Pushing the atonement to the limit?

(What follows is a summary of a paper I’ve been meaning to write for several years now, but never got around to. If anybody is interested enough to comment, I’d be happy to know if it would be worth actually doing…) The doctrine of limited atonement seems largely forgotten by mainstream academic theology today. Actually, that is wrong – it is not forgotten, it is remembered with shame, derision, and sometimes amusement. Yet once this doctrine was seriously held by the majority of Reformed theologians. Why? They saw a theological advantage: they understood their claim about the atonement to be that it was definite, rather than limited. That is, on their scheme, Christ died to accomplish a certain fixed end, and that end is infallibly accomplished. Their basic reason for their position, however, was straightforwardly exegetical: they believed that there were Scriptures that could not be evaded that taught limited atonement. (And they believed that the Scriptures that seemed to teach universal atonement could be evaded.) Let us praise them first – rightly, they took their stand on exegesis. But I suspect that they (and their early modern Arminian opponents) gave in too quickly to the insistent demands of logic: there were seemingly-compelling texts on either side of the argument, and Calvinists and Remonstrants alike assumed both could not be right, and so sought to evade the clear teaching of one set of Scriptures. (Of course, one can believe in an atonement that is both definite and universal by becoming a universalist; this route became popular in many formerly-Calvinist traditions. The issue then becomes the need to evade the Scriptures that seem to teach clearly the reality of an eternal punishment awaiting the impenitent. Again, I suspect that exegesis too quickly surrenders to the claims of logic in these arguments.) Let me then pause at the level of exegesis: some texts seem clearly to teach that the atonement is limited in intent, and/or definite in application; others to teach that it is universal in intent, and/or indefinite in application. I take it that, for all our sophisticated advances in exegetical practice in the last three centuries, this basic impasse remains. Is there a way through it? Can we try to imagine that in fact both sets of texts are right? I do not want to propose embracing paradox, but I do want to suggest that exegetical responsibility is such that we should linger long, wondering whether the apparent logical either/or cannot be overcome, before we start our theological attempts to evade this or that part of Holy Scripture. We have learnt in the last couple of generations learnt to embrace simultaneously divergent understandings of the atonement, at least at the level of mechanism. Using language of ‘metaphor’, ‘parable’, or similar, we see differing accounts as complementary rather than competing. This is fine, however, when we are talking about simply different explanatory systems – medicine vs law court vs slave market, say. But in the case of Calvinism vs Arminianism, and particularly in the case of limited vs universal atonement, we are not dealing with incommensurate explanations, but with directly competing claims. A warm and fuzzily inclusive appeal to ‘metaphor’ will not defuse the logical problem with which we are faced. Thinking about the nature of metaphor might, however. The old story of the three blind men and the elephant springs to mind – each uses a helpful metaphor to describe the part of the truth that he has, quite literally in the case of that story, grasped. Could we begin to imagine an account of the saving work of Jesus which is in one sense universal, and in another particular, in one sense simply given by divine decree, in another made available to human response? At least on the first of these pairs, it happens that the tradition offers a minority report as to how this might work. A number of late nineteenth-century British evangelical theologians (most famously, James Orr; most interestingly, perhaps, T.R. Birks) offered what Henri Blocher and Stephen Williams have variously described as a ‘fourth view’ on the nature of hell (alongside eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and universalism). They suggested, one way or another, that all people were affected by the death of Christ – it was in one sense universal – but that not all were saved – it was in another sense particular. The reality of the eternal fate of the unsaved was decisively different, and better, because of what Christ has done, but a binary distinction remains. This seems to me a fruitful thought, theologically. In fact, I would want to extend it further: there are accounts of...

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A cold and broken hallelujah?

I was down at Evangelical Alliance Council last week, and added several other meetings in London with it. I had a conversation over a glass of wine with someone who I like, and indeed respect greatly, which, at one point, was depressingly familiar. My friend had been at a big Christian gathering; some recently-written choruses had been sung; the theological content (or lack thereof) of the choruses was deplored and/or ridiculed. I hear so much criticism like this that sometimes I feel that I ought to join a 12-step programme – ‘My name is Steve, and I am a charismatic…’ The fact remains, I enjoy, appreciate, benefit from, this style of worship. Several times a year, I find myself in ‘big tent’ worship gatherings, and for me they are amongst my spiritual highlights (along with solitary silent retreats, prayer with certain friends, and being at worship with my own local church). I’ve had a go (or two or three) at defending modern worship music before on this blog, but a new thought struck me that seemed worth recording. Some of the common criticisms are of course merely irrelevant. The poetic quality of the songs is not up to… So what? If I want poetry, I’ll read Eliot or Dante or (current favourite discovery) Whitman – if I want devotional poetry, I’ll read Donne or Milton or Herbert (or R.S. Thomas, actually). Hymns are not poems; this is just a confusion of genre. Wesley and Watts were not great poets; they were great hymnwriters. (And Cowper was a very good poet, but a lesser hymnwriter.) The theological content of the songs is not up to… So what? If I want theology, I’ll read Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, … This is another confusion of genre. Wesley and Watts were very, very far from great theologians (Watts tied himself in knots over basic Trinitarian grammar later in his life). More interestingly, perhaps, and repeatedly, in the criticism I hear or read, the song is taken as an object (‘text’) complete in itself, and then criticised as incomplete in some way: it does not address this or that idea, held to be so central that it may not be omitted; or it is one-sided in its appreciation of a complex truth; or it does not adequately identify the One who is addressed in worship. This, however, is to mistake the nature of these songs. It is akin to criticising an arm because it is not the whole body (to borrow an illustration). No song intended for public worship is written to be a whole, complete in itself; rather it is a component that may be correlated with other components to build a complete and adequate liturgy. An act of worship may be incomplete, less than adequately theological, or whatever; an individual song, prayer, or other liturgical component cannot be, considered of itself. Now, there are no doubt songs – and indeed readings, written prayers, and other liturgical actions (elbow bumps of peace, anybody?) – that are so confused, lacking in content, or just plain wrong as to be unusable in any liturgical context. And, sure, there are plenty such in recent charismatic hymnody. (I had a friend who edited one of the early songbooks. He said that every other song arrived with a note saying, ‘the Holy Spirit just gave me this…’ to which his standard reply was, ‘well, I can see why He wanted to be rid of it.’) But more often, when you explore the criticism, the song is in itself perfectly serviceable; it was just used badly, placed in a context where it didn’t fit, or asked to support a weight it could not, of itself, bear. That doesn’t make it a bad song. It might be a great song, distorted horribly by an awful liturgy. (It happens to the great hymns as well, of course. How often, at the wedding of a non-Christian friend, have you been asked to sing ‘breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm, let sense be dumb, let flesh retire…’ because ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is the only hymn the couple know? This is a far, far worse liturgical placement than any example from my recent experience of charismatic liturgies, but no-one blames the hymn for it.) Recent Christian worship songs can be used to construct meaningful and beautiful Christian worship that is theologically profound and liturgically satisfying. Routinely, in my experience, they are. If they are mis-used, it is not the fault of the songs, but of the liturgist. Of course, all of us who have led worship have made egregious errors often...

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Trying to understand Mark Driscoll

(Yeah, I know, being somewhat nice about John Piper is one thing, but…) The thing is, I think several of Driscoll’s sillier comments (and surely the most partisan supporter will own that he has said some rather odd things over the years?) are manifestations of the same two basic positions, and I find that an interesting reflection. Driscoll’s public comments (by which I mean those that have attracted notice) have largely been to do with issues in ethics. He is famous for discussing what Christian people should and should not do, in detailed and often rather graphic terms. Of course, he lives and pastors in a nation where (to borrow Samuel Butler’s magnificent line) many people are ‘equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced’ – although this is probably less the case in Seattle than in many other areas of the USA. My first exposure to Driscoll was reading his first book (I believe?), Radical Reformission. There is a chapter in there where he narrates his realisation that drinking alcohol is not forbidden to the Christian in Scripture. Fair enough; I think there are all sorts of good reasons why one might choose to be teetotal, and there are many situations where it is a pressing ethical imperative, but one glance at the convoluted logic of those who claim it as a Biblical position is enough to discount it. Driscoll, however, then moves directly to the position that it is thus a Christian duty to drink alcohol. He puts it like this: ‘My Bible study convinced me of my sin of abstinence from alcohol. So in repentance I drank a hard cider over lunch with our worship pastor.’ (Radical Reformission, p. 146.) This seems a very odd comment, explicable in only two ways. Either he is assuming that if an act is not forbidden, it must be commanded, or he found particular reasons for regarding his previous teetotal stance to be not just not required, but actually sinful. It happens that both of these seem to be factors in many of Driscoll’s positions. To take the latter first, in the book Driscoll links prohibition in the USA with feminism: Tragically, as feminism grew in America around the turn of the twentieth century, the women’s suffrage and prohibition movements, which were the result of a feminine piety that came to dominate the church, also flourished. This all occurred as more women became pastors and the church became more feminine. At the same time, some denominations even began to condemn alcohol as sinful … The marriage of Christianity and feminism, helped to create a dry nation… (p. 146) Probably the kindest thing to say about this paragraph is that not many local church pastors understand how church history and culture mutually interact (although most manage not to display both their ignorance and their lack of comprehension quite so blatantly either…). I will also do Driscoll the honour of assuming that the implication that it is sinful for women to want to vote in elections, although logically demanded by his words, was not one he intended. All that said, the identification of ‘feminism’ as the key social evil seems to me to be rather characteristic of Driscoll, and driving a lot of his positions. His particularly hardline version of ‘complementarianism;’ his aggressive assertions of masculinity; his rather strange vision of Jesus as muscular superhero, even – all have at root this strange fear that the church is being feminised. (I take it that there is no need to defend here either the proposition that feminism is not the all-consuming social force Driscoll imagines, or the proposition that an adequately Christian theology demands the affirmation of the full humanity of women, including the recognition of God’s calling of all women, and all men, to proper Christian vocations, and God’s calling of some women, and some men, to leadership and teaching positions within the church.) The second feature here is the assumption that all actions are either prohibited or demanded by Scripture. This curious ‘law of the excluded ethical middle’ seems to me to be a repeated problem in Driscoll’s commentary. He has spotted that the repressed 1950s sexuality he apparently grew up with had nothing to do with Scripture. Good. But to move from there to preaching that it is a Christian duty for married couples to engage in various forms of sexual activity is ethically illegitimate and, I suggest, pastorally unhelpful (particularly when allied with his rather crudely-stated views on the proper ordering of authority within the family – see above). So what? Well, something like this. It is rather easy...

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