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The Relevance of Atonement Theories

The Relevance of Atonement Theories

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white background
Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman’s hand on a white background

On the Energion Discussion Network we have two essays posted in answer to the question “Do atonement theories continue to speak to the human condition?” The “yes” answer, written by Dr. Allan Bevere appeared yesterday. The “no” answer appeared today, written by Rev. Steve Kindle. I find both of these articles well worth reading.

In the past I have been accused of rejecting penal substitutionary atonement because of the fact that I don’t see it as central, or as the explanation of the atonement. In fact, I don’t see any theory of the atonement as a single explanation of the atonement. Our theories of the atonement are metaphors, used to carry across some of the meaning to us.

As does Allan Bevere, I do find pretty much all theories of the atonement relevant in one way or another. Where I tend to be concerned is where a metaphor begins, in some people’s minds, to become the reality, i.e. that rather than believing in the cross of Christ we believe in our particular metaphor, the one that may best speak to us. I recall a professor from whom I took a class in exegesis of Romans from the Greek text. What was remarkable about the class was that his favorite theory, or metaphor, for the atonement as the moral influence theory. Now I have a bit of a liking for that metaphor myself, but it is not the metaphor Paul uses in Romans. There is some overlap. But this professor, because that was his very most favorite metaphor, taught nothing but, twisting Paul considerably in the process.

I’d add one more caveat. Relevance is a word that points both ways. A metaphor, to be relevant must communicate to one who hears. If it doesn’t, it isn’t working as a metaphor. I think quite often we need to correct the presentation of some metaphors to make them function better. If they don’t carry something over, they aren’t relevant in that case, however great they might be otherwise.

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism in Soteriology

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism in Soteriology

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white backgroundThis past week on the Energion Discussion Network two answers were posted to the question “Can the great religions be vehicles of salvation for their followers?” Answering “Yes” was Dr. Herold Weiss, and answering “No” was Dr. H. Van Dyke Parunak. Both are authors published by my company, Energion Publications.

I enjoyed reading the responses for a number of reasons other than the actual answer given to the question. Quite frequently we respond to an article based on whether we agree with the answer or not. The well-argued, well-presented article is one that supports our own point of view. The scattered, poorly presented one is the one we oppose. In my experience only a few people can say, “This was a well-written article even though I disagree vigorously with its conclusion.”

I’m going to do precisely that in this case. Both of these responses to the question are well-written, and they are even well reasoned. It may seem odd to say that when they come to opposite conclusions. It’s important, however, when you read something this short regarding a topic this complex, that you ask yourself just where the author is coming from. Having edited books by both men, I have a leg-up in doing that, but if you read carefully you can clearly see the approach each takes to revelation (particularly scripture), theology, and finally doctrine. These approaches can be experienced at length in Dr. Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology, and Dr. Parunak’s book Except for Fornication: The Teaching of the Lord Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage.

You can get some idea of the difference simply by counting the number of scriptural quotations in each post. My quick count gives me eight quotations by Dr. Parunak and one by Dr. Weiss. There are some who will think that gives the answer. Dr. Parunak is being more scriptural than Dr. Weiss. I would suggest that this is something like determining how scholarly a book is by counting the footnotes. I have a book on my shelves which has an overwhelmingly large number of footnotes. But if one eliminates footnotes to the author’s own works, footnotes to unreliable sources, and simply incorrect footnotes, the count drops dramatically. The notes give the impression of scholarship, but unless they are also carefully and correctly done, they are not themselves good scholarship.

So the question here is how scripture is used in each case. If you think of it this way, Dr. Weiss is actually inviting you to read more scripture, as he refers to broad theological concepts. You’d need to read at least the books of John, Romans, and Galatians, to actually pick up on some of the ideas he’s presenting.

So now, in turn, am I intending to put down Dr. Parunak’s work based on changing the way I count from a quotation count to a necessary reading count. Absolutely not! This is, in fact, one of the best exercises I’ve seen in years of the way in which the approach an author takes to scripture impacts his or her results.

For Dr. Weiss, scripture is a varied landscape, reflecting a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds, cultures, and even theologies. This landscape invites us to study and to form theology. He would never (and in my experience has never) simply quote a text and say that the text settles the issue. He would always apply that text to a study of the theology of the book of the Bible it came from and as part of the work of its author, particularly its human author. He demonstrates this in a range of books, but particularly in his book Creation in Scripture in which he looks at the variety of views on creation that are contained in the Bible. Some people wonder how he can do this. Surely the creation story is not told repeatedly, even if one accepts that there are two stories in Genesis, which many do not. But Weiss is talking about views of creation, how God is understood to be the creator: Theology, not science or history.

In the YouTube video below you can watch me interview him about the gospel of John, though Colossians comes up at well!

Dr. Parunak, on the other hand, sees scripture as more directly from the hand of God, in the sense that all scripture presents a unified picture of doctrine that can be deciphered by the interpreter, and can and should be tested and result in a high degree of certainty. So he will draw a more direct connection between a particular scripture passage. He does not have room for a variety in scripture such that we could say that one theology differs from another.

You can see me interview Dr. Parunak below, and you’ll hear him express this for himself:

Though I find the question of pluralism interesting, I find the way in which we answer it even more interesting.

If you want to explore these ideas further, let me recommend a little book by Rev. Steve Kindle, I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why We Disagree about the Bible and What to Do About It. If you’re more interested in the issue of biblical inspiration, try my own book When People Speak for God, The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age (Bob Cornwall), or the more intense From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully.

My point here is not to critique either approach. I am not forced to publish anything. I wouldn’t have published books by these two authors unless I found their contribution valuable. But you and I as readers have to answer for ourselves the question of what we believe, and to do that we need to get behind the question of what an author believes to why he or she believes that. “Because the Bible says it,” is not really an answer unless you also know how that author or speaker reads and interprets the Bible.

So what about my answer to the question posed? Can the great world religions be vehicles of salvation for their adherents? I must note first that I regard my discussion of methology as much more important than any answer I might give here. Let me use Dr. Weiss’s terminology, which he discusses in his book Finding My Way in Christianity, pages 192 & 193. Exclusivism, he says, is the belief that all are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus and must confess in order to do so. Inclusivism says that there may be those in other faiths who are saved, but they are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus. Pluralism says that any religion may provide salvation and that Christianity does not have an exclusive hold on the true salvation story (I am using my own wording though working from Weiss’s material).

As I look at the question, I find it very difficult to answer without implying something I don’t mean. I am saved by the grace of God, not by a faith tradition, or a particular set of doctrinal beliefs. So just because someone says “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean they are on the right road. My church membership is not what saves me. So in the sense that I believe God’s grace comes to me without consideration for my merit, in which I include meritorious beliefs as well as meritorious acts, I cannot exclude anyone. How wrong would I have to be in order to be excluded from God’s grace?

On the other hand, since I do believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, i.e., I believe that the incarnation is conceptually an exclusive event, and I also believe that there is just one God, however differently we may understand God, then I also see no salvation outside of Jesus, not because one has to understand this in a particular way, but because that was God’s ultimate act, one I see not merely as historical, but also as timeless and unbound by geography. God said that God was not too far away, that God was able to understand and to feel, and that God was able to deal with our guilt, our brokenness, and yes, our healing.

I find that both a message worth proclaiming, and at the same time a call for humility. How wrong can I be and yet be the subject of God’s grace? And in that case how wrong should I allow someone else to be and still consider them to be under God’s grace?

Actually I have an easy answer to that one. Nowhere has God made me the one to decide. I am simply convinced that if infinite God was willing to become finite and limited and live life as I must live it, that God isn’t going to miss any useful option in seeing God’s grace become effective on God’s children. I must sincerely doubt that God’s grace is less effective than mine.

As such, I’m going to trust God to get it right.


As a follow-up I’m going to discuss these issues with two other Energion authors, Dr. Allan Bevere and Dr. Bruce Epperly. This will be live via Google Hangouts on Air on January 26, 2016 at 7:00 pm central time:  Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism Hangout (January 26).

Doctrinal Standards – The New Works

Doctrinal Standards – The New Works

I’ve had some interesting conversations about God’s grace recently, and especially about its limits.

Most people these days seem to firmly resist the idea that we need works in order to earn God’s favor, but many seem to think that we need to have correct beliefs. If we don’t believe the right things about the way grace is sufficient for all our sin, then, well, it won’t really be sufficient. Because, while grace can apparently handle murder, lying, cheating, stealing, and adultery, it is not up to dealing with a failure to discover the correct doctrine about grace. Amazing, isn’t it, that God could be so easily stopped? We seem to have replaced justification by works with justification by correct belief.

I think it’s hard for us to believe that grace is actually sufficient. We want to insert ourselves in there somewhere. Having been told that we can’t work our way in, we still find a distinction, this time about whether we have come to a correct doctrinal understanding.

Now two points:

1) I’m not saying that beliefs are not important. In fact, while I have no difficulty thinking that God can accept a person who is completely wrong in their understanding of grace and how it works, I do think that many people suffer a great deal by not understanding just how gracious God is. Misunderstanding can hurt. It doesn’t make God hate you, but it’s uncomfortable nonetheless. I know many people who live their lives worried that an angry God is going to send them into eternal torment because they forgot to confess one deed or failed to understand some command. That’s sad. Personally, I think grace is sufficient not just for my sin, but also for my stupidity.

2) I’m not a universalist. I think there is real evil in the world and that people sometimes take a turn that way. I know there are those who think there is good in the worst of us, but I think there are those who are just evil. The problem is, with our ability to mask evil with a pretense of goodness, and our ability to obscure goodness through just plain bad judgment, I suspect we aren’t up to figuring out who actually is truly evil.

I could be wrong about any of that. I think it’s important to recognize my potential to be wrong. I think it’s also important for me to try to be as right as I can. But no amount of my wrongness can actually limit God.

What Makes a Doctrine (of Creation) Christian?

What Makes a Doctrine (of Creation) Christian?

I put “of creation” in parentheses, because the question might be answered in similar ways for other doctrines. What follows is a short quote from a book, Creation: The Christian Doctrine by Edward W. H. Vick, my company is about to release. I’m doing a number of “final” things on it right now. This caught my eye.

The Christian doctrine of creation is not simply an explanation of the origin of the universe. It holds that God is transcendent and free, that the creatures are contingent and free, that the ongoing world of history and events in the world are purposive, that within that human history the purpose of creation is being revealed, that the Redeemer is the Creator. It also teaches that the creation reaches its fulfilment at the end, at the eschaton.

All statements of faith are statements about God and his activity.

Christian statements about God are at the same time statements about Jesus Christ.

The Christian doctrine of creation results from addressing these questions: What is the meaning and significance of Christian faith? How are we to understand that faith? What is entailed in the fellowship with God that constitutes Christian faith?

Note that Dr. Vick continues in great detail. The whole book is a bit over 130 pages (it may vary by a page or two once formatting is complete), and is intended as a companion volume to Creation in Scripture by Herold Weiss.

What do you think?

The Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount

The Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount

Scot McKnight asks the question: Is the Sermon on the Mount the Gospel? I think it’s an excellent question, and my answer would be yes. But I see this as similar to the question of whether the gospel can be found in the Old Testament, or in the law generally, to which I again answer yes. If we get law out of its place, and make it the means of salvation, it becomes bad news. Law in its place, following grace, is definitely good news.

I wrote about this some time back in an essay titled A Fruitful Faith, which I originally published in my preblogging days (July 29, 2003), but have just moved to the site.

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Seeking Sinless Perfection

Seeking Sinless Perfection

Stripped image of John Wesley
Image via Wikipedia

Because I have some online watches for names of Energion Publications authors, I found the post In Search of Sinless Perfection, which quotes Alden Thompson. This comes from a Seventh-day Adventist background, but I must mention that I have been surprised by how much from my own SDA background simply translates into Methodism. One may easily underestimate the impact of the fact that Ellen White, early SDA leader viewed as having the prophetic gift, was a Methodist before she joined the Adventist movement.

In any case, Ellen White quotes aside, Loren Seibold, author of the article gives a number of the reasons I have for questioning the idea of sinless perfection. Certainly the Wesleyan doctrine as actually taught by Wesley (try here for more, though you may find the account less plain than you imagined) seems less problematic than its various descendants.

I love the introductory story, which ends:

Then the perfect man hung up on me.

Perhaps not the ending one imagined for a conversation with a perfect man!

I too am a believer in sanctification. Where I must get off this particular train, however, is where one gets a personal knowledge that one is perfect. I just can’t see how that would work.


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Responding to Adrian Warnock on Arminocalvinists

Responding to Adrian Warnock on Arminocalvinists

Jacobus Arminius
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve had Adrian Warnock’s post, An Arminocalvinist Spectrum, sitting in my starred items for some time, but I do want to write just a few words about it before I move on. But first, I want to note that Adrian Warnock is one of the Five Sites I Read Because I Disagree, and I’m on his list of top 60 referrers for 2010, even if only at #56. Glad I could contribute, Adrian!

I’m also happy to see this issue divided into a spectrum rather than viewed as a simple, two-sided issue, because there are, indeed, substantial differences between various positions all along the line. I would personally have to say that I accept some points from #5 (Reformed Arminian), #6 (Strong Arminian), and #7 (Open Arminian), though not all points from any of them. But that is part of defining points on any spectrum–there are always people who fall between the points.

As a follow-up, I would suggest reading Spectrum or Divide? A Response to Adrian Warnock, and Adrian’s response in turn here. Matt O’Reilly of Incarnatio, is a neighbor here in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, though I have never actually met him.

While I understand that some Arminians are embarrassed by open theists, I do think open theism at least grows out of Arminianism. I am attracted to, but not certain of, some elements of open theism. I think there are scriptures, particularly those that refer to God repenting, which sound quite open.

What always bothers me in these discussions, though to his credit Adrian doesn’t bring it up until his point on open theism, is the belief that this is largely a debate about the sovereignty of God. I don’t even believe it deals with the nature of God’s sovereignty. It actually deals with the way in which God exercises his sovereignty.

I’ve encountered this same issue in creation-evolution debates. The argument is that God is more glorified if he created the world in six literal days than if he used some mechanism that took more time, or in which God appeared more distant. But the question is not about God’s power, or about who has the choice. God clearly has the choice. God is sovereign no matter how he chose to create. Finite human beings have no concept of the power involved no matter what the method.

When God works in salvation, it is totally a divine choice how to act. Whether God created human beings with the power to choose good, some of which remains, or God empowers them to make the choice through prevenient grace, or simply makes that choice in predestination, it is nonetheless God’s action in God’s time and it’s God’s sovereignty.

It seems to me that the argument that God gets greater glory if he predestines all who will be saved actually tries to force a very human view of sovereignty onto God. Similarly, a claim that God is more glorified if he gives his creatures freedom is to force our human perspective onto God’s actions.

The only question, it seems to me, is how God actually has acted. To be more precise, I should say how God has chosen to present his actions. Because I don’t think any of us understand this. Deeper than any conviction I have about Arminian soteriology is the simple conviction that we don’t really know–none of us.


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Stuck on Silent Saturday?

Stuck on Silent Saturday?

OK, it’s Easter Sunday morning, and I can join the chorus: He is risen!

But I know from experience that there are Christians out there who are stuck on silent Saturday or Good Friday. For them, Christianity is all–and only–about the cross. Jesus died, they died in Jesus. They had no hope. Jesus is their hope–but they don’t seem to live it.

If you’re not in that place, you can just ignore me, but if you are, remember Easter morning. The point is not that death and suffering are wonderful. The point of realizing your need is not to go on realizing your need. If I’m thirsty, I get a drink of water. Then I’m not thirsty any more. If you’re in need of redemption, find redemption–and don’t keep acting like you never did find it.

I think that in many of our arguments over historical issues, we forget the meaning of the story. The meaning isn’t about doom, death, and destruction. The story tells us that doom, death, and destruction lose in the end.

By going past silent Saturday, I don’t mean that your pretend that bad things don’t happen. Rather, I ask for an essential Easter optimism that says that even when the worst is happening, there’s something to work toward, something to look forward to.

Paul says:

We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:4 (WEB)

Just so, brother Paul! He’s the one who is most often quoted by the hopelessness crowd, especially his words in Romans 7. But I think Paul was just pretty realistic. Looking and working for good endings doesn’t mean one doesn’t recognize the bad. Recognizing the reality of bad things doesn’t mean giving up on good things.

My wife and I lost a son to cancer at age 17. (She wrote a book, Grief: Finding the Candle of Light.) That’s a bad thing. You may wonder why I put it that way. Some say, “Obviously it’s bad.” Others are thinking I’m putting it too lightly. Yet others are thinking, “He’s a Christian, writing on Easter Sunday morning, and God works all things for the good of those who love him, so it’s not really bad.”

No, it’s really bad. It was, is, and will be really bad. There still are moments when I remember him like he had been here only moments before. When I take his little dog out for a walk in the morning, I remember how he used to stop on his way to school to say good bye to his dog when he saw us walking. It’s a painful moment. I acknowledge it. You should acknowledge your painful moments, times, and seasons as well.

But then there are other things. There is the John Webb Golf Tournament that raises money for the child life program at Sacred Heart Hospital. There are many lives that he touched both before and during his illness.

Do these things make illness and death a good thing? No! Easter morning didn’t make the cross painless either. The point is that you get past it, build on it, shake your fist at death and despair and say, “You don’t get the last word!”

That, I believe, is something Easter should re-teach us each year. Death doesn’t get the last word. Evil doesn’t get the last word.

He has risen. Have you?

Atonement: The Error Adrian Warnock and Giles Fraser Share

Atonement: The Error Adrian Warnock and Giles Fraser Share

Adrian says it wouldn’t be Easter “without a row about the atonement” and he has promptly located one in a Guardian article by Giles Fraser, in which Fraser says:

Thinking about the celebration of Holy Week in my new adopted cathedral brings home to me quite how important it is for Christians to insist upon a non-sacrificial reading of the death of Christ. For too long, Christians have put up with a theory of salvation that has at its core the idea that God requires the sacrifice of his own son so that human sin can be cancelled. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,” we will all sing. The fact this is a disgusting idea, and morally degenerate, is obvious to all but those indoctrinated into a very narrow reading of the cross.

Adrian, in presumed response (I can’t find his precise quote in the article he links), says:

I am not surprised by the strong language used by the opponents of the view of the cross generally called “penal substitutionary atonement” but understood by millions of children simply as “Jesus died to be punished for our sin.” If millions of Christians are as wrong as Fraser believes then no wonder that he would speak the way he does.

But I would note here that for many, the word “punished” is not nearly so central, and the statement is that Jesus died for our sins, whatever that may mean. Most of us will admit that we don’t know quite precisely what it means.

So let me confess here right up front that I don’t really understand the atonement. But before all you knowledge-filled people jump up to tell me how you do understand it, and are thus in a position to set me straight, I’m going to refer you to 1 Corinthians 8:2, which I think applies here.

And that’s the problem with these views. Adrian points out that both those who find penal substitutionary atonement is “the most precious truth of the Bible,” and those who believe it is “cosmic child abuse” cannot both be right. I agree! But both of them can quite easily be wrong.

Now I don’t want to make accusations regarding Giles Fraser. It’s possible that he might nuance his point a little more if he had more space than a newspaper column. Adrian, on the other hand, has convinced me rather thoroughly that he is clear on his view and intends what he says. My summary, which I make available for criticism, is that penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus took the punishment demanded by God for our sins, and that this is to be understood in a judicial sense, is the true core meaning of the atonement.

The response of some seems to be, “No, it isn’t. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means something else entirely.”

That’s the error that I think is shared. In fact, I’m going to suggest that any statement that says that the singular meaning of the atonement is X, is wrong for any value of X. Neither side seems to be able to handle metaphor. Oh, we’ll get acknowledgment that theological language is metaphorical, but the same persons who make such statements don’t behave as though the language is metaphorical.

To Adrian I would say that the language of penal substitution is a highly refined and narrowed form of one scriptural way of talking about atonement. It even deprives the sacrificial metaphors of much of their meaning, because sacrifice is not centrally about judicial penalties.

One of the problems with understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrifice is that most of us in the Christian world have a very narrow and superficial idea of what sacrifice was about in the ancient world. If we’re going to use the metaphor of sacrifice, we ought at least to use it in a Jewish context, and not emphasize the most pagan elements, such as appeasement.

But again, I would tell Adrian and those in his camp that if this particular metaphor suffices to make them believe that God forgives them, and thus is for them the most precious truth of scripture, then by all means see it as precious and cling to it. That’s what a good metaphor is about.

But at the same time, realize that this specific formulation isn’t all there is to it, and isn’t necessarily central. Others may find their understanding comes through other metaphors. Metaphors are useful that way–not everybody has to get cozy with every one of them!

But to turn to those on the side of Giles Fraser, don’t throw out the metaphor just because some people have grabbed it as a singular truth. You’re quite right to object to some results of the penal view of the atonement, and even the sacrificial view. But the penal view is only part of the sacrificial view, and the notion of sacrifice is an important part of how theology of the atonement developed and is understood.

It’s a metaphor; it doesn’t tell us everything. It’s not supposed to. But the beauty of metaphors is that you can use many different ones to describe the same thing, with each one giving you additional light and understanding.

In addition, one metaphor provides a corrective for another. When sacrifice or penal substitution leads us to see God as vindictive, we then need to look to other ones to help build our understanding of God.

There is a beauty in the cross, but it’s a beauty that comes through transformation. Jesus took what was disgusting, despicable, and evil, symbolic of the worst of human nature, and transformed it. A symbol can be transformed.

One way to understand that transformation is by the metaphor of sacrifice, but Jesus also transformed the very idea of sacrifice. Fraser alludes to this, but then proceeds to dispose of the metaphor itself. If you dispose of the metaphor of sacrifice, how can you see the transformation? If you dispose of the cross, how will you see God’s transforming power?

If you try to blot out Good Friday, how will you comprehend Easter morning?