How Should We Understand The Atonement?
Atonement debate has been an important and challenging part of Christian dialogue since the beginning OF Christian dialogue. All the gospel writers deal with it. Paul deals with it. Several of the early church writers deal with it at length. I hope that some of our Restoration Movement scholars might point out articles and essays where it has been treated more recently within our brotherhood.
Several different denominational writers in England and America have recently published thoughts on the atonement. In the midst of this conversation comes an essay written in recent weeks by NT Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, entitled “The Cross and the Caricatures.” At first glance, I thought this would be an intriguing read, especially since I’d already read a couple comments where some suggested that Dr Wright played Muhammed Ali. They said that while stinging his targets in the essay like a bee, he floated like a butterfly around actually affirming the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
I hate jargon like that, yet it IS useful. Let me show you how. By atonement, I mean what must be done to effect reconciliation between two parties. By substitutionary, I mean that this particular doctrine includes one party standing in for another party. By penal, I mean that the cause of the schism, that which divides the two initial parties, is something really wrong that deserves and requires punishment.
Now, which would YOU rather say over and over again in the context of a class, a sermon, or the like? Three clunky words, or something like that entire paragraph? You see, jargon DOES have its uses.
In the coming days, I will invite discussion of several portions of this essay. I think there is a LOT of material here that is timely, and some that will even sound ironic coming from one so far removed from the Stone-Campbell Reformation. If you want, you can access the entire essay at the link above, and/or you can play along as I quote various paragraphs. I will try and respect the basic shape of Wright’s discussion, so please help me do so by not introducing points from page 14 when we’re discussing page 3, okay?
While critiquing a speaker on a BBC broadcast, Wright says:
He began by discussing the widspead view that suffering is a punishment from God. He instanced a bizarre funeral sermon, a Cretan bishop declaring that an earthquake was a punishment for people using birth control, and the idea that York Minster was struck by lightning in retribution for David Jenkin’s consecration. (Already his language shows where he is going: ‘some people … were seriously wondering whether God had personally hurle a thunderbolt at York Minster in a fit of pique …”). But this is childish. The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise, and loving creator, who hates – Yes, hates, and hates implacably – anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully, and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise. To trivialize – alomst to domesticate! – this massive biblical doctrine, rooted as it is in the doctrines of God as creator and as the one who will restore his creation at the last (in other words, in the biblical sense, ‘judge’), into a few anecdotal trivialities about God petulantly hurling thunderbolts around is hardly the way to begin a serious argument.
Dr Wright makes some bold statements in this paragraph. What are your thoughts? Does his description of the doctrine of God’s wrath fit your understanding of the Biblical evidence? Is his critique of the speaker’s rhetorical strategy well-founded? Is Dr Wright right about God here?
in HIS love,