More Comments on the Dividing Line of Oct. 23, 2007
I have already responded to several comments made by Dr. James R. White in the Dividing Line broadcast of Oct. 13, 2007. Here I respond to the remainder of the important points raised in his broadcast. I deal separately with his conversations with a caller.
The Current Debate Among Christian Scholars on the Nature of the Atonement
Some of James’s comments relate to that part of the debate in which I repeated the statements of some Christian scholars on the meaning and significance of Christ’s death, and in what manner it may be said that he died for us. I must retrace the argument here before addressing James’ criticisms.
This is especially necessary since James seems to address the issues from a singular perspective. The framework of our debate necessitated an allotment of equal time and space for the advancement of our respective views. Now that the debate is over, James has published his written speeches alone, thus upsetting that balance. Moreover, on the DL broadcast he simply reads off his own brief notes, which he took during my presentation, and proceeds to respond to my points one by one. It is as if he has continued debating with me in my absence. I have to now state here what I said in my opening speech to show what it is that James is responding to on DL. I was not working from a prepared speech, but to the best of my recollection here is what transpired (I hope that if a transcript of the debate is ever produced the results for the relevant portion will be substantially as follows):
I mentioned that in preparation for the debate I read an interesting book which was on the recommended reading list provided by Dr. James R. White, a book by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, The Nature of the Atonement. The book is a collection of articles from four Evangelical scholars each representing a slightly different view of the Atonement, and responding to each other. Thomas R. Schreiner represents the view most akin to that of Dr. James R. White. According to this view, Jesus’ death was a penal substitution for the death of others. He took the place of others on the cross in order to placate God and appease his wrath.
The other scholars did not all reject this view. But even those who did not altogether reject this view nevertheless preferred other ways of speaking of the significance of Christ’s death, and mentioned some objections to Schreiner’s view. Their comments of course, by implication, would go against Dr. White’s view as well; hence their relevance to our debate.
Schreiner himself is aware of the objections that have been previously advanced by these and other scholars. He notes that recently in the UK another Evangelical scholar Steve Chalke in his book, The Lost Message of Jesus, expressed the view that penal substitution is “cosmic child abuse” and contrary to the love of God.
Joel B. Green has his own objections to the penal substitution view, which he has expressed in a book co-authored with Mark D. Baker: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. I have not read the latter, but Schreiner has summarized for us the criticisms which Green and Baker have launched against such a view. During the debate I read out these criticisms as summarized by Schreiner, who informs us that according to Green and Baker the penal substitution theory
- only has the “appearance of being biblical” and “is foreign to the Bible”;
- divides the Father from the Son;
- supports an abstract view of justice that doesn’t speak to people today and departs from the relational and covenantal views found in the Scriptures;
- wrongly understands “God’s wrath as retributive punishment”;
- restricts God’s love by this “abstract concept of justice”;
- omits the necessity of the resurrection;
- distorts what the Bible says; and
- removes the need for ethics.
According to Schreiner, since Green and Baker criticized the penal substitution theory in this way, and since they failed to say anything in its defense in their book, they have in effect abandoned this aspect of the Christian faith.
I would have expected, in the light of this accusation, that Green would have responded to Schreiner by reaffirming his commitment to the theory in question. But he did not, as far as I can tell. This seems to indicate that Schreiner is fairly accurate in his characterization of Green.
Gregory Boyd for his part mentioned what he referred to as “a host of insurmountable difficulties that plague the penal substitutionary view.” These include:
- How are we to understand sin and guilt literally being transferred from a guilty person to an innocent person (or to innocent animals with the Old Testament sacrifices)?
- What sort of justice is it that punishes an innocent person (or animals) for what another person did?
- How are we to reconcile the idea that the Father needs to exact payment from or on behalf of his enemies with Jesus’ teaching (and example) that we are to love unconditionally and forgive without demanding payment?
- Along the same lines, how are we to reconcile the idea that God cannot be reconciled with sinners without his wrath being satisfied with blood with the pervasive scriptural depiction of God forgiving people without needing his wrath appeased (e.g., Lk 15:11-32)? If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?
- How is the view that God requires a kill to have his rage placated essentially different from the pagan or magical understanding of divine appeasement found in primordial religions throughout history?
I did not add further objections from Bruce R. Reichenbach who is among the four contributors to the book. I remarked, however, that it is interesting that Reichenbach had argued that it was not necessary for God to exact retribution in this way, and that if he wanted he could have effected the Atonement in some other way. I would have expected Schreiner to disagree with this, but he seemed to agree with Reichenbach that God could have done it in some other way.
These are the objections that I mostly read off from the cited book. Schreiner, for his part, has responded to many of them. But I wanted to hear James’s response. As one may expect, James did attempt to respond, and no doubt some of his responses were very good. These are preserved on tape for our edification.
On DL, however, he attempted a further response based on his cryptic notes. Green is wrong to think that this view of the Atonement divides the Father from the Son, since the Son voluntarily gives himself up for the purpose. The fact that it does not appeal to people today is nothing new, as even in New Testament times the cross proved a stumbling block to the Jews and seemed foolishness to the Gentiles. It does not cancel the need for ethics because the fact that the price of sin is paid is the very foundation of Christian ethics. These responses will no doubt prove satisfactory to those already committed to the theory. But, reading again the list of objections, I do not feel that James’s answers, of even Schreiner’s measure up.
I have to admit that I was taken by complete surprise at James’ attempt to strip these scholars, except Schreiner, of course, of their honour as reputable Christian scholars. As far as I can tell, although Chalke’s comments about ‘cosmic child abuse’ are no doubt unusual, he himself still commands respect as an Evangelical Christian activist in the UK. Joel Green is the author of exhaustive commentaries on some of the books of the New Testament, and it seems to me that his comments are quite conservative. Gregory Boyd has an impressive list of books to his name, and from reading his contribution to the cited volume I find nothing to indicate that he is an atheist. On the contrary, what I find is that these authors are deeply committed Christians who feel that the penal substitutionary view is problematic, and that there are better ways of speaking of the work of Christ.
James questions my judgment in citing liberals and Arminians to his group. This, he argues, is akin to his quoting none but Shiite scholars to a group of Sunnites. It is true in hindsight that my expectations in citing these scholars were unrealistic. I should have known better than to expect that these scholars will hold respect with James simply because the book that contains their contributions is on his list of recommended readings. But, as I explained in the debate, I believe that James still needs to answer the objections these scholars raised. It is not enough to lambaste the scholars who hold these ideas. Most of the objections are based on logic and reason. The points are valid in and of themselves regardless of who says them. They carry, of course, more force when they are said by Christians.
We can look at the arguments again without reference to the scholars who are offering them and see that the objections are real. It is not, for example, simply the fact that modern people do not like the idea of the Atonement as already described. It is just that it does not make sense to people. And to say that it never made sense to people, as James seems to be saying in his response, already referred to above, simply reinforces the point of the objection. I was simply asking the Christian folks in the audience if it is really necessary to keep insisting that God crucified his Son whereas common sense, and the Bible, and some of these scholars indicate that Christianity can do without this doctrine.
To James’ assertion that some of these scholars are atheists I have already given my response in my earlier comments. Now on DL he asserts that Boyd and others reject the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. But so do many Christians today. I do not believe that this is a sufficient basis on which to stifle the voices of these scholars.
James recalls my saying in the debate that I have read books which are critical of Islam, and of the Quran, and yet I retain my faith despite such criticism. He now wonders if I would accept his citation of such critical scholars with reference to the Islamic faith. But he has answered his own question by saying that ultimately what matters is not that a scholar holds a view, but rather the basis on which the scholar grounds his view. This I agree with. The points we make stand or fall not on the basis of who says them, but on the basis of the reason, evidence and proof on which they stand. Hence even if we reject what a scholar says we should do so on the basis of reason, evidence and proof -- not on the basis that something is wrong with the scholar.
Paul vs. James
James made a brief mention of the fact that in the debate I raised the difficulties inherent in the conflict between Paul on the one hand, and the original disciples of Jesus on the other. It is now well known that James, the brother of Jesus, was the head of the Jerusalem Church, and that Paul’s teachings were at variance with those of James and other key followers of Jesus. Dr. White insists that Paul was not teaching something different, but my reference to Reverend James Dunn and his book The Evidence for Jesus in support for this point shows that it rests on sound scholarship. The fact of this conflict could be demonstrated with reference to Paul’s own letters, but since James has said little about this, I likewise remain brief.
Ransom vs. Sacrifice
During the debate I pointed out that Stephen Finlan in his book, Problems with Atonement, has shown that there is a clear distinction between a sacrifice for sin, and a ransom. The sin sacrifice is presented to God based on which God is appeased and he excuses the sinner. Ransom is a different concept. We all know what ransom means. If someone is kidnapped, for example, we may pay a ransom to the kidnappers to secure the release of the victim.
To say that Jesus died as a ransom for us is riddled with difficulties. This would have been appropriate if the devil held us captive and if God made a deal to get us released by offering up his Son in our place. Although many early Church Fathers did in fact say this, James rightly rejects the idea that God made a deal with the devil.
This shows why we cannot use Mark 10:45 to prove that Jesus died as a sacrifice for sins. That passage has him saying that he came to die as a ransom for many. Since ransom and sacrifice are two different concepts, we cannot take a statement about ransom and make it speak about sacrifice. But James wants to retain the use of the word ‘ransom’, obviously because it is biblical. He retorted in the debate that I need to understand this in the light of Isaiah 53. I then challenged him to find in Isaiah 53 any mention of ransom. He made an attempt, but I could not hear in what he said anything about ransom with reference to Isaiah 53. Even if we understand that passage as speaking of Jesus, it says nothing of Jesus being a ransom for anyone. James must have felt this himself, for he added a reference to a Deutero-Pauline epistle which speaks of us being redeemed. He explained this as meaning that we have been purchased. But this brought us right back to the original question even if now in a slightly varied form: Purchased from whom?
Did Jesus Really Say, “Do this in remembrance of me!”?
These words are attributed to Jesus in the Bible in Luke’s Gospel 22:19b-20: “Do this in remembrance of me!” In this way, we learn, Jesus instituted the regular observance of the Eucharist, the use of bread to symbolize the eating of Jesus’ flesh; and wine to symbolize the drinking of his blood. I pointed out in the debate that these words are missing from some very important early manuscripts, and for this reason many scholars deem it a later addition. Hence this cannot be taken as a reliable proof that Jesus said these words.
James seems to have forgotten what the point was. On DL he asserts that I reject these words simply because they disagree with Quranic teaching. He then uses this as a starting point to launch an attack on the prophet Muhammad. But I think it is important that we do not become side-tracked. These problems exist apart from Muhammad and the Quran. If I reject the words on the basis that they disagree with Islam, on what basis do many Christian scholars reject them? And on what basis were they removed from the 1952 edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible?
A Study of Luke and Acts of the Apostles
During the debate I mentioned that in the Gospel of Luke, and in the preaching of the original disciples of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible we can see that the forgiveness of sins is not dependent on the death of Jesus on the cross. In response, James now cites the preaching of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. Such a response would have been adequate if I had said that nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles such a doctrine can be found. To contradict me, James has to find one of the original disciples in the Acts of the Apostles preaching this. That he could only find Paul preaching this serves to confirm what I have been saying all along about the difference between Paul and the original apostles.
As cited in Beilby and Eddy, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006) p. 70.
James chides me for referring to the Christian Fathers as ‘scholars’. I am sorry if I have used the wrong terminology. I did not intend anything sinister. I took it for granted that the Church Fathers were scholars.