Book Plunge: Atonement and the Death of Christ

What do I think of William Lane Craig’s book published by Baylor University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

William Lane Craig is often said to be the #1 apologist alive today. I consider him a friend personally, and yet I honestly haven’t read many of his books at this point. It’s not because I am opposed to him in some way. It’s just that for whatever reason, I haven’t. When I got this book in the mail though, I figured I should see what it was like. Most of Craig’s works I know of have been apologetics works. While there is apologetics in this to a degree, this one is more theological.

I was also curious because I am a fan of N.T Wright and I couldn’t help but think of this being a response in part to his book on the atonement. Thus, I dove in. I will be giving a brief summary of what the book is about and then listing things I liked about it followed by areas that I had some questions about.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is the biblical data, which makes sense. When forming a doctrine from the Bible, the Bible is usually seen as a good place to go to. Craig actually begins in the Old Testament, which I also thought proper, and looks at topics like sacrifice and the suffering servant before proceeding to how this is fleshed out in the new.

From there, he goes to history. What do the Fathers of the church say about the atonement? What was said in the medieval period? What happened after the time of the Reformation?

Finally, we get into probably what is the most unusual part of the book, though interesting and helpful, and that is the philosophy of the atonement. In this, there is not only a look at the philosophy surrounding justice and mercy, but also around law courts. There are several instances of American law cited and questions of topics such as how do pardons work.

So for positives here, Craig is indeed very thorough. Most people would not think of including something like this last section in a book on the atonement, but Craig does. He also does include some words on the New Perspective on Paul. It’s food for thought, but at this point, I am not ready to say the NPP doesn’t work.

On page 206, there is a wonderful paragraph on the necessity of the crucifixion and the resurrection. This helps show the connection between God dealing out justice and God being merciful on us. There is too little of this in Christian thinking today in that we don’t see the difference the resurrection makes beyond “Christianity is true.”

As I said earlier, I appreciate Craig going to the Old Testament. The Old Testament is where our faith begins and too often we dispense of it. Most Christians I meet who are biblical scholars are New Testament scholars. Nothing wrong with being one, but we need specialists in the Old Testament as well.

I also did appreciate the final section. It was interesting looking at the atonement through the eyes of jurisprudence and seeing how modern notions of law can help us see the way the doctrine works. I also appreciate the philosophical objections being dealt with such as penal substitution being immoral.

However, there are some points I wish to raise that I would like to see addressed.

First, when we get to the New Testament data, I think there is an overemphasis on Paul. I am not opposed to Paul, but when you look in the references, you will find more references to Romans than you will to all the Gospels combined. While I do not consider it Pauline, at least exclusively, the same applies to Hebrews as well. On this point, I think Wright does come out ahead since he does spend more time in the Gospels with the direct words of Jesus.

On p. 167, Craig says it seems odd that someone can be forgiven for their sins and punished for their sins. It does, but I immediately remembered King David’s first son with Bathsheba. David was explicitly said he was forgiven, but he was also told immediately that the child born to him would die. It looks like then that David was forgiven and still punished. I would like to see this fleshed out.

I would have liked to have seen more interaction with N.T. Wright. Wright is the most prolific writer who has put out something on the doctrine and while he was cited at times, I would have liked to have seen an extensive interaction with him.

Finally, I thought the discussions of modern law were interesting, but I kept being struck by a concern in that. If we were in England, would we see English law? Would we see German law in Germany? American law is the category we think in, but does it follow that it’s applicable to the biblical doctrine?

I would have liked to have seen interaction with law in the world of Jesus, such as the law of Caesar or the law of the Sanhedrin. How did justice work in those courts? How did Caesar dole out justice and mercy both? Could Caesar give a pardon and how would that work? After all, these are the categories the biblical world was set in. I am not saying that there is no correspondence to modern law, but I can be skeptical. In a future work, I would prefer to see law in the ancient world look at.

That being said, Craig’s work is a great defense of penal substitution in particular, but I think also rightly recognizing there are some elements of other atonement theories. It is quite likely one will not cover everything. Those wanting a good resource on the doctrine of the atonement owe it to themselves to read Craig’s book.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 1

Does the cosmological argument stand up? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I’ve had sitting on the backburner for awhile another book besides Seeing Through Christianity to go through and that’s Evidence Considered by Glenton Jelbert. Jelbert has decided to go after Mike Licona and Bill Dembski’s book Evidence For God. Jelbert is a former Christian and it is interesting to go through what he has.

The first chapter is on the cosmological argument which was written by David Beck. It’s noteworthy that there is no distinction between what kind of cosmological argument is used. Craig uses one kind that is called the horizontal argument. This one goes with the beginning of the universe and largely relies on Big Bang Cosmology. The vertical kind does not require any science at all and is more philosophical and asks what is the basis for the existing of the universe.

Imagine you wake up tomorrow and you hear some weird music playing. You ask “What is causing this sound?” It doesn’t seem to make sense to ask “What caused this sound?” since the sound is going on in the present. The music is continually playing so you ask what is causing it.

Now another day, you wake up and you go outside to do a morning walk and you find when you open the front door a giant crystal orb is blocking your path. You ask “What caused this?” because it’s being put there is an event that happened in the past. It is often missed that you could just as much ask “What is causing this?”

Why could you ask that? Because too often, the existence of these things is treated like a given. It’s as if things can exist by their own power. One could say that we could commit suicide by our own power, but none of us can by our own power say “I don’t want to exist!” and just poof out.

Jelbert begins his response by saying we could grant the argument and it doesn’t really get us close to theism. He says that all religions are able to use this shows this, but can they all use it? For instance, Mormonism would not use this argument since matter is really eternal in Mormonism with gods begetting gods that create their own planets where the denizens can become gods.

The Abrahamic religions can use this because the vertical form definitely depends on one uncaused cause. Using natural theology and Aristotelian metaphysics, Aquinas can tell us plenty about the god that can be found. There is a false notion that to say that since natural theology alone can’t tell us what god there is, then there can’t be a god. In the Middle Ages, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian philosophers could all agree on the arguments of natural theology. They’d determine which form of theism is true by looking at special revelation.

From there, Jelbert goes on to talk about how Jeopardy recently defined atheism as “The active, principled denial of the existence of God.” Jelbert refers to this an absurd definition. Jelbert says “A definition of atheist as someone who does not believe there is a god, is the equivalent of saying that since the case has not been made, the burden of proof lies with the theist/deist.”

First off, this sentence is incredibly unclear. Thinking it was just me, I showed it to one of my friends who’s much more familiar with English and grammar only to get a similar response. My rule with the burden of proof argument is that anyone who makes a claim has a burden. If you come up and say “I am an atheist,” and I ask why, you need to back that. It doesn’t work to say “Unless you can demonstrate your case, atheism is true.” It could be that I am a theist who has terrible reasons for believing in God and yet God still exists. If I come to you and say I’m a theist, it’s not up to you to disprove theism. It’s up to me to demonstrate theism.

As for the idea about it being absurd, perhaps Jelbert would like to speak to these others.

“Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”

William Rowe The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy p.62

“Atheism, as presented in this book, is a definite doctrine, and defending it requires one to engage with religious ideas. An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being.”

Robin Le Poidevin Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion p.xvii

Jelbert goes on to say that the argument proves nothing about Jesus, virgin births (Which I do affirm), the resurrection, or any creed. Indeed it doesn’t. It is hardly a fault of an argument that it does not prove what it was never meant to prove. The argument could be entirely valid and Islam is true. Either way, atheism is false.

Jelbert goes on to argue that maybe the cause is itself physical. The problem with this is that in the horizontal form, the being is beyond space, time, and matter, which means it is not limited by any of those and thus it is not spatial, it is eternal, and it is immaterial. In the vertical form, it is a being that is not capable of change from another agent. Anything material is capable of such change. This is because in Thomistic and Aristotelian metaphysics, these kinds of things have what is called potential, which is capacity for change. Matter essentially has this. Thus, physical beings are ruled out.

Jelbert also argues that an infinite chain could possibly exist. This would be a problem for a horizontal version perhaps, but not a vertical one. There are two kinds of chains. In one chain, consider my wife and I. Suppose in a tragedy our parents all died through car accidents or some other means today. That would not mean that we suddenly go out of existence. In fact, we could have our own children still without our parents. (Obviously, we don’t want anything to happen to our parents of course.)

If this kind of chain is what the universe is, then an infinite chain could be possible. I leave that to the mathematicians. Yet what if our universe is not like this? Aquinas gives the example of a stick pushing a rock and the rock pushing a leaf while the stick is pushed by a hand. This is a short chain, but in this chain, if you remove any part, all activity ceases. All present activity is continuously dependent on past activity. If that is the case for our universe, then an infinite chain is not possible.

A Thomistic argument gives a chain where existence depends on something else existing. If all existing depends on another existence, then you have such a chain going on as with the rock being moved, then there’s no reason to think any existing would be going on right now. This is not chronological either. If it was, it would be the former chain. Too many atheistic arguments treat existing as if it was a given. It’s quite odd to think that so many atheists who want to talk about how God doesn’t exist don’t really say much about what it means to exist.

Jelbert then says that the third point is that there must be a single uncaused or infinite being. Jelbert sees a switch between cause and being, but it’s a wonder what we’re supposed to see. If anything is causing any change, it must be something that exists in some way, that is, it is. It’s a being.

Jelbert also says that Beck says that “We cannot make sense of the universe, the reality in which we live, apart from there being a real God.” Jelbert says that this is an admission that the feeling of not knowing is something Beck doesn’t like and he heals it with the idea of God. It’s a wonder how this is read. Beck just gave a statement of fact. Nothing is said about personal feelings in the matter.

Jelbert then goes on to say that this is what has been done for millennia, but this is indeed too much of a leap. The first leap is to assume an emotional case for Beck. The second is to assume that everyone thinks in modern individualistic psychological terminology.

If we want to play this game, then we could say that many people find a God distasteful who will judge them for their sins, require repentance, or disagree with their political views. This causes psychological discomfort. The way to quiet this is to argue that this God doesn’t exist to give emotional solace.

Does this apply to some people? Sure. Are some people also Christians for emotional reasons? Sadly so. Does this tell us about the truth? Not at all. Instead, Jelbert has given a reason that cannot be known. Saying that you have an explanation that explains something is not necessarily addressing something emotional. It could provide emotional solace as a plus, but that does not mean that it is false.

We will later on look at another chapter.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

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