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Fighting the Devil or Suppressing the Mind

Today I went on a sort of odyssey through a couple of theologically conservative blogs. My journey started at Adrian Warnock’s blog, where he has another quote from somebody supporting penal substitutionary atonement (PSA):

While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christ’s atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement. — Tom Schreiner, quoted by Adrian Warnock

I quote this because I have been misunderstood on this point. My objection to PSA as I see it taught is not merely that there is more to the atonement than PSA, but also that PSA is simply one among many metaphors by which we discuss the atonement, and is not central. That, however, is not my topic.

Following a link from Adrian’s blog, I read this interview with Tom Schreiner on Against Heresies, in which, after being asked how he would approach a student or professor who disagreed on this topic, he said:

I would be patient with a student and try to persuade them of the biblical standpoint. Patience is initially the right stance for a professor as well. But if a professor comes to a settled conviction against penal substitution, he should be removed from his position in my judgment.

In other words, accept penal substitionary atonement as the basis of forgiveness or get out. (You can find Dr. Schreiner’s quote on this in the interview itself.) Two additional recent posts, not to mention the name of the blog–Against Heresies–support the same approach, and I would hardly regard it as a particularly virulent form of the species. The blog’s mission statement says it’s a “thinking blog” and I note that the tone is much more constructive than some organizations and sites I encounter.

The current dust-up over PSA, however, leads me to think just a bit. I’m quite certain that these folks believe they are fighting the devil. One must guard the standards lest false brethren come along and derail the faith. But it’s interesting just how frequently these false brethren seem to turn up, and how many of them are dedicated Christian workers, and even missionaries and evangelists. I have wondered once or twice why I bother responding to issues of the atonement, considering how far I am from the position of these reformed scholars. And yet I care about this issue, I care about the Christian faith, and I care about those in ministry who may pay a higher cost for marginal disagreements than I ever will.

I am not suggesting that the Christian faith, or any community within it, should not have any boundaries at all. Community requires commonality, and commonality will require some definition, especially when the community is larger than a handful. At the same time, there is a level of doctrinal tenseness that can easily become destructive. At the congregational level, it can manifest itself in a critical attitude toward the less theological church members, such as those who might read the wrong books from time to time, or who listen to preachers from a different tradition.

Here in Pensacola, I experienced it in connection with the Brownsville Revival. I personally have a number of theological issues with some things that occurred in connection with that revival. I could certainly debate quite a number of those points. But frequently new believers, or people who were becoming involved in church life for the first time, were cut down by the doctrinal watchdogs of their various congregations without a chance to work into fellowship. This sometimes came from fundamentalists. One student of mine was told he wasn’t saved because he had heard the preaching of the gospel from something other than the King James Version. But more commonly criticism came from evangelicals and even mainliners. There the issues were sometimes social. The behavior of people at the revival was embarrassing, and their theology lacked intellectual rigor. Thus rather than disciple people that came to them, other churches filtered people doctrinally and drove them out by criticizing the experience that had led them that far.

On the congregational level, I think this type of speaking can be much more destructive than the errors it proposes to expose and root out. Rather than learning by studying and listening to the Holy Spirit, people are expected to jump through the appropriate doctrinal hoops, get their house in order, and then join a church. New members are looked upon as a threat, rather than as a blessing. Who knows what doctrines they have brought? Perhaps we should keep them from taking any position in the church until we have thoroughly checked them out!

As an illustration, let me continue with the next post from Adrian’s blog, this one from C. J. Mahaney:

. . . very small errors in a person’s understanding of the Gospel seemed to result in very big problems in that person’s life.”

What about small errors in the presentation of the character of God? Are they important as well? If someone presents PSA in such a way as to display God as a vengeful tyrant rather than as the author of the plan of salvation, should I be just as worried about that? What if your terror of legalism results in someone believing they have permission to behave as they wish, ignoring ethics, again something I have personally encountered?

Frequently, I see people who are very concerned with the most minor detail of the atonement who are completely unconcerned with the picture they give of God, yet this doesn’t seem to be a major issue for many who are very rigorous about doctrine in general.

Mahaney continues, still as quoted by Adrian:

. . . legalism is essentially self-atonement for self-glorification, and ultimately for self-worship.

But in vigorously combatting their concept of legalism, it seems to me that this same group has gotten into a new variety of salvation by something other than God’s grace–salvation by correct doctrine. That is the notion that in order to be saved, one must understand some detailed set of doctrines with precision. In fighting legalism, I believe some have introduced this as a new form of legalism.

I had such a person come to my house once. He concluded that he was concerned for my salvation. Why? Was it because I did not confess Jesus as Lord and Savior? No. It was because I failed to express the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross (in which I do believe), and repudiate works in vocabulary which matched his. That person was the product of destructive theology, and while repudiating works as a means of salvation, he was completely comfortable substituting intellectual understanding for works.

Now C. J. Mahaney, who talks about the need to understand this precisely, is one of the authors of the Together for the Gospel statement, which, in Article XVI, somehow seems to make rejection of women in teaching roles an essential of the gospel. Is this also a boundary to be enforced? Actually I don’t need to ask that question. It already is a boundary enforced in many places, and is itself a travesty on the gospel, a denial of one of God’s purposes in it.

I note with interest that so many people who come from a tradition that called for “the Bible only” now find it necessary to write length confessions, and then to enforce those on other people studying the Bible. It seems as though the Bible may not be quite as good a guide to faith and practice as they thought. One has to fence in the seminary professors lest they wander from the pasture, a pasture defined not by the Bible, but by doctrinal statements. Is this a problem with the Bible? Is it not rather a problem with over-defining Christian doctrine so that honest seekers after truth can no longer truly explore all the possibilities opened up by God’s multifaceted word? I firmly believe it is the latter.

You see, when I read the comment by Dr. Tom Schreiner about removing a professor from his post for disagreeing on the issue of PSA, two words came to my mind: Academic freedom. Now a number of people will find it quite inappropriate that I bring this point up right here. Academic freedom, after all, is for secular institutions, not seminaries. In this country, we push academic freedom primarily for institutions that are government supported in some way. And let me be clear: I don’t question the right of private institutions in general, and religious institutions in particular, to set their own standards. I’m not suggesting that the government come in and enforce some kind of academic openness on seminaries. I don’t questions their right to do so, but I do question whether it is right.

But in my view academic freedom is more principle than policy. When I read the works of a scholar who works at an evangelical school that requires endorsement of a particular doctrinal statement, I have a certain potential discount. It depends, of course, on the detail of the doctrinal statement. An institution might, for example, simply require that professors belong to their particular confessional group of churches. The more detailed the statement, however, the more I question. Could a professor at a college that accepted the affirmations and denials of the Together for the Gospel statement discover an egalitarian meaning in Galatians 3:28? (In practice I think there are a large number of evangelical scholars who do not merit such a “discount.” There are, however, a number of others who do, in my view.)

I have previously discussed this in relation to the doctrine of inerrancy. Acceptance and rejection of inerrancy are not two equal platforms. In each affirmation from a Biblical writer that I consider I have the option of determining that it is without error–or not! A person who has signed a declaration in favor of Biblical inerrancy is restricted to discovering the explanation that supports inerrancy. I do not mean that nobody can both do good scholarship and accept inerrancy. There are many who do. The question is whether their belief in inerrancy is a conclusion they have adopted, or an external standard imposed on them.

As a result, in trying to fight off the devil and “maintain standards” I believe that Christian institutions frequently fall into the trap of suppressing the mind. They are more concerned that the theological ducks line up in a row and quack in unison than that the ducks survive and grow. It’s a distinction that is difficult to maintain in theology, which lacks the empirical testing of a scientific field. I would suggest coming down clearly on the side of tolerance. Jesus reserved his most vigorous criticism for those who upheld the doctrinal orthodoxy of the day.

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  1. What is wrong with removing some one from a teaching position, when that person comes to a “settled position” against a fundamental of the faith? If it is alright to teach the opposite of an essential of the Christian faith, then is not the integrgity of Christianity compromised?
    I agree with your concerns about the manifestation of God in how we present the truth. That is very important. On this we both agree. How that manifestation takes place is another issue. If all the world has as a means of seeing Christ is our spirit and character, our love, then God help us all! There is only one way of salvation…Christ Himself. The truth of the gospel, which includes PSA, is HOW (the means) God is manifested to us. If we compromise the means, the truth of the gospel, then we distort the manifestation of God. Kindness and gentleness can never be a substitution (no pun intended) for the truth. The manifestation of God, which is seen in the truth of the Gospel, of which PSA is essential, is so important, that in Galatians 1, Paul says ‘let him be accursed’ to the one who would teach otherwise. Then we find out in chapter two that Paul is not afraid (in holy scripture nonetheless) to identify Peter as a hypocrite at the display of His behavior (vs.13) as it concerned the gospel.
    Teachers will receive a stricter judgement (James 3:1). To know that a brother or sister is teaching against an essential of the Christian faith and not confront them, and yes, releive them if they persist, is not a humble act, and would show no compassion towards that person or those who would listen to the false teaching propogated…does that make any sense?
    I was brought up in a strict baptist way. I’m now reformed and realize that all the knowledge in the world does nothing without love. But if the God who is love gives us His truth to proclaim, I think we should remember that it is His truth, not ours. That is, that if we are free to sort of make what we want of the message, then the message itself is compromised.

  2. David, I am confused, because your own position on the atonement, such as “God cannot punish someone else for our sin … Two injustices would be involved in allowing someone to take a condemned persons place”, seems sufficiently different from the Reformed PSA position that I would expect you to be accused of “teaching against an essential of the Christian faith” and in danger of being removed from any post you might hold at a Reformed seminary.

  3. Dear Peter,
    I sincerely apologize for not having communicated my position on PSA clearly enough, and it seems my words are taken out of context. It is true that if God punished ‘someone else’ for ‘my’ sin (the someone else nonspecific at this point), it would involve two injustices. This is not something that I have thought up as a ‘good model’, but my honest reading of Ezekiel 18:20 which says, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself”. I believe that this passage teaches individual guilt (the soul who sins shall die) which cannot be passed over to another (the son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son) but must be individually borne (the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wicked ness of the wicked shall be upon himself”. In Substitution, God is not punishing another for my sin in this sense: Christ is my life. God punished Christ. Therefore I have been punished and God’s justice is upheld. The very fact that Christ is my Substitute forces me to use the language of Christ literally being my life, and as Christ is my life, God’s justice is upheld.

  4. But some people would regard your explanation as heretical. I understand that you like it, and to be honest, I like your expression as a metaphor (not the one and only) for the atonement.

    I’m also not suggesting that there should be no standards in a seminary. But I think we should be extremely careful not to be excessively tense about it as well. The texts you quote are relevant, but so are the stories of God’s tolerance of weakness in his messengers, and the example of Jesus in his treatment of the theologically tense.

  5. Hello Henry;
    I agree whole heartedly about being “excessively tense”. Just Curious…what exactly would you say it is that others may find heretical abot the explanation I have given?

  6. David, maybe I did take your words to some extent out of their context. But surely that is precisely how the guardians of orthodoxy work: they find a statement which they disagree with and condemn its author often without even reading the context. When such people read “God cannot punish someone else for our sin” they understand this as a denial of PSA, and once they have that idea about you nothing you say will ever convince them that you are orthodox.

  7. Just Curious…what exactly would you say it is that others may find heretical abot the explanation I have given?

    Well, I think Peter has pointed out how it could happen from the conservative side. Remember, however, that liberals also have convictions, and they might well think your particular view is heretical as well.

    But the fact that you have been misunderstood means that you can be misunderstood. Rarely do those declared heretics believe they have been properly read. (And I suspect they’re generally right!)

  8. Thank you Henry,
    I have asked the Lord for sharper words and believe the that he will give them to me. however, it comes down to this: as long as I look upon Christ and see an innocent person dying, He and I are seperate from each other, and I must still face God’s just wrath and be punished for my sins. But when by faith, I look upon Christ and see not an innocent man dying, but MYSELF dying, being punished for my sin, then the Holy Spirit has baptized me into Christ by faith, and God’s justice is upheld, for He does not punish the innocent on the cross, but the guilty. “When I see this by faith without me”, said John Bunyan, “through the opreation of the Spirit within me”, “I am safe”.

  9. Just a quick point here …. I personally like your particular form of expressing this doctrine. I am saying, however, that I know people who would regard it as heretical.

    My problem with PSA, or rather with its advocates, is that they are often careless with their wording and then also require others to see PSA as the metaphor, rather than as a metaphor for the atonement.

    As you express it, it has great meaning for me. Thanks for taking the time.

  10. Dear Henry,
    Your’e welcome. I also sympathize with your feelings about careless wording. I know that I myself have not been diligent enough in studying out a more precise and accurate wording of the biblical teaching we are discussing. Of course we both know that any proposed model or theory of the atonement must be a biblical one to be true. I think everyone agrees that what the Bible teaches is true and that the question is not about models or theories, but about what the Bible says, because it is God’s Word. The problem with models and theories, and metaphors, is that amoungst such discussion, the topic can become academic and we can lose sight that the truth that we are handling has to do not with mere debate and argurment, but men and women’s eternal souls. There is a truth about the atonement taught in scripture, and while it may be debated upon, that truth is never ‘up for debate’. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our topic is not academic. There are satanic forces which blind men from understanding the gospel (II Cor 4:4). The meaning of the truth of the gospel is that which Satan blinds men to at the peril of their soul’s and is therefore no small matter. I do not believe that the scripture teaches substitution to be A metaphor, or THE metaphor, but that it teaches substitution as literal, and therefore the truth and no metaphor at all. The scripture does, however, use some metaphorical language in describing the objective, literal truth of PSA, such as Jesus’ saying that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn 6), and His further institution of bread and wine (I Cor 11). But the objective fact of substitution is what the scripture teaches. We cannot be content to remain in the realm of debate about the very center or truth and reality, about the truth of the gospel when such a high price is placed upon the souls of men. We mustn’t take our cues from culture or philosophy but from the Spirit and the Word. If the very heart of the gospel is up for debate, then ultimately we are like Martin Luther after climing Pilate’s stairs, kissing them with Pater Nosters, and proclaiming, “who knows if it is true?” Others have found the gospel to be that which they gave their lives for. Satan opposes it to the eternal destruction of men and women. Leaving this truth up for debate is leaving God’s glory and men’s souls up for debate also.
    I realize that my tone is zealous, but none gives their life for theories, models and metaphors, but for truth. There is a great distinction between those who are learning and are unsure, and those who, having clearly been explained the truth of God’s Word and understand its communication, and yet reject it and teach the opposite. And even those in such a condition, those truly false teachers, should be prayed and wept over, but not permitted to be called a Christian and hold a position in a Church as a teacher. If the apostle Peter is not above being rebuked as a hypocrite for his actions which took away from the gospel, why is it such a hard thing for us to make similar stands about truth? I think we’ve grown more comfortable and timid, don’t you? I mean, it’s not as if we’re talking about dress codes in local churches or whether or not infants should be baptized, but the very heart of the faith.

  11. I do not believe that the scripture teaches substitution to be A metaphor, or THE metaphor, but that it teaches substitution as literal, and therefore the truth and no metaphor at all.

    David, at this point I must part company from you. “Metaphor” may not be the ideal word, “model” or “description” may be better. But I reject your attempt to claim that PSA is literally true, with the implication that other metaphors or models are literally false.

  12. Peter, I realize that to make a truth claim neccessarily implies antithesis. But I do not do so bull-headedly (if that’s even a word!). I am open to sound reason, and if it can be shown that the position I hold is not the scriptural teaching, then I want to move away from it towards that which is the truth of God’s Word. But to be truly “open” one must first have a position. For being open implies believing something to be true, but being willing to change one’s view upon plain reason and evidence against it. In this sense (and in this sense only) I am open to other views. But having no view of the truth of what the scripture teaches, no position one holds to be true, is not really openness but, well, sort of…nothingness (in the sense that there is nothing I really hold to be true).

  13. Hasn’t a man said “You swallow a camel and strain at a gnat?” and all of you swallowed the same camel. Wonderful! But according to him only a few ever find the perfected small narrow Way into the kingdom of God. Fellows you are missing a link.
    PSA’s theory by being aligned to the logic of the OT sacrificial system summarily, but in error, concludes that the crucifixion of Jesus has perfected the OT sacrificial system’s logic. This is the camel you fellows have swallowed. The gnat you are straining at is that belief systems and religious practices which preceded Jesus’ crucifixion are in the record as proof of concepts and practice that have no possibility of being able to become perfected by sacrificing an animal or a man as a substitute. The teaching of John the Baptist preceded Jesus’ crucifixion for the same reason of eliminating it. For there to be only one small narrow gate into the kingdom of God perfected by Jesus’ crucifixion all other gates were first eliminated. No one is going to be given any wiggle room to argue with God about the Way Jesus has perfected for you to become one with God i.e. born of God.
    Xinidaxis is right “God cannot punish someone else for our sin(s)” nor did he. For the sacrifice of an animal unlike the crucifixion of Jesus is NOT a sin even though the animal looses it’s life by bloodshed God cannot demand an accounting. Which is why he was not satisfied with the blood of bulls and goats. Therefore the sacrifice of an animal, it not being a sin, cannot have caused one additional word to be added to the law of God because of bloodshed. However relative to the crucifixion of Jesus since his life was taken by bloodshed by crucifying him one word has been added to the law but only relative to the sin of Jesus’ crucifixion. Which is why Jesus said “When he comes he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin.” Therefore the only possible Way the Acts 2:38 command can be obeyed is by the faith of repenting of the one sin of Jesus’ murder to be forgiven of all sins. No other way can be perfected for an entry point into the kingdom of God for God demands an accounting whenever a male human’s life is taken by bloodshed. Jesus by his authority added the word Repent to the law by his crucifixion so that it is only by the faith of repenting of sin of his crucifixion that remission is obtained from the penalty of eternal death. There is no other way of escape. It is best not to neglect it.

    (Howdy quirky Kirk. I see you as full of b/s as ever before.)

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