all righteousness – our accusation and condemnation, in his suffering in our place and for us, there came to pass our reconciliation with God.” (CD 4.1.223) But then in his usual and confusing dialectics he differentiates his position from that of Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Continue reading “Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing”

Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)

In this present climate of social and religious tolerance in the West, one would not have expected a major Christian denomination to ban books, much less delete a popular song from its hymnal. But in 2013, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Songs for the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) decided to delete the song, “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal. It judged a line in the song to be problematic: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Apparently, the committee considered the line to be offensive to modern sensibilities twice over – it not only refers to the “wrath” of God, but suggests that the cross is the place where divine wrath is “satisfied.” The committee overruled what has been for centuries the prevailing Christian understanding of Christ death. This incident confirms the prophetic insight of J.G, Machen who declared in 1923 that theological liberalism is not just another form of Christianity; it is “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” Continue reading “Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)”

Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death

In this post, I shall compare Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) and Christus Victor (CV).

Definitions:
Christus Victor (CV): Gustav Aulén gives a summary of CV in his classic work, Christus Victor:  “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil…the victory of Christ creates a new situation, bringing their rule to an end, and setting men free from their dominion” [Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, (MacMillan, 1969), p. 20]

Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA): Martin Luther whose sympathies for CV is well known, offers a succinct description of PSA, “[Jesus Christ] became a substitute for us all, and took upon Himself our sins, that he might bear Gods terrible wrath against sin and expiate our guilt, he necessarily felt the sin of the whole world together with the entire wrath of God, and afterwards the agony of death on account of this sin” [Martin Luther, Sermons on the Passion of Christ (Rock Island, 1871), p. 29]. See related posts on PSA given below**

Following Luther’s example, Christians should welcome the diversity of models of atonement as they seek to understand the full significance of Christ’s death on the cross. This being said, I would still like to explain why Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) is foundational for other models of the atonement. Continue reading “Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death”

Denial of PSA – The Most Serious and Severe Departure from Biblical Faith in our Day?

Christian theology springs from worship. This is especially true for the Christian understanding of Christ’s death on the cross. For the believer whose faith is nurtured on a diet of classic hymns, nothing is more assuring than knowing that Christ bore God’s punishment for our sins and secured pardon for us through his blood when he died on the cross. A few examples from the hymns would suffice.

Man of Sorrows! What a Name (Philip P. Bliss, 1838–1876)
2. Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood:
Halellujah! What a Savior! Continue reading “Denial of PSA – The Most Serious and Severe Departure from Biblical Faith in our Day?”

Critical Review of N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began

Dane Ortlund acknowledges that N.T. Wright is one of our strongest writers who has been instrumental for his own development in understanding the Bible. He acknowledges that he has learned much from Wright but concludes: “The problems with this book, unlike the majority of Wright’s other books, so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous. Many college students will read this book for their understanding of the crucifixion. I wish they wouldn’t.”

The reasons for his concerns include:

1) False dichotomies -This is a problem with other books of his, but here the false dichotomies are so fundamental to his argument, and so frequently rehearsed, that they become not only grating but structurally weakening. The entire book is built on artificial either/ors when a nuanced both/and would be far more true to the facts and convincing.

2) Caricatures – Wright unfairly caricatures the conservative evangelicals’ view of  (a) heaven and hell and (b) God’s holiness, wrath and divine judgment on sin.

3) Doctrinal vagueness – Wright is unclear on how the cross does what it does, Continue reading “Critical Review of N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began”

Penal Substitution as Anchor and Foundation of Other Dimensions of the Atonement

Supplementary Reading #1 on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Related Posts:
Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross
N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement

Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death

The theory of penal substitution is the heart and soul of an evangelical view of the atonement. I am not claiming that it is the only truth about the atonement taught in the scriptures. Nor am I claiming that penal substitution is emphasized in every piece of literature, or that every author articulates clearly penal substitution. I am claiming that penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole. I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy his justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested.

The riches of what God has accomplished in Christ for his people are not exhausted by penal substitution. The multifaceted character of the atonement must be recognized to do justice the canonical witness. God’s people are impoverished if Christ’s triumph over evil powers at the cross is slighted, or Christ’s exemplary love is shoved to the side, or the healing bestowed on believers by Christ’s cross and resurrection is downplayed. While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christ’s atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement. Continue reading “Penal Substitution as Anchor and Foundation of Other Dimensions of the Atonement”

Short Comment on N.T. Wright’s Narrative Model

Related Post: On Being a Reformed, Pauline and Narrative Theologian

Answers to questions on my earlier post on N.T. Wright’s Non-traditional Substitutionary Atonement from a reader:

Question 1: Should we abandon or improve on N.T. Wright narrative model?

I agree in principle with NTW that theology should be anchored in biblical history and history of salvation. Notice I deliberate go beyond using just a generic “narrative’ model to emphasize “biblical history” which is both a record of God’s mighty acts in history, and revealed interpretation through his prophets and apostles? Naturally, this salvation history is not a list of abstract theological propositions (which NTW loves to criticize), but a divine narrative fleshed out in the primeval history of Genesis, the history of Israel, the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic ministry in the early church.

My problem with NTW is his tendency to rule out the theological implication/interpretation that was first given in embryonic form by the apostles, and developed more fully later in creeds and confessions, etc. as NTW charges the latter for being abstract. Continue reading “Short Comment on N.T. Wright’s Narrative Model”

N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement

N.T. Wright’s Sweet-Sour Cuisine
Reading N.T. Wright (NTW) is like eating delicious Sichuan cuisine – a unique blend of sweet and sour flavors enhanced by hot and spicy pepper that only a master chef could produce. We begin by savoring the sweet flavors.

First, NTW provides a skillfully crafted narrative of the history of God’s salvation from Adam, through the tragic history of Israel until the coming of the messiah. NTW suggests that Adam in Genesis and Israel in biblical history were entrusted with a “covenant of vocation” to be image bearers of God’s glory on earth. The failure of the first Adam brought the Fall. Israel was to resume this mission as the new Adam to reverse the consequences of the Fall by her obedience to the Torah. Instead, Israel’s apostasy resulted in the exile. NTW emphasizes that the mission of the messiah and the cross must be anchored in this tragic history. NTW’s vision of the “covenant of vocation” emphasizes that God’s redemption involves the restoration of creation is an important corrective of some forms of popular Christianity which narrowly view salvation as saving souls which NTW denigrates as a platonized, paganized version of escaping from fallen earth to go to heaven. Continue reading “N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement”

Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross

As an evangelical who has been actively involved with the VCF-IFES movement since my varsity days in the 1970s, I am conscious of standing in the spiritual tradition of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Carl Henry and Leon Morris. The VCF (or CICCU as it was known during John Stott’s time) was formed when evangelical leaders felt disillusioned by the liberal tendencies of the major student movement at that time, the Student Christian Movement (SCM). The SCM was championing social justice while the VCF was focusing on  proclaiming and preaching the gospel based on the final and sufficient authority of the Bible. It was the CICCU-VCF’s insistence on the centrality of the atoning work of Christ on the cross that led to final separation between the two Christian movements.

John Stott narrates a fascinating account of the unsuccessful attempt to keep the two movements together. Continue reading “Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross”