I’ve recently had some conversations with some students who are wrestling with all of the Christian terminology surrounding the atonement. I believe this is a great teaching tool for Theology Professors, and would be worthy of having students memorize in order to get a better grasp on common terms and their definitions. Although N.T. Wright would not agree with some of the definitions……I don’t think he visits our blog much and many still see them as correct. If you don’t like rap, just mute and watch!
- InternetMonk has weighed in on the the recent discussions regarding BioLogos and evolution. He argues that we should affirm the overall mission of BioLogos regardless of whether we should agree with their stance. And he takes Al Mohler, John MacArthur, and Phil Johnson to task for what he thinks is a reactionary and unnecessarily polemical response to BioLogos
- Brian posted a couple of good quotes from Forsyth and Warfield on why academic study should be viewed as a spiritual practice.
- Richard Beck has a post on George MacDonald’s view of justice, hell, and the atonement, and why MacDonald’s argument convinced him to be a universalist. I may post a more extended reflection on this one later if I get some time.
- Apparently Kevin Costner’s oil cleanup idea wasn’t as much of a joke as it sounded at first.
- And, the 2010 Lotus Award winners (science fiction) have been announced. I haven’t read any of these yet. Has anyone else?
Recently, I read Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. In it he talks about growing up Methodist in Texas. One of the things he was aware of was that there were primarily two kinds of Methodists – “Liberals” and “Conservatives.” A key point of theology that divided them was the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. Liberals, as you might have guessed, didn’t buy it. Conservatives did. Hauerwas did believe it – still does, it turns out – but the question he asked himself at the time was, “Why is the Virgin Birth so important?” He wasn’t asking, “Is something like this miracle possible?” It was a given that the God of the Bible could do anything He wanted to do. What Hauerwas was asking was, “What theological importance does the event of the Virgin Birth hold in God’s dealings with humanity?”
Often, the answer provided to the “why?” of the Virgin Birth is to address the problem of how could Christ be free of original sin, and therefore be fit to be our redeemer. Herman Bavinck nicely illustrates the point when he writes: “The exclusion of the man from His [Jesus’] conception…had the effect that Christ, as one not included in the covenant of works, remained exempt from original sin and could therefore also be preserved in terms of His human nature, both before and after His birth, from all pollution of sin.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics – vol. III, 294). This obviously assumes that both the guilt and pollution of original sin is passed on from Adam to the rest of us “by natural generation” (cf. WLC 26). And indeed, within the architectonic of classical Reformed theology, this answer “works.” But for all of its usefulness, this answer about the Virgin Birth seems to miss something of the larger sweep of the good news. And here is where T.F. Torrance is nothing short of brilliant in his clarity, profundity, and pastoral sensibilities.
First, the Virgin Birth is a disqualification of human capabilities. Torrance writes, “The virgin birth is the doctrine that the movement of the Son of God to become man is one directional, from God to man: it cannot be reversed.” (99) Quite simply, it bears witness to God’s divine initiative in coming to man. It is an act of pure freedom on God’s part.
Second, the Virgin birth is the setting aside of human autonomy. In the birth of Jesus, God not only acts first, He acts alone so as to exclude any assertion of human will. For Torrance, the significance of Joseph’s non-involvement in the generation of Jesus lies in its value of showing that “man in the person of Joseph is set aside – he has no say in the matter, he exercises no act of self-will or of the flesh in order to bring about this act of God.” (100) It is an act of pure grace on God’s part.
Third, the Virgin Birth is the pattern of grace, and model of faith. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary through the word of His angel – “the word proclaimed to Mary is the word of election or grace: she is chosen and told of God’s choice. She has nothing to do in this matter except what is done in her by the Spirit. What Mary does is simply to receive the word, to believe, which she does not in her own strength, but in the strength given her by the Lord, and she is blessed because of that, not her virginity.” (101) What we see in God’s particular encounter with Mary is paradigmatic of His gracious action in the gospel for us as well. Torrance goes on to write, “As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word Himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Christ, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share in the grace of his birth and to share in the new creation in him.” (101) Just as there is no human activity in Christ’s birth to Mary, there is no prior human activity in our being brought to Christ either. It is an act of pure gospel on God’s part.
Divine initiative. Grace. Gospel. THAT is what the Virgin Birth is about, and what it teaches us. It not only “sets the stage” for Christ’s gracious acts on our behalf. It IS a gracious act of God on our behalf. It is the good news.
As much as I have enjoyed reading Death by Love, there are two other things that I think are worth commenting on. First, the book manifests an occasional tendency to confuse the effects of the atonement with one’s experiential realization of those effects. For example, in the redemption chapter, the authors indicate that a person needs to do five things in order for redemption to occur: conviction, confession, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation. But the authors certainly would not want to suggest that the atonement has no effect on a person until resitution has been made for all of his or her sins. If so, we are all in big trouble. It would seem much more appropriate to say that a person will not experience the full benefit of their redemption until they have walked through these five steps. Similar confusion arises at various points in other chapters as well. This is almost certainly because, again, the authors are concerned throughout to demonstrate the practical significance of atonement-thinking. As closely related as existential realization and objective accomplishment are and should be, however, we must be careful not to conflate them.
Second, consistent with other books that Driscoll has been involved in, Death by Love is occasionally marked by an unfortunate tendency toward a form of hyper-masculinity. Thus, in this book real men are strong, protectors of the weak, who get angry when they need to and seek vengeance against wrongdoers. Such men have “raw masculine integrity” (p. 74). Wolverine would be proud. The villains of the book are often the “docile, neutered church guys” (p. 74) and the “flaccid church guys” (p. 127), who fail to get angry at the right times and do not protect the innocent. Reading through all of this, at least two thoughts come to mind. First, are these really our only options? Have I failed in the realization of my full masculinity if I do not find Ultimate Fighting to be the pinnacle of masculine achievement? And second, what makes these things specifically masculine? Shouldn’t women protect the innocent and be angered by sin as well? This comes across particularly clearly when, in one chapter, a young girl prone to promiscuous sex is encouraged to realize that he behavior is partly her father’s fault – he failed to cherish her properly. That may be true, but it does leave one to wonder why her mother is not similarly faulted for failing to cherish and protect her as she should. An overly realized masculinity that emphasizes only certain qualities runs the risk not only of mischaracterizing masculinity, but implicitly undermining the significance of those qualities for a proper view of femininity at the same time.
Nonetheless, Death by Love is a fine book that is well worth reading and pondering as we seek to become people’s whose minds and lives are shaped by the cross.
Having identified several things that I find very helpful about this book, it is time to move on to the more critical task. To be fair to the book, though, we must keep in mind throughout that the intended audience and brevity of the work mean that the authors are necessarily limited in what they can accomplish. Nonetheless, there are a few critical points that I would like to make. In this post, I will focus on the first two.
First, in the introduction to the work, the authors present penal substitution as the core of the atonement, virtually equating ‘atonement’ with ‘penal substitution’, but they make no effort to establish that this is the case. Given that the rest of the book develops a whole range of other ways of viewing the atonement, they leave unanswered the question of whether one of these others might actually be the basic perspective from which the others arise. Or, might it not be the case that none of them is fundamental, but that they are equal and diverse witnesses to the beauty of the atonement? The authors may be correct in presenting penal substitution as fundamental, but they give us no reason for thinking so. This is particularly surprising given the strong criticisms that have recently been leveled against penal substitution and the authors’ own obvious appreciation of all the various aspects of the atonement.
A second concern is actually generated by the strengths I mentioned in my previous post. Although the authors present their book as an examination of the “twelve glorious sides” of the atonement, it really is more of an exercise in applying limited aspects of those twelve sides to particular situations. For example, the Christus Victor chapter focuses almost exclusively on the issue of individual demonization. This is very helpful for the particular situation they are addressing, but it falls far short of being an ‘examination’ of the Christus Victor idea in that it neglects other issues like victory over sin, death, more corporate/institutional aspects of the demonic, and other forms of oppression and bondage. So, rather than providing an examination of the Christus Victor view, the chapter serves much more as an exercise in applying one aspect of that view to a particular situation. Admittedly the authors go on to deal with sin and death in the following chapter on redemption, but that only exacerbates the problem by making it appear as though sin and death belong to the redemption metaphor and not to the victory metaphor, when in fact they belong to both. Indeed, each of the chapters likewise focuses on a rather narrow slice of their respective metaphors. As I mentioned, this actually serves the book’s purpose of being an exercise in atonement-thinking, but insofar as it explicitly presents itself as being an ‘examination’ of each metaphor, it runs the risk of conveying an overly truncated understanding of each metaphor.
Continuing our review of Death by Love, we will focus in this post on two things that this book does very well. First, it does an excellent job of presenting a very broad range of perspectives from which the atonement must be viewed. Although they present the atonement as most fundamentally about penal substitution, Driscoll and Breshears do an excellent job of articulating a broad range of aspects that must be included in any adequate understanding (victory, sacrifice, justification, propitiation, expiation, ransom, example, reconciliation, and revelation).The reader is thus challenged to reconsider the atonement and realize the tremendous breadth, depth, and reach of this central truth of the Christian faith. Given the size and nature of the work, it is, of course, not comprehensive, and one might have wished that they had dealt with some metaphors more directly (e.g., healing metaphors, and payment metaphors beyond the ransom metaphor). Nonetheless, it is still a very useful work for demonstrating the breadth of the biblical portrayal of the atonement.
Although oddly presented as another aspect of the atonement, the authors also provide a very nice defense of “unlimited, limited atonement” (i.e., the atonement is unlimited in its extent, but limited to the elect in its application). This chapter is unlikely to satisfy fans of limited atonement or those preferring more Arminian articulations of unlimited atonement; nonetheless, it is an understandable presentation of some of the key issues and a clear articulation of the position.
A second key contribution of the book, and the one that I think is even more important, is that Death by Love is ultimately an exercise in atonement-thinking. That is, Driscoll and Breshears seek to model how belief in the atonement should permeate Christian life – all of our decisions, the things that we believe, the ways that we respond to people in crisis, and how we approach sin in our own life, should all be grounded in the cross. For example, in the first chapter, a woman who has long struggled with deep-rooted sins and issues with demonization is not approached with a particular method of dealing with the demonic, but is presented with the truth of the atonement and Christ’s victory over sin. That is, she is encouraged to think and live atonement-ly. This process is then repeated through all twelve chapters. If you are paying attention, by the time you get to the end, you are beginning to wonder where your life and ministry need to be challenged by the reality of the cross and the truth of the Gospel as you come to recognize that we should all be people who think atonement-ly at every turn.
For both of these reasons, then, Death by Love should be a very useful book for anyone wanting to develop their understanding of the atonement’s breadth, sharpen their atonement-thinking, or help others in their church do likewise. It should be especially useful in a Sunday school or small group setting, given the wide range of discussion topics that it provides.
I just finished reading the new book by world renowned authors Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Death by Love (Crossway, 2008). I was going to suggest that one of you write a review of it, but I decided that maybe reviewing a book co-written by one of your professors might be a little intimidating. You should reserve that for when you’ve graduated and they no longer control your destiny (which, by the way, never happens). So, I thought I’d take a stab at it.
To keep this from becoming obnoxiously long, I will break my review into a few pieces. In this post, I will start by summarizing what the book is about. Subsequent posts will comment on some of the things that it does really well and make a few critical observations.
In Death by Love, Driscoll and Breshears seek to explain to a lay audience the multi-faceted nature of the atonement and its practical significance. As a popular-level work, Death by Love is replete with stories and examples, most of which function effectively to communicate challenging theological concepts in easily understandable ways.
In the introduction, the authors lay out their basic theological convictions regarding the atonement. They argue that any biblical understanding of the atonement must recognize that it is both substitutionary (Christ died in our place) and penal (Christ took upon himself the punishment that was God’s just judgment on human sin). Thus, penal substitution is what the atonement is fundamentally about.
To understand what this penal substitutionary atonement means in its fullness, though, one must consider all of its various facets. The majority of the book, then, comprises twelve chapters that each focus on a different aspect of the atonement. Probably the most unique feature of this book is that each of these chapters unfolds as a letter written to some person explaining how the atonement bears on the sins and life problems facing that person. Thus, we find people struggling with sexual sins, abusive relationships, Pharisaic self-righteousness, and addiction issues, among others, and each of them is confronted with truths about the atonement that challenge their ways of behaving and believing.
At the end of each chapter, the authors respond to some of the key questions raised. Since the answers are necessarily brief, they tend to provide more of an outline of an appropriate response than a complete answer. They are helpful nonetheless. The book closes with a chapter offering resources for studying the atonement further. Though largely limited to conservative evangelical works on the atonement, the works on the list are generally good and helpful for anyone seeking deeper discussions of a whole range of issues.