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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 God justifies 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’s righteousness 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 a substitute 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 Christ required 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 the justification 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 gracious God. 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 biblical vocabulary 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 forgrace.” But he slowly changed his opinion because of the uncertainty of knowing whether one possessed enough humility for God to “give grace without 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’s grace 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 the New 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 counter thrust 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 righteousness was 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 by raising 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 of man 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’s resurrectionary 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: “forensicjustification. 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 of righteousness, 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 stirring resurrectionary 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 of glory” (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 the summum 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 of his 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 conjecture must be there, and all because the theologians cannot see what apostolic testimony has vouchsafed as actually happeningChrist’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 without a resurrection (usually did), but the Resurrection would have been impossible without the Cross. The Cross is always at least implicit in the proclamation of the 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 Resurrection in 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 future glory 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 and majesty, 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 of Christ’s Resurrection as the manifestation, revelation, and display of God’s glory, 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 the invisibilia 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 the upright, 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’s resurrection 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 ante-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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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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AN OPEN JOURNAL to NEW CITY FELLOWSHIP, Grand Rapids, MI — Day One

Though distress and constraint have converged on me, Your instructions are my delectations.” Psalm 119:143 (CVOT)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

“We can make no progress unless we believe we are fallible. The absolute condition for forward movement in any field of science is the abiding conviction that we could be wrong. If instead we try to silence, much less persecute those who challenge our rightness or “orthodoxy,” we risk dwelling in darkness and quenching the light.”

By this date, I had given a folder of my Atonement documents (usually 15-18 pieces, with lists of titles and dates of composition in chronological and length order) to Pastor Edmondson and two of the other three elders—Doug Felch and Harold Schnyders, whom I felt might be able to give me informed critique. I wasn’t expecting much any time soon. Mika was preparing to defend his Ph.D. dissertation at Calvin Seminary; Doug was busy teaching classes at Kuyper College in mid-semester; I don’t remember why I gave them to Harold unless because he was the person who first told me about NCF, but he was also teaching Physics at GVSU, plus maybe some departmental duties.

I had also given a set to Steve Gaffin early on, both because he showed some interest and awareness of the issues, and because his father, Prof. Richard B. Gaffin, now emeritus, of Westminster Seminary, wrote an important book (originally his dissertation for Westminster Seminary, 1969), Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (1987), formerly The Centrality of the Resurrection (1978), whose change of title betrays a willingness to back off the significance of this assertion simply because “some readers, and at least one reviewer, were misled by the word ‘centrality’, finding in it a suggestion of tension between Christ’s death and his resurrection, as if the former is somehow less central for Paul.” This reason should strike us as both strange and disturbing; in fact, it reveals the pivotal misunderstanding of the Gospel that is the very issue of this blog site and, by reflex, of this current controversy at NCF.

Still, Steve seemed intrigued with my position, which I had shared during a potluck around the second Sunday in February, when I first met him and learned who he was. I had been in communication with his father sometime after I started distributing my first major Atonement document, “77 Questions about the Atonement,” around Pentecost/Memorial Day of 2007. I had read enough of his book to realize that he had not arrived at a judicial understanding of Christ’s Resurrection, whatever else he may have to contribute to the topic. Prof. Gaffin had responded by sending me a brief email that simply asked who I was. I must have mentioned learning of his work through one of his former students, Bob Drake, who was pastor of the Christian Reformed Campus Forum near the University of Minnesota in the early 1980’s, where my wife and I attended at the time. The prospect of meeting Prof. Gaffin personally when he visits this June motivated me to finish reading his book recently in preparation for a more engaged discussion. I shall have more to say about his worthy treatment in later blogs.

However, in the meantime my fond wish for receiving some eventual critique of my documents was blowing up in my face. What little any of the elders (I include Mika who, within OPC ecclesial polity is included among the elders) had read of my pieces had aroused their instant fears lest I should communicate my position to anyone else. It should be kept in mind that although people have voiced disagreements with my position, which re-centralizes Christ’s Resurrection into pivotal soteriological significance, I had seldom (except for three recent encounters only since last fall) been lumped into the category of “heretic.” True, I had long been wondering when one or another sect would actually take the plunge. Now I have my answer. All are arch-Calvinistic Presbyterians of three different sub-sects, plus an arch-Calvinist of John Piper’s discipling. I see a pattern. Yet I still desired written objections to aspects of my systematic presentations so I could determine what the specific “offenses” are. Therefore I jotted down the following sentences to remind myself that now, since they had started putting pressure on me to keep silent about my “teachings” (as they called any communications of mine) at least in private, within their church, then I needed something solid to chew on in the meantime. It seems to me that communicating one’s opinions and teaching “doctrines” should be distinguished more accurately, fairly, and flexibly; or am I merely voicing a self-serving motive?

“I would be pleased and honored to take written objections to anything I have written. I welcome all criticisms and will, in turn, respond in writing to clarify, justify, or recant.”

By March 1st, which was pastor Edmondson’s fifth sermon on the Gospel of Mark since I first heard him on February 1st, it seemed to me that the elders, instead of reading my pieces carefully or trying to listen to my clarifications, were starting to voice impressionistic criticisms without much substance, and certainly without documentation. That’s what prompted the following:

“Mika’s sermon on March 1st was entitled “Listening to the Word” and focused on opening our ears to hear God’s Word. He harangued us. A lot of good that did if you [Mika] are not ready to hear the Word of the Lord I am now bringing! That sermon should have prepared us for today.”

Instead, I fear it was feckless.  Does this all sound slightly shrill to you?  Okay.  Granted.  I did start to perceive a glaring slip between preaching and practice.  Those words may well reflect the shrillness of a sermon that was just starting to edge on hypocrisy.  I’m probably wrong.  I hope I’m wrong.  I’ve been wrong before.

After all, I don’t have to be right. The grand overarching Gospel truth of forgiveness allows me to be wrong, very wrong indeed, even wickedly wrong sometimes, and still have a graceful way out: repentance and forgiveness. I don’t have to feel I’m right about everything. Forgiveness gives us S T R E T C H. It takes us beyond brittle. That allows progress in civilization. In historic fact, it has fostered Western civilization. But more about this another time.

In fact, it would be wrong to label Mika’s sermonic dilation as personal hypocrisy. Rather, the greater slippage surely occurs between pulpit and pew. That’s different. Indeed, this very gap may have prompted such a sermon in the first place! Mika was justifiably worked up over what he perceived to be the big gap between what he saw Christ teaching and what he saw Christians living. So the issue is more a matter of effectiveness of communicating an urgent concern (of both preacher and God!). And a harangue is probably not the most effective way to achieve the desired results. But I sympathize with his expression of urgency that the Word of God should take deep root and starts producing worthy fruit among us.

And if you think that my point-blank words to Pastor Edmondson about being “not ready to hear the Word of the Lord I am now bringing is just a bit cheeky, let me ask you why you go to church. Is it to bring a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, a translation, as the apostle Paul urges (I Corinthians 14:26)? Or perhaps even a prophecy (I Thessalonians 5:20)? Is it to “Let the word of Christ be making its home in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing yourselves in psalms, in hymns, in spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16), or was that only for the “early church” or for outside the church walls? The apostle Peter (on whose confession the church was founded) charges, if anyone is speaking, as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11). He is not speaking to church officers here, but to all the gathered saints. The apostles want the church to abound in the Word of God. If we all come properly prepared to serve one another with the Word of God the best we know how, what a rich fellowship we would enjoy! What a true threat to Satan’s doomed kingdom!

If you really want the Word to get exposure and to penetrate the soil, Mika, shouldn’t you be thankful for reinforcements (even if only volunteers) to help get the job done? But what to do with differences of opinion…

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