Models of the Atonement

I remember a conversation which I had at the University of Cambridge, about 30 years ago. I was a student of physics, and I was talking to a friend who was studying theology, and was like me an evangelical Christian; his background was more “Reformed” than mine.

I explained to my friend how in physics there were many things, such as the nature of light, which could not be understood directly but which were studied by means of models. For centuries there was debate over whether light was made up of waves or of particles. It is now understood that light is in itself neither one nor the other, but something more complex which goes beyond direct human understanding. For some purposes it is helpful to use the model that light is waves, and for other purposes the model that it is particles. But neither model can explain everything about light; each model is useful within a certain field but becomes misleading if pressed to logical conclusions outside that field.

I suggested to my theological friend, in the context of a debate on some theological issue, that we should not expect to be able to understand it fully, because it is too deep for human understanding, but we should look at it through models, in the sense used in physics. I remember my friend suddenly catching on to what I was talking about and realising its significance for his own studies.

My friend later became a professor of theology, indeed for a time he held a highly prestigious chairs in theology at a very well known university. He has been described, admittedly by his publisher, as

one of Britain’s finest systematic theologians and teachers of dogmatics.

I hope that the insight I gave him about models helped him to attain such distinction. But I mention this not to boast or drop names (in fact I am deliberately withholding his name!) but because it seems to me that other “Reformed” Christians also need to understand models. Read on…

The Atonement, the way in which God dealt with the problem of sin through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, is the great and central mystery of the Christian faith. As mortal and sinful humans we cannot hope to understand it completely. Nevertheless, from what has been revealed in the Bible and with the help of our God-given human reason, we can get some way towards understanding it. And to use the language of physics, we do that by using models. The Bible provides us with the starting material for these models.

Theologians have put forward at least four major theories of the Atonement (see this Wikipedia article, which is convenient although not necessarily reliable): “Christus Victor”; satisfaction or substitutionary; moral influence; and governmental. Each of these has various flavours. And there is some support for each in the Bible. The “Christus Victor” theory was favoured by the early church, and has also had modern proponents (and I rather lean towards it). But the satisfaction theory has been dominant in western theology since the 11th century.

As careful theologians have long realised, no one of these theories fully encapsulates the truth about the work of Christ. Each of them, if pushed to their logical conclusion as if they were literal descriptions of what happened, ends up in conflict with the Bible – just as treating light simply as a particle, or simply as a wave, ends up in conflict with observations. It is impossible to get around this completely by adjusting the description; instead one is forced to realise that the description is only a model, and not a literal description of the truth.

The problem comes when some theologians and Bible scholars try to insist that their favoured view of the Atonement is not just a model but literally and objectively true. Among those who have been guilty of this are many in the “Reformed” tradition. For example, according to Adrian Warnock, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book Great Doctrines of the Bible, discussed and rejected “false theories of the atonement“. As I don’t have this book I can’t be sure which theories the Doctor was so confidently rejecting and on what basis. But he should be very careful about claiming that such theories as “Christus Victor” are objectively false. No doubt he can find Bible verses which don’t entirely support “Christus Victor”, but in response others can find for him Bible verses which don’t support his own favoured substitutionary theory. For it it seems that if any one of the theories of the Atonement is pressed beyond the biblical evidence to its logical conclusion, it leads to absurdity.

This is what we have seen in the recent debate over whether God killed Jesus. Careful and well-trained theologians have agonised over theories of the Atonement. Those in the “Reformed” tradition have been especially attached to the substitutionary theory. But the best of them have realised that this is only a human model and approximation of a divine truth which is beyond human comprehension. As a result they have been careful with their statements, avoiding pushing the model to logical conclusions beyond the limits of what is clearly supported in the Bible. The unfortunate problem is when less careful students of the Bible, or students of “Reformed” writings, treat descriptions of models as if they were literal truth, go beyond what is written in the books they are studying, and start to teach things which clearly cannot be the truth about our just and loving God. This becomes an especially serious problem when in the process they manage to confuse outsiders into thinking that their repulsive teachings are the true Christian message.

“Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6 TNIV).

Baddow Life newspaper

One of the projects I work on for my church is Baddow Life newspaper. This is a quarterly 8-page newspaper which is jointly produced by the three Anglican churches in Great Baddow, the village where I live which is now more or less a suburb of the county town, Chelmsford. The newspaper is distributed free of charge to almost all of the about 6000 homes in Great Baddow. It includes articles of general community interest as well as about the Christian faith and the churches’ activities. The June 2006 issue has just been uploaded to the printers and to the website, and the printed copies are due to be distributed on Thursday 22nd June.

I write some articles for the newspaper and help to coordinate others. I also help with technical issues. For the record as much as anything else, I have uploaded to my personal website a selection of the articles I have myself written for Baddow Life over the last three years.

Today's Bible Passage: Acts 4:8-12

This was part of the reading at my church this morning. I also referred to this in the ongoing discussion on Adrian Warnock’s blog (I think it’s in about the 25th comment!)

8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is

” ‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the cornerstone.’

12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4:8-12 (TNIV©)

Did God kill Jesus: should I post like this?

After posting on the issue of whether God killed Jesus, I wondered in fact this kind of posting was appropriate in such a public forum. I criticised Adrian Warnock for the negative impact of one of his postings on a non-Christian; but could my own postings have a similarly negative impact on readers? I certainly need to be careful what I write.

First, let me clarify that when on this blog I disagree with my Christian brothers and sisters I am doing this out of genuine love and concern for them. I certainly don’t want to stir up controversies and divisions among Christians. My intention is to guide others gently into finding out the truth for themselves. I accept that I don’t always do this perfectly, for I am an imperfect and sinful man. And I am open to gentle correction from my readers, on or off blog. (You can find my e-mail address at my personal website.)

It seems to me that the essence of the problem here is the excessive reverence, sometimes close to worship, which some Christians have for their favourite preachers and teachers. It was, as I see it, this kind of reverence which led Adrian to jump to the defence of CJ Mahaney when his words were being attacked by a non-Christian. He would have done better to pause and reflect on whether, if Mahaney actually said that the Father killed the Son (the whole thing is an unverified quotation from a sermon in an anonymous blog posting), he might have said a little bit more here than he really intended, or more than was justified from the Bible. Instead Adrian’s unfortunate reaction was to jump in as if questioning a favourite preacher of his was a direct attack on the gospel. And once having taken that tack he seems unwilling to back down, even though he now wonders if he is alone in taking this position.

The reason why I am treating this matter so seriously is that I am so passionate that everyone comes to hear and respond to the good news that Jesus loves them, so much that he died for them, and that they can respond, turn from wrong things, and receive the forgiveness and freedom which they crave for. So I react strongly, perhaps too strongly (but then Paul’s reactions were similar e.g. in Galatians 2:11-14, 3:1-10), when I hear other Christians perverting that message, for example into something immoral and repulsive like “the Father killed the Son”. The repulsiveness of that version of the message is evident from Duck’s reaction. But the true gospel, although sometimes veiled, is never repulsive or immoral in that way. But it has power from the Holy Spirit to break down the barriers which some people, sadly within the Church as well as outside, put up to hinder its progress.

Did God kill Jesus?

Without really intending to, I have got involved in a controversy, which has been raging most recently on Adrian Warnock’s blog, over whether it is right to say that God killed Jesus. See my posting here last Saturday for the beginning of the story. Adrian took things further with his posting Making an Impact Outside the Blogdom of God; it seems that he is proud of making such a negative impact on the non-Christian Duck. That post has generated a long series of comments, including from the well known American Christian leader Ligon Duncan. And Adrian has himself brought in an even bigger gun, John Piper, supposedly in his defence.

The problem is that no one is actually supporting the idea that God killed Jesus. Duncan, Piper and others insist that God sent Jesus, and that it was God’s plan for Jesus to die, and that by Jesus’ death God dealt with the problem of sin. And I agree with all of this, although some of the details are debatable. But none of them, no one except Adrian, can bring themselves to say that God killed Jesus. This is not surprising, for the Bible doesn’t say so, and it is not just the non-Christian Duck who realises that for God to kill his own Son would not have demonstrated his justice (Romans 3:26) but would have been a monstrous injustice.

Some people have suggested that verses such as Isaiah 53:10 and Romans 8:32 imply that God killed Jesus. The latter says no more than John 3:16: the word translated “delivered” or “gave up” does not imply death, for it is also used in Acts 14:26, 15:40, where it is sometimes translated “committed” or “commended”. Isaiah 53:10 is very difficult and unclear in Hebrew; “crush” is metaphorical, and there is no proper justification for the ESV rendering “he has put him to grief”. The closest anyone can come is Isaiah 53:4: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.” (TNIV). Adrian still considers that Jesus was punished by God, but in this verse there is a clear contrast, signalled by “yet”, between this misunderstanding and the true position given in the first part of the verse.

So, Adrian is left alone trying to defend what was probably originally a rhetorical flourish by CJ Mahaney, one which probably he would not really intend to be taken as a proper theological position.

1 Timothy 2:12: Authority or Domination?

I don’t intend this blog to become a place for debating subjects like the role of women in church. There are plenty of other places where such subjects are discussed. But I would like to record here a response which I made to a posting on Justin Taylor’s blog, on The Meaning of “Authority” in 1 Tim 2:12. Justin quoted me as writing, in a comment on an earlier posting of his:

The problem here is that in 1 Timothy 2:12 the Greek word αὐθεντεῖν is not correctly translated ‘exercise authority’. Its exact meaning is debatable, but it clearly seems to imply some kind of usurpation of proper authority, and perhaps a domineering attitude which is not at all Christian.

Justin continued:

One of the problems in the blogosphere is that comments can be made like this (without argumentation or links to argumentation) and people can assume that this is based on solid scholarship, when in fact it isn’t. The best scholarly work on this shows it to be false.

He continued by quoting from an article by Andreas Köstenberger in an attempt to prove his point that αὐθεντεῖν authentein means “exercise authority”.

I replied:

One of the problems with the blogosphere is that people like you, Justin, can assert that a particular work is “the best scholarly work” and accuse others of not basing their arguments on sound scholarship, without any requirement to prove their points. And they believe you because they are already predisposed in your favour.

I am sure that Köstenberger et al’s work is excellent scholarship. But that by no means implies that they have the last word on this subject. IH Marshall’s scholarship also has a very high reputation, but, according to the review of Köstenberger’s work on Amazon by Alan S. Bandy, “Marshall’s commentary on the Pastorals (1999) … argued for a negative sense of both “teaching” and “exercising authority”” in 1 Timothy 2:12.

As for Baldwin’s research into contemporary use of αὐθεντεῖν, while I can accept that neither of the two allegedly attested occurrences certainly mean “domineer”, the simple fact is that neither of them certainly means “exercise authority” in a positive sense either. The example from Philodemus does not in fact clearly read αὐθεντεῖν at all, for the text has been conjecturally reconstructed, and one translator seems to have understood it as more like “domineer” than “exercise [proper] authority”. Baldwin doesn’t give enough context to the 27 BC quote to determine whether there are any negative connotations. The 2nd century AD Attic lexicon’s “to have independent jurisdiction” may be the best guide to how Paul used the word, and this would of course be a misuse of authority in a Christian setting. The only other occurrence within several centuries of Paul’s time (leaving aside Ptolemy’s astronomical speculations), that in Hippolytus, can also be translated in a positive or a negative sense. 4th century and later occurrences are irrelevant in my opinion. Well, you say that Köstenberger accepts that Baldwin’s study “falls short of absolute proof“. That sounds to me like a very British understatement!

So, Justin, while like Denny I accept that the meaning of αὐθεντεῖν is controversial as well as debatable, it is quite clear that my interpretation is based on solid scholarship, that of IH Marshall among others. Of course solid scholars can differ, and they do here. But the implication is of course that no one can with confidence interpret this verse as forbidding women from all leadership positions in the church, still less imply (as certain recent statements seem to) that those who do not enforce such a ban are heretics and worse than unbelievers.

Pray for Iran

I am one of several hundred of thousand Christians around the world currently praying for Iran, for a 40 day campaign. The organisers are asking for more people to join the campaign. They write:

The Iranian church believes the nation could be on the edge of a radical spiritual transformation and with three weeks of the campaign left, there is still plenty of time for many more to join the prayer effort.The prayer campaign is focused on three main areas: for the persecuted Church in Iran; for revival in Iran; and for God to intervene in the political situation. Daily prayer requests are posted on the ‘Pray for Iran’ website, and individuals can choose to subscribe and receive the prayer requests each day by email. Each day there is a very popular slide show with images from Iran accompanied by Persian worship music to help people pray for Iran.

The prayer material is available in nine languages!

Yesterday's Bible Passage: Ephesians 4:11-16

Blogger was playing up again yesterday evening. I did manage to post on A Vision of Paradise, but by the time I had prepared this Bible passage Blogger was down again. So I am posting it the next morning. It seems that Blogger works in the morning here, perhaps because most Americans are still in bed, perhaps because the engineers who are playing about with it are in bed!

I chose this passage partly because I was working yesterday on a draft translation of Ephesians, and I had to look at some difficult issues in this passage.

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:11-16 (TNIV©)

A Vision of Paradise

I am reading Listen to Me, Satan! by the Argentinian evangelist Carlos Annacondia (Charisma House, 1998). Despite the title, this book is more about God’s work than Satan’s. In fact C. Peter Wagner writes that it “may well be regarded in the future as one of the most important, if not the most important, revival books of the decade.”

Here is an extract, from p.26:

Once God gave me a vision of a big oasis with exotic plants, all kinds of fruit trees, streams of crystal clear waters, flowers, dark green grass, birds, and a large crowd drinking refreshing drinks, eating fruit, singing, laughing, and playing. I thought, This place must be paradise. But as I came closer to the fence around its borders, I saw a desert on the other side. There were no trees, no water, no flowers, and no shade; the hot sun was splitting the rocks in two, and I saw an agonizing crowd staring at us. Many had parched, broken skin; their tongues were swollen, and they had to help each other to stand. Their hands were extended toward those of us in paradise, begging for help.

This vision helped me to reflect the church of Jesus. The walls in our buildings are tired of listening to us. Every single brick could become a doctor in theology. Let’s take the message of the pulpit to the streets, to the town squares, to the parks. Let’s go door to door talking about Christ. The cries of those who suffer resonate in our ears. Let’s wake up; the news on radio and television, the daily newspapers, and the weekly magazines are singing praise to the destroyer. Let’s preach about Jesus Christ!

Of course the precise methods we use have to be suitable for the culture we are evangelising, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and not simply copied from Argentina. But we certainly need to accept this call in principle!

And then from p.29:

I want to close this chapter with some words that God spoke to me: Love for the lost produces revival. When love ceases, revival does too. He who has a passion for souls lives in an ongoing revival.

Better Bibles Blog

Over the past year I have been an occasional contributor to the Better Bibles Blog, coordinated by my Internet only friend Wayne Leman. In fact the only posting I have made there for several months is RSV: acceptable to all? But I have also made regular comments there. My recent comments include long exchanges on TNIV vs. ESV, concerning singular “they”, and Key Issues Re: Bible Translation: critique #1, relating to the issue I raised last year in my posting Does God have a long nose?

I would recommend the BBB to any of you interested in issues relating to Bible translations, especially in English.