Thinking Out Loud

February 23, 2017

Signs of Evangelicalism’s Demise

Yesterday we mentioned an article posted by Scot McKnight at the Patheos blog Jesus Creed titled The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?

scot-mcknightHe begins,

Not long ago I posted on the loss of the evangelical soul, a post in part stimulated by the tone of conversations I am witnessing on FB. Everybody’s a prophet these days and thinks so because, so they think, they are speaking truth to power. They’re not. They’re yelling in a barrel full of self-appointed prophets

Today’s post moves into signs of evangelicalism’s demise. Let’s get the standard definition of evangelicalism on the table first: an evangelical is committed to these four elements: the Bible, the cross as the place of atonement, the necessity of personal conversion, and an active Christian life both in missions/evangelism as well as justice, peace and reconciliation….

…Those four elements are crumbling, folks, they are crumbling. It’s not that evangelicalism has been yet again swamped by politics and lost its way. Rather, it is swamped by politics because those four elements are crumbling. Bible and theology are of little interest other than an odd Bible citation to prop up a claim. Small groups read books by well-known authors, rarely are they studies on a single book of the Bible (publishers aren’t selling these as well today), far too many of its most prominent theologians write books unanchored in Scripture and they do not begin with sketches of the Bible.

He then breaks down his areas of concern with the following headers:

  1. The Bible Diminished
  2. Mission Work Has Become Social Work
  3. Where Are The Pastors?
  4. Atonement Confusion
  5. Embracing Our Flaws
  6. Pride in Politics Rather Than Piety

Again, you need to click through to read the article, it’s not lengthy and I encourage you to do so.

The section headed Atonement Confusion caught my interest:

Atonement theology has fallen on hard times. It has become politicized into penal substitution, which for some means propitiation, vs. some other center of gravity — and more and more it has moved toward Girardian scapegoat theory, exemplary theology, or a very soft Christus victor. Hard headed conservatives are protecting propitiation at all costs and neglecting kingdom themes in the process and so distort atonement while committed progressivists are determined to prevent the wrath of God against sin and sinners (mentioning Jonathan Edwards does the trick) so they can find some “theory” of atonement that turns the Holy Week into justice and more justice. Evangelicalism from beginning to end is a cross-shaped atonement-based gospel and there is little appeal for a new book like John R.W. Stott’s The Cross of Christ except with the propitiation crowd, who are in an echo chamber of Stott. I have attempted to sketch a comprehensive theory of atonement in A Community called Atonement.

I asked Dr. McKnight if he would break this down a little bit for the lay-reader; the average parishioner like me who might find this paragraph a little above their pay grade. He graciously replied with this brief synopsis:

1. Evangelicals are shifting toward a variety of approaches to atonement. Some think it’s about the wrath of God, some think it’s about Jesus as enduring injustice, others think it’s about Jesus showing us how to fight for justice, some think Jesus got trapped in a culture-religious war, etc.

2. People think anything having to do with punishment makes God unworthy of worship and an angry, embattled God who seeks vengeance. So, they want a God of love theory.

3. Jesus did with us, instead of us, and for our redemption. (And he was raised, too!)

For more of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom view, check out his other books, including the one we reviewed here, The King Jesus Gospel.


…After considering that, I decided to go back into McKnight’s original paragraph and look at some of the elements contained there. First, scapegoat theory. This is from René Girard’s Mimetic Theory of the Scapegoat.

René Girard’s Mimetic Theory is based on the principle that human beings are mimetic creatures.  We imitate what we see in others. In fact, our desires are not actually our own, but desires we have copied from others.  The more we imitate each other, the more alike we become.  Increasingly, we vie for the same desires and we become rivals. The more human beings imitate each other, the more individuals become alike.  Distinctions between individuals are blurred as they mirror each other.  The boundaries between individuals which keep order, begin to disintegrate. Increased rivalry creates increased violence and the blurred boundaries threaten to destabilize the social fabric.

In Girard’s theory, primitive man stumbled upon the solution to this threat: the scapegoat.  By placing the blame for all the hatred and distress on one individual or group of individuals, the community’s violence becomes polarized toward the ones being blamed.  These responsible individuals become the scapegoats for all the bad feeling in the community. By expelling or killing the scapegoat, order is restored and the community becomes peaceful again. The single act of sanctioned violence, becomes like a vaccination against the disease of chaotic, out of control violence.

It is critical that the members of the community be completely convinced that the scapegoat is guilty for this mechanism to restore order.  That is why the scapegoat must be accused and slandered before he is killed, but after the killing, everyone attributes the restored order to the scapegoat’s sacrifice.  In this way, the sacrificial victim becomes responsible for both the violence and the peace in the community.  He becomes “the sacred”…

Exemplary Theology proved a little more slippery in terms of finding a concise definition. (If you can direct me to one, we’ll insert it here.)

Wikipedia has a definition of Christus victor:

According to the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement, Christ’s death defeated the powers of evil, which had held humankind in their dominion. It is a model of the atonement that is dated to the Church Fathers, and it, or the related ransom theory, was the dominant theory of the Atonement for a thousand years, until Anselm of Canterbury supplanted it in the West with his Satisfaction theory of atonement.

Their article also contains three atonement theory models:

In his [1931] book, [Gustaf] Aulén identifies three main types of Atonement Theories:

  • The earliest was what Aulén called the “classic” view of the Atonement, more commonly known as the Ransom Theory, or since Aulén’s work, it is known sometimes as the “Christus Victor” theory: this is the theory that Adam and Eve made humanity subject to the Devil during the Fall, and that God, in order to redeem humanity, sent Christ as a “ransom” or “bait” so that the Devil, not knowing Christ couldn’t die permanently, would kill him, and thus lose all right to humanity following the Resurrection.
  • A second theory is the “Latin” or “objective” view, more commonly known as Satisfaction Theory, beginning with Anselmian Satisfaction (that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind, satisfying the demands of God’s honor) and later developed by Protestants as penal substitution (that Christ is punished instead of humanity, thus satisfying the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive). Some have argued that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was expressed by the early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr c.100-165, Eusebius of Caesarea c.275-339, and Augustine of Hippo 354-430.
  • A third is the “subjective” theory, commonly known as the Moral Influence view, that Christ’s passion was an act of exemplary obedience which affects the intentions of those who come to know about it.

There is also a link there to this article by Greg Boyd.

 

 

 

 

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August 2, 2013

Presbyterians Reject “In Christ Alone”

Denny Burk:

Timothy George explains why the Presbyterian Church USA has recently rejected the hymn “In Christ Alone” from its new hymnal:

Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

There is no surprise in this news. Although not all PCUSA churches are theologically liberal, the denomination by and large is. Liberalism and wrath go together like oil and water; they don’t mix. And historically speaking, one of them eventually has to go. When wrath goes, so does the central meaning of the atonement of Christ—penal substitution. At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the PCUSA cannot abide this hymn.

You can read the rest of George’s article here. …

Shane Vander Hart:

…On the Committee’s Facebook page earlier this month they wrote, “After last night’s Hymn Festival, PCOCS think that ‘In Christ Alone’ will become a favorite. What are your other favorites on the list?”

Apparently they used a version that excluded the wrath of God.  How far the Presbyterian Church (USA) has drifted from their historical roots.  I’m trying to picture John Knox, the leader of the Reformation in Scotland and founder of the Presbyterian Church,  having an issue with idea of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ’s death on the Cross.

Knox once said, “By the brightness of God’s scriptures we are brought to the feeling of God’s wrath and anger, which by our manifold offenses we have justly provoked against ourselves; which revelation and conviction God sends not of a purpose to confound us, but of very love, by which He had concluded our salvation to stand in Jesus Christ.”

The Scottish Confession of Faith (one of Presbyterianism’s first creeds) says:

[We confess] That our Lord Jesus Christ offered himself a voluntary sacrifice unto his Father for us;[1] that he suffered contradiction of sinners; that he was wounded and plagued for our transgressions;[2] that he, being the clean and innocent Lamb of God,[3] was damned in the presence of an earthly judge,[4] that we should be absolved before the tribunal seat of our God;[5] that he suffered not only the cruel death of the cross (which was accursed by the sentence of God),[6] but also that he suffered for a season the wrath of his Father,[7] which sinners had deserved. But yet we avow, that he remained the only and well-beloved and blessed Son of his Father, even in the midst of his anguish and torment, which he suffered in body and soul, to make the full satisfaction for the sins of the people.[8] After the which, we confess and avow, that there remains no other sacrifice for sin:[9] which if any affirm, we nothing doubt to avow that they are blasphemers against Christ’s death, and the everlasting purgation and satisfaction purchased to us by the same.

1. Heb. 10:1-12.
2. Isa. 53:5; Heb. 12:3.
3. John 1:29.
4. Matt.27:11,26; Mark 15; Luke 23.
5. Gal. 3:13.
6. Deut. 21:23.
7. Matt. 26:38-39.
8. 2 Cor. 5:21.
9. Heb. 9:12; 10:14.

They are embracing a cultural hatred of God’s wrath.  I mentioned over four years ago something Brennan Manning wrote (Manning’s writings were very influential among the Emergent Church):

The god whose moods alternate between graciousness and fierce anger… the god who exacts the last drop of blood from His Son so that his just anger, evoked by sin, may be appeased, is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ.  And if he is not the God of Jesus, he does not exist.

The trend to throw penal substitutionary atonement under the bus has taken root in the Presbyterian Church (USA).   What a shame!  Though Christ’s death on the cross God’s wrath was satisfied.  He gave up His son to bear it Himself because God knew we could not.  “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” (1 John 4:10, ESV).  It is finished.  God’s wrath is satisfied.  Nothing else is needed, Christ’s work on the cross is sufficient for our salvation…

David French:

It [the song] avoids shallow promises of earthly comfort in favor of the ultimate comfort — no matter our earthly destiny — found in Christ. And it’s a beautiful song, covered by countless Christian artists.

The core of the dispute is the mainline break with orthodoxy on the very nature of God and mission of Jesus. In orthodox Christianity, sin demands sacrifice. God’s wrath against sin — our sin — was atoned through Christ’s sacrifice. Or, as the Prophet Isaiah prophesied: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

This is the essence of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and mainline protestantism is increasingly rejecting it in favor of a doctrine that places Jesus not as Savior in the orthodox sense but more as an example of love and nonviolent resistance, Gandhi on divine steroids.

The importance of rejecting substitutionary atonement is tough to overstate, with ramifications across the full spectrum of spiritual, social, and cultural engagement. In fact, it’s likely one of the key reasons for  the steep decline in mainline churches. After all, when the purpose of Christ’s presence on earth is ripped from its eternal context and placed firmly within (and relegated to) the world of “social justice” and earthly systems of oppression, there’s little that church offers that, say, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, or a subscription to Mother Jones can’t also supply.

If, on the other hand, Christ represents the sole source of our eternal hope, then church offers something that no political movement can replicate or replace. No amount of “social justice” or political liberation can save your soul.

A comment posted on John Meunier’s blog:

This song was also sung at the recent worship service when the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby took office — at HIS request. As I followed the tweets for the service, a number of people noted that about half the congregation refused to sing the words about God’s wrath.

Frankly, I am clear that John Wesley would like the author’s words. He emphasized the need for sinners (including Methodists) to “flee from the wrath to come”. I know you have written about this in the past. I am pretty well convinced that our reluctance to consider the wrath of God is one of the reasons the church has lost it’s emphasis on winning souls.

You know, after reading that last one, I’m determined to return to the top of this article, replay the video and sing loud and strong.

July 30, 2013

Guest Post: An Engineer Looks at Doctrinal Systems

My guest writer today is my son Chris, who I should describe more accurately as an engineer in training. He brings a scientific mind to a study which divides people, the issue of the Calvinist doctrinal system versus the Arminian doctrinal system. He is trying to show here how each of the core beliefs of Calvinism is rooted in the belief which precedes it. To that end it is a systematic theology. Since Arminianism is historically a response to Calvinism, he contrasts each doctrinal element with the corresponding Arminian perspective. For someone not trained in such matters, I personally think he does an amazing job here, even inventing a few new words in the process.

In yet another of history’s attempts to diffuse the unending debate between Calvinists and Arminianists, I would like to summarize my experiences with the dispute.  This caused me a great deal of grief in my first years of university, and I will be quite happy if I can immunize anyone to the arguing by informing them about it before it becomes a “stumbling block” to them.

First, I have identified the most fundamental difference between the two systems of belief to be that Arminians believe that sinful humans possess “free will” or “freedom of choice,” while Calvinists believe that sinfulness precludes choice.  All further differences can be extrapolated from this one point and a few obvious observations about the world.  Therefore, the most core difference between the two theological systems is a disagreement about man, not about God.  (Total Depravity.)

The different views of choice lead to different views of the lead-up to salvation:  The Arminian sees God approach a sinner and offer him a chance to change his ways, and the sinner willfully ceases his rebellion, consents to being changes from within, and agrees to begin working for the Kingdom;  while the Calvinist sees God selecting a sinner and going to work in him without any questions or profferings.  (Irresistible Grace)

The different views of choice also lead to different views of the lead-up to non-salvation:  The Arminian sees God approach a sinner and offer salvation, but the sinner declines to accept it, much to God’s dismay;  while the Calvinist sees no dialogue take place, as God has already rejected that sinner for reasons he has not disclosed.  (Unconditional Election.)

The different views on the distribution of salvation are mirrored by different theories about the available supply of salvation:  Arminians believe that Jesus took up the sins of everyone so that the door might be open to everyone;  while Calvinists believe Jesus only took up the sins of those who would, in fact, ultimately be saved, because it would be pointless for Jesus to suffer for sins whose committors will carry them in Hell anyway.  (Limited Atonement.)

(The remaining Point of Calvinism is Perseverance of the Saints.  Whether or not someone can lose their salvation depends purely on how the word “saved” is applied, which is not really part of the overall disagreement.  It’s purely a difference in terminology.)

The different views of non-salvation, a topic people naturally feel strongly about, lead to different descriptions of God’s character:  The Arminian describes God as unconditionally loving and with arms always open, constantly wooing people to come home;  while the Calvinist may perhaps describe God as a mighty ruler building his kingdom, purposefully and with discernment, to glorify himself.

The Arminian’s favorite word is “love,” while the Calvinists’s is “sovereign.”  Due to differences in rhetoric, each side believes their favorite to be absent from the other’s theology, creating caricatures of each:  Calvinists think Arminians don’t take God’s rule seriously, while Arminians think Calvinists believe God holds humans to be worthless unless useful.  Any contestation that develops between the two sides serves to further polarize the rhetoric.

Both of these caricatures are sometimes correct:  There are people in the church who believe in works-based salvation (whether consciously or not), and there are others therein who think God hates them.

Calvinism versus ArminianismThe caricatures cause “straw men” in any argument that takes place between Calvinists and Arminianists:  The Arminianist thinks he’s arguing about the scope of God’s love, while the Calvinist thinks he’s arguing about the scope of God’s rule, when in fact the two are in agreement about both.  The argument typically doesn’t resolve, but is terminated by an exclamation of, “Well, at least we can agree that we’re both saved by grace through the blood of the Lamb!” or something to that effect.

Both descriptions of God’s character can be taken too far:  God’s love, taken too far, leads to universalism, while God’s sovereignty, taken too far, leads to fatalism.

The different views of choice stem from different individual conversion experiences:  One Christian, who came slowly to understand and accept God’s work in their past, will find that Calvinism describes the process better;  while another, who had salvation explained to them by an existing Christian and then wanted to get in on it, may find that Arminianism describes the process better.  Likewise, I imagine there are nonbelievers who have understood and rejected Jesus, and others who die without ever knowing.

You will encounter people on both sides who acknowledge the correctness of both — either believing that each correctly describes the same God with different terminology, or believing that they serve as a sort of Yin and Yang that describe God well complementarily but poorly individually — and you will encounter those who adhere fiercely to one and war against the other.

~Chris Wilkinson


October 31, 2008

The Cross of Christ – As Central to Faith in November as it is at Easter

Filed under: bible, Christianity, Faith, Jesus — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:57 pm
“I must die or get somebody to die for me.   If the Bible doesn’t teach that it doesn’t teach anything.” ~ Dwight L. Moody

“The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders.   If he bids us carry a burden he carries it also.”     ~ Charles Spurgeon

“Jesus now has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His cross.”     ~ Thomas a Kempis

“In many respects I find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept.   Easter makes him dangerous.   Because of Easter, I have to listen to his extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from his sayings.  Moreover, Easter means he must be loose out there somewhere.”     ~ Philip Yancey

“God proved his love on the cross. When Christ hung, bled and died it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.'” ~ Billy Graham

September 22, 2008

What Jesus Did

Filed under: bible, Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:36 pm

Several months ago I spent thirty minutes exploring the blogsphere looking for something profound to write about. Instead my brain started to get dizzy. I made the mistake of searching for the phrase “substitutionary atonement.” That’s a concept that is at the heart of Christian belief, right?  Instead, I ended up seeing pages of people spinning their wheels in the type of theological debate that internet readers and bloggers seem to thrive on.   Sentences, and paragraphs, and pages and even entire websites devoted to the nuances of doctrine.   Great stuff if you’re working on a Master of Divinity degree.   Not so great if you’re a guy or a girl simply on the journey of being a Christ-follower.


Bottom line, “substitutionary atonement” simply means that “someone else took my punishment,” or “someone else paid my debt.”   It’s about the transference of the penalty for our sin to someone else, or more accurately, Someone Else.

At this stage in my life, my understanding of this is best clarified by a comparison to the animal sacrifices taking place in Leviticus. (And there are a lot of them taking place there.)  My view is best informed by people like Rob Bell www.marshill.org and a Canadian, Joe Amaral www.firstcentury.tv and others (like Ray Vanderlaan) who have provided lots of OT context for NT doctrine. We carry Joe’s DVDs in our store, and if you’re reading this from farther away, the ones on the Feasts and Hebraic roots are worth ordering directly. (They’re not quality productions, but the content is great.) Some of Rob’s best stuff on this is available on audio from Willow Creek sermons he did there earlier this decade. (Especially an 8-CD set called Rob Bell Teaches at Willow.)   You don’t have to understand all of it, but you do have to get the general idea.

Basically, the idea is that God wanted His people to ‘feel’ guilt, but to feel it from His perspective also.   To see that in order for things to be made right, there has to be a price paid.   The death of the animal sacrificed was a reminder of that.   Its pain and suffering.   Its vivid demonstration that sin leads to death.    The cost.  The loss.  To foreshadow that perfect sacrifice that was to follow.

But an online lookup of “substitutionary atonement” is likely to scare many away.   It’s a couple of fancy words that takes something really simple, and makes it sound so complicated.   Like taking Christ’s teaching and trying to make a religion out of them.

With my heart longing today to share something more simple, more elementary, I’m drawn back to something I use a lot with people, a simple spelling test.

Q. How do you spell religion?

A. D-O — Do this, do that, do the other thing. Your standing before God is/will be based on what you do.

Q. How do you spell Christianity?

A. D-O-N-E — It’s all been done for us. There is nothing we can do to earn it, it is the gift of God.

All the theological debates on the internet won’t help you understand it. It has to do with the both the grace of God and the wrath of God. It has to do with God’s justice and God’s mercy. It is truly mysterious. What matters is that know that you’ve been a partaker of it. A receiver of it.   That you know it’s yours.

You might be reading this and you feel like someone standing outside a log cabin on a cold, windy, snowy day.   Inside are people standing by a fire and warming themselves, some are drinking hot chocolate, most are laughing or talking loudly.   But you are outside, with your nose pressed against the window glass, staring at the people inside, and knowing that they are inside and you are outside.  All you would have to do is find the door and walk inside.   Then you would be a person on the inside.   But the wind beats harder and the snow changes to freezing rain, and you stand with your face against the glass…

So go ahead and Google “substitutionary atonement” and allow the concepts discussed to cause your head to swim; but at the end of the day know that the concept of God’s forgiveness and the act of Christ’s death on Calvary is intended to be simple enough that a child can understand it. Then, come as a child.

~Remix 032108

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