Armful

Isaac is in a morning melancholy, in part because we all have various viruses that make us sluggish and grumpy. When Isaac is melancholy, he holds his little stuffed lamb close, and rubs its soft paw on his face. “Isaac,” I ask him, “will you please hold Lamby by his belly instead of his arm?” Isaac has already torn Lamby’s arm off twice. This is because he loves Lamby. “When you have a baby,” I ask him, “are you going to carry him around by the arm?”

Isaac thinks for a moment. I don’t know whether this is good or bad. “No,” he offers, tentatively, as if the answer is not altogether clear, as if his mother and I routinely cart baby Isaiah around by the elbow. I love Isaac, but I’m hoping one of the other children takes care of us in our old age.

Comments

  1. fred eaton

    Hi,

    I just read your short essay “God’s Love and Life’s Storms.” While I really enjoy the way you write, I cannot help being disappointed by what you have written. You have caricatured Jonathan Edwards badly and have made no attempt whatsoever to think through what other Christians who hold to a substitutionary atonement have said on the subject. And, perhaps most alarming of all, you look to your own experience as a child instead of to the Scriptures in order to form and inform your ideas about the character of God. You seem to suggest that all those who hold that God is holy and just and must punish sin can simply be waived off along with the angry, red-faced, fundamentalist preachers from your childhood. This is unfortunate and, I believe, intellectually dishonest. How you answer your six year old boy’s questions at bed time is one thing; how you think about — and then write about — other Christians who have labored over the Scriptures in order to communicate and defend what they believe they teach is another. Please take the time and energy to represent positions that you disagree with in a more honest and charitable manner. Thank you.

    Yours in Christ,

    Fred

  2. Post
    Author
    Woodlief

    Fred is referring to my essay in the Winter 2008 issue of The City. It’s not online but you can get a subscription here. Or if enough of you pester the editors, perhaps they’ll post it online at Civitate.

    Fred, if Edwards has been caricatured, it is by his own hand. Consider this from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“:

    “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you…”

    or this vicious threat to the little ones in the congregations cursed by his appearance:

    “And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night?”

    There is no caricature in the most anti-Christian of movies that comes close to this vile, vulgar, blasphemous sermon of Edwards.

    And now to the rest of your misreading. You accuse me of making “no attempt whatsoever to think through what other Christians who hold to a substitutionary atonement have said on the subject.” This is simply untrue; in my essay I deal directly with John Stott. Had I more space, I could have covered more theologians, and traced the beginnings of this error back to Anselm through Augustine to Aquinas, culminating in the double-predestination heresy propagated by Calvin. Don’t confuse disagreement with lack of reading on the subject. And since we’re on the topic, can you tell me how many Christian theologians you’ve read who call substitutionary atonement into question? If you’re looking for a recommendation, you can sample any writer in the first thousand years of Christianity.

    Having decided that, since I disagree with you, I must be ill-read, you go on to assume that I look to my “own experience as a child instead of to the Scriptures in order to form and inform [my] ideas about the character of God.” My essay illustrates precisely the opposite, however. As a child I was exposed to the God-hates-you-until-you-convert lie. It was the lens through which I was taught to misread the Bible. It’s only as I’ve come to study Scripture free from the juridical Western mindset of the Reformation that I’ve been able to shake off my childish understanding of God.

    I don’t doubt that you and others who hold to substitutionary atonement believe in a loving God. But the truth is that you have bifurcated God into an angry Father who must be appeased by blood, and his loving Son who willingly dies to pay the price demanded by the Father. I understand that you (and Stott, as I explain in my essay) want to call that a caricature, but you can only arrive at that conclusion by downplaying the essentials of your own doctrine.

    You could adopt a Platonic approach, and claim that God simply can’t be near we sinners until we’ve been cleansed, on account of his perfect holiness, but then you’ve elevated a Form (call it Justice or Purity or whatever you like) above the essence of God, in effect constraining God by it, and giving it primacy over Him. This violates Christian dogma in two ways, first by making something exist before God’s essence (namely the Form in question), and second by suggesting that Christ, who touched sinners, was not fully God.

    There’s plenty of literature on this topic if you have further interest, but in the meantime I commend to you your own advice: “Please take the time and energy to represent positions that you disagree with in a more honest and charitable manner.”

  3. fred eaton

    Tony,

    Since there would be little fruit in throwing theologians at each other all day long, I will not bother. I do not think you adequately understand those who hold the position you so hate. Your bit about the Platonic forms simply proves the point.

    I’d be more than happy to read what you write or have written on your defense of a non-violent atonement (some works in support of I have read) demonstrated from Scripture. I’d be keen to read how you would explain the many passages that clearly speak of God’s holiness and justice and wrath and the odiousness of our rebellion and sin against Him. You can even link me a few essays or articles if you’d like. I will read them.

    In the meantime, let me leave you with this thought from John Stott that, I think, is getting at the essence of our profound differences:

    “All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and man. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to his, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge what we are, namely ‘hell-deserving sinners’, then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.”

    – John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 109.

    or this one,

    “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties whcih belong to man alone.”

    ~ John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 160.

    If you think this is heresy, then label me a heretic. I believe these to be adequate and faithful summaries of important biblical teaching.

    In Him,

    Fred

  4. Tony

    Fred,

    I didn’t mean to muddle things with my Platonic bit; I assumed you might rely on the popular notion, bandied about to soften propitiation doctrine, that God is constrained by some aspect of his essence from communing with man until atonement is made.

    What I’d like for you to consider is that propitiation is not what went on at the Cross. Understand that this doctrine didn’t emerge for nearly 1,000 years of Christian theological development. The early Church held instead to the notion of expiation — the cleansing of man’s sins by the blood of Christ. It’s a subtle but important difference, because it envisions Christ as Redeemer of broken and fallen man not to appease His Father’s wrath, but as a means of rescuing man from the ravages of sin. Christ saves man from sin, not from the Father. Man enslaved to sin can never exercise his free will to come to the Father. Only when that bondage is broken can he begin to be restored to communion.

    So we all agree with Stott about the horror of sin, the holiness of God, and the fact that man hourly behaves in ways that merit hell. Christ’s sacrifice was about liberating man from the bondage of sin and death, not satisfying the Father’s sense of honor or need for bloodshed, which is a necessarily blunt, unromantic, and troubling depiction of substitutionary atonement theory. I think we need to be blunt about it, because too often propitiation proponents use sloppy language. Stott recoils from such language in the The Cross of Christ, but he doesn’t refute it. He simply asserts that the action of the Son (and therefore God) is loving. Of course it is. But what of the Father who supposedly demanded death? Why did He demand death? As repayment of some sort? To satisfy some law that takes pre-eminence over His own authority? Why is bloodshed necessary for man to be saved?

    Atonement advocates often resort at this point to statements about God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, Christ’s goodness in dying for us, and then assuming that all these add up to proof of propitiation doctrine. The problem is that early Church fathers held to each of these observations as well, but they never entertained the notion that Christ died to satisfy a debt to His Father. Substitutionary atonement is an invention of the Roman Church, regrettably put on steroids by Calvin and his ilk.

    You needn’t take my word for it (indeed, you shouldn’t). Consider Jaroslav Pelikan’s multi-volume work on Church history, The Christian Tradition, especially the third volume, which deals extensively with Anselm’s development of the precursors of a doctrine which you appear to believe is self-evident in Scriptures. Pelikan was a widely respected scholar, and a Lutheran minister during the years he labored over this opus (at the end of his life he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy).

    Finally, I hope you will forgive my snippy tone in my previous reply. I recoiled at your accusation of intellectual dishonesty. Putting myself in your shoes, I understand why you would assume I am unfamiliar with or have not adequately considered the reasoning of atonement advocates. I was once where you are, operating under the assumption that propitiation is as plainly evident in Scriptures as the Virgin birth. What I hope you can do is set aside the glasses by which you have been trained (as I was) to view Scriptures, and consider the lens through which they were viewed for centuries before substitutionary atonement even existed as doctrine.

  5. fred eaton

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your response — and thank you for your apology. I was a bit abrupt in my initial comment to you. Please forgive me. I actually hadn’t thought this conversation would go public on your site but thought we might communicate via email. But this is fine.
    I appreciate the thoughtful comments on your last post and will give this all some time as I can.

    Gotta go for now, but will check back later in the week to pick up the conversation again (DV).

    Fred

  6. Kevin Cassidy

    Tony, I’ve been struggling with this statement of yours: “…[P]ropitiation is not what went on at the Cross. Understand that this doctrine didn’t emerge for nearly 1,000 years of Christian theological development. The early Church held instead to the notion of expiation — the cleansing of man’s sins by the blood of Christ. …[I]t envisions Christ as Redeemer of broken and fallen man not to appease His Father’s wrath, but as a means of rescuing man from the ravages of sin. Christ saves man from sin, not from the Father.”

    Several English translations (ESV, KJ, etc) read “propitation” in Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10, specifically, the propitiation of our sins. I understand propitiation to be the work on the Cross of Jesus bringing us to the Father, to conciliate us. I can see expiation having to occur in that. Is the word “propitation” a mistranslation? I fear I may be caught up in the language, and want to be straightened out.

  7. Tony

    Kevin,

    Start with this discussion of expiation vs. propitiation, on a Protestant-minded site. It provides some helpful distinctions, though it errs in concluding that the balance of scholarship sides with interpreting the Greek and Hebrew to mean propitiation. That’s only true if we consider modern Protestant scholarship. The notion of appeasing God (substitutionary atonement) didn’t even exist for the first thousand years of Christianity, and it’s hard to believe the early Church, on which the Holy Spirit was poured out in abundance, would miss something modern Christians deem so fundamental to our faith, unless we are in fact mistaken about that tenet.

    The site also helpfully quotes Stott, who wants to insist with many propitiation advocates that propitiation isn’t actually about satisfying God’s need for vengeance, though that’s precisely what it means. I believe they recoil from that blunt terminology because of its obvious implications for God’s character. In this they are with Calvinists who insist that God determines all things, yet at the same time affords man free will. The two are not logically compatible, so the square is circled by mere rhetorical insistence alone, coupled with indignation when anyone points out the logical inconsistency.

    For an eastern Orthodox perspective (this is the branch of Christianity that has held most faithfully to the teachings and practices of the early Church), look at this discussion of justification.

    I’m no expert, by any means, but what I struggle with is the depiction of God as needing violent suffering in order to have his honor avenged, coupled with the fact that — while it seems obviously true to we modern Christians — no such thing was taught in the churches established by the Apostles themselves. If it were a small thing I wouldn’t be bothered, but it seems perilous to teach our children that this vengeance-mindedness is God’s nature, especially if we are in effect slandering our loving God. I know Stott and others try to wiggle free by claiming that this isn’t vengeance-mindedness at all, but that’s just sophistry, because vengeance-mindedness is exactly what we are talking about with propitiation. I hope this helps, and that I haven’t misled you.

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