As I have thought through the Atonement through the past several years, I have been on quite a journey. For many reasons, both theological and personal, I left the Reformed tradition in which I originally cut my theological teeth. As I have thought through a number of issues, primarily Atonement, I have found myself back in the thrust of that great tradition. The tradition is wide and varied and I take comfort in that. I particularly like how B. A. Gerrish illuminates the habits of the Reformed tradition. He says the Reformed are deferential to their forebears, yet critical of their forebears; open to new insights of truth; practical in applying the truths they know; and perhaps above all evangelical, that is, they want the good news of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed as the hope of the world. I believe that in what I write in the following that I have habituated each of these. I wonder now, if I have truly come home.
In what follows, I hit some high points of dogmatic theology and outline the current state of my thinking on each. I am beginning to understand myself as moving forward in the Edwardsean line, while employing the Reformers, the Reformed Orthodox, Analytic Theism, and Dialectic Theology. It’s an eclectic project to say the least. I hope that the discussion is useful, whether one agrees with the following or not. Iron hopefully will sharpen iron.
On Scripture: I still maintain that historical criticism is a valuable, even necessary, tool. But we must discern the spirits. Not all who engage upon this method are concerned to do so with the best of intentions. Many scholars can exhibit a hostility toward the text that is unwarranted and probably flows from some past negative experience that they had in Church or somewhere else. It could even be motivated by something more nefarious. So, we should always be mindful of that in others and ourselves. I have learned this in my own person and share it as an experience primarily from that realization.
In this light, I tend to think that the Barthian idea that Holy Scripture is the Word of God in witness/servant form is correct. I would addend that a heavy dose of Calvin’s notion of God “lisping” to us as children is also appropriate. I hold that Word of God should be expanded beyond what Barth thought, and that we can make use of the extra Calvinisticum to do so. In other words, there is more to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word, than is found in the history of Jesus Christ. Though, our thinking about the Word should be ever placed in check by that Revelation.
On Sin: This is much tougher, and you’ll have to indulge me as I tell you what I think Scripture says. Sin is essentially irrational. Barth and Torrance call it the “impossible possibility.” I can’t say that I believe in Original Sin or Total Depravity in quite the same way that it has been articulated in the tradition up until recently, but I want to hold to something like it. I’ll call it a radical distortion of the created order. It is ultimately a mystery, though future investigation might yield something a bit more solid. I have some thoughts in that direction, but I won’t yield them now. Rather, I’ll stick to a kind of exposition of some texts.
I have to understand sin through my reading of Romans 5 in compilation with evolutionary biology. Essentially, I tend to believe that Adam was a real historical person, though I don’t believe that he and Eve were the first humans. I think that Genesis 4:16-17 strongly implies that there were other people living alongside these two; evolutionary biology would concur. I rather think that Adam was elected of God for a mission, essentially to spread the true knowledge of God throughout the world by following God’s commandments.
He and Eve were and were to be God’s image bearers. They jointly failed. This caused spiritual death. God, the source of life, separated himself from the ones he chose to have communion with; God separated from them due to their disobedience. It could conversely be said that they separated themselves from God. God’s command revealed what they were supposed to do, but they chose to disobey, so their wonderful garden, their God-given source of life, was taken from them. As Romans 5:12-14 unpacks, death then spread to all because all sinned, though they didn’t sin “in the likeness of Adam.” In other words, people fell short of the glory of God, because they learned something of the God who was revealed to Adam as Adam’s progeny spread through the world and history, but it was a broken knowledge. Caan certainly had a knowledge of God, but it was severely broken. He could only see God as Judge, while Abel saw him as Provider. The knowledge of God continued forth through history in this fragmented way. It was not until the Law came to Moses that God made another revelation like he did to Adam, with Israel’s mission being the same as Adam’s: to be a light unto the nations.
What I find interesting in Romans 5, one of many things, is that “sin is not imputed when there is no law, nevertheless death reigned” (Rom. 5:13-14). There is a distinction between death and sin. Sin is something that is committed as a transgression of a known law or a lack of conformity unto a known law. But it is known (James 4:17). So, unlike the older Reformed, I don’t think that sin is imputed to Adam’s progeny but I do believe the effects of Adam’s sin were spread throughout the world, namely, spiritual death–a lack of spiritual clarity about God. Adam performed the exact opposite of his mission.
A quick aside: (I hold that natural death was already existing in the world, as evolutionary biology would have us understand. And this is a reality that will also have to be solved in the Atonement. The older Reformed often tended to speak of the Adamic Administration, therefore by logical default they were also speaking of this creation, as probationary or provisional. Given this, hypothetically Adam and Eve could have followed God’s commandment. Their garden could have been a beacon from heaven, a temple. They would have died naturally, nonetheless, but they and those who came among them believing in God and following God’s commandment could have died in true peace, in close relationship with God and with zero fear or confusion, knowing that they would be carried to something better. Ultimately, God would have lifted the whole creation to something new. However, it didn’t pan out this way. The ground of their garden was cursed, due to their disobedience. It shone as a beacon no longer.)
So, to continue: like the older Reformed, I want to maintain that Adam has a covenant headship over us. It’s just that it should be viewed as a spiritual headship rather than a natural one, as Adam was the first person to be elected to communion with God not necessarily the first actual human on my account. Adam, then, becomes the pattern of election throughout the Bible with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and finally of Christ’s spiritual headship over us through the Atonement. In each election, God is meant to reveal himself to humanity through humanity, which then makes humanity more and more responsible for living up to the standard that God requires as God reveals himself more and more. But this revelation serves to make us more and more guilty, because we discover that we can’t from our own power keep to what God has revealed. The Law, then, is a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). Sin uses the law to kill us, where we otherwise would have been fine (Rom. 7:7-12). Salvation cannot come from within us, even though it must come through humanity. And it almost seems to us that the Law itself is evil, “What shall we say then, is the Law sin?” (Rom. 7:7). The Law shows us that the distortion is too deep and beyond our control, we can’t help doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7:16-17), but God is merciful knowing that we “know not what [we] do” (Luke 23:34).
It is also worth pointing out that the distortion, the deceiving serpent, was there before Adam and Eve were disobedient. This is important, because too many schemes of salvation place the complete blame on Adam and Eve whereas the problem is actually much deeper.
On Atonement: Jesus Christ is the only human who can reveal God to humanity, because Christ is truly God. And Christ can truly offer the necessary human response back to God, because Jesus is truly human. As I’ve written and implied elsewhere, I don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, which is the dominant Reformed position. However, I do believe in substitutionary atonement. I hold to a minority position within the tradition that works its way through John McCleod Campbell and T. F. Torrance, yet with my own apocalyptic nuance.
As many Pauline scholars have brought forth, Paul’s theology tends to be apocalyptic. For our purposes, this means that Paul believed in a radical act of God to change the structures of our created world. Essentially, new creation is what Paul envisions for our future. Paul understands this to be the case through what is revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.
The old creation is crucified with Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2. Cor. 5:17). I believe that, in Christ’s death, God roots out the distortion of creation that allows sin to occur. He cuts away the body of death (Rom. 7:24). God does away with the elemental things, as Paul calls them; what we would call the natural laws, the principles upon which this creation is founded. (The Greek word is stoicheia.) In this removal of Christ’s fleshy body in the crucifixion, we can say farewell to the old order of things. All our sin or possible sin is gone in that movement.
In the resurrection of Christ’s new body, we can look forward to the future of newly created reality. The good things will be carried over, but the bad things will not be. As we look to Christ, we are justified. We are considered by God and then we consider ourselves to be dead to the old order, to sin (Rom. 6:11). Christ now becomes the first principle (the new stoicheion), or first fruit of the new creation. Christ really dies in our place; he is our representative. In fact, he dies for the whole cosmos to make it new (Col. 1:13-23; Eph. 1:9-10)
He does not die in the manner that some of the older Reformed sometimes thought, as a sinless, innocent man upon whom God places our exact sin and guilt. I think that would be immoral. Rather, Christ–who was/is sinless–willingly participated in our reality “coming in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50), so we have to have a new body, a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). Jesus comes into the corruptible to do away with the corruptible (1 Cor. 5:42). We now wait for this body from heaven (2 Cor. 5:1-5). So, when we look to Christ we are justified in consideration of what Christ has done for us and which God will complete in the future.
In the meantime, we have the Spirit as a pledge of what will come (2 Cor. 5:5). We can rest in this and we are motivated to good things now, even in our body of death, because the Spirit works to vivify us in anticipation of what will come (Rom. 8:11). We have a future and a hope.
But in the meantime, in the time between the times, all things now are relativized. The Law can lay claim to us no more. Its threats have been vanquished in Christ. There remains what the Reformers called a third use of the Law, which is to say that the Ten Commandments can guide us along a moral life. But we also have the freedom now to figure out which socio-economic arrangements might be best for us, and which ethical theories best apply what the Ten Commandments reveal. We are no longer bound to the Mosaic economy. God wants us to explore and sends his Spirit to guide us. We can be charitable to one another when we differ. We truly have a lot of freedom to explore what the world is and how it all works. God does not tell us these things directly. God has set us free, only let us remain virtuous (Gal. 5:1,13; Phil. 4:8).
Finally, for that great Reformed dogma of predestination: I believe an updated version of it. I hold to a version of predestination that critically defers to the line of thought that developed from Saint Paul to Augustine to Calvin to Barth to Torrance and to Robin Parry. My view is an ontological, formal view. The ontology is based in God, who is love. That love takes the form of Christ. I believe that the entire cosmos is meant to take the form of Christ in death and resurrection. Currently, we have some freedom, which is quasi-libertarian, meaning that we can choose between different natural, earthly things or options. But the Law reveals how deeply distorted our nature is, therefore, we cannot choose in an entirely morally free sense. We can see and know the good in various fleeting moments, but we can’t always muster the power to choose it–the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
In Christ, God has rent the old creation asunder, the old man, as Paul calls it. We gain freedom from this, by the Spirit, as we look toward this saving act and trust it. But we still live in this present evil age, again as Paul calls it. We are not presently free enough as we should be. God’s ultimate goal is to set us free to his glory. So, we look to the form of Christ: “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). According to God’s kind intention, the mystery of his will, all things will be summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).
There may be much rebellion now, in this present evil age, but the end is clear: All evil will be put to death and God will raise all to a new creation. When the corruptible is cut from us, we will finally and fully be free to choose–and we will see clearly the irresistible grace and love of God. As we can clearly see that 2+2=4 now, as we see that it is reality and our mind cannot say it is not reality except by a deception, we will likewise see God as love and we will understand that as true reality. Our hearts will move toward it, compelled by its reality. We will then be free to live according to what is actually real. There will be no more deception. All relationships will be authentic. Those who need to be forgiven will receive forgiveness by those who will gladly want to give it. All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
So, it is a double predestination, wherein all evil is destined toward nothingness and it is so destined because all relationships will be rectified without the possibility of corruption. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable are his ways!…For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33, 36).