Reconsidering Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” on Reformation Day

October 31, 2016

Today is the 499th Anniversary of “Reformation Day”–when Martin Luther posted his rumbling “Ninety-Five Theses” concerning indulgences.  This marked an historic turning point in Western Christianity, one fraught with untold opportunities to “get the Story right this time.”  It was only a partial restoration of apostolic truth at best, and a sad caricature at worst.  Consequences follow.

By this time in the career of this blog site, I had hoped to publish more on the historic missteps of the Reformation with respect to the doctrine of the Atonement and its ramifications concerning the Protestant doctrines of Justification, Reconciliation, and Sanctification.  But other opportunities emerged that I felt I couldn’t pass up.  I needed to address the Governmental or Rectoral theory of Hugo Grotius for the sake of a young and able campus evangelist, Jesse Morrell.  A controversial interaction with a local Orthodox Presbyterian church also absorbed much time and energy.

With one year left until the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I feel the need to return to the historic issues and assumptions of that era in order to account for the nearly wholesale declension into the penal-obsessed and death-focused dogmas of Atonement which befell that auspicious movement for human liberation from spiritual bondage.

Accordingly, I have decided to re-post my essay of three years ago that deals with Luther’s so-called “theologia crucis.”  This was by no means the authentic theology of Luther’s mature period.  To be sure, it actually predates even the indulgence controversy that catapulted the Augustinian monk into the limelight forever.  Nevertheless, some problematics of the theologia crucis attended all of Luther’s later thinking, and continually get replayed and rehashed along with  his final position.  I hope to explore these matters periodically over the next twelve months.

But in the meantime, I would encourage you to chew over the following essay in order to bone up on some irresolvable tensions that carry through both periods of the Reformer’s development.

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Since today is Reformation Day, October 31st, when Martin Luther posted his historic “Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” I have decided to post the results of my study concerning the theologia crucis (theology of the Cross) that Martin Luther inaugurated. He coined the expression and launched the project on its problematic career. Over the years, I have come across the expression countless times, and with growing doubts about the validity of its varying contents and intended objectives. In August I finally decided to immerse myself in one of the best treatments of the subject to appear in recent decades, Alister McGrath’s well-regarded Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1985). I was not disappointed by his splendid treatment. However, as one who had arrived at vigorous certainty concerning the long-neglected centrality of Christ’s Resurrection in theology (although never doubting its importance for so-called apologetics), I sensed in the theologia crucis at least a partial explanation for the historic eclipse of the Resurrection. Nor was I disappointed by my own findings, in a sad irony. What follows is not so much a review of McGrath’s treatise, much less a summary, as a response by way of counterpoint. McGrath proceeds via mounting delight and approbation for Luther’s “progress” in his agenda. To the contrary, I advance in terms of growing concern and critical opposition at every new twist and turn of the fated program. What began as a strong hunch has matured into a settled conviction that the virtual neglect of the decisive role of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead for every aspect of salvation was an unintended consequence of the systematic pursuit of the theologia crucis. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, isn’t it high time to reconsider its career as possibly harboring an error of serious and ramifying consequences? You decide.

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Martin Luther’s epoch-making breakthrough concerning the meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God” is commonly thought to have properly culminated in his “theologia crucis” (theology of the Cross). This is hardly surprising considering the circuitous route his thought traveled from the mortal fear of “God’s righteousness” that “punished sinners” by His wrath to a “righteousness of God” as “that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed’, to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful Godjustifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous lives by faith’.” He “found the same analogy in other phrases such as the ‘work of God’ (that which God works within us), the‘power of God’ (by which he makes us strong), the‘wisdom of God’ (by which he makes us wise), the ‘strength of God’, the‘salvation of God’ and the ‘glory of God’” (McGrath, p. 97, quoting from Luther’s 1545 Preface to the first volume of the new edition of his works, published at Wittenberg).

Even so, at that watershed moment, only a slight impulse might have deflected the nascent insights toward a destiny of full-blown “theologia resurrectis” contours. Instead, the Protestant movement chose the fateful alternative of a “theologia crucis,” which in view of the intransigent structure of the New Testament Gospel, then only dimly descried as Greek and Hebrew Scripture were just coming to light in print and in vernacular translation, could never quite fulfill its weighty promise.

According to Alister McGrath, “Luther interprets iustitia Christologically: God’s righteousness, understood as faithfulness to his promises, is demonstrated in the incarnation and death of the Son of God” (Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 107, emphasis added). The words “and death” reveal vestigial assumptions of Luther’s early theological education. As he himself recounts:

I had certainly been overcome with a great desire to understand St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, but what had hindered me thus far was not any ‘coldness of the blood’ so much as that one phrase in the first chapter: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it’. For I had hated that phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ which, according to the use and custom of all the doctors, I had been taught to understand philosophically, in the sense of THE FORMAL OR ACTIVE RIGHTEOUSNESS (as they termed it), BY WHICH GOD IS RIGHTEOUS, AND PUNISHES UNRIGHTEOUS SINNERS.  [McGrath, 95-96; all emphases added, R.L.R.]

Luther would draw a connection, then forge a link, between God’srighteousness as punitive and that death of God’s Son—a fateful error, as it turns out. The initial misstep that primed this errant interpretation was Luther’s misapprehension of Galatians 2:16. His above recollection disparages the generally accepted Aristotelian and Ciceronian legal maxim that righteousness/ justice “renders to each his due.” Recurring to the text of Paul, he exults:

A wonderful new definition of righteousness! This is usually described thus: ‘Righteousness is a virtue which renders to each man according to his due’ (iustitia est virtus reddens unicuique quod suum est). But here it says: ‘Righteousness is faith in Jesus Christ’ (fides Jhesu Christi)!  [McGrath, 112; emphases added, R.L.R.]

However, it is increasingly accepted by scholars that the Greek is here better rendered “faith[fulness] of Jesus Christ.” This translation allows for a very different unfolding of God’s justice than the course Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin were to pursue—a course that led inevitably to a theologia crucis as asubstitute for the theologia resurrectis of the Apostle Paul and, indeed, of all the New Testament writers who treat the death of Christ.

Because Luther did not perceive that the faithfulness of Jesus Christrequired God to render to him his due, i.e., true justice, by raising him from the dead and giving him gloryfrom whence he commissioned his Holy Spirit to all who would merely believe so as to cleanse away their sins, justify them accordingly, and give them the rich down payment of agelong life, including extraordinary power for healing and testifying boldly concerning God’s impending Kingdom, plus the offer of a gratuitous inheritance in it—Luther had to fetch around for some alternative, some substitute for this resurrectionary, restorative, or “premial” (rewarding, from the Latin for the opposite of penal) solution to thejustification of sinners.

This premial solution implies that there was actually no need for Luther to jettison distributive justice (iustitia distributiva) in order to find a graciousGod. He had only to observe the real nature of God’s avenging (ekdik-) via repayment ([ant]apodo-) to His abused Son for his spilled blood, the just award or just due of which spilled over generously, in turn, according to God’s super-compensatory premial justice, to all sinners who exercise faith in response to the abundant testimony of the Gospel story.

Almost needless to say, Luther’s theological rejection of distributive justice(which is properly conceived as encompassing both penal and premial judgments) was a fateful move, not only because of its potential to spawn antinomianism (a disposition toward insubordination even to Christ’s law) which has followed Protestantism like a dark shadow, but for its direct ramifications for criminal justice and peacemaking, not to mention a host of other spheres of life.

Another misstep by Luther was his equating or identifying righteousness (as a “gift of God”) with faith in Christ.” He did not see that the actual “faithfulness of Christ” was the worthiness of Christ before God (coram deo) that called forth the righteousness/justice of God to avenge his cross by raising him from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit poured out superabundantly, then shared with all mankind as the Gift of God par excellence, with signs and wonders following.

According to this reading, the “Gift of God” is simply the Holy Spirit of promise, not “faith in Christ” (fides Christi) per se. And, in fact, the biblicalvocabulary overwhelmingly conforms to this expectation. But Luther was being shoved and tugged by multiple forces of his legal and monastic education, steeped as they were in the so-called via moderna of the late medieval period (the “modern way” of philosophical discourse that was becoming popular).

Luther had originally put great stock in humility (humilitas) as the contents of a person’s doing “that which in himself lies” (quod in se est) in preparation for “grace.” But he slowly changed his opinion because of the uncertainty of knowing whether one possessed enough humility for God to “give gracewithout fail,” in fulfillment of His covenant (pacta or testamentum), even though the “merit” of that humility was affirmed to be “de congruo on account of this promise of God and the covenant of mercy (pactum misericordiae)” (Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, 4.262.2-7; in McGrath, 89), and not de condigno (i.e., deserved, suitable, or adequate in itself). He eventually refused to concede that even this was sufficient to bring God’sgrace in the absence of God’s prior “special grace.”

This new turn of thought necessarily evoked a change of opinion also about the power of unaided “free will” (so-called). And here we see the origin of Luther’s full-blown diatribe, On the Bondage of the Will (1525), against Erasmus. However, we must carefully observe that his solution for this “sickness” of the will was “prevenient grace” rather than the inherent power of the Gospel story of God’s raising Jesus from a death of the Cross. So here Luther makes yet another misstep and slips off the Gospel path of theNew Testament. Even though he sees correctly that sinners are incapable of the true humility that the medieval tradition of the via moderna (of Gabriel Biel, et al) had specified for “the certain bestowal of God’s grace” as the “sine qua non” (lit., “without which not”—an essential condition or absolute prerequisite) of the human side of the covenant (pactum), yet his counterthrust was framed in the same faulty terms of “receiving grace,” only now preveniently (coming before) rather than following faith (as the apostles had taught). It implies that faith itself was entailed in that prevenient grace, so was necessarily also a “gift,” all contrary to the “pattern of sound explanations” found in Scripture alone (sola scriptura), ironically.

So although Luther came to displace humility as the way to enter God’s favor, he did so by replacing it with graceitself instead of with a faith generated by the “power of God unto salvation,” namely, the Gospel proclamation. This led to impossible logical conundrums in theology and, indeed, to a long and very persistent tradition of rationalizing the impossibilities as “mysteries” that “faith” must “humbly” accept. And we have come full circle to another version of insupportable, unsustainable, anxiety-producing humilitas.

The above confusions were further complicated at this stage by Luther’s assumption that faith in Christ (fides Christi), initially understood as the sine qua non of the human side of the covenant—the quod in se est required of human beings—was a human act, achieved by natural ability, without the additional help of “grace.” On the contrary, in Scripture faith is never even categorized under the rubric “act” or “work.” There, the capacity to believe is an in-created faculty of all human beings, ineffaceable even by the fall into sin. The book of Hebrews neatly clarifies faith as a non-work—a sabbath rest from work. The issue therefore is not its structure, but its direction, its object, its focus. The Gospel is worthy of our faith because it has the proof of sufficient, indeed, abundant testimony to back it up.

At the time of Luther’s exposition of Psalms 71 and 72 (70 and 71, respectively, in the Latin text of the Vulgate) in early 1514, he was identifying “the righteousness of God” (iustitia Dei) with faith in Christ (fides Christi), interpreted as humility. This means that God’s righteousnesswas still a radically subjective intra-human act (although by the end of 1515 one not originating within human beings, i.e., an act of the will, which was in “bondage,” but an act of God), namely, faith in Christ. This construction obscured in a single fell swoop both the faithfulness of the Son to all his Father’s will, as well as the justice of the Father in reciprocating byraising him from the dead—the inextricably tandem epicenters of apostolic covenantal objectivity.

Luther’s authentic Protestant switch from seeing this fides Christi as an act ofman to seeing it as an act of God did not alter the fundamental structure of his erroneous framework, which all turns on the oddly and ironically termed “objective genitive” (the grammatical case of the Greek preposition) interpretation of pistis christou (most decisively in Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and Philippians 3) to mean human faith ‘inChrist” (who, accordingly, gets duly “objectified” as the “object of faith”), thus ipso facto sabotaging the correct teaching of Paul concerning the objective faithfulness of Jesus, which turns on the so-called “subjective genitive” interpretation of the case. Yet only this subjective genitive places the weight of salvific virtue where it belongs—inside of the Lord Jesus Christ. In turn, only this placement accords the “righteousness of God” its proper significance as the Father’s doing justice to His faithful Son by “objectively,” historically resurrecting him from the dead. Everything else begins to sort itself out and fall into line when we accord these most central truths their just due.

Luther’s Protestant proposal in effect “subjectivized” the righteousness of God, reducing it from a grand execution of due justice on behalf of His abused Son on the third day, to a virtue deposited into human beings as a “direct gift” from God in a “sovereignly” arbitrary manner (a theme Calvin was to take up with a vengeance before long), thereby overriding their enslaved wills by the benign bulldozer of “grace.”

Viewed from another standpoint: The “subjective genitive” demands a resurrectionary atonement; the “objective genitive” can settle for a substitutionary atonement. It is at this crossroads that several novel adjustments are invented by Luther out of sheer necessity in order to avert the vertigo that attends such a falling away from the solid ground of God’sresurrectionary solution to the injustice of the Cross. Not only “bondage of the will” (servum arbitrium), but also “the alien righteousness of Christ” (iustitia Christi aliena) now make their stage debut, followed by the necessity of repeating emphatically and often that believers in Christ are “simultaneously righteous and sinful” (simul iustus et peccator). Other makeshifts will follow concerning “imputation.” These all stem from the tension or dialectic now emergent by having to see the entire man (totus homo) at one and the same time as “before God” (coram Deo) and “before man” (coram hominibus) now that the righteousness of God has been “cast to earth,” subjectivized in “man.” Luther must now do some mighty fancy footwork to account for the “invisibility” of this subjectivized righteousness, “hidden,” “visible only to God,” etc.

Now talk of “hypocrisy” comes to the surface with fresh vigor to lend an explanatory hand or, rather, a heavy rationalizing hand. For if this newly bestowed righteousness is perfect before God, yet barely evident to oneself or others, then it must somehow, paradoxically, be extrinsic or “alien.” Thus Luther parted ways with his former mentor, Johann von Staupitz (vicar of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg), who still saw righteousness as inherent in “man” (although of course originating “ultimately” in God, as Augustine had rationalized)—“iustitia in nobis,” in us. For Luther it is now viewed as outside of us, “iustitia extra nos.” And the dicing grows apace… interminably. We can only sympathize as he agonizes.

Luther passed his new baton to his celebrated colleague at Wittenberg, Philip Melanthchon, who ran with it to the finish line: “forensic”justification. This, as we can now see in retrospect, was simply code for “penal,” thus effectively stripping justice of its integral bi-polarity and one-sidedly reducing any saving virtue to an exclusively punitive necessity. Hence, Luther’s early choice of paths dictated an ever-widening divergence from earlier traditions and a logarithmic expansion of opportunity for others to elaborate and complicate his errors beyond measure, not to say beyond recognition as apostolic. This set the stage for a Pietistic reaction away from the emerging neo-scholasticism of the Post-Reformation. Alas! What a tangled web we weave!

From here we can see the looming specter of a full-blown theologia crucis. Luther first poses a radical dichotomy between human and divine concepts ofrighteousness, demolishing in principle any continuum between them. Out of this feat are spawned further mysteries and paradoxes and, at length, the dubious promise of existential and dialectical theologies. Essences and qualities and substances are played off against imputations and reckonings and eschatons, reminiscent of the grand old gnostic fabrications of yore. There was indeed a certain air of desperation around the new effusions surfacing on account of the inherent instability of this new subjectivism. It was fraught with inner tensions and polar extremes.

The “eye for an eye” or quid pro quo Code of Justinian was found to be objectionable now that an alternative to the via moderna had presumably been discovered to have more power to give assurance of salvation and grace. But this was an alternative that did not contain the element of resurrection as an intrinsic, integral component of justification to serve as an objective ballast against the storms of life’s temptations and trials.

As a corollary, “reason” was eventually jettisoned since Luther concluded that because God justifies sinners, the process of justification must be completely at odds with reason. And if reason is dispensable to justification, it must be dispensable to theology as well. From that vantage point one could almost smell the rotten fruits that were to follow. The reasonableness of the Resurrection to bring deserved justice to Jesus and gratuitous justification to the rest of us had been sadly obscured, and a measure of darkness fell on Christendom…again.

To pursue Luther’s declension a step further, his famous notion of Deus crucifixus et absconditus (“the crucified and hidden God”) is simply a predictable knee-jerk reflex of absenting Christ’s resurrection from soteriological relevance. Since he held that the Cross was the center of God’s revelation of “righteousness” (dikaiosune), whereas we see only a tortured and allegedly sinless victim of extraordinary injustice there, then something vital is clearly missing. Luther docks that up to its being “hidden” (absconditus). Instead, what has happened is that the Resurrection has been absconded with. For the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus was the actual bona fide revelation (Rom. 1:17), manifestation (Rom. 3:21), and display (Rom. 3:26) of God’s justice (dikaiosune). This is the Gospel. Luther only missed it by a garden tomb. Yet without the integral component of resurrection, the Cross becomes a “mystery,” a “paradox,” and God retreats into an unseemly silence precisely when His rescuing services are most desperately needed. Luther’s well-meant but seriously distorted representations stand as a de facto mockery of the apostolic Gospel and should not go unchallenged.

Naturally, Luther’s chain of reasoning would continue to wind around other theological commonplaces to result in a yet more entrenched bondage of theology. Since the resurrectionary answer of God to the Cross was not loud and clear to him, the alleged “revelation” of God in the Cross was said to be visible “only to the eyes of faith.” (See, by contrast, the only place in the New Testament where any similar metaphor is to be found—Ephesians 1:15-22, “the eyes of your heart having been enlightened”—amid Paul’s stirringresurrectionary riff!) This notion only further reinforced the irrationality of the “gospel” of Luther, building as it did on his imported dualism of “faith vs. reason.” The whole of future Lutheran theology lies here in seed form. Naturally, scriptures would be sought and found (and decontextualized) to shore up such disproportionate developments, e.g., Isaiah 45:15, “Truly you are a hidden God!” “The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross…” (McGrath, 150).

Link by steady link, Luther is shackling theology to a dead albatross when it should be soaring aloft to exalted, resurrectionary heights. He represents every impulse to escape this corpse of doctrine as an errant “theology ofglory” (theologia gloriae). We retort by way of query: is an “escape” from the Cross into the joy of Resurrection a move to “seek for God apart from Christ” (McGrath, 150)? Didn’t Jesus himself “escape” the fatal cross by this precise route? Doesn’t he—don’t all the New Testament writers—teach us to expect this for ourselves?

Thus alienated from the power of Christ’s resurrection, theologically speaking, Luther must fetch around for a replacement for its evangelically indispensable role. His desperate play meant that the immense value of the resurrection of Christ for providing comfort and assurance in our own sufferings and persecutions was to a significant degree lost, and the resulting churches would limp, spiritually crippled. (See McGrath’s explanation of Luther’s opus proprium Dei vs. opus alienum Dei, 151.) However the alleged “revelation in the Cross” that human “Reason cannot penetrate is unveiled with ease by divine “Raising of the Crucified One to glory, which in turn raises human sights to God’s throne above.

Luther taught that human wisdom takes offense at the Cross. Very well, yet was the Resurrection not wise, or at least was it not perfectly designed to neutralize such offense? Indeed, CHRIST’S RESURRECTION REHABILITATES “REASON” AND REVEALS THAT THE GOSPEL IS ACTUALLY HYPER-REASONABLE. The Gospel of the Cross-cum-Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is only an “offense” (snare—skandalon) or “stupidity” (moria) to those who choose other paths to God or to thesummum bonum, etc., as Jews and Greeks, respectively, were culturally disposed to do.

Luther is correct enough that Anfechtung (temptation) drives us to Christ…but in truth, it drives us beyond dalliance at his cross to the solid comfort ofhis resurrection. Yet in asserting, “The cross alone is our theology” (CRUX sola est nostra theologia), Luther inaugurated a tragic course of departure from the repeated testimonies of apostolic Scripture, and a retarding of real theological progress. By becoming a “theologian of the Cross” he effected a Cross-wiring of the Gospel that, in the long run of elapsed history, has proved to be a dud in significant respects. He declared, “living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating” (vivendo immo morienda et damnando fit theologus, not intelligendo, legendo aut speculando) (McGrath, 152). Not altogether so for the apostles. They had to know themselves dead and raised with Christ before they really grasped what their Master and Teacher had been talking about all along. The Cross would have been reduced to less than a grave marker for them unless Christ had exploded from the tomb, alive forevermore!

Luther’s neglect or oversight concerning the soteriological role of Christ’s resurrection embroiled him in all the tortured impossibilities of his theologia crucis. Hence McGrath too sanguinarily invites:

For example, consider the wrath of God revealed at the cross. To reason, God thus appears wrathful; to faith, God’s mercy is revealed in this wrath. There is no question of God’s mercy being revealed independently of his wrath, or of an additional and subsequent revelation of God’s mercy which contradicts that of his wrath. In the one unitary event of revelation in the cross, God’s wrath and mercy are revealed simultaneously—but only faith is able to recognize the opus proprium[His own proper work] as it lies hidden under the opus alienum [His “strange” work of wrath]; only faith discerns the merciful intention which underlies the revealed wrath; only faith perceives the real situation which underlies the apparent situation.  [p. 165]

Huh? Still no word of resurrection! God is still silent, still absconditus! Poor, poor Luther! Poor, poor Protestantism! Poor, poor theology! We can barely start to unpack all the errors laminated in this paragraph. The authentic opus proprium is Christ’s Resurrection; the opus alienum is, on the other hand, but a strange figment, an imaginary fabrication, a phantom.

Obscurantism became the fashion in theology and, worse, in preaching. It became a duty to believe in God’s hiddenness, and that soon became a hideout for dark suspicions about His real, His underlying, His ultimate, intentions toward sinful human beings. The specter of “predestination” was conjured into existence, rearing its frightful head as an occulta (concealed) will of God. The shuddering thought that Something monstrous was actually concealed behind the now strange act of God in the Cross (because now severed from the Resurrection that alone gave it authentic, evangelical, user-friendly meaning by revealing God’s conciliatory intentions, thereby dispelling the strange notion that God’s wrath was present there at all) haunted every close inquiry into the Crucifixion, and the church became alienated from a heavenly Father revealed to be merciful and gracious PRECISELY BY HIS RAISING JESUS FROM THE DEAD AFTER THREE DAYS!

Faith itself gets contorted and pressed into involuntary service to probe mysteries; it gets “eyes” that can somehow “see” what theologians conjecturemust be there, and all because the theologians cannot see what apostolic testimony has vouchsafed as actually happening—Christ’s victorious resurrection from the cross’s boastful, grisly finality. Indeed, apart from Christ’s resurrection, his cross is transmuted into mystery and deep darkness. We force the cross to bear too much weight—not only sins, but also speculations, suspicions, secrets. THE CROSS IN SUCH GRIM ISOLATION RENDERS GOD INSCRUTABLE. Such invoking of God’s “hiddenness” is a deadly bane to the gracious knowledge of God so realistically offered in the premial, resurrectionary Gospel.

Thus Luther’s treacherous theologia crucis leads not upward to the progressive knowledge of the gracious Father (whom Luther craved so poignantly), but downward through many a thorny dilemma to a new uncertainty, rivaling that which afflicted his youth (and all Western Christendom). However, his new Angst is not so much the fruit of overreaction into a polar opposite as it is the consequence of exploiting a half-truth for more than it is worth. The Cross without the Resurrection is but a half truth, and not the better half. A cross might have happened withouta resurrection (usually did), but the Resurrection would have been impossible without the Cross. The Cross is always at least implicit in the proclamation ofthe Resurrection from the dead of the Lord Jesus Christ; not so the inverse. Thus if there were ever a need to make a choice between them, there can hardly be a debate which to choose.

All talk of “the eye of faith discerning the invisible situation” is a bow to mysticism, which has little in common with “the faith once given over to the saints” (Jude 3), substantiated by “so vast a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to those empirical, public events. McGrath curiously represents Luther’s perspective to be quite otherwise than apostolically lucid.

In a sermon delivered on 24 February 1517, Luther remarked: “Man hides his own things, in order to conceal them; God hides his own things, in order to reveal them.” [If Luther had the briefly delayed Resurrectionin mind by this revelation, we might agree with him; yet if he had meant that, then his theologia crucis would all but dissolve, and this present critique would be pointless. R.L.R.] This is an excellent summary of Luther’s early understanding of the significance of the hiddenness of God’s revelation. God works in a paradoxical way sub contrariis: his strength lies hidden under apparent weakness; his wisdom under apparent folly; his opus proprium under his opus alienum; the futureglory of the Christian under his present sufferings. It will therefore be clear that there is a radical discontinuity between the empirically perceived situation and the situation as discerned by faith. To the eye of reason, all that can be seen in the cross is a man dying in apparent weakness and folly, under the wrath of God [rather, “under the wrath of Jewish leaders and Roman authorities,” for only Protestant “reason” can see the wrath of God here; that, too, is merely “apparent”—R.L.R.]. If God is revealed in the cross, he is not recognizable as God. Empirically, all that can be discerned are the posteriora Dei. Reason therefore, basing itself upon [w]hat is empirically discernible, deduces that God cannot be present in the cross of Christ, as the perceived situation in no way corresponds to the preconceived situation. The ‘theologian of glory’ expects God to be revealed in strength, glory andmajesty, and is simply unable to accept the scene of dereliction on the cross as the self-revelation of God.  [McGrath, 167]

All these paradoxical words would melt and evaporate in the light and heat ofChrist’s Resurrection as the manifestation, revelation, and display of God’sglory, power, and justice, which does not require a so-called “discernment of faith” but only a simple faith in corroborating eyewitness testimonies.To find Luther emphasizing in the Dictata Super Psalterium (August 16, 1513-October 20. 1515) that

faith stands in total contradiction to the perception of the senses, characterized by its ability to see past visibilia and recognize theinvisibilia which lie behind them (basing it on Heb. 11:1), and that empirical verification of the conclusions reached by faith is utterly impossible; in that sense perception necessarily contradicts it [McGrath, 167-68]

is, in spirit, more a reflex of his total lack of integrating the Resurrection into his soteriology than of the prima facie meaning of Hebrews 11:1.  Biblical faith is mounted on solid testimonies about past divine behavior, which handily supply the foundation for action going forward into the otherwise unknown future, with sturdy expectancy. Luther’s construct is a Halloween house of mirrors, unintentionally distorting God’s image into a monstrosity.

Alister McGrath continues his glowing epitome of Luther’s thought: “Whereas worldly wisdom deals with visible things—and hence can call upon the evidence of sense-perception in support of its conclusions—faith is denied this possibility” (p. 168). It is surely no wonder that “an earlier generation of theologians detected a hidden neo-Platonism behind Luther’s statements on faith” (p. 168), for although this opinion “is no longer taken seriously,” the ill effects of such an easily detected similarity played themselves out regardless. Luther was moving toward the shoals of a Platonic-like cosmic, or at least experiential, dualism of perennially vicious tendency. All these dangers can be traced back to Luther’s hyper-cross-centered purblindness concerning the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. For indeed, God’s justice and power and glory were invisible at the Cross, and for a very good reason: they were not there, nor were they “hidden” behind it; they were simply in strategic abeyance for a couple of days…for Heaven’s sake! For how could God the Father reveal His redemptive, liberating, rescuing, saving power and glory unless He had a sufficiently provocative occasion—a worthy victim of Satan’s supreme injustice? But this set-up clearly (?) had nothing to do with a God negligent of His covenanted duties to save theupright, instead hiding from public view in order to make His ultimate intentions (“secret will”) mysterious and arouse phobic awe. No. He was merely waiting—a delay that Psalmists often reported, and usually with frustration, yet with evident faith, which, after all, is the pedagogic function of such divine temporizing. God was certainly taking His own precious time…yet what a worthwhile outcome! Luther need not have acquiesced in any sentiment even vaguely resembling Platonic dualism had he further probed Paul’s Gospel…or John’s, who brought Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to the witness stand.

It must strike us ironic that it was Martin Luther’s own “reason” which, to be sure, did confuse his comprehension of the Gospel so as to spin out a radically wayward theologia crucis, step by treacherous step. This must stand as one of the most tragic mistakes of the Protestant Reformation since it lies at the very heart and soul of the movement and was so needless. Everything else turns on one’s doctrine of God, especially why and how He saves human beings from Satan and sin and evil and death. So, indeed, as McGrath observes, Luther’s Christology is the focal point of his early doctrine of faith, but a cross-centered dualism of visible vs. invisible realms is a dualism nonetheless, and a pernicious one at that. A better integrated comprehension of Christ’s resurrection would have ironed out his bumpy, wrinkled doctrine nice and smooth and straight. (At last, on p. 169, McGrath mentions Christ’sresurrection for the first time!)

Not surprisingly, Luther started resorting to the language of mysticism to help explain his experience. The Anfechtung that afflicted him in the wake of the absconding (!) of the resurrectionary explanation for the Cross (that is, Paul’s authentic “Word of the Cross,” finally elaborated at length, in full view, in I Corinthians 15) compelled and prodded him toward the obscurity of medieval mystics. (To be fair, John Tauler, Luther’s favorite, was arguably the most edifying of these; at the very dawn of the Reformation, Luther republished the Theologia Germanica, a mystical devotional treatise usually attributed to Tauler.)

The descent did not halt there. The further uncertainties of predestination invaded his mind like a pack of demons storming a clean, empty house (see p. 172). Luther invoked this Pandora’s box in his treatise against Erasmus, Of the Bondage of the Will. All these dark forces began to pile up on him in the absence of apostolic, resurrectionary certainty and were aggravated by his general disdain for early Christian authors, who showed so little acquaintance with his gospel.

The attempt at a “theologia crucis” is a grim, five-centuries-long exhibit of the decline that must ensue when the theological centrality of Christ’s resurrection—the vibrant, pulsing, vitalizing, joy-filled heartbeat of the apostolic Gospel and pre-Nicene Christian authors—is neglected and de facto negated. Christ’s resurrection, triggered from on high by the wrongful shedding of his sinless blood, must again be honored, as in apostolic days of old, if a worthier restoration of the New Testament faith and ethos is to be achieved. May the God who raised Jesus from the dead grant us to grasp again in a profound and pervasive way “the grace of the Resurrection.” May this become the pulse, the heartbeat, the drumbeat of a New Reformation to come.

August 19-23, 25-26, November 10-11, 22-25, 27-29, December 1, 6-9, 2013, February 2, August 1, 2014

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A Hearty Welcome to Visitors of “ART PRIZE 2016,” Grand Rapids, Michigan

September 22, 2016

For those of you who may not live in Grand Rapids, you should know that this Western Michigan metropolis hosts “the world’s largest art prize based solely on a public vote”  (http://www.artprize.org/history/story).  It is also “the most-attended public art event on the planet” (http://www.artprize.org/about), and should be approaching half a million visitors before long!  Now in its eighth year, it has a burgeoning reputation among artists in visual media, plus fresh incursions of music and performance.  Art Prize has kicked off our autumn season for two-and-a-half weeks since 2009.  This fall, the Eighth Annual Art Prize is scheduled for September 21-October 9.

Last year, after Art Prize was under way, I decided to print scores of copies of my shortest writings on the premial Atonement in order to hand them out here…somewhere…somehow.  I settled on a box.  Not a soapbox, just an ordinary pasteboard box that had hosted the new range hood for my daughter’s stove.  Perfect!  I turned it inside out, cut a hole for my head, trimmed here and there.  After further shopping for supplies, I settled down to a bit of …”art.”  Since I was daring to stand in good-naturedly for a deity, I jimmied a halo out of glo-sticks, tape, and a yard stick.  I was able to locate a dandy fool’s cap (with bells!) that doubles as a shimmering multi-colored crown!

Bingo!  “God in a Box”!  At least that was the come-on.  I stenciled “HAVE YOU PUT GOD IN A BOX?” on the back side, plus assorted phrases such as you might see on boxes containing fragile, flammable, or dangerous contents.  The front side declared, “THE GOSPEL AS YOU’VE NEVER HEARD IT B4!”  If you’re already a visitor or follower of this blog site, you know what that means.

I finished the funky waterproof-felt-tip-decorated piece of street art only on Saturday of the final weekend of Art Prize 2015.  So I had barely enough time to try it out at select venues.  I kicked off the adventure Saturday night just before dark, handing out a copy to anyone I came across, usually with a few words about the Good News they were about to read.  On Sunday, I occupied a high-traffic area in front of the Bob for much of the afternoon.  My daughter and her boyfriend dropped by and captured the moment in some snapshots.  Then I started meandering around to distribute on the hoof.

Over those two days, I distributed over 300 copies of a half dozen of my shortest pieces on the premial Atonement.  Most were only a single sheet of paper, others were two sheets, stapled.  I was thankful for my children having encouraged me to “get it down to only a couple of pages, Dad…or just one page…or even half a page!  Then I’ll read it.”  So I took on the challenge to summarize decades of reading, thinking, and writing down to the basics.  It was an extremely valuable exercise in distilling all I had learned from concordant analysis of the Bible as well as plundering the entire history of scholarship on the Atonement.  That compelled me to decide what was absolutely essential to communicate.  How well I succeeded you can, of course, judge for yourself, either by reading the papers at the top of this site, or coming across me downtown over the next couple of weeks.

That’s right.  I kept that box handy in my apartment all year as a cheerful visual reminder to get an earlier start this time around!  So if you should happen to be reading this blog as a result of following up the link at the end of any of my handouts, good on you!  The six titles I’m distributing are as follows (in order of shortest to longest):  1) What If, 2) God’s Proclamation of Pardon (in a nutshell), 3) The Gospel Pure and Simple, 4) The Resurrectionary Atonement, 5) The News of Christ’s Victory (2p), 6) What Is the Gospel? (2p).

Feel free to blame me for any unaccustomed jargon you may come across, such as my occasional substitution of “wholesome” for holy, or using “agelong” instead of “eternal,”  or “explanation” for word, etc.  But these are mere preferences, based on my attempts to find superior English translations for biblical terms.  But the real meat and potatoes of my writing is the attempt to represent the New Testament Explanation (!) as accurately as humanly possible.  Let any controversy begin there.  I would sincerely appreciate your feedback!

Now, if you’re a first-time visitor to this blog site, you should know a couple of things.  This is not a typical blog.  It actually amounts to a public-access storage facility for my notes on the Atonement (mostly), going back several decades, and premiered here for the first time.  They are entered chronologically (again, mostly).  That’s why I suggest folks “begin at the beginning” with the “About” page and first few blogs, which define some important terms and mention some key authors.  (Recently I started rereading the blogs from the beginning in order to catch typos and do a bit of rewording and copy-editing.  There’s nothing that can’t be improved!)

You’ll notice that the usual blogroll down the right side is occupied by authors and their writings.  It’s an extremely abbreviated list, which I hope to expand when I can find the time.  I limited myself to some of my most important sources, and whatever I could find online by and about them.  (I hope to finish typing up a much more “complete” annotated bibliography of the most illuminating scholarship on themes related to the Atonement and then post it as a “paper” at the top of the site so anyone can investigate further.)

You’re most welcome to join other “followers” of this site.  Just know that, for the time being, I’m “back-posting” most of my daily blogs.  Currently I am filling up the month of January 2015.  This allows me to accommodate several series of blogs other than my “Atonement Notes” from earlier years.  I don’t know whether any other bloggers use their sites in this fashion, but it’s a main the reason why I even got started in the first place.  What a fabulous way to prepare to write a book on the Atonement, right?  And in the meantime, other folks can study and evaluate and comment on their content.  Which is to say, please feel welcome to add your feedback.  I’ll try to get around to them reply as soon as I can!  (Don’t hold your breath, please!)

I wish a great big blessing from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ to all of you who found your way here!

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FOURTH ANNIVERSARY BLOG!

March 11, 2016

I wish to express my gratitude as well as congratulations to my readers for enduring the vicissitudes of this atypical blog site. At this point it seems appropriate to give a bit of explanation for newcomers, then review its irregular history, and finally to attempt a peek into the future.

For some time, I had been pondering how to communicate several decades of writing on the topic of Christ’s Atonement. Naturally, several friends suggested writing a book. Problem is, I had much more material than would fit handily under two covers. Moreover, my notes on the subject were cumulative and betrayed sharp transitions at points of fresh insight, as well as stages or phases of cumulative development. It occurred to me that keeping these changes visible might actually be helpful to many readers who were likewise struggling with our prevalent traditions on atonement.

Then in early 2012, I happened to view the blog site of my friend Ted Gossard (www.communityofjesus.wordpress.com). It quickly dawned on me that my extensive notes on the Atonement might fit perfectly into a blogging format. I could post the notes chronologically and comment occasionally on my departures from earlier formulations, using the occasion to reflect on the process of hermeneutics (the discipline of interpretation) and how my thinking has changed in light of further reflection on Scripture plus the input of the many historic attempts to “get it right.”

So I kicked things off slowly with only a handful of blogs in March, 2012. I explained my personal background and rationale for the site and its name in the “About” page at the very top of the site. Because of the chronological sequence of my notes, I wish the newer blogs could appear below the older ones in a manner that seems more normal and accessible as well as less cumbersome when searching for antecedent references. All of which is to say, this is not a normal blog site. It is an attempt to make private notes public for comment, critique, and hopefully improvement. This would aid me in undertaking the writing of a book.

As I entered old notes, I was able to further ponder the difficulty of making fundamental alterations in long-ingrained assumptions. But I was definitely getting a rush out of posting discoveries hot from the anvil…at least at the time I actually penned them (originally on 3 by 5 note cards, but soon transitioning to 4 by 6 cards—virtually none of my notes were composed on a typewriter or computer, even to this day).

A couple of years into my posts, I started adding tags. I know, I know, that should have been an obvious thing to do in order to draw readers. And I hope to go back to those earlier posts and add tags, including Scripture references. I also eventually discovered the utility of back posting blogs to earlier dates. In fact, that’s what I did throughout most of 2015, probably to the confusion of some readers. Especially after I started posting my blogs through Facebook, folks may have wondered why most of what appeared day by day was dated way back in 2014! Well, my simple-minded strategy was to eventually “catch up” with the present! While working on other research and writing, I figured I could still post my older Atonement notes during those past months when I was too busy to do any regular daily blogging. This seemed more sensible also because my entries are not linked to current events that would require a corresponding date so that readers made the connection. Not that my notes were abstracted from the historic flow events; they were simply more connected to one another and to my exposure to my own reading schedule on the Atonement—ideas and authors that were scattered throughout modern history.

Then came several key interruptions of that steady chronological blogging. The series of some two dozen blogs in response to Jesse Morrell’s anticipated hardcopy publication of his online book, The Vicarious Atonement of Christ, which espoused the “governmental” view developed by Hugo Grotius, absorbed an immense amount of study and writing time. Then my experience early last winter and spring at New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids demanded the lion’s share of attention.  I still have several month’s worth of blog posts on that episode!

The upshot is that I stopped any further blog posts with later dates after posting the remarkable excerpts of John Lightfoot’s expositions concerning the wrath of God and Christ. So for anyone who opens my blog site, those have been at the top of the site for many months. All of my other posts have been backdated to August and September 2014. Those keep getting posted on Facebook, of course, but that’s why you don’t see them when you open the site.

I do have a deadline, however, for posting my regular Atonement notes. October 31st of 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of “Reformation Day,” when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. I will have much to say about Luther’s development ere that date approaches. But in the meantime, I would encourage readers to start reading at the beginning of this blog site and simply process through. Later notes will often make best sense in light of those earlier ones, since I may leave out the explication of assumptions that had earlier demanded fresh energy to readjust, but which I now take for granted, to the puzzlement of some readers.

Lastly, thank you so much for taking the time and energy to visit this blog site. I have actually had less than a score of blog responses over the last four years. For that I am somewhat grateful since it leaves more time to enter notes. But I have greatly appreciated each and every response I have received. I only hope I have provided worthy responses in return. After all, there’s nothing that can’t be improved!

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The challenge of the Rev. John Lightfoot, D.D. to the Westminster Assembly concerning Christ BEARING THE WEIGHT OF GOD’S WRATH (cont’d.)

May 13, 2015

The following are two more excerpts from Dr. Lightfoot’s sermons that expound his Biblical objections to what became the “orthodox” teaching about Christ bearing, on top of all his affliction from the wicked, the wrath of God as well.  Judge for yourself whether he has been arguing in a Scriptural manner or not.

VOLUME XII

CONTAINING

HORAE HEBRAICAE ET TALMUDICAE ;

OR

HEBREW AND TALMUDICAL EXERCITATIONS

UPON THE

GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN ;

(excerpt, pp. 367-368)

Ver. 28 ; “ I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” This petition of our Saviour’s, “ Father, glorify thy name,” was of no light consequence, when it had such an answer from heaven by an audible voice : and what it did indeed mean, we must guess by the context. Christ, upon the Greeks’ desire to see him, takes that occasion to discourse about his death, and to exhort his followers, that, from his example, they would not love their life, but, by losing it, preserve it to life eternal. Now by how much the deeper he proceeds in the discourse and thoughts of his approaching death, by so much the more is his mind disturbed, as himself acknowledgeth, ver. 27.

But whence comes this disturbance ? It was from the apprehended rage and assault of the devil. Whether our Lord Christ, in his agony and passion, had to grapple with an angry God, I question : but I am certain, he had to do with an angry devil. When he stood, and stood firmly, in the highest and most eminent point and degree of obedience, as he did in his sufferings,—it doth not seem agreeable [congruum], that he should then be groaning under the pressures of divine wrath ; but it is most agreeable, he should, under the rage and fury of the devil. For,

I. The fight was now to begin between the serpent and the seed of the woman, mentioned Gen. iii. 15, about the glory of God, and the salvation of man. In which strife and contest, we need not doubt but the devil would exert all his malice and force to the very uttermost.

II. God loosed all the reins, and suffered the devil without any kind of restraint upon him to exercise his power and strength to the utmost of what he either could or would ; because he knew his champion Christ was strong enough, not only to bear his assaults, but to overcome them.

III. He was to overcome,—not by his divine power,—for how easy a matter were it for an omnipotent God to conquer the most potent created being ;—but his victory must be obtained by his obedience, his righteousness, and his holiness.

IV. Here then was the rise of that trouble and agony of Christ’s soul, that he was presently to grapple with the utmost rage of the devil ; the divine power, in the mean time, suspending its activity, and leaving him to manage the conflict with those weapons of obedience and righteousness only.

It was about this, therefore, that that petition of our Saviour, and the answer from heaven, was concerned : which may be gathered from what follows, ver. 31, “ Now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”

“ ‘ Now is my soul troubled (saith he), and what shall I say ?’ It is not convenient for me to desire to be saved from this hour ; for for this very purpose did I come : that therefore which I would I beg of thee, O Father, is, that thou wouldst glorify thy name, thy promise, thy decree, against the devil, lest he should boast and insult.”

The answer from heaven to this prayer, is, “ I have already glorified my name in that victory thou formerly obtainedst over his temptations in the wilderness ; and I will glorify my name again in the victory, thou shalt have in this combat also.”

Luke iv. 13 ; “ When the devil had ended all his temptations, he departed from him for a season.” He went away baffled then : but now he returns more insolent, and much more to be conquered.

And thus now, the third time, by a witness and voice from heaven, was the Messiah honoured according to his kingly office : as he had been, according to his priestly office, when he entered upon his ministry at his baptism, Matt. iii. 17 ; and, according to his prophetic office, when he was declared to be he, that was to be heard; Matt. xvii. 5, compared with Deut. xviii. 15.

* * * * *

VOLUME VII

CONTAINING

A    S E R M O N,

(excerpt, pp. 234-237)

PREACHED UPON

HEBREWS, x. 29

And hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he

was sanctified, an unholy thing.

Therefore, as the Scripture saith, “ The life is in the blood,”—so are we to look for something besides the bare substance of his blood, that flowed from him, and besides the bare flowing of his blood from him ; something that was as the life of that blood, that gave it the vigour, virtue, and efficacy, of justifying and saving. And what was that ? You will say, His infinite ‘sufferings ;’ let me add, His infinite ‘ obedience :’ in both which is included, the supposal of the ‘ dignity of his person ;’ and the whole is spoken.

I shall not much insist upon his sufferings, because his obedience to those sufferings was the life of those sufferings, the very life of his death, as I may so phrase it, and that, the dignity of his person computed in, that gave virtue, vigour, efficacy, to his sufferings, death, and blood.

Of his sufferings, I shall only say thus much ; ‘ That he suffered as much as God could put him to suffer, short of his own wrath ; and that he suffered as much as the devil could put him to, with all his wrath.’ You will say, I speak too high, when I say, ‘ He suffered as much as God could put him to suffer ;’ and that I speak too low, when I say, ‘ short of his own wrath.’ I dare not say, ‘ He suffered the wrath of God,’ as many do ; but the prophets and apostles teach me, that he suffered the tryings of God. And more he could not be put to suffer, than what he did. “ It pleased the Lord to bruise him, and to put him to grief ;” Isa. liii. 10. And more could not be laid upon him, than what was laid. Have you seriously weighed the meaning of those words of our Saviour himself [Luke, xxii. 53], “ This is your hour, and power of darkness ?” The plain English of it is, “ ‘ This is your hour,’ that God hath let you loose upon me, to do with me, what you will, without restraint : and so hath he let loose upon me the kingdom of darkness, in its utmost power, at the full length of the chain, to do against me the utmost it can do. I was daily with you in the temple, and ye stretched out no hands against me : for then providence restrained them, because the hour was not yet come. But ‘ this is your hour ;’ and now hell, and all its power, and all its agents, are let loose against me ! and providence does not check them with any restraint.”

I might insist to show you, that, whereas God, from the day of Adam’s fall, had pitched a combat and field, to be fought betwixt the serpent and the seed of the woman, in which the ‘serpent should bruise his heel,’ and he ‘break the serpent’s head ;’—the hour of that encounter being now come, the Godhead of Christ suspends its acting ; the providence of God suspends its restraining, and lets Satan loose to do the utmost of his power and malice, and leaves Christ to stand upon the strength of his own unconquerable holiness. The providence of God hath the devil in a chain, yea, as to wicked and ungodly men. Else, why are they not carried bodily to hell by him ? Why are they not hurried to their own place by him, body and soul together ? But here God let the chain quite loose ; ‘ Satan, do thy worst against him ; use all they power, rage, and malice.’—But all would not do ; for God very well knew, what a champion he had brought into the field to encounter him. And, therefore, I may very well say it again, ‘ That God put him to suffer as much, as he could put him to suffer on this side his own wrath ; and the devil put him to suffer as much, as he could do with all his rage and power.’

But his sufferings were not all, that gave his blood and death that virtue, that most justly is ascribed to it, of justifying and saving. The torments that he suffered, were not the godfather, that named his blood by that precious name of justifying and saving ; but it was that infinite obedience, that he showed in bowing so low as to undergo those sufferings. And there especially does the Scripture lay and lodge the stress of it ; “ By the obedience of one, shall many be made righteous [Rom. v. 19] :”—“ He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross [Phil. ii. 8] ;”— “ Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered [Heb. v. 8].”

Our Saviour, in his sufferings and death [for to that I will confine my discourse concerning his obedience, as the text confines us to treat only of his blood, and as the Scripture more peculiarly lodges his obedience there. For, though he performed obedience to God all his life, yet the obedience that he showed to, and in, the shedding of his blood,—was the very apex and top-stone of his obedience. And for this it is, that I scruple to say, that he suffered the wrath of God in his sufferings ; because it is hard to think, that he lay under the depth of God’s displeasure, when he was now in the highest pitch of obeying and pleasing God] : I say, that our Saviour, in his sufferings and death, had to deal with God and Satan, upon different accounts ;…. And with one and the same instrument, as I may call it,—his obedience, he effected these contrary effects….

I. Christ was to break the head of the serpent, as the serpent had broke the head of Adam and all mankind. He was to conquer the devil, who had conquered man. And what was that, by which he conquered him ? By his divine power, as he was God ? That had been no great mastery ; for the great God, by his omnipotent power, to conquer a creature. When he did but exert a little of his divine power at his apprehension, he made Judas, and all his band of ruffians, to “ go backward, and fall to the ground [John, xviii. 6].” But he was to conquer Satan by righteousness, holiness, and obedience to God. He had not needed to have been incarnate, to conquer the devil by his omnipotent divine power ; but he was to conquer him, and he did conquer him, by obedience and holiness.

John xiv. 30 : “ The prince of this world cometh, saith he, and hath nothing in me.” And he came with all his forces, all his fury, all his power ; and do all he could, he could find nothing in him, that could serve his turn. All that he did, or could do, could not move him one hair’s-breadth from obeying God, and persisting in his holiness. The apostle, in the ninth of this Epistle, ver. 14, saith, “ He offered himself without spot to God.” One spot had spoiled all the offering ; but the devil could not fix one spot upon him, though he flung against him all the sink of hell : but still he keeps to his obedience and holiness. “ Vicisti, Galilaee ;” Julian, a child of the devil, once said, “ O Galilean ! thou hast overcome me.” The devil, himself, hath cause to say so now. The devil let loose upon him, to do the utmost against him that he could, without any restraint, to bring him from his obeying of God, and so to foil him ; and all will not do. All the temptations, and tricks, and assaults, that the anvil of hell could forge and sharpen, were bent and used against him, and all return blunted, and avail nothing. All that Satan can do, cannot bring from him one repining word for all his tortures ; not one desponding thought, for all his pangs ; not one unbecoming passage, for all his passion. But still he will obey God, come what will ; he will still retain his holiness and integrity, let devils and men do what they will.

Satan, art thou not conquered ? O devil, where is thy power now ? O hell, where is thy victory ? Thanks be given to God, that hath given us such victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Satan, thou hast not the first Adam now in handling, who was foiled by one devil ; and, in one and the first temptation, presented to him. Now all the power and army of hell is let loose ; all the machinations of the bottomless pit put in practice against the second Adam ; but all to no purpose : he stands, like a rock, unmoved in his righteousness and obedience, and, by such a “death, destroys him, that had the power over death, the devil.”

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The challenge of the Rev. John Lightfoot, D.D. to the Westminster Assembly concerning Christ BEARING THE WEIGHT OF GOD’S WRATH

Session 841, May 12, 1647.  Wednesday morning

On this date, 368 years ago, the decision was made by the famous Westminster Assembly in London to approve Questions 49 and 50 of the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Resolved upon the Q.:  Q [49]:  How did Christ humble himself in his death?  A:  Christ humbled himselfe in his death in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors, having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of Darknesse, felt and borne the weight of Gods wrath, he played down his life an offering for sins, injuring the painful and shameful and cursed death of the crosse.

Resolved upon the Q.:  Q [50]:  Wherein consisted Christs humiliation after death?  A:  Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried and continewing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, “he descended into Hell“.’

I have highlighted words which were analyzed jointly and in part contested by at least one Westminster divine.  I learned this only a few months ago.  At that time, I was posting my lengthy critique of the Governmental view of the Atonement originated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645).  I had been reading relevant sections of the rousing book, The Natural Ability of Man:  A Study on Free Will & Human Nature (www.OpenAirOutreach.com, 2010), by the dauntless young evangelist and publisher, Jesse Morrell.  Since I was rendering him the (okay, uninvited) service of preparing to critique his online version of The Vicarious Atonement of Christ (2012), I decided to read whatever else he had written on the Atonement that might be relevant.  On page 461 I came across this stunning passage:

Dr. Lightfoot, one of the Westminster divines, even said, ‘Was Christ so much as punished by God?  Much less, then, was He overwhelmed by the wrath of God, damned by God?  Was a lamb punished that was sacrificed?  He was afflicted, but not punished; for punishment argued a crime or fault preceding.  Were the sad sufferings of Christ laid on him as punishments?  Certainly not for his own sins; no, nor for ours neither.  He suffered for our sins, bare our sins; but his sufferings were not punishments for our sins.’

I could hardly believe what I was reading.  So Paul Peter Waldenström was not the only other theologian to have denied that God’s wrath was expressed against Christ?  And a Westminster divine at that!  That made me curious to know if Dr. Lightfoot had elaborated on the matter.  And how!  So in the remainder of today’s posting I will let Dr. Lightfoot speak for himself.  In tomorrow’s blog I will post the relevant parts of two more of his sermons that touch on the same matter.  Ponder prayerfully.

THE

WHOLE WORKS 

OF THE

REV. JOHN LIGHTFOOT, D. D. 

MASTER OF CATHARINE HALL,

Cambridge.

______________ 

EDITED BY THE 

REV. JOHN ROGERS PITMAN, A. M.

Alternate Morning Preacher at Belgrave and Berkeley Chapels ; and alternate Evening

Preacher at the Foundling and Magdalen Hospitals.

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IN 13 VOLUMES

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John Lightfoot (1602-1675), prominent Puritan divine, was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he was regarded as the best orator among the undergraduates. He was much loved and esteemed as a faithful preacher and shepherd during several pastoral appointments. He became an eminent scholar of Hebrew and rabbinic literature. He was one of the original members of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652), which drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1647). His “Journal of the Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines from January 1, 1643 to December 31, 1644” (Vol. 13) is the most important single source for that period. He exercised considerable influence on the outcome of the discussions. He was appointed Master of Catharine Hall in 1643, renamed St. Catharine’s College (1650), which he held until his death. He earned the doctorate in 1652. He was chosen Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1654. His varied publications include sermons, addresses, disputations, expositions, commentaries, a harmony of the four Gospels, a Polyglot version of the Bible, and Talmudic studies relating to Scripture. His following opinion was rejected, at least for the Catechisms (LC #49, SC #27). But who was more true to Scripture?

 

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MDCCCXXII, MDCCCXXIII, MDCCCXXIV.

(1822–1824)

VOLUME VI

CONTAINING

A N   E X P O S I T I O N

OF THREE ARTICLES OF

T H E A P O S T L E S’ C R E E D 

 1. He descended into Hell.

(excerpts, pp. 3, 10, 17-24)

 

THE ground of this article of the Creed is in Acts ii. 27 ; “ Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” The reason of its insertion we shall see afterward. An article obscure, and that hath bred many disputes; and the rendering of it so in English, some offences. For it seemeth harsh, that Christ’s soul descended into hell, which, in our English language, speaketh most plainly and usually, ‘ The place of the damned ;’ a place very improper to look for the soul of Christ in, when departed out of his body. He and his betrayer Judas, to meet in the same place ! He that had by death purchased heaven for others,—himself, after death, to descend into hell ! Not an article in our Christian faith hath more need of explication to bring it to common reason, or analogy of faith.

The course I shall take in explication of it, shall, first, be to clear it from that meaning that is improper and offensive, and that carries not probability with it ; and then to unfold the proper and genuine meaning of it.

I. The general interpretation of it in the church of Rome is,….

* * * * *

II. A second opinion and interpretation is, that he descended locally to triumph over the devils and the damned. An interpretation that seems to carry more sense and innocence ; and yet is far from the meaning of the article. To take it into examination ;….

* * * * *

III. A third interpretation, then, is this,—that it means the torments he suffered in soul upon his cross. Some word it, that ‘ he suffered the extreme wrath of God :’ some, ‘ the very torments of hell :’ some, ‘ that he was, for the time, in the state of the damned.’ I reluct to speak these things : but this gloss some make upon this article : and while they go about to magnify the love of Christ in suffering such things for men, they so much abase and vilify his person, in making it liable to such a condition.

The sense of the article we must refuse, unless we should speak and think of Christ that, which doth not befit him. The soul of the dearly-beloved of God, to lie under the heaviest wrath of God ! The Lord of heaven and earth to be under the torments of hell ! And the Captain of our salvation to be under the condition of the damned ! Let it not be told in Gath ; publish it not in the streets of Ascalon ! Let not the Jews hear it, nor the Turks understand such a thing ; lest they blaspheme our Lord of life more than they do.

The colour which is put upon this opinion by them, that hold it, is because Christ upon the cross bare the sins of men ; and, therefore, that he was to bear the wrath, torments, and damnation, that man had deserved. And for this they produce those places ; “ The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all [Isa. liii. 6] :” “ Who his ownself bare our sins in his own body on the tree [1 Pet. ii. 24].” And they would have Christ to mean no less, when he cried out, “ Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” “ My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me ?”

For the stating of this matter, I lay down these two things :—

I. That it was impossible, Christ should suffer the wrath of God, the torments of hell,—and be in the case of the damned for any cause of his own.

II. That he did not, could not, suffer these, though he bare the sins of all his people. I shall speak to both these, under these five observations :—

I. In all the passages of Christ at his suffering, you cannot find that he looks upon God as an angry God. Begin at his prayer at his last supper [John, xvii]. Can you find there even the least hint, that he doubted of God’s favour to him ? It is the rule of the apostle [1 Tim. ii. 8], That “ we lift up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” Can we think, that Christ ever prayed with doubting ? Especially, look into that prayer, and there is not the least tincture of it [John, xvii. 1] ; “ Father, glorify thy Son.” Did his heart then any whit suspect, that God was angry at him ? “Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life [ver. 2].” Are these the words of one that suspected he could come under the heaviest wrath of God ?—“I have glorified thee on earth ; I have finished the work, which thou gavest me to do [ver. 4].” Are these the words of one, that thought he could ever be repayed for so doing, with wrath and vengeance, and the torments of hell ?—“ And now, O Father, glorify me with thine ownself, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was [John, xvii. 5] :” “ And now, Father, I come unto thee [ver. 13] :” “Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee [ver. 21] :” “ Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory [ver. 24].” Had Christ, when he spake these things, any suspicion or thought, that he could possibly come under the heavy wrath of God ?

It is said, John xviii. 1, he went beyond Cedron. There he is in his agony : then he prays, “ Let this cup pass from me.” Why ? What did he see in the cup ? Bitterness enough,—but not one drop of the dregs of God’s wrath. Guess his case by the case of sinful men. A Stephen, a Cranmer, a Ridley, a martyr, is brought to the stake : he hath a cup put into his hands, and that very bitter ; but doth he see any of God’s wrath in it ? Martyrs could not have gone so joyfully to death, had they seen God angry in that bitter dispensation. Christ could not have gone so readily to his sufferings, had he thought he had gone to encounter God’s indignation.

Look at his words on the cross, “ Hodie mecum in paradiso :” “ To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Were these the words of one under the torments of hell ? “ Pater, in manus tuas:” “ Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Did he apprehend God angry, as at the damned, when he spake these words ? Nay, those words, “ Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” speak not, that he felt the wrath of God, but a bitter providence ; that God had left him to such wrackings and tortures, and to such wicked hands. So that look at Christ’s passages at and near his passion, and you find not one word or action, that doth bewray, that Christ felt himself any whit at all under God’s fury.

Nay, look through the Scripture : whatsoever is spoken of Christ, it sets him far from being to be thought liable to the wrath of God. Was Christ a child of wrath, as well as others ? Scripture tells you No. “ Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth : I have put my Spirit upon him [Isa. xlii. 1].” How far is that from such language as this, ‘ Behold Christ under my wrath, behold him under the torments of hell.’ And so that passage, “ Lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased [Matt. iii. 17] :” and, at his transfiguration, “ in whom I am well pleased.” And does he ever come to be angry at him, as at the damned, and to lay his fury on him, as on the tormented in hell? It troubles me to think any Christian should hold such an opinion concerning our Saviour; and, indeed, where there is little need to imagine such a thing. Could not Christ have wrought redemption without enduring such heavy wrath, then it were not so improper to conceive so :—but,

II. Christ, in the work of redemption, had not to deal with the wrath of God, but the justice of God : not with his wrath, to bear it,—but with his justice….There is a great deal of difference may be made betwixt wrath and justice….Consider, what was the debt men owed to God ? What owest thou to my Master ?…Damnation was the penalty upon forfeiture of bonds, but the debt was obedience ; that which man owed to God, before he became sinful ; which he owes to God, as he is God ; and which the law challengeth, and which the gospel does also. Does man owe damnation to God, as he is God, as he is Creator, as he is lawgiver ? Or as man is man? No ; God rather owes, and will pay, damnation to man for being sinful.

Therefore, that which Christ was properly to pay for his people, was that…which they could not pay,—viz. obedience. And that the Scripture harps upon : “ As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners ; so by the obedience of one, shall many be made righteous [Rom. v. 19].” “ He became obedient unto death [Phil. ii. 8].” Now, what was Christ obedient to ? To say, ‘ To the wrath of God,’ were hardly sense : but, ‘ To the will of God ;’ which would prove and try him, and could do it thoroughly, without wrath.

It was the justice of God,… : and if he could not have…that, then there would have been some reason he should have suffered his wrath. The justice of God challenged obedience of men, or no coming to heaven ; …disobedience, or they must to hell. “ Here is enough (saith Christ) to serve for both ends :—they have disobeyed ; here is obedience more than all their disobediences do or can come to : they cannot obey as they should : here is that that makes it out,—viz. obedience infinite.”

III. The truth was, that Christ had to deal with the wrath of the devil, but not at all with the wrath of God. Consider but these passages, and see what was the stress, that Christ had to deal withal in his passion. First, that, Gen. iii. 15 : “ ‘ He shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel :’—Satan, the seed of the woman shall destroy thee.” This is explained, Heb. ii. 14 : “ Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself took part of the same ; that through death he might destroy him, that had the power of death, that is, the devil.”—And 1 John iii. 8 ; “ For this purpose the Son of God was manifest, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” And then observe that, John xiv. 30 ; “ The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.” And Luke xxii. 53 ; “ ‘ When I was daily with you in the temple, ye stretched forth no hands against me : but this is your hour, and the power of darkness;’ while I preached, there was a restraint upon you ; because my hour was not come : but now you and hell are let loose, to have your full swing against me.” There was a combat proposed in the sufferings of Christ, before God and angels. Betwixt whom,—Christ and the wrath of God ? No, but betwixt Christ and Satan, and all his power.—What doth God in this quarrel ? Doth God fight against Christ too, as well as the devil ? Was his wrath against him, as well as the devil’s wrath ? What, against his own champion, his own Son ? No ; he only tries him by affliction, not overwhelms him with his wrath. He only lets him alone to himself, to be the shock of Satan. He little assists Satan by his wrath laid on his own champion.

See the great mystery of this great dispensation in brief. God had created the first Adam, and endued him with abilities to have stood. Thus endued, he leaves him to stand of himself, and permits Satan to tempt him ; and he overcomes him, and all mankind are overthrown. God raised up a second Adam, endued with power to foil Satan, do he his worst : and not only with power to withstand Satan, if he will, but a will that could not but withstand Satan. He sets him forth to encounter, and leaves him to himself ; lets Satan loose to do his worst. Satan vexeth him with all the vexation hell could inflict upon him. Did not God love his Son, look with dear bowels upon him all this while ? It is a very harsh opinion to think, that Christ undertaking the combat for the honour of God against his arch-enemy,—that obeying the will of God even to the death,—that retaining his holiness unmoveable in the midst of all his tortures, paying God an infinite obedience ;—it is harsh, I say, to think, that God should requite him with wrath, and look upon him as a wretched, damned person. No, it was the wrath of the devil, that Christ had to combat with, not the wrath of God at all.

IV. Though Christ is said to bear sins, yet for all that God did not look upon him any whit the more wrathfully, or in displeasure,—but rather the more favourably, because he would bear the sins of his people. For God looked on Christ not as a sinner, but as a sacrifice ; and the Lord was not angry at him, but loved him, because he would become a sacrifice. “ Therefore, doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life [John, x. 17].” “ Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great ; and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he hath poured out his soul unto death [Isa. liii. 12].” Do those words speak the anger of God ? No, his well-pleasedness, his rewarding him for that he would be numbered with transgressors, being none, but a lamb without spot and blemish.

Some say, That Christ was the greatest sinner, murderer, &c. because he bare the sins of those that were so ; which words border upon blasphemy, and speak, besides, a great deal of imprudence and inconsideration. See Lev. xvi. 21, 22 : “ And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities.” Is it not senseless now to say, That the goat was the greatest sinner in Israel ? Was he any whit the more sinful, because the sins of the people were put upon him ? And so of other sacrifices, on whose heads hands were laid, and sins put : was the wrath of God upon the sacrifice ? No ; the pleasure of God was upon it for atonement.

In such sense are those places to be taken : “ The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all [Isa. liii. 6] ;”—“ Who his ownself bare our sins, in his own body, on the tree [1 Pet. ii. 24] :” —“ He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin [2 Cor. v. 21].” He bare our sins, not as a sinner, but as a sacrifice. And that John [John, i. 29] makes plain : “ Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world !” As a lamb at the temple bare the sins of the people,—so Christ bare our sins. How ? Was the lamb guilty or sinful ? No ; as an atonement and sacrifice. And so God looked on Christ as a sacrifice well pleasing to him, not as sinful at all.

Need we any more illustration ? Observe that, Exod. xxviii. 36. 38 ; “ And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it like the engravings of a signet, ‘ Holiness to the Lord.’ And it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow in all their holy gifts : and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.”—‘ Holiness to the Lord,’ because he bare iniquity ? It should rather have been ‘ unholiness,’ if Aaron had been any whit the more sinful for bearing the people’s iniquities. But, he is said to bear their iniquities, because he, by his office, undertook to atone for them. How did God look upon Aaron in his priesthood ? With anger, because he bare the iniquity of the people ? Nay, with favour and delight, as so excellent an instrument of atonement. Such another passage is that, Lev. x. 17, &c; “ Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord ?”

Let me ask those, that hold this opinion, two or three questions.

Was Christ so much as punished by God ? Much less, then, was he overwhelmed by the wrath of God, damned by God. Was a lamb punished, that was sacrificed ? He was afflicted, but not punished : for punishment argues a crime or fault preceding ; “ Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins [Lam. iii. 39] ?” Were the sad sufferings of Christ laid on him as punishments ? Certainly, not for his own sins : no, nor for ours neither. He suffered for our sins, bare our sins ; but his sufferings were not punishments for our sins. For, observe two things : First, Christ merited by suffering. Is it good sense to say, ‘he merited by being punished ?’ Strange sense ! to say, ‘ he merited salvation for his by being punished for their sins ;’ but most divine ! to say, ‘ by suffering for the redeeming of them.’ He suffered as a sacrifice to atone, not as a sinner to be punished. Secondly, Did Christ die upon any debt to the law ? Much less, upon any debt, that he owed to God’s wrath. Did the law lay any thing to Christ’s charge ? Did the law condemn him ? And then can we dream of the wrath of God charging him, and damning him ? It is true, that it is said [Gal. iii. 13], “ Christ hath delivered us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us ; as it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” But doth this mean, accursed of God ? Was the good thief accursed of God, when he hung upon the cross ? The meaning is, that he appeared so to the view of men.

So that, as it is impossible, that Christ should lie under the wrath of God for any fault of his own, so it is not imaginable, that he did for ours.

V. It is impossible, that Christ should suffer the torments of hell, or be in the case of the damned. A priest could not fall under the plague of leprosy : and yet, is the High-priest under a damned condition ? Certainly, if his body could not see corruption, his soul could not feel damnation. If his body were not under that, which the bodies of the best saints fall under,—certainly his soul could not be under that, which damned souls fall under.

I might clear this by considering especially three things, which are the chief torments of hell :—1. Separation from God, without any glimpse of his favour. 2. Horror and hell in the conscience, because of guilt. 3. Utter despair. Now need I to show, that it was not possible, that any of these should seize upon Christ ?

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AN OPEN JOURNAL to NEW CITY FELLOWSHIP, Grand Rapids, MI — Introduction (cont’d.)

“I am insignificant and despised, yet I do not forget Your precepts.” — Psalm 119:141 (CVOT)

April 10, 2015, ORTHODOX GOOD FRIDAY

Over the next few weeks, I plan to post episodes from what has been a momentous tragicomedy. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious—and deadly serious if it weren’t so side-splittingly funny. I’ve shed both kinds of tears over this perennial drama…soon to be a docudrama in the pages that follow.

Not infrequently, it has struck me, “This is theater!” So much staging and posing and acting and histrionics and show of force. I enjoy good drama, but, even though I’m from North Hollywood, knew actors in the neighborhood, went to high school with some—or maybe especially because of it—I steered away from theater myself. I couldn’t remember lines, or was paralyzed at the thought of forgetting them on stage.

However, interaction with ordinary “actors” in real life is another thing. We’re not following a script; we all forget our lines; we’re out of costume; we could all use better directing. Still, we’re all getting opportunities to practice. I’m remembering…Moses didn’t think he was too good at remembering his lines either, or at least speaking them in public. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts….” Thus Shakespeare (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII).

Recently I read most of the autobiography of James Garner (who was likewise paralyzed at the thought of stage acting), The Garner Files, and watched a couple of his earliest movies—“The Americanization of Emily,” with Julie Andrews (both of their personal favorite of all their films), a dark comedy with a surprising dénouement, and “The Children’s Hour,” with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, a searing, dark drama. Both black-and-white films from the early ‘60’s play on superb writing, captivating plots, and extraordinary acting for their power to grip audiences. Out of such darkness, light still shines.

At the end of March, God used Dan Schutte’s devotional song from the “Glory and Praise” album “What You Hear in the Dark” to impress on me the urgency of speaking in the light what He had been showing me in the dark during previous weeks, in fact during quite a few nights of uneasy sleep by then. I herewith start to comply.  In a number of previous painful scenarios in my life, I have used writing, in effect (I was not intending it this way), as therapy.  But then I tend to bag the results and no one else ever sees the struggle or the results.  It’s different this time.  I sense the Lord is saying, O.K., therapy is complete for you; now I want others to start getting healed, this time around.

I have chosen Orthodox Good Friday—the Eastern church liturgical calendar differs from the Western by a single week, this year—to commence “An Open Journal” about my recent experiences at New City Fellowship, Grand Rapids, Michigan. This will take the form of a series of blog postings that I will back date to the date each note was actually penned. In addition to the original note, I may make additional comments to place it in context or expound it further. Although I first attended on Sunday morning, February 1, 2015, my first reflection was written on March 9, but I shall actually begin with my entries of March 10.  In addition, although I did not make notes during the first few Sundays, I hope to pen some recollections about the sermons and relevant accompanying conversations or events.

Not infrequently, the notes betray “an attitude.” I contemplated editing out such matters as not being edifying to readers. On the other hand, they honestly reflect the emotion of the moment, so they really belong to the original setting. This is, after all, a Journal—an Open Journal—to the attendees of New City Church of Grand Rapids. I am no longer inclined to hide my findings. My feelings, however, are another matter, unless there are sound lessons to be learned and shared with propriety. My exposé of the doctrine of the Atonement has certainly not been done in a corner. I originally intended simply to cull professional responses from pastors and others I met who I judged qualified or appointed to an office whose duties require evaluation of such matters. This submission of my results was thus a scholarly undertaking, as originally conceived. It has unexpectedly morphed under the heat applied by the elders to bottle up my “teachings” and seal them under a ban instead of distributing their extraordinarily refreshing contents. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I urge you to ask the Lord for discernment as you proceed. This cup of polemical or scholarly tea may not be for everyone. Yet I would stress that I have no interest in abstruse, speculative theology. It is God’s revealed explanations that captivate me and provide my chief delight. “The words of Yahweh are clean words, silver refined in a kiln, fine gold refined seven times” (Psalm 12:6, CVOT). “Every saying of God is refined; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He should correct you, and you be proved a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6, adapted from the CVOT). These have been working me over for some six decades by now. May God bless us all with growing discernment and “absorptive” powers as we examine together His oracles in the biblical Scriptures.

Since an apology is most unlikely to come from the elders of New City Fellowship for what has transpired recently, by default it appears that I shall have to be the person to issue one. Accordingly, this new blog series may be regarded as “My Apology”—that is, my defense (apologia). In the spirit of fair play, readers are welcome to respond by blogging, but if I can’t keep up, I may have to issue further apologies!

Let us press on to maturity in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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AN OPEN JOURNAL to NEW CITY FELLOWSHIP, Grand Rapids, MI — Introduction

“My zeal gnaws at me, for my foes forget Your words.” — Psalm 119:139 (CVOT)

April 5, 2015, EASTER SUNDAY

Nine years ago, today, I “published” my first piece on the Atonement.  I encourage you to click on the link to “Resurrectionary Atonement,” at the top of this blog site, and take a few minutes to read it.  In fact, I might suggest that you scroll to the end of the piece and click on the link to the original blog site where it appeared–Prof. Scott McKnight’s “JESUS CREED.”  My submission was evidently the final one in the discussion, thus it appears conveniently at the top.  But if you want to get a feel for the reason that compelled me to burst forth with this volley of words, I encourage you to scroll through the prior discussion (starting at the bottom; you’ll have to click the “Load more comments” bar to get to the very start).  My original version was in ALL CAPS–not an easy read, as McKnight was instant (within four minutes!) to point out.  It was my very first blog, so my etiquette was a bit rough at the edges, I confess.  But the cause seemed worthy of the attempt.  As the adage goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong.”

Today, then, is the NINTH ANNIVERSARY of that blog post.  Woo hoo!!!

Now for the bad news.  What follows is a letter I received this morning from an elder of the church I have been attending since February 1st of this year–barely two months.  I even dressed up for the occasion in the nice black suit I wore at my daughter Marie’s wedding!  Plus the whimsical “Easter egg” tie that my sister Marilyn gave me for Christmas 2013!  It was shortly after I received it that one of her best friends, Tina Harrell, died after ten years of struggling with cancer.  An extended phone conversation with Marilyn after her return from Tina’s memorial service at Valley Baptist Church in Burbank, California (http://www.vbcburbank.org/, a Conservative Baptist congregation, http://www.usachurches.org/denomination/conservative-baptist-association-of-america.htm), which we all attended together in our youth, prompted me to respond to her charge (perhaps justified–you can judge) that I see the Atonement issue in too severely black-and-white, either/or terms.  The result was my most recent and arduously argued piece (save one), “Unscrambling the Easter Eggsplanation.”  If I may say so, that paper would also make a fine and edifying read in this Easter season…if you dare; it’s at the top, too.  Hence the Easter egg “tie” between the two occasions.

The approach I take to the Atonement that God accomplished through the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation is exceedingly controversial.  Christians of all traditions would probably acknowledge that.  Any reader of this blog site will have to struggle–as, indeed, I myself have–with the challenge posed by what I have termed “premial inclusion” as distinguished from “penal substitution.”  If, in fact, I do see the choice in too black-and-white terms, I have yet to see an adequate argument for blending the two strikingly contrasting positions.  As you would expect, I allege that the premial position is in best conformity with Scripture, when understood on its own terms.

And that’s what gets me in trouble with nice churches like the one that handed me the letter below.  New City Fellowship, Grand Rapids, MI (http://www.opc.org/feature.html?feature_id=220) is a mission church of Harvest Church, Wyoming, MI (http://www.harvestopc.org/), where it’s pastor, Mika Edmondson, had been an intern, and later a church-planting pastor.  These are congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC — http://www.opc.org/).  NCF is just one year old as of last Sunday; when they celebrated their Anniversary with a beautiful big cake and a prayer of thanks.

I first heard of NCF one Sunday evening in January when I visited Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church (http://www.holytrinitypc.org/), likewise a recent church plant, located on the west side of downtown Grand Rapids, and walkable for me.  One of the elders from New City was attending that evening, too, and was in the lobby with one of his children when I arrived late.  We got into a conversation that came around to the fact that he attended an OPC church (Holy Trinity is Associate Reformed Presbyterian, a friendly sister denomination–the first Presbyterian denomination founded in America, 1782).  I didn’t know of any OPC churches in Grand Rapids!  I first learned about the OPC as a college student in the late 1960’s.  I had even once contemplated studying at their Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia (http://www.wts.edu/), especially with Robert D. Knudsen.  My wife and I attended the Christian Reformed Campus Forum (formerly, Geneva Forum) at the University of Minnesota during the early 1980’s, soon after we got married.  The pastor, Bob Drake, was a Westminster graduate, ordained with the OPC.  Since that was a campus ministry, you can imagine the stimulating conversations we enjoyed together during those years.  But the Atonement had not become a serious issue for me quite yet, so was never an occasion for controversy.

I started pursuing a Ph.D. in Ancient Studies at the Univ. of Minn. around that  time (1982-83).  However, after a year I transferred to the home campus of Bethel Theological Seminary (https://www.bethel.edu/seminary/, of the former Baptist General Conference [Swedish] denomination, now renamed Converge, http://www.convergeworldwide.org/about/facts-and-info/our-story) in nearby Arden Hills, 1983-85, before completing my doctorate, for reasons I may explain another time.  I graduated from Bethel College (now University, https://www.bethel.edu/) in 1970.  I studied at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, MO (http://www.covenantseminary.edu/), fall 1979, which the L’Abri Fellowship (http://www.labri.org/) ministry of Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer had been giving increased exposure.  It was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA — http://www.pcanet.org/).  The reason I chose Covenant Seminary at the time was largely on the recommendation of my previous pastor, Rev. Jack Buckley, a Covenant graduate, founder of Fellowship of His People in Berkeley, California (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152658241222219&set=a.40379212218.55671.648752218&type=1&theater)–a daughter church of Fellowship of the Lamb, one of the L’Abri-inspired churches that popped up around St. Louis in those days.  I visited Covenant in the summer of 1979 with my dad, while on a cross-country trip to visit my sister in Pittsburgh.  I learned of their two new degree programs in Historical Theology and Exegetical Theology.  I chose the latter.

It was while I was at Covenant that Randy Nabors visited Grace and Peace Fellowship (http://graceandpeacefellowship.org/), the very first of those L’Abri-inspired gatherings, where I was attending.  Randy was pastoring a very vibrant congregation in Chattanooga (where Covenant College, the undergraduate component of the Seminary had earlier located, http://www.covenant.edu/).  Randy’s church was–are you ready for this?–New City Fellowship, Chattanooga (http://www.newcityfellowship.com/).  Ta da!!!  Okay, so now you know one reason why I dragged you through the above circuitous route to get from there to here.  Many Covenant College students attended this inner-city church, which was a powerful witness for inter-racial fellowship.  Randy was a livewire, wherever he spoke.  This is the heritage of New City Fellowship, Grand Rapids, whose pastor, Mika Edmondson, a very gifted young black Ph.D. student at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids (http://www.calvinseminary.edu/), is carrying on the legacy of Randy Nabors in sterling fashion.  In fact, Mika is from the Chattanooga, Tennessee area himself, although originally from a Baptist background.  He is preparing to defend his Ph.D. dissertation in a couple of months.  It’s on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sooo…  Back to Holy Trinity on a frigid February night.  Harold Schnyders (Assoc. Prof. of Physics, GVSU) was that visiting elder from NCF who informed me about New City Fellowship (though he must rue the night he ever told me).  It so happens that it meets in the former Hispanic Seventh-Day Adventist church on Burton near Eastern.  That was my old stomping grounds when we moved to Alger Heights in 1996 from Pella, Iowa.  And it’s right off the #4 bus route (I haven’t had a car for almost five years).  Voila!

But why, you may ask?  Why did this spark my interest?  Simple.  Take a look at the responses this present blog site has evoked over its three-year history.  ‘Bout a dozen.  It’s not as if I haven’t sent out e-mails (by the hundreds, which takes me two or three days to send because of Hotmail limits) and made personal contacts where I try to encourage folks with what I’ve been learning over the decades.  Even the hard copy papers at the top of this site I’ve distributed by the score, even hundreds, since I first went public nine years ago, today.  In fact, at one of the recent session meetings of NCF where I was grilled, the pastor asked me if I had done “this” before–i.e., passed out my documents to pastors in other churches.  That caught me up short.  I could think of a few occasions, right off, that might qualify.  And more came to mind.  But after going home and thinking about it, I started making a list (I’m an irrepressible list maker).  Two dozen churches later…!

But that’s not quite what Mika was fetching for, it seems to me on further reflection.  I’ve been “planning” (as I tell everyone) to write a book on the Atonement.  For years.  But in view of the few actual responses in terms of written or extended oral objections to my findings, I personally find it a bit difficult to polish up my arguments and shore up the evidence.  Then again, I’ve already posted nearly thirty years of earlier “Atonement Notes” already…although I am now roughly seven-and-a-half years in arrears in posting them.  In other words, except for my most recent series of 26 (so far) postings on the Governmental view of the Atonement, for the benefit of the powerful young open-air evangelist Jesse Morrell (http://www.openairoutreach.com/), almost everything else is well over seven years old.  My point?  I still haven’t been able to scare up much solid, informed critique that might correct blind spots, force me to examine Scripture passages I might not have considered in this connection, deal with weighty scholars I hadn’t known about already, etc.  So if my current methods aren’t culling much informed response…HOW DO I GET A REACTION?  At virtually all of those previous churches, I might slip a few papers, or maybe a whole folder full, to a pastor.  And if there was no response,  I would quietly slip away.  But this is really no behavior for an evangelist.  And at heart, that’s what I am.

That’s where NCF comes in.  The Orthodox Presbyterian denomination (we’re talkin’ a “sect” here, but, of course, from the inside they don’t see it that way) is concerned about “doctrine” in a very conscientious way.  That can be all for the good…if handled properly.  But what it means for the further development of my book is that if they disagree about a point of doctrine, they are not reticent to say so.  Aha!  So why not approach hard-core Calvinists with a position that they can, uh…”react” to?  Hmmm?  If I had known of an OPC church in Grand Rapids in earlier years, I might have had an earlier start on the process.

Therefore, I decided to pay them a visit and provide the pastor (initially) with the documents you see at the top of this site (except for the first one by my friend Donald McKay of St. Francis, Minnesota), and in normal page format (instead of the uniform narrow-column format I’m limited to within this WordPress “Pilcrow” theme) so that they are more readable.  This way he could mark up the hard copy with comments (my personal preference).  Sorry, I still don’t warm up to sophisticated marking methods that Microsoft Word facilitates.  (Only my brother and Prof. Peter Davids have ever even tried those on my stuff).  Later, I put them into the hands of another elder, and another.  The son of a Westminster Seminary professor whom I esteem, Richard B. Gaffin, also attends NCF, so, naturally, he became a doubtful recipient of my labors.  His father’s book, Resurrection and Redemption:  A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (1987), (http://www.amazon.com/Resurrection-Redemption-Study-Pauls-Soteriology/dp/0875522718),  has a significant role to play in what follows.

But nobody wanted to come out and play with me!  It’s not a matter of method so much as an issue of content that challenges deeply held assumptions.  (Okay, and also of not having time to read into a set of stapled papers, no matter what the content.  But I bracket that for now…)  It’s, frankly, just too scary to reconsider revising historic understandings of the most fundamental matters of our faith.  I quite understand how this goes.  If I had not been remaining in the Word of God as the Lord worked me free from a few “bedrock” presuppositions of my youth that turned out to be merely shifting sands of that much vaunted “historic Christianity” that traditionalists like to boast in, I too would surely never have been able to shoulder the psychological load of “error divestiture” that can be truly paralyzing.  To say it another way, folks naturally feel vertigo at the thought of “giving up” basic premises of their religious faith.  “Losing one’s faith” is not something to treat lightly.  “The faith once for all delivered to the saints” by Christ’s apostles is a LIFE or DEATH matter!  It’s not to be trifled with.  It has ultimate consequences, and many more immediate side-effects on ethics and practice.  But when the Word of God is going through the transition with you, there’s a different quality about the changes you undergo.

Ergo:  shouldn’t we try to become mighty sure that our denomination/sect–which may flaunt “antiquity,” size, respectability, devotion, “radical Christianity,” “orthodoxy,” fabulous worship, social conscience, global missions, vital evangelism, Christian schools, top-ranking universities, and a welter of other virtues–actually “has the goods” when it comes to an accurate grasp of “the givens,” or basic documentary data of apostolic origin?  Hmmm?  Well, I think so.

Problem is, Christian tribes that hold hard to old (it really doesn’t matter how old) “statements of faith” must somehow struggle with the problem of human fallibility (even “divines” are human, for heaven’s sake!) and obsolescence.  Things “under the sun” wear out, or in any case wear thin, unless renewed and recharged with the original fire.  And unless there is a way to revise or amend such statements (creeds, confessions, catechisms, etc.), they tend toward obscurity and harden up into shibboleths…and worse.

But we have to start somewhere, right?  My psychological comfort came with the territory of the kind of “concordant” hermeneutic (click my “About” link at the top of the site to read a thumbnail sketch) I have been pursuing since high school days.  As a young “fightin’ Fundamentalist,” the top of the list of my youthful beliefs was the authority of the Bible.  The “downside” of that belief (I thank my dear mother for doing things right!), was in how very seriously I took it.  The more and more I studied the Bible “with my concordance on,” as I like to say, the more and more the Lord blessed me with edifying (not merely speculative or highfallutin’) discoveries.  “Doggone it, this Book really does make sense!”  So after  a while I got bored just defending it and started using it.  You don’t defend a sword; you practice your swing and observe the effects.  There’s a feedback loop.

I say “downside” because the first casualty was Dispensationalism, I think,  This was something my mother adhered to with lifelong devotion and undiminished ardor.  So family ties were attenuated by learning the Bible just a bit too well.  Then simplistic evangelismism also fell before long.  Yet some positions didn’t fall.  Since the eighth grade, when Mom had the foresight to buy me a couple of books by Harry Rimmer on the Bible and science, and especially The Theory of Evolution and the Facts of Science, I was an ardent creationist.  But it did morph a little uncomfortably along the way and became much more nuanced, deepened, and supplemented.  Such books (I eventually procured most of Rimmer’s) early instructed me in the importance of argument–a virtue seldom applauded among church folk.  And this virtue is part of what got me in trouble with NCF.  They had done arguing over the faith some 350 years ago and only wanted to get everyone else (correction: the “elect,” i.e., the ones who happen to respond positively to the language of their “doctrinal standards”) to knuckle under without too much fuss and bind their consciences to understand holy Scripture “according to the Westminster Confession.”  Or do I have that reversed?  An NCF elder insisted it was the other way around:  they hold to the Confession “according to Scripture,”  But that doesn’t really work, as we shall explore below.

To summarize, I had been long and steadily familiarizing myself with the distinctives of Calvinistic Christianity even before moving to Grand Rapids in the summer of 1996 so Jan could teach at Calvin College.  It was then that I was introduced up close to the bondage of conscience that Calvinistic institutions could enforce.  In order to teach there, my wife had to sign a statement that she would not oppose the faith standards of the Christian Reformed Church, namely, the Belgic Confession (http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession), the Canons of Dort (http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/canons-dort), and the Heidelberg Catechism (http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism).  Since she taught Geography, Geology, and Environmental Studies, she was not expected to teach or expound them, of course.  Nevertheless, since I had been preparing to start a Vineyard-style (http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/) Reformational (http://kuyperian.blogspot.com/2004/08/introduction-to-kuypers-thought.html) hybrid on a cell-church model (http://www.touchusa.org/default.asp), I did feel the friction this could generate.  Feature a church planter whose worldview and vision for action must be trimmed by certain little silences imposed on a beloved spouse by her employer.  Don’t get me wrong; we came to Calvin with the red carpet treatment!  Jan was a celebrated scholar, greatly esteemed by the school and rightly so.  She held the Spoelhof Chair from the git go.  And there’s the rub.  With honor comes obligation.

I had already attempted to plant a hybrid Vineyard in Pella, Iowa–just a smaller version of Grand Rapids.  So I was gearing up for what it would take to do something bigger and better “right here in River City.”  Fact is, however, my Pella attempts were not particularly “successful.”  That was okay with me, so long as I was learning from all my mistakes (count ’em…).  In the meantime, we did join “a church in the Reformed tradition,” which was a requirement for virtually all Calvin faculty except for those whose spouses might happen to pastor a church outside of that tradition; that was still allowable.  We weren’t in that category yet.  And my wife never wanted to occupy that category.  She was a PK and had felt from the inside the sacrifice of quality family time that such a life could entail, not to mention expectations put on a pastor’s spouse.  But I’m getting too autobiographical.

The upshot is that we got involved with a very contemporary CRC congregation called Centre Pointe, pastored by a black pastor borrowed from the Reformed Church in America (RCA — https://www.rca.org/),  His co-pastor was a white Southerner.  They modeled reconciliation and mutual honor.  It was special.  We loved it.  Our daughters especially enjoyed the free-wheeling and laid back style of worship–all sitting around banquet tables at The Bluff in Grand Central Mall, able to draw or whatever.  Marie and Karis were baptized there.

But “doctrine” didn’t come up for review there.  I attempted to help them adopt a modified cell-church model, but just as it was about to be inaugurated, the co-pastor left for a congregation of his own (having just graduated from Calvin Seminary as an older student), and the new seminary intern had ideas of her own, so shelved what we had labored over so arduously.  (The up side is that the co-pastor took the plan with him to his next church, hoping to put it into practice.)

But that’s water over the dam.  My marriage suffered a divorce in late 1999, and the new millennium saw me in a wandering mode.  During the intervening years, the pain of that has worked hope and deepened insight, not to mention the mining of fresh comforts from the eternal Gospel.  Friends took me in at a decisive point and before long, I was back on track, wrestling with Scripture over the heart of the Gospel so as to teach it one day in a holistic setting designed to organize God’s people penetrate to the world with supreme effectiveness in the Spirit of Christ.

Then in the spring of 2006, I got terribly sick with influenza or undulant fever for about six weeks.  That’s the time, while staying in the extra bedroom of some dear friends, that the Lord chose to bring me more complete closure concerning the doctrine of the Atonement.  The rest is history.  But first a bit of recent history so you can see how my findings have so far played out in one “orthodox” setting.

Below you will find the letter I was handed by Doug Felch on Easter Sunday.  I will forbear commentary on it until the conclusion of these journal entries concerning NCF.

Bon voyage!


Dear Ron,

New City Fellowship provisional session has labored hard to do right by you.  We have given you a fair hearing, beyond your standing as one outside of the body.  We have presented you with the fullness of God’s word, and plead with you to merit the supreme abundance of Christ’s reward not through your own faltering obedience, but by the assumption of Christ’s righteousness through faith.  Ron, don’t underestimate just how righteous one has to be to stand in the judgment (Psalm 1), if indeed the Lord “will by no means pardon the guilty” (Exodus 34:7).

We have additionally patiently sought your willingness, even as a sojourner in the midst of the Lord’s people, to submit to the rule that God has appointed for His people, the elders, in the very place where his people assemble to hear the message of salvation.  You have shown yourself unable to comply, and persist in obstructing others on the path of salvation, which itself bears a grave penalty (Matthew 18:6).

In spite of this, out of our desire that you not miss this great salvation (Hebrews 2:3), we offer you the opportunity to continue to receive the counsel of the elders of the church through contact by email, by phone, or by arranged meeting, while at the same time stating that until you repent to the satisfaction of the elders, you have no place in the assembly, neither during worship services, fellowship meals, nor any other New City activities.  If you are found on the NCF property again, we will consider it trespassing.  With the Lord’s voice, we firmly admonish you to respect this unanimous decision by the shepherds of the Lord’s people at New City.

The NCF Provisional Session

Harold Schnyders

Doug Felch

Jim DeRuischer

Mika Edmondson

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