Introduction to “A Comedy of Errors, A Tragedy of Mistaken Identities…”

In honor of the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day, October 31st, 1517, I have produced complete and abbreviated sets of “resuppositions” (I’ll explain below) concerning a “premial” (the flip side of penal) or “resurrectionary” re-centering of the Atonement, Justification, Reconciliation, Peacemaking, etc.  I started posting these “theses” on October 31st, 2017, taking a fortnight to wrap up.  So I’m getting a late start distributing them electronically in a more traditional and perhaps more readable PDF format.  This is only the first of a series of milestone “anniversaries” that will commemorate Luther’s early and rapid development into the full-on Protestant Reformer.  My findings after a decades-long critical re-inspection of our Protestant foundations may not meet wide acceptance.  But the undertaking seems worthwhile and certainly long past due.  I’ll be happy to receive correction and adjust accordingly when shown the error of my ways.  But I do think I smell a New Reformation brewing.  Yet who would have guessed the extent of repairs now necessary on the very foundations of the Protestant Reformation?  Infrastructure can be such a pain to keep up, much less improve, as the U.S. is learning.  But if the foundations are actually destroyed….  Shucks.  And I was led to believe we had all this stuff nailed down…

I’m starting to tell folks that I’ve been suffering a “chronic mental breakthrough” since the early 1980’s when my attention was drawn to the doctrine of the Atonement with increasing focus.  My blog site (see below), which launched on March 11, 2012, simply unreels my backlog of Atonement notes chronologically, interspersed with occasional current projects.  However, I stopped posting in early July.  I’ll explain.

One day while biking to the Cornerstone University Library, I thought to drop by the adjacent Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  I learned that an Assistant Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology had been newly hired and would start teaching in the fall.  Kenneth J. Reid is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, well known for its 4-year Th.M. degree requiring classes covering every book of the Bible in the original languages.  He then pursued a second Th.M. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY)—reputed to be the most Calvinistic seminary of the denomination—before completing a Ph.D. there in 2015.

The new GRTS catalog lists Ken’s research interests: “Atonement Theology, Trinity, Pneumatology, Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology, Racial Reconciliation, Justice Theology”–overlapping many of my own theological interests.    An African-American, Ken will play a valuable role in nurturing young and working adults, including quite diverse learners and leaders within church and society.

Since the Atonement was his first interest, I suspected he wrote his dissertation on that topic.  Sure enough:  Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the Basis for New Covenant and New Creation

I printed off the 370-page volume and commenced plowing through it, hoping to finish by the time he arrived in town and was settled in at home and office.  I’ve been yearning for a qualified, friendly interlocutor who might give steady push-back on my rethinking of the Atonement.

Some five weeks later I wrapped up my reading and marginal notes on the worthy tome, which, as expected, faithfully defended the traditional orthodox Protestant doctrine of penal substitution.  Such stalwarts as R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid (now at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, as of 2015), Bruce Ware, and Jarvis Williams, among others, anchored that position among the vast SBTS faculty of like-minded scholars during Ken’s years there.  Ware had been a Systematic Theology professor of mine at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul) in the early 1980’s, and I have high respect for his integrity and intelligence.  He was a fresh Fuller Seminary graduate at that time and now is at the other end of his teaching career.

However, I was surprised to learn that Ware chaired Ken’s dissertation committee; the other members were Stephen J. Wellum and Shawn D. Wright.  Ten years ago, I sent Bruce a copy of my “77 Questions on the Atonement” (May 2007; still at the top of my blog site after several revisions) for comment.  He begged off at the time, explaining that his focus was more on the doctrine of the Trinity, but that I might consider passing it by his colleague, Tom Schreiner, whose focus is the Atonement.  However, I was mainly looking for those who might cast a friendly eye on an attempt to reframe the Atonement in terms of the neglected premial (non-penal) side of God’s justice, and Tom was certainly not one of those, so I demurred.

How did Ken snag Bruce for his committee?  Simple.  Ken was pursuing his dissertation in the Systematic Theology Department, whereas Schreiner was in the New Testament Department.  Not that the results would have turned out any different, however.

 Ken’s labors triggered my “consolidate and summarize” response.  As I filled the margins with seven colors of ballpoint glosses to remark, refute, revise, or repair what I was reading, I contemplated what sort of format would be appropriate and effective by way of response, without being offensive.  Moreover, Ken was indebted to Ware for a brief formulation of “a rationale for the necessity of Christ’s suffering being penal.”  I knew I needed to tackle my old mentor on this point if I hoped to persuade Ken.

I hit on the idea of asking conjectural questions about what actually might be happening historically, spiritually, and “theologically” at Christ’s Cross and Resurrection in particular, along with other key events of the Gospels/Acts narrative.  I settled on dubbing them “resuppositions,” in other words, replacement presuppositions.  Which is to say, I’m systematically unraveling penal presuppositions about atonement, justification, and reconciliation, while simultaneously re-knitting stitch-by-stitch the premial suppositions that better accord with my findings after decades of reexamining Scripture and the history of theology.  This process of reparatively reconstructing our traditions nearer to the apostolic original can be tricky, as you know.  Retro-engineering has often been misused, and the current undertaking runs similar risks.

That novel format swelled in a couple of months from a dozen or two questions to a hundred or two!  Clearly, I had touched a nerve…my own.   In reflecting on what was happening, I saw that, for all my output of articles, papers, occasional pieces, “tracts,” etc., I had never simply sat down and listed my definitive findings from 35 years of theological and historical research, restudy of Scripture, and hard rethinking.  Consequently, this increasingly urgent agenda (which I had expected would emerge in a book by this date) actually commandeered the initial plan to pose only a few probing questions about the relation of the Cross to the Resurrection and vice versa and etc.  Sorry for the explosion!

The result is a bit-by-bit deconstruction of the gospel of the Protestant Reformation by way of introducing the premial formulation of the Gospel that steadily emerged as more evident and authentic from long-term concordant engagement with the biblical vocabulary and phraseology.  I have expounded that alternative at length in more normal prose throughout my blog.  The papers at the top of the site encompass several genres and formats, but never anything quite this “driving.”  This may feel like a “jackhammer” or “Tommy gun” treatment.  There’s little cushion, and normal sentence structure gets stretched to the max.  I do apologize.

But consider the advantages of a rapid assault.  Any single statement may evoke the normal thoughtful comeback, “But how about…?” or “But what do you do with such-and-such a Scripture?”  Fair enough.  I’ve asked most of those questions myself.  After perusing the broad history of the subject and many individual theologians, I saw patterns of misunderstanding emerge.  The traditional orthodox evangelical Protestant arguments predictably fell into ditches.  They were compelled to swerve around the truth under the influence of intoxicating presuppositions.  Those assumptions (whether explicitly acknowledged or deliberately hidden or unconsciously suppressed) slowly became more manifest.  Finally, it simply became a matter of how to address these many interlocking assumptions in some comprehensive yet compact manner.  One-by-one?  Aggregately?  Class action?  Question/Answer?   Theses?

I had used the “What if?” sequence once before, in the one-pager for April Fools’ Day and Easter (see “What If” at the top of my blog site).  It allowed successively mounting quick strokes that challenged penal atonement theory in a reader-friendly way.  And even if my current elaboration cannot claim to be so friendly, at least it deals with most of the usual “but-what-abouts.”

In “A Comedy of Errors, a Tragedy of Mistaken Identities…” I have let the resuppositions proliferate wildly (240-something by last count).  I might have (probably should have) rearranged them into subtitled sections, and perhaps even numbered them for easy reference.  I may yet do that; blogs are wonderful that way!  But for now, without further ado, I request your own comments and criticisms.  I hope that slicing the subject into these small (sometimes sharp-edged) chunks makes critiquing easier.  This way you can take issue with discrete resuppositions without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with others.  These unhewn stones could use some knocking around a bit to knock off the rough edges so they can be refitted into a harmonious mosaic.  This is a work in progress, and progress takes time.

These resuppositions or “dialectical queries” will raise many an inconvenient doubt.  I realize that.  But hopefully you’re gonna laugh before this is all over.  One friend observed that whatever humor I interjected helped keep him going through the overly compact and annoyingly obscure litany (and here I thought I was clarifying!).  Another friend said it was like drinking concentrated lemon juice straight up!  He mollified that by adding, “But suppose I’m suffering from scurvy….”  I do hope others find the treatment a healing dose for whatever ills the theory of penal substitution has ushered into history!  I hope after investigating for yourself, you too get “caught in a Truth.”

It seems to me we need to jettison false doctrines as soon as possible in order to loosen up cargo space in our brains for more truth.  The price of learning new truth is the sacrifice of the comfortable falsehoods to which we all are prey, from whatever traditions we may hail.  If my logic does not always seem iron-clad, that’s no worse than I suspected.  But I wager it beats the competition by several lengths.  Judge for yourself.

A vast debacle of Atonement doctrine is underway, and as in politics, sides are being drawn, attitudes are getting calloused, and unseemly animosity is rising.  This cannot be the divine way.  Surely God is saddened by our prickly dismissiveness toward one another.  I have gleaned an immense lore from minority voices down through the centuries who seldom get cited in new publications on the topic.  Our selective neglect may reveal an unscholarly narrowing of interest and a perilous hardening of heart even more than a scarcity of time.  Self-criticism may be grievous toil, but it bears worthy fruit.  We don’t bear that yoke in vain.

While formulating this array of resuppositions, I realized they would be perfect to start posting on October 31st, the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day.  For years I kept this date in mind for publishing a more detailed challenge to our creaky Protestant assumptions.  I hoped it would appear as a book on the Atonement.  Yet I sensed more groundwork was needed.  Here is much of that groundwork, in primal form.  And now to start refining the raw material into a normal piece of scholarship.   Your “heated” comments would greatly assist the refining process.  As fraught as the topic may be, I hope you find this approach mostly friendly, reasonable, and agreeably Biblical.

I have also attached a 10-page “summary” of the 30-page version.  It was my failed attempt to get it all down to a two-pager I could print off as a single-sheet handout for priming discussions.  But I got too late a start on condensing it by my target date.  Perhaps this stripped-down version will serve as a handy teaser for busy folks who can’t dive into the complete document.  In any case, I’m not seeking agreement, only a fair hearing, and honest objections.  There’s no human labor under the sun that can’t be improved.  No one’s perfect…and I’m a perfect example!

Feel free to forward this missive and attachments if you know of someone else who might find them worthwhile.  This is a one-time mailing, so there will be no follow-up from my end.  Any communication from you, however, is most welcome, and I will try to respond in a timely fashion.

Warmly in Christ,

Ronald Roper



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