Today I went on a sort of odyssey through a couple of theologically conservative blogs. My journey started at Adrian Warnock’s blog, where he has another quote from somebody supporting penal substitutionary atonement (PSA):
While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christs atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement. — Tom Schreiner, quoted by Adrian Warnock
I quote this because I have been misunderstood on this point. My objection to PSA as I see it taught is not merely that there is more to the atonement than PSA, but also that PSA is simply one among many metaphors by which we discuss the atonement, and is not central. That, however, is not my topic.
Following a link from Adrian’s blog, I read this interview with Tom Schreiner on Against Heresies, in which, after being asked how he would approach a student or professor who disagreed on this topic, he said:
I would be patient with a student and try to persuade them of the biblical standpoint. Patience is initially the right stance for a professor as well. But if a professor comes to a settled conviction against penal substitution, he should be removed from his position in my judgment.
In other words, accept penal substitionary atonement as the basis of forgiveness or get out. (You can find Dr. Schreiner’s quote on this in the interview itself.) Two additional recent posts, not to mention the name of the blog–Against Heresies–support the same approach, and I would hardly regard it as a particularly virulent form of the species. The blog’s mission statement says it’s a “thinking blog” and I note that the tone is much more constructive than some organizations and sites I encounter.
The current dust-up over PSA, however, leads me to think just a bit. I’m quite certain that these folks believe they are fighting the devil. One must guard the standards lest false brethren come along and derail the faith. But it’s interesting just how frequently these false brethren seem to turn up, and how many of them are dedicated Christian workers, and even missionaries and evangelists. I have wondered once or twice why I bother responding to issues of the atonement, considering how far I am from the position of these reformed scholars. And yet I care about this issue, I care about the Christian faith, and I care about those in ministry who may pay a higher cost for marginal disagreements than I ever will.
I am not suggesting that the Christian faith, or any community within it, should not have any boundaries at all. Community requires commonality, and commonality will require some definition, especially when the community is larger than a handful. At the same time, there is a level of doctrinal tenseness that can easily become destructive. At the congregational level, it can manifest itself in a critical attitude toward the less theological church members, such as those who might read the wrong books from time to time, or who listen to preachers from a different tradition.
Here in Pensacola, I experienced it in connection with the Brownsville Revival. I personally have a number of theological issues with some things that occurred in connection with that revival. I could certainly debate quite a number of those points. But frequently new believers, or people who were becoming involved in church life for the first time, were cut down by the doctrinal watchdogs of their various congregations without a chance to work into fellowship. This sometimes came from fundamentalists. One student of mine was told he wasn’t saved because he had heard the preaching of the gospel from something other than the King James Version. But more commonly criticism came from evangelicals and even mainliners. There the issues were sometimes social. The behavior of people at the revival was embarrassing, and their theology lacked intellectual rigor. Thus rather than disciple people that came to them, other churches filtered people doctrinally and drove them out by criticizing the experience that had led them that far.
On the congregational level, I think this type of speaking can be much more destructive than the errors it proposes to expose and root out. Rather than learning by studying and listening to the Holy Spirit, people are expected to jump through the appropriate doctrinal hoops, get their house in order, and then join a church. New members are looked upon as a threat, rather than as a blessing. Who knows what doctrines they have brought? Perhaps we should keep them from taking any position in the church until we have thoroughly checked them out!
As an illustration, let me continue with the next post from Adrian’s blog, this one from C. J. Mahaney:
. . . very small errors in a persons understanding of the Gospel seemed to result in very big problems in that person’s life.
What about small errors in the presentation of the character of God? Are they important as well? If someone presents PSA in such a way as to display God as a vengeful tyrant rather than as the author of the plan of salvation, should I be just as worried about that? What if your terror of legalism results in someone believing they have permission to behave as they wish, ignoring ethics, again something I have personally encountered?
Frequently, I see people who are very concerned with the most minor detail of the atonement who are completely unconcerned with the picture they give of God, yet this doesn’t seem to be a major issue for many who are very rigorous about doctrine in general.
Mahaney continues, still as quoted by Adrian:
. . . legalism is essentially self-atonement for self-glorification, and ultimately for self-worship.
But in vigorously combatting their concept of legalism, it seems to me that this same group has gotten into a new variety of salvation by something other than God’s grace–salvation by correct doctrine. That is the notion that in order to be saved, one must understand some detailed set of doctrines with precision. In fighting legalism, I believe some have introduced this as a new form of legalism.
I had such a person come to my house once. He concluded that he was concerned for my salvation. Why? Was it because I did not confess Jesus as Lord and Savior? No. It was because I failed to express the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross (in which I do believe), and repudiate works in vocabulary which matched his. That person was the product of destructive theology, and while repudiating works as a means of salvation, he was completely comfortable substituting intellectual understanding for works.
Now C. J. Mahaney, who talks about the need to understand this precisely, is one of the authors of the Together for the Gospel statement, which, in Article XVI, somehow seems to make rejection of women in teaching roles an essential of the gospel. Is this also a boundary to be enforced? Actually I don’t need to ask that question. It already is a boundary enforced in many places, and is itself a travesty on the gospel, a denial of one of God’s purposes in it.
I note with interest that so many people who come from a tradition that called for “the Bible only” now find it necessary to write length confessions, and then to enforce those on other people studying the Bible. It seems as though the Bible may not be quite as good a guide to faith and practice as they thought. One has to fence in the seminary professors lest they wander from the pasture, a pasture defined not by the Bible, but by doctrinal statements. Is this a problem with the Bible? Is it not rather a problem with over-defining Christian doctrine so that honest seekers after truth can no longer truly explore all the possibilities opened up by God’s multifaceted word? I firmly believe it is the latter.
You see, when I read the comment by Dr. Tom Schreiner about removing a professor from his post for disagreeing on the issue of PSA, two words came to my mind: Academic freedom. Now a number of people will find it quite inappropriate that I bring this point up right here. Academic freedom, after all, is for secular institutions, not seminaries. In this country, we push academic freedom primarily for institutions that are government supported in some way. And let me be clear: I don’t question the right of private institutions in general, and religious institutions in particular, to set their own standards. I’m not suggesting that the government come in and enforce some kind of academic openness on seminaries. I don’t questions their right to do so, but I do question whether it is right.
But in my view academic freedom is more principle than policy. When I read the works of a scholar who works at an evangelical school that requires endorsement of a particular doctrinal statement, I have a certain potential discount. It depends, of course, on the detail of the doctrinal statement. An institution might, for example, simply require that professors belong to their particular confessional group of churches. The more detailed the statement, however, the more I question. Could a professor at a college that accepted the affirmations and denials of the Together for the Gospel statement discover an egalitarian meaning in Galatians 3:28? (In practice I think there are a large number of evangelical scholars who do not merit such a “discount.” There are, however, a number of others who do, in my view.)
I have previously discussed this in relation to the doctrine of inerrancy. Acceptance and rejection of inerrancy are not two equal platforms. In each affirmation from a Biblical writer that I consider I have the option of determining that it is without error–or not! A person who has signed a declaration in favor of Biblical inerrancy is restricted to discovering the explanation that supports inerrancy. I do not mean that nobody can both do good scholarship and accept inerrancy. There are many who do. The question is whether their belief in inerrancy is a conclusion they have adopted, or an external standard imposed on them.
As a result, in trying to fight off the devil and “maintain standards” I believe that Christian institutions frequently fall into the trap of suppressing the mind. They are more concerned that the theological ducks line up in a row and quack in unison than that the ducks survive and grow. It’s a distinction that is difficult to maintain in theology, which lacks the empirical testing of a scientific field. I would suggest coming down clearly on the side of tolerance. Jesus reserved his most vigorous criticism for those who upheld the doctrinal orthodoxy of the day.