Book Plunge: Seeing Through Christianity Part 4

What do we do with the atonement? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

As we continue through Zuersher’s work, we come to a chapter on atonement. Now I’ll state this upright. I have not spent much time looking at a lot of theories of the atonement. I have read Wright’s recent work on the cross. I think it’s an excellent work. Still, I cannot speak as an authority on the atonement, but that could be in some ways an advantage here.

You see, the reason I don’t see this as a defeater here is this is my situation. I have enough evidence to convince me that God exists. I have enough evidence to convince me of the full deity of Jesus. I have enough evidence to convince me that Jesus rose from the dead physically. I have enough evidence to convince me that Scripture is reliable. Does it make any sense to anyone to say “I’m not fully clear on how atonement works, so therefore I should doubt that Christianity is true.”?

Of course not. Any area of study will always have some unanswered questions. Consider for instance in science, when we see creatures that seem incredibly advanced. Does this mean every evolutionist will just throw in the towel and abandon the theory wholesale? Not at all, nor would I expect them to. One looks at the primary data they have for a position even if secondary details aren’t exactly clear.

Zuersher says first that there is disagreement means that this is being made up as we go along. He says that this means we do not have some privileged path to the divine. If by that He means that God is not obligated to answer all of our questions for us, that is entirely correct. If He means that we do not have the way to God in Christ, that would be wrong, but believing we do doesn’t mean we have perfect atonement knowledge.

The next part is one that Zuersher gets so close to the truth of matters, but then He rejects it for theological reasons. Zuersher says that satisfaction says that God’s honor must be restored, but if that’s true, then God has personality traits unworthy of a morally perfect being. It’s truly tragic how close Zuersher gets to good theology but then allows his cultural prejudices and lack of understanding of honor to get in the way.

To begin with, I don’t think it’s right to speak of God as a morally perfect being. A morally perfect being is one that does that which they ought to do always. God has no ought. He does not owe anyone anything. God is instead a good being. He is perfect and lacking nothing in Himself.

So how could God be lacking honor? It’s not a lack in Himself. It’s rather how God is perceived. There were two kinds of honor in the ancient world. One was one had based on who they were and their lineage and such. God’s honor is untouched here. The other is their reputation. How are they perceived in the eyes of others? Here, God’s reputation is tied to how He is seen in the eyes of humanity and how we treat Him. We can live lives that honor God or not. Zuersher rejects this without bothering to understand the culture or the theology.

Third, he says that God could just forgive. After all, we do it. Sure, but we are not the ones that are perfectly good and holy. If God just lets it go, He is saying that our well-being is of greater importance than His goodness. In other words, the good of man outranks the good of God. God is treating sin as no big deal, when every sin is really an act of divine treason.

He next says that if Jesus had a fully human nature, then what happened on the cross was murder since it was a human sacrifice. Well, he is right that it is murder. Jesus submitted to the ruling authorities. This is also not the same as suicide. The authorities did not realize what they were doing, but many holy men in Judaism dying would see themselves as dying for the sins of the people.

He also says that a willing death does not excuse the executioners. Of course not. Whoever said that it did? They were fully convinced they were doing right. My statement about this has been that either Jesus was the wickedest man who ever lived and the crucifixion was the most just and righteous act of all to stop Him, or He was the most righteous man who ever lived and the crucifixion was the most wicked act of all time.

He then goes into the claims of how Jesus was an invalid sacrifice. I recommend the works of Michael Brown here on answering Jewish objections to Jesus. Brown has looked at this a lot more than I have.

Next, he argues that this was not a real sacrifice since Jesus did not stay dead. One wonders how this is so. Once the offering is given to God, God can do with it what He wants. If He wants to resurrect Jesus, then He can resurrect Jesus. This would be God’s vindication on the life and claims of Jesus.

He also argues that the theory is immoral since it undermines individual responsibility by having someone accept Jesus’s sacrifice. On the contrary, it upholds it. When presented with the claims of Christ, one must accept their responsibility for the sins that got Him there.

Finally, Zuersher ends with saying that educated men and women hold to atonement thinking today should require no further comment. I instead think that someone can bother to write a book responding to a view without interacting with the best scholarship on it should require no further comment. Sadly, Zuersher does this consistently.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Salvation By Allegiance Alone

What do I think of Matthew Bates’s book published by Baker Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Matthew Bates has written a book with a certainly interesting title. One can expect based on that that people on both sides will be tempted to go after him. (Cue James White having a twelve part series on his show about this.) That would be a shame if it happened because a lot that needs to be said is in this book.

Bates is not wanting to undermine grace, but he is wanting to get rid of a sort of system that is more centered on getting people to get saved instead of getting them to realize Jesus is their king, which would include salvation. We are at a point where we want to get people to sign on a proverbial dotted line and then lo and behold, our work is done. A church group will go out and witness in the streets and get one person to commit their life to Jesus, most likely to get his evangelists to shut up, come back to church shouting success, and that person will never ever darken the doors of a church. Discipleship is not a part of the process.

Bates starts with going after the term faith and that we really shouldn’t use it. I agree with him on this. Faith is a term that has been so misunderstood in our day and age that it leads to more problems. Bates looked at some bad definitions of faith. He wrote about Mormons who wanted someone to believe on faith based on the burning in the bosom. I would have liked to have seen in this section of bad usages of faith the fact that new atheist writers regularly describe faith falsely. People like Dawkins and Harris call it belief without evidence. Peter Boghossian called it pretending to know things you don’t know.

Another good one to look at would have been the Word of Faith movement. Bates looks at this some with saying some people think faith is positive thinking, but this is certainly that and going beyond in a more twisted way. This faith results in the death of children because, hey, you’re not supposed to go to a doctor. Have faith.

With this, it’s time to return to the full Gospel. The Gospel is not me-centered. It is Jesus-centered. It depends on what God has done in Jesus. He gives the Gospel eight parts. Not all have to be explicitly mentioned, but they are all part of the story. Jesus pre-existed with the Father, took on human flesh to fulfill the promises to David, died in accordance with what Scripture says, buried, raised on the third day again as prophesied, appeared to many, sits at the right hand of God as Lord, and will return to judge. This is indeed much more thought out than “Jesus died for my sins.”

It’s also important to realize Jesus taught this Gospel. Too many times when we want the Gospel, we jump straight to Paul. The Gospels pretty much tell us about how Jesus lived, but if you want to know about salvation, you really need to go to Paul. This is not to be anti-Paul or to say that Paul and Jesus contradict, but it is to say we should look at what Jesus said about the Gospel.

Bates then goes on to say that true salvation is allegiance. This is not to make people think of works salvation, as he gets into when he answers questions. We could say one does works not to earn salvation, but because one has sworn allegiance to Jesus as king.

Some of this part to me is still unclear. We do know that John wants us to know we have eternal life (1 John 5:13) and we don’t want to have people living in fear of their own salvation. At the same time, we don’t want to undermine obedience to Jesus. As someone in a ministry position, I do know for instance of many men who come to me and who want to be good Christians, and yet have the struggle of dealing with pornography. Bates does recognize we still have entangling sin and he himself has some sins he is struggling with, but I wonder how this would be handled in a pastoral situation, but more on that later.

The next major section is on new creation. Bates says we have too often made Heaven the goal of Christianity. I couldn’t agree more. Some of my biggest problems with funerals today has been the emphasis on Heaven. Don’t get me wrong. There is a glorious after-death waiting for us. The problem is that the grand coming of it is not until the resurrection and it’s not in a place far far away. It’s right here on Earth. God is going to recreate this world and it will be better than ever before.

Bates then says we need to restore the idol of God. Some people might wonder what he’s getting into with a chapter like this, but he’s entirely correct. Bates says that in ancient Hebrew terminology, we being in the image of God would mean we are the idol of God. We represent God. No piece of wood could ever do that. The main example of this is, of course, Jesus.

When we restore humanity to its rightful place, we will also treat one another better. Each of us is someone who bears the image of God. To treat your neighbor unjustly is to treat God unjustly. To love your neighbor rightly is to love God rightly.

The final chapters are much more theological and the systematic theologians will love it. This is looking at the ideas of righteousness and atonement. Those who are curious about the New Perspective on Paul will find an interesting look here at the material.

I would liked to have seen more on the pastoral side in the book as it is written for the lay audience. I could picture a mother reading this and saying “So does that mean when my son accepted Christ at a young age that it was illegitimate because allegiance was not sworn?” I do not think Bates would say this, but I think there needed to be something like that there. I do agree that we need allegiance brought in. We said the pledge of allegiance to the flag every day in school. Why not to our Lord every Sunday in church?

While there are points of clarification that will be brought out later, Bates book is full of good material that needs to be learned. It is a call to return to discipleship. It is a call to remember Jesus is indeed your friend and you have a relationship with Him, but He is your king and deserves no lesser treatment.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Christ Crucified by Donald Macleod

What do I think about Donald Macleod’s book on the atonement? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

ChristCrucified

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he desired to know nothing else save Christ and Him crucified. Why? What makes the crucifixion of Christ so central? What is it about those six hours on a Friday afternoon that forever rocked the world?

Donald MacLeod’s work is all about this event and what all it entails as he goes through the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament writings. This is an in-depth look at the doctrine of the atonement. After going through it, you should never think about the doctrine the same way and a reading of this got me to realize I need to think about the atonement more seriously.

So let’s cover the positives. First off, the first couple of chapters are just gripping as we go through a brief look at the life of Christ but described in terms of what the events must have been like for the Christ and how He was rejected by the world and His friends and the weight of bearing the sin of the world on the cross.

In fact, I’d say this was my favorite part of the book and if you purchase it (As IVP sent me a review copy and I greatly thank them for that) then this part will easily be worth the whole price of the book. I do not consider myself an emotional person and empathy is not a strong suit of mine, but I still found myself gripped by what I was reading.

Second positive, Macleod goes into great detail on theological terms used in Scripture like Propitiation and redemption and terms we might not think too much about. A section I thought would last a few pages turned out to go through a whole chapter.

Third, Macleod gives an apologetic presentation as well answering questions at the end such as if there was another way. He looks at rival theories that seek to explain the death of the Christ without it being a substitution and blood atonement. He also throughout the book answers charges of cosmic child abuse and other such claims.

Finally, Macleod ends the book rightly where he should, with a look at what this means for the Great Commission. He shows us that by the work of Christ, the devil has been defeated and we are free to go into the world and fulfill the Great Commission.

Now let’s talk about ways I thought the book could have been improved. On a minor point, Macleod is quite sure that Jesus was buried honorably. This is a point that I would contest. This is only a minor one, but it did stand out to me.

Second, Macleod raises some questions about divine impassibility, the idea that God does not have emotions. I found this troubling throughout as the ramifications of God being emotional are problematic as I think it ends up being a deity that is changing and progressing and in fact, dependent on His creation. A few times Macleod points to how it must have been for the Father to see His Son on the cross and at suffering in the heart of God. The theory of the atonement does not depend on God suffering and I found such ideas raising questions that I do not think are adequately answered if impassibility is denied.

Third, I would have liked to have seen more on justification. There was not a whole chapter on it and that would have been a welcome inclusion. Especially I would have liked to have seen how Macleod’s view of the atonement would interact with the New Perspective on Paul. Could we see some interaction with Wright and Dunn and others?

The good thing is that none of these negatives ultimately distract from the book as a whole. You can still walk away with a good theory of the atonement and understand that these are points you can disagree on. The argument as a whole still stands as none of these points are central.

In conclusion, I do recommend the work as one if you want to understand the atonement more thoroughly as Macleod has gone highly in-depth and we owe him a debt of gratitude.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Is God a SadoMasochist?

Is the cross just a sick and depraved act? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Recently, this video was brought to my attention. Be warned that it does contain strong profanity for all interested as well as some disturbing images. I put it up here just so that readers can make sure I have given an accurate representation of the video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXXgUpv7APE

Now lately, I’ve spent much time blogging about how we have the gospel wrong. We have taken a part of it, forgiveness, which is an important part, and made it the whole deal.

When John the Baptist and Jesus showed up teaching the gospel, most people were not thinking about forgiveness. The Jewish system already had a way set up where you could receive forgiveness and there was no major need to replace it. Of course, some did come for forgiveness as Jesus was showing how forgiveness would work in the Kingdom, but Jesus did not preach an unheard of concept. All the Jews knew about forgiveness.

Jesus taught something greater. He taught that the plan of Israel was coming to a fruition. God was about to act to rectify the problem. What problem is that? It is the problem of sin and evil and death. Our teaching today tends to ask about the cross “What does it do for me?” It is foreign for us to think about the rest of the world.

So in replying to the producer of the vid, who based on his name I will just call BD for short, we will need to keep this in mind. Nowhere is there any material about the kingdom of God in the video, or about the problem of evil, or anything about the story of Israel.

Note also something else important that never shows up in the video. Never do we see an argument against the existence of God. We do not see an argument that shows that the resurrection did not happen. It is as if BD just wants to hit us with an emotional attack and make us not think about the real claim. If God exists and if Jesus did rise, then Christianity is true and that must be dealt with.

So let’s deal with some errant concepts that show up.

BD has a terrible rendition of the Trinity where the Son is the reincarnation (How can there be a reincarnation without a first incarnation) of the Father. However, he also uses the classic Bill Maher type of argumentation where God sends Himself to sacrifice to Himself, Himself to solve the problem that He Himself created.

If BD does not want to be a Christian. Fine. If he wants to think the Trinity is nonsense. Fine. Yet in all of this, at least get the concept right. If someone wants to be an atheist, at least seek to be an informed atheist. When I see a misrepresentation of the Trinity in this way I automatically know this is someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A good library would have volumes that would help give BD some understanding of the Trinity even if he doesn’t believe in it.

BD also wishes to point out that some people have suffered worse than Jesus. This is not being denied. But so what? BD assumes the worst part of the crucifixion was the pain of the cross. Of course the cross was physically painful, but it was more designed to be socially painful. It was designed to shame the criminal before others and thus give the notion to anyone else watching that “Maybe you don’t want to do what this guy did.”

Furthermore, Jesus being shamed was said thus to be a traitor to Rome and to be under the curse of YHWH. This is what makes the resurrection so important. The resurrection is the vindication of the claim of Jesus to be the King of Israel. It is God raising Him up so He can rule, since a dead king cannot rule the Kingdom of God. It is a reversal of the shame and God giving Jesus the place of highest honor.

So what about that sacrifice? How could it be a sacrifice if Jesus knew He was coming back? When something was offered to God, God could do with it what He wanted. Jesus had to face shame and death as it was entirely to take on the full curse for us. (If you remember, Genesis 3 has a little something about a curse) In facing death and shame head on, Jesus is able to overcome them for us. He is able to rectify the problems of evil, death, and sin.

This is why the story of Israel is so important. Genesis 3 is not an accidental test. It sets the whole tone of the Bible from then on. It’s not the case that the story of Abraham has nothing to do with that. The story has everything to do with it. Abraham’s role is to help restore that which was lost. Over and over, man fails at the attempt to rule as God desires, until finally Jesus comes who is able to do that.

Well couldn’t God just forgive? Not exactly. God is the greatest good and thus has the greatest honor. If God decides He won’t punish sin, then He is not treating Himself as the greatest good. He is being inconsistent. If He does this just for us, then it is akin to idolatry.

God must be just. That must mean there must be some punishment given for sin. BD wishes to make it be that God delights in punishing us. If that was the case, then one wonders why forgiveness would be offered at all. If God just wanted to punish us, He could have been eternally just and never sent Jesus and no one could say “You’ve done wrong.” God is under no obligation to forgive anyone or even provide a way of forgiveness.

Of course, BD has the idea of Hell as a torture chamber. Is he truly unaware that there are many different views of Hell, including ones that see it as eternal conscious torment, that are not torture chamber motifs? This includes my own view that sees Heaven and Hell as not physical locations, but as relational realities. The same sun that melts wax hardens clay. The love of God that melts the hearts of the repentant hardens the hearts of those opposed.

In conclusion, we note that BD has not given any arguments against the central truths of Christianity but has chosen to speak (Quite ignorantly) of the parts he does not understand. Once again, if someone wants to be an atheist, be one, but at least be informed in your atheism.

In Christ,
Nick Peters