Tag Archives: Atonement

The Blood of His Cross (11) – Anthony Thiselton

The more I read of Anthony Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine the more I appreciate it. His three chapters on the atoning work of Jesus and the interpretation of the cross provide additional cause for appreciation. The first chapter is inelegantly titled “Hermeneutics and Linguistic Currencies of Theologies of the Cross,” with Thiselton developing a quite simple analogy and making a quite straight-forward point. The analogy: “In financial currency-markets hard currencies are those that do not readily fluctuate with time or with changing conditions in other economies” (320). The point: biblical language is like a hard currency; it must be understood against the historical-linguistic contexts in which it emerged, but holds its value in the face of different contexts and “economies.” He cites Wolfhart Pannenberg with approval and emphasis:

The fact that a later age may find it hard to understand traditional ideas is not sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation, and thus keep their meaning alive. The problems that people have with ideas like expiation and representation (or substitution) in our secularized age rest less on any lack of forcefulness in the traditional terms than on the fact that those who are competent to interpret them do not explain their context with sufficient forcefulness or clarity (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 2:422; cited Thiselton, 312).

The chapter progresses in four moves. First, Thiselton argues that Christian interpretation and proclamation of the cross must begin with two interpretive horizons in view. First, the interpreter must deal with human pre-understandings, those points of contact in common human experience which may function as a bridge to understanding doctrinal truth. Second, the interpreter must deal with the subject matter itself in its own historical-linguistic context. He illustrates this opening contention with three examples.

The first concerns the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Thiselton suggests that while the jury is still out with respect to the best way to understand the nature of first-century Judaism, and so also Paul’s doctrine of justification (the second horizon), the old perspective at least has the advantage of linking the work of the cross to the experience of the human condition and plight (the first horizon). That is, “a human experience of struggle, guilt, or alienation from God” is “ingredient in the revelation of the self in relation to God” (315), an experience addressed by the cross of Christ. In a pointed conclusion Thiselton writes,

We cannot exclude a horizon of understanding, then, that responds to questions about human plight in terms of the saving work of Christ. While Sanders’ work invites respect in exploring a horizon of understanding in the second sense, its validity is by no means self-evident or beyond criticism, and Käsemann rightly warns us that if we press such approaches, we may end up replacing Paul’s core concerns about justification by grace with issues of ecclesiology (316).

Far more important for Thiselton is his insistence that any discussion of atonement theology must begin with the New Testament emphasis on the grace of God. As such, we understand the atonement best not by starting with ideas of human fallenness or divine wrath and judgement, but with the love of God toward humanity. Further, objections to atonement must likewise deal with Old and New Testament contexts of the teaching.

Finally Thiselton notes that the variety of metaphors and images used in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ all provide horizons of meaning and points of access for understanding that work.

In the next two sections of the chapter Thiselton explores the “hard currencies” of the biblical language for redemption, salvation, reconciliation, and mediation. He insists that these terms must be understood against their Old Testament usage, with an eye, consequently, to the way in which they are modified in the New Testament. This usage then provides the initial hermeneutical horizon within which the meaning of these terms is to be understood.

Thus in his discussion of redemption, he notes that the term “usually denotes transference from a state of bondage or jeopardy to a state of well-being by a costly act” (321). In the Old Testament the pre-eminent symbol of this work is the exodus with its themes of political and social liberation.

In very broad terms the Exodus paradigm remains a founding model for a horizon of understanding within which to perceive the meaning of redeem and redemption. However, the New Testament writers qualify the salvific model with a sociological one. This is the model of release from slavery to an oppressive master to the lordship of a new master or Kurios. … The transaction in Paul’s theology involved a price not for freedom but for change of ownership (322).

Hopefully the theological, pastoral and homiletical implications of that final sentence are clear. Christian salvation involves not liberation in an abstract sense so that now one is free of all limitation, restraint, authority, and responsibility. Rather, it is liberation from an oppressive master to become dependent upon and responsible to a new Lord.

Although there is no explicit linguistic background in the Old Testament to the language of reconciliation and mediation, Thiselton argues that the New Testament imagery is grounded in and develops ideas and images present there.

The final section of the chapter returns to the fact that the New Testament uses multiple concepts and images when discussing Christ’s saving work on the cross. Again his point is simple: these multiple approaches to understanding the work of the cross serve as models and qualifiers. That is, each of them communicates an aspect of the truth, and so they also complement and condition each other, as well as provide imaginative avenues for appropriating and participating in the work of the cross (331). Thus Thiselton discusses the work of the cross utilising ideas of sacrifice, forensic approaches, Jesus’ obedience, and the theme of victory. Of particular interest in this series of blog posts is his comment with respect to forensic approaches:

Some writers concede that it is legitimate to speak of substitution in these two passages, but reject the traditional Reformation term penal substitution. Yet…the cross and crucifixion belong to the conceptual domain of punishment for crimes. The antipathy toward using penal is understandable if or when this one aspect is overpressed, as if no other concept qualified it. Equally the term penal substitution becomes misleading if it is abstracted from its proper hermeneutical horizon of divine grace as an overarching understanding. Vincent Taylor judiciously observes, “Everyone desires a better word than penal, but until we find it we ought not to abandon it [simply] because it has been used in ways that revolt the conscience…” (334).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (13)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:122-127, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

In his reflections on Jesus as the elected human Barth raises two issues worthy of additional comment. First, he provides a brief glimpse of his theodicy; second, is his portrayal of the prayer of Jesus as the true fulfilment of his creaturely existence.

In his discussion of the election of Jesus Christ as suffering, Barth explores the reason for this. God, for the honour of his own name and for the honour of the creature also, will not allow evil and sin, and Satan and his kingdom to overthrow his good work or to have the final word. Rather, in his Son, God determines to confront and conquer this evil. Nevertheless the question must inevitably arise concerning the origin of this evil. Here, Barth insists that “from all eternity judgment has been foreseen” (122).

For teleologically the election of the man Jesus carries within itself the election of a creation which is good according to the positive will of God and of man as fashioned after the divine image and foreordained to the divine likeness (reflection). But this involves necessarily the rejection of Satan, the rebel angel who is the very sum and substance of the possibility which is not chosen by God (and which exists only in virtue of this negation); the very essence of the creature in its misunderstanding and misuse of its creation and destiny and in its desire to be as God, to be itself a god. Satan (and the whole kingdom of evil, i.e., the demonic, which has its basis in him) is the shadow which accompanies the light of the election of Jesus Christ (and in him the good creation in which man is in the divine image). And in the divine counsel the shadow itself is necessary as the object of rejection. To the reality of its existence and might and activity (only, of course, in the power of the divine negation, but to that extent grounded in the divine will and counsel) testimony is given by the fall of man, in which man appropriates to himself the satanic desire. When confronted by Satan and his kingdom, man in himself and as such has in his creaturely freedom no power to reject that which in His divine freedom God rejects. Face to face with temptation he cannot maintain the goodness of his creation in the divine image and foreordination to the divine likeness (122).

Barth provides an ontological account of the origin and mystery of evil. For Barth, evil arises as that which God does not will. It is the “shadow” cast by the light of what God does will. The mystery of evil emerges as it were almost as a consequence of the divine will. Evil has reality but not substance. The fall also has an ontological basis in the inherent creaturely incapacity to withstand the attraction or temptation of evil. Yet there is also a moral component to the fall: humanity “appropriates to himself the satanic desire” to be a god, and in so doing becomes, like Satan, a rebel. “In himself and as such man will always do as Adam did in Gen. 3” (122).

Humanity’s fall, then, is both inevitable and culpable. On account of human culpability it lies under the divine wrath; on account of human weakness, however, it is the object of divine pity. Jesus Christ as the elect human stands in humanity’s place under the divine wrath and for humanity suffers and dies taking their rejection upon himself. Yet Jesus Christ is also the electing God and although subject to the same weakness and incapacity that afflicts the rest of humanity, actually can do and does for humanity what humanity cannot do for itself: resist Satan’s temptation.

Why this imposition of the just for the unjust by which in some incomprehensible manner the eternal Judge becomes Himself the judged? Because His justice is a merciful and for this reason a perfect justice. Because the sin of the disobedient is also their need, and even while it affronts Him it also moves Him to pity. … Because in the powerlessness of sinners against Satan He sees their guilt, but in their guilt He sees also their powerlessness. Because He knows quite well that those who had no strength to resist Satan are even less able to bear and suffer the rejection which those who hear Satan and obey him merit together with him. Because from all eternity He knows “whereof we are made” (Psalm 103:14). That is why He intervened on our behalf in His Son (124).

That God did this is, of course, due to his own grace in which God elected humanity in his Son. The grace of election is also at once the grace of reconciliation for the same Jesus in whom we are elected is also the Judge who takes the place of the judged.

In the One in whom they are elected, that is to say, in the death which the Son of God has died for them, they themselves have died as sinners. And that means their radical sanctification, separation and purification for participation in a true creaturely independence, and more than that, for the divine sonship of the creature which is the grace for which from all eternity they are elected in the election of the man Jesus (125).

This sonship, this radical sanctification, this true creaturely independence seen in the steadfastness of the humanity of Jesus, and specifically in his prayer by which he “fulfils His creaturely office” (126). Jesus’ prayer is his intercession with God on behalf of his people. It is the human answer and assent to the will of God as it confronts his own will. It is his affirmation of the divine right in the exercise of holy wrath against human sinfulness to which he submits as victim, even as he is both priest and judge.

The election of Jesus Christ, therefore, stands as the pattern for the election of all, for they are elect in him.

The mystery of the elected man Jesus is the divine and human steadfastness which is the end of all God’s ways and works and therefore the object and content of the divine predestination. … Being elected “in Him,” they are elected only to believe in Him, i.e., to love in Him the Son of God who died and rose again for them, to laud in Him the priest and victim of their reconciliation with God, to recognise in Him the justification of God (which is also their own justification), to honour in Him their Leader and Representative, their Lord and Head, and the kingdom of God which is a kingdom above all other kingdoms. It is as they love Him and laud Him and recognise Him and honour Him in this way that they can have their own life, their rejection being put behind them and beneath them, rejected with His rejection. To believe in Jesus means to have His resurrection and prayer both in the mind and in the heart. And this means to be elected. For it is the man that does this who “in Him” is the object of the divine election of grace (126-127).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (12)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:115-127, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

Barth concludes, then, that “there is no such things as a decretum absolutum. There is no such thing as a will of God apart from the will of Jesus Christ” (115). He is the eternal choice and decision of God, and as such also the manifestation, mirror and ground of our own election. Once more we see that Barth’s concern in this matter is pastoral, the assurance of the saints:

Jesus Christ reveals to us our election as an election which is made by Him, by His will which is also the will of God. He tells us that He Himself is the One who elects us. In the very foreground of our existence in history we can and should cleave wholly and with full assurance to Him because in the eternal background of history, in the beginning with God, the only decree which was passed, the only Word which was spoken and which prevails, was the decision which was executed by Him. As we believe in Him and hear His Word and hold fast by His decision, we can know with a certainty which nothing can ever shake that we are the elect of God (115-116).

Barth now turns his attention to Jesus Christ as the elected human. What does it mean that he is the elect? The content of the divine decision of election is the person Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, “and the work of this man in His life and death, His humiliation and exaltation, His obedience and merit” (116). That the decision of election concerns Jesus Christ, however, indicates that the object and content of this decision concerns the whole work of creation, reconciliation and redemption, the covenant of God with humanity concluded in him, and therefore the salvation of all. As such,

Jesus Christ, then, is not merely one of the elect but the elect of God. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), as elected man He does not stand alongside the rest of the elect, but before and above them as the One who is originally and properly the Elect. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), there are no other elect together with or apart from Him, but, as Eph. 14 tells us, only “in” Him. “In Him” does not simply mean with Him, together with Him, in His company. Nor does it mean only through Him, by means of that which He as elected man can be and do for them. “In Him” means in His person, in His will, in His own divine choice, in the basic decision of God which He fulfils over against every man. . . . As elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. . . . His election is the original and all-inclusive election; . . . And for this reason, as elected man He is the Lord and Head of all the elect, the revelation and reflection of their election, and the organ and instrument of all divine electing (116-117).

In Jesus Christ as the elect human we observe the nature of predestination as it is manifest always and everywhere: the acceptance and reception of humanity only by the free grace of God:

Even in the man Jesus there is indeed no merit, no prior and self-sufficient goodness, which can precede His election to divine sonship. Neither prayer nor the life of faith can command or compel His election. It is by the work of the Word of God, by the Holy Spirit, that He is conceived and born without sin, that He is what He is, the Son of God; by grace alone. And as He became Christ, so we become Christians (118).

Barth calls upon Augustine, Thomas, and Calvin, as traditional witnesses who say much the same (118-120). “The election of Jesus Christ is, in fact, the revelation of our election. In His election we can and should recognise our own” (119).

Further, Barth speaks of Jesus as the elect human in terms of his mission, of his obedience to the will and works of the Father, of his submission, therefore, to the rule of the Father, and ultimately of his suffering: his election is “election for suffering” (118; cf. 120). Barth cites G. Schrenk: “He is elected man not only in His passion and in spite of His passion, but for His passion” (117).

The suffering of Jesus arises on account of the presence and reality of evil into which humanity has fallen. In fact, humanity has become God’s enemy and the object of divine wrath, subject to rejection. As the electing God, Jesus Christ takes the rejection of humanity upon himself—as the elect human, suffering for humanity and in their place.

The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in His love for men transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place. God from all eternity ordains this obedient One in order that He might bear the suffering which the disobedient have deserved and which for the sake of God’s righteousness must necessarily be borne. . . . For this reason, He is the Lamb slain, and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. For this reason, the crucified Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (123).

From all eternity and to the very depths of his being God loves the human creature that he has created. From all eternity and to the very depths of his being God has demonstrated this love by taking responsibility for the humanity he has created, doing so in the person of the Son who is also “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Barth’s final sentence in the above citation is worthy of much reflection: “the crucified Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God.’” To all eternity and to the very depths of his being God is as we see Him here to be in the suffering self-giving love of his Son.

Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, 2017

Fleming RutledgeChristianity Today have nominated Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion as 2017 Book of the Year. 

“Fleming Rutledge has always had a reputation for bold, relentlessly scriptural, and Cross-centered preaching. In this book, the work of a lifetime, she pulls back the lid on the deep well of exegetical, theological, and spiritual reflection that has nourished her ministry. If previous generations of evangelicals looked to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ as their definitive work on Christ’s atoning work, I predict future generations of evangelicals will return again and again, in the same way, to The Crucifixion. This book is a classic in the making, one that will go on nurturing gospel-rich preaching for decades to come.” —Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies, Trinity School for Ministry

An excerpt from the book:

It makes many people queasy nowadays to talk about the wrath of God, but there can be no turning away from this prominent biblical theme. Oppressed peoples from around the world have been empowered by the scriptural picture of a God who is angered by injustice and unrighteousness. If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God, we might pause to reflect the next time we are outraged about something—about our property values being threatened, or our children’s educational opportunities being limited, or our tax breaks being eliminated. All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God has temper tantrums. It is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right….

Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves.

The Blood of His Cross (10) – NT Wright


In previous posts I have examined Romans 3:21-26, discussing views of the passage by Cranfield, Moo, and Carson. In general, they see Paul describing a new situation in which God grants to those human beings who believe in Jesus Christ, the gift of righteousness—right relationship with God—on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In this death, God himself is vindicated as righteous, and revealed as the one who justifies sinful humanity through the death of Christ.

N. T. Wright’s comment on these verses retains a number of these features but does so with a different framework of understanding. For Wright, God’s answer to the problem of Adamic humanity so graphically portrayed by Paul in 1:18 – 3:20 is the covenant with Abraham, the promise of a new, worldwide, forgiven family (Wright, “Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10, 465). Through Abraham and his descendants God intended a human faithfulness that responded to his own faithfulness, and which issued in a renewed and genuine humanity, freed from the cruel distortions of idolatry and sin (466). This new family would be heir to the world, according to Romans 4:13. Israel, however, failed in their role to offer this faithfulness to God.

Jesus’ achievement is thus to have done what Israel should have done but failed to do. He has been the light of the world, the one through whom God’s saving purpose has been revealed. Through him God has at last dealt with the sin of the world, the purpose for which the covenant was made. … The Messiah’s “obedience unto death” is the critical act—an act of Jesus, and also in Paul’s eyes an act of God—through which sins are dealt with, justification is assured, and the worldwide covenant family is brought into being (467).

In this passage, Wright argues, Paul shows that God has fulfilled his covenant promises to Abraham through the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ, thus accomplishing his covenant purpose of putting “the world to rights” (465). Wright reads the pistis Iēsou Christou (“faith in Jesus Christ”) of verse 22, and other references to faith in this passage, as a subjective rather than objective genitive—the “faith (faithfulness) of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ.” Thus, God’s righteousness is revealed in the obedient faithfulness of Jesus in which Jesus offers to God that which Israel denied (470).

Wright approaches this passage by means of this over-arching framework. As such, God’s righteousness in verse 21 is not the righteousness of God given to believers who have faith in Jesus Christ, nor the divine attribute by which God is just and justly judges sin, but the demonstration that God is righteous—that is, faithful to the promises made to Abraham. God has acted righteously by keeping his promise to Abraham.

Nevertheless, God is also the righteous Judge who must punish sins as they deserve, which he accomplishes through the death of Jesus (467, 473). Jesus’ death is presented by Paul in sacrificial terms, recalling Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement. He is the hilastērion—the mercy seat, or place “where the holy God and sinful Israel meet in such a way that Israel, rather than being judged, receives atonement” (474). When Wright unpacks this further, however, he appeals not to Leviticus 16, but to the Maccabean martyrs in Second Maccabees, and ultimately to the fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12):

The sacrificial language of 3:25, used in connection with the violent death of a righteous Jew at the hands of pagans, makes sense within the context of the current martyr stories; but those martyr stories themselves send us back, by various routes, to Isaiah 40-55; and when we get there we find just those themes that we find in Romans 3 (475).

Still, he insists that “the lexical history of the word hilastērion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts” (476), so that it refers not only to Jesus’ death as the place of atonement, but includes ideas of propitiation and expiation as well. That is, Jesus’ death deals effectively with sin both by averting God’s wrath and by cleansing human sin.

Just as the mercy-seat fulfilled its function when sprinkled with sacrificial blood, so Paul sees the blood of Jesus as actually instrumental in bringing about that meeting of grace and helplessness, of forgiveness and sin, that occurred on the cross. Once again, the sacrificial imagery points beyond the cult to the reality of God’s self-giving act in Jesus (476-477).

I continue to have questions about the way in which Wright sets up his covenantal framework, and consequently, with his approach to justification. Nevertheless, Wright’s account of how the death of Jesus works to secure the salvation of sinners agrees in its central claims with those treatments of the topic by Cranfield, Moo, and Carson, despite his evident attempt to distance himself from too juridical a treatment of the cross.

The Blood of His Cross (9) – D. A. Carson

agnusdeiRomans 3:24-25 (NASB)      
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed…

In an essay on the atonement in Romans 3:21-26 (in Hill & James (eds.), The Glory of the Atonement, 119-139), D. A. Carson argues on exegetical grounds for a penal substitutionary view of the atonement grounded in the justice of God. His arguments are carefully articulated and appropriately nuanced, as for example, in his acknowledgement that while ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) is rightly understood to include the notion of propitiation, it is “simultaneously true that sin is expiated, indeed must be expiated” (130).

To my mind, Carson’s treatment of the text in its larger context is convincing. Carson rightly insists that interpretation of this key passage must be seen in the larger narrative of what has preceded it from 1:18 – 3:20, that is, the story of divine wrath on account of human sin and guilt. Nor is divine wrath antithetical to divine love, but both divine perfections are unified, for God “always acts according to the perfection of his own character” (133). God’s love is holy love, and his holiness is loving holiness. In this sense, the divine wrath is God’s personal response—the response of the holy and loving God—to human sinfulness.

The part of the essay I enjoyed most concerned his comment on verses 24-25, in which he notes that Paul uses three specific images to explain the work of Christ, and that these three images correspond to the three images of sin detailed in 1:18 – 3:20. Further, Carson insists that in Paul’s mind, these three images are interlocked rather than parallel. That is, these are not three options amongst which we can choose when discussing Christ’s saving work. We cannot simply pick the particular metaphor that appeals to us: the three belong together (129).

The first metaphor is that of justification, deriving from the imagery of the law court and addresses human guilt as a consequence of sin. The second metaphor is redemption, deriving from the slave market and addressing the reality that sin not only renders humanity judicially guilty before God, but also enslaves it. The third metaphor, drawn from the religious or cultic world, is propitiation. This metaphor addresses the divine wrath which has been aroused on account of human sinfulness.

These three metaphors also indicate something of the internal dynamic at work in the atonement. That we are justified “as a gift by his grace” shows the origin of our salvation in the saving, gracious will of God. The historical basis of this salvation is the redemption accomplished in the life of Jesus Christ. The means by which this redemption is effective is the propitiation:

The redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) that is effected is accomplished by the payment of a price or a ransom (λύτρον). … In the passage at hand, the price in view is Jesus’ death, which frees us from death that is nothing other than sin’s penalty (128-129).

God is both the subject and the object of this propitiation: in his love toward humanity, God sets forth Christ as the propitiation, and likewise receives the self-offering of Christ which turns aside his wrath. That God is the subject of the propitiation distinguishes this event from all human-originated propitiations. That is, the offering of Christ is not an offering made by humanity to appease a capricious or angry deity. Rather, God propitiates himself in Christ. Although Carson does not acknowledge explicitly the trinitarian dimensions of this sacrifice, his thought nonetheless runs in this direction (131).

This redemptive propitiation is “in his blood,” which for Carson is simply Paul’s way of speaking of Christ’s sacrificial death as the “means by which God’s wrath is propitiated” (136). The mention of Christ’s blood is to indicate the nature of his death as a sacrifice.

Carson’s final comment on these verses explores the purpose of the propitiation as expressed in verses 25-26. Here Carson finds the deepest mystery and ground of the atonement: God set forth and publicly displayed Christ as a propitiation not simply for the justification of humanity in the face of their sin and guilt, but also as the justification of God himself (138). Carson acknowledges that this interpretation requires a different nuance of the term “God’s righteousness” in this verse than that found in verse 21. In the earlier verse it refers to God’s activity of justifying his sinful people; “here it refers to something intrinsic to God’s character” (138). Paul’s words in verse 26 emphasise this contention: “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

“That he would be just.” The cross is the ultimate expression not only of God’s grace and love, but also of his righteousness and justice (the same Greek word is used for both these terms). In and through the blood of Christ—his sacrificial death—God has both satisfied his own righteousness and saved, forgiven and cleansed his sinful people.

The Blood of His Cross (8) – Leviticus 17:11


Leviticus 17:10-11    
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.

On a cold April morning the young boy with his fishing rod ran across the busy road intent, I suppose, on reaching shelter from the sheeting rain. He was only about twelve years of age, and I was the first to reach him after the car hit him. He was unconscious and blood was folding out from his head like cake-mix into a baking dish. Another man arrived and took charge. A car pulled up to look and the man barked, “Call an ambulance! Quick!” Off they sped to find a phone. “We’ve got to stop the blood.” I had a wad of tissues in my jacket pocket and pulled them out. “Will these help?” He grabbed them and applied them to the boy’s head, pressing the sides of the wound together. We waited, together, in the rain, for the ambulance to arrive. The boy was still unconscious but still alive when they took him. Whether he lived, I do not know, but I think so. I checked the newspapers for days afterward to see if there were any deaths on the roads. There were no reports.

“The life of the flesh is in the blood.” We ought think of the image of blood in this verse not as holding some mystical or magical property of life, but as a metonymy or symbol for life. Had the boy’s blood continued to leave his body, he would certainly have died. Without blood, there is no life. The ancients, too, recognised and understood this.

The laws in Leviticus 17 have to do with the killing, sacrificing, and eating of animals, with a particularly strong prohibition on the eating of blood (vv. 10, 12, 14; see Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 244-245). Domesticated animals—the ox, the sheep and the goat—are to be killed only at the tabernacle, and their blood offered to the Lord. Those who kill such an animal elsewhere are guilty of shedding blood (4). Although the primary concern of the passage is idolatry and irregular sacrifice, the inherent value of the animal also is clear in this passage: its blood—its life—is sacred and valued. Other animals may be hunted for food, but still the blood must not be eaten (13-14).

The twofold reason for this prohibition is found in verse 11: the life of the creature is in the blood, and therefore God has given the blood for making atonement upon the altar. Because the text names the blood as the life, some commentators consider that God is commanding the Israelites to make an offering of life to God, as though the power of the life that is in the animal’s blood is sufficient to cleanse the worshipper (see the discussion in Emile Nicole, “Atonement in the Pentateuch” in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement, 38-40). It seems to me that this imaginative interpretation is too literal, too unimaginative, and so precisely the opposite of what the text intends. It is not some property of life in the blood itself, but the death of the animal, the loss of its life which is splashed against the altar, and which makes atonement.

The Hebrew word for atonement kipper, can mean ‘to wipe clean,’ or ‘to pay a ransom’ (Wenham, 59). What sense is intended in this text? Does the blood offered cleanse or ransom the worshipper? Is the action of sacrifice directed toward the worshipper or towards God? If it is the death of the animal which is offered to God, ransom is the better interpretation, the death of the animal standing in for the death of the worshipper.

This seems to be what Lev. 17:11 has in view, “I have given the blood to make atonement (lit. ‘to ransom’) for your lives, for the blood makes atonement (ransoms) at the price of a life.” It is this interpretation that seems to fit the burnt offering best. God in his mercy allowed sinful man to offer a ransom payment for sins, so that he escaped the death penalty his iniquities merit (Wenham, 61).

Roy Gane concurs: “Leviticus 17:11 is unique in the Hebrew Bible in that it explicitly assigns sacrificial blood the function of ransoming human life” (Leviticus, Numbers [NIVAC], 304, original emphasis).

Many scholars object to this interpretation, which as Wenham notes, presupposes a propitiatory understanding of sacrifice: “the burnt offering does not remove sin or change man’s sinful nature, but it makes fellowship between sinful man and a holy God possible. It propitiates God’s wrath against sin” (57). Emile Nicole discusses a range of exegetical and theoretical objections to this substitutionary interpretation of Leviticus 17:11. He acknowledges the validity of the major objections, but shows they can be adequately addressed clearing the way for a substitutionary interpretation.

Whatever the problems of grammatical vocabulary, such as bêt-pretii, a substitutionary use of the preposition is rather well documented. The absence of other occurrences of such a construction with the verb kipper is not an insurmountable obstacle. … the poured-out life (dām) of the sacrificial victim is substituted for the life of the worshiper (39, 40, original emphasis).

Nicole also argues that the cleansing or forgiveness of the worshipper was on the basis of the ransom provided: “in kipper rites, purification cannot be disconnected from compensation: through compensation given to God, purification and forgiveness were granted” (48). Such a view preserves both the propitiatory and expiatory aspects of atonement, while establishing the latter upon the former. The sinner is cleansed and forgiven because the divine wrath has been turned aside and reconciliation enacted.

Leviticus 17:11 thus brings to the fore a general principle underlying the whole OT sacrificial system, whose practical carrying out was limited by the concern for the seriousness of sin, the freedom of God’s forgiveness and the will not to reduce the moral dimension of human life to the mere repetition of a ritual (Nicole, 44).

That is, the sacrificial system did not atone for or cover major, deliberate sins. It was not a trivialising of sin or of God’s holiness and goodness. It emphasised and reminded the sinner of their sin and their need for forgiveness, and of the moral nature of human life. Yet atonement could be made and sin forgiven. Even capital sins could find forgiveness, as David experienced, because God is merciful. But sin could never be trivialised nor forgiveness presumed. Its penalty was death.

The Blood of His Cross (7) – Vanhoozer (ii, cont’d)

agnusdeiVanhoozer accepts several aspects of the postmodern critique of atonement theology, especially the temptation to reduce atonement to one description of its intent and efficacy. “We need a way to think non-reductively about the cross” (397). No theory of the cross is adequate in itself, and all the theories together, will not exhaust the meaning and mystery that is the cross. In a typically amusing and insightful quip, Vanhoozer suggests that,

Some atonement theories may, ironically, partake more of what Luther called the ‘theology of glory’—a trust in human reason to find out the ways of God—than they do the ‘theology of the cross.’ The cross represents a powerful critique of attempts to ‘explain’ God as well as attempts to make oneself right before God (401-402).

Thus Vanhoozer also appreciates the postmodern emphasis on ‘excess’—the cross is a case of how much more (Romans 5:9), always and forever exceeding our understanding of its depths and effects. Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s non-reductive reading of the cross cuts both ways, and he challenges the postmodern temptation to reduce the biblical testimony of the divine work at the cross to a work only of God’s love and not also of his justice, or to an exemplary rather than also an objective work of God on our behalf.

Vanhoozer’s theology of the atonement circles around several key features. First, he insists that the atonement must be understood within the economies of grace and covenant rather than an economy of exchange. God did not have to do anything; “there is no causal explanation for grace” (396). What God did do was give himself, a gift of gratuitous love beyond all reason. The death of Jesus must be understood in terms of Old Testament covenantal categories of exodus (liberation), exile (punishment), and restoration and return (reconciliation). Thus Jesus’ death includes both legal and relational aspects, both punitive/retributive and expiatory/ liberational aspects; these polarities must not be reduced on the one side or the other.

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24). … What Jesus is claiming in the Last Supper is that his broken body and shed blood are the place where sin is dealt with…making possible life in the presence of God. … The shed blood is a sign that God has proved this covenant faithfulness precisely by undergoing the sanctions, legal and relational, for covenant disobedience (398, original emphasis).

Second, Vanhoozer insists that a doctrine of the atonement must give equal ultimacy to both God’s love and God’s light (his justice and holiness):

The death of Jesus represents both the excess that is constitutive of the gift (love), and the excess that is constitutive of one’s ethical duty towards another (justice, as understood by postmoderns). God’s reconciling act in the death of Christ was ‘excessive.’ In loving his enemies (Rom. 5:10), God brings his covenant partner to justice, not simply retribution. … God did not merely compensate for human sin; he did more. He did not simply make up sin’s deficit; he destroyed it. The New Testament, of course, knows this ‘excess’ by its proper covenantal name: grace. … The economy of covenantal grace is not exhausted by the logic of penal substitution even though the latter has a legitimate place (403-404).

Third, Vanhoozer’s understanding of the atonement is necessarily substitutionary: “Substitution is the principle that best corresponds to the preposition (hyper); God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love” (403, slightly altered). Substitution is a necessary if not sufficient condition for understanding the biblical testimony to the death of Christ. Jesus died for us.

Finally, Jesus’ death is excessive, an economy of eschatological promise, gift and blessing whereby his death issues in the gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s self-gift to the believer—which bursts the limits of an economy of exchange and calls forth the free subjective response of the believer.

Jesus gives his body and blood for us, and in return we receive his Spirit, the operative principle of the new covenant and of the new age. Jesus’ death both creates and cleanses a new temple, the people of God. … Jesus’ death on the cross is a new exodus, a new Passover supper, a new return from exile, an entry into a new kind of promised land, a building of a new and better temple. God reconciles the world to himself by providing his own Son as a substitute for the exile that should be ours. Jesus is God’s gift, the goat that bears our guilt—the covenantal curse, separation from the promises of God—who in doing so enables our covenant restoration. Jesus’ death on the cross is at once an exodus and an exile, the condition of the possibility of our entry to the promised land of the Holy Spirit (399, original emphasis).

The Blood of His Cross (7) – Vanhoozer (ii)

agnusdeiKevin Vanhoozer’s essay “The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats and Gifts” (in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, 367-404) responds to postmodern critiques of atonement theories generally, and the penal substitutionary theory of atonement specifically. For some postmodern theorists, atonement theories seeking to understand and explicate the death of Jesus are problematic on two fronts: first they are reductionist, attempting to ‘control’ the biblical material that witnesses to the death of Christ, and hence second, are violent, imposing a ‘system’ on this material.

The scandal of the cross, for postmoderns, is that theory reduces otherness precisely by explaining it. Postmoderns might say that we need to recover the scandal—the paradox, the ‘aporia’—of the cross through a ‘sacrifice’ of the intellect, acknowledging that conceptual thinking has here reached its limit, its death. … The challenge for theology is to ‘theorize’ the cross (i.e., in a doctrinal formulation) while simultaneously respecting it (i.e., as an ‘other’ that eludes our conceptual grasp). The problem is that theologies of the atonement seem unable to articulate a theory that explains the saving significance of Jesus’ death without betraying the rich testimonies to the event of his death (369, original emphasis).

With respect to penal substitution, the problem is not simply the attempt to render an explanation of the saving significance of Jesus’ death, but the content of the doctrine is also abhorrent: it is thought to legitimise personal and social violence by portraying God as violent, and thereby legitimising a view, practice, and system of retributive—violent—“justice.”

Hence, the scandal of the cross is not metaphysical (how could God suffer and die?) but moral: Does God need to be placated before he can love and forgive? Is God party to an economy of retaliatory exchange? (372, original emphasis).

The idea of atonement as a form of exchange is repudiated by postmoderns: “The operative concept in postmodern theological understandings of the atonement is excess, not exchange. The death of Jesus exceeds our attempts to explain it” (396, original emphasis). God, in this view, does not maintain a ‘moral’ or ‘legal’ economy in which every wrongdoing attracts a penalty of retribution, for retribution alone is not transformative (378).

Vanhoozer examines Girard’s theory that Jesus’ death was as the scapegoat that unmasked the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ which functions at the heart and foundation of every society, culture and institution. The scapegoat mechanism, according to Girard, secures the peace of a particular group by assigning blame and violent retribution to a third party, a victim which by its sacrifice saves the group from tearing itself apart. By taking the place of the scapegoat, Jesus unmasked and repudiated this sacred sacrificial violence. His death was not a sacrifice for us, but rather his exemplary death shows that pattern of divine love which submits to human violence in order to absorb and transcend it.

Jesus’ suffering and death were necessary because of the world’s inability to free itself from the cycle of rivalry and violence, not because God’s justice demanded death. … The death of Christ is thus a unique breakthrough, a decisive event in the history of human consciousness. The purpose of his death is to end all scapegoating, all sacrifices (387).

Postmodern theorists and theologians have also questioned the ‘economy of the gift’ (Vanhoozer discusses Milbank, Derrida, Marion, and Ricoeur):

As soon as we give something to someone, we put that person in our debt, thus taking, not giving. The gift disappears in a web of calculation, interest and measure. Such is the aporia of the gift, according to Derrida. It cannot be given without creating an economy of debt (392, original emphasis).

So long as the gift of God is viewed as part of an economy of debt or exchange, God is implicated in a dubious and oppressive system. But the idea of gift need not be reduced to a system of exchange in which the gift issues in debt and duty. Rather, a gift may exceed all expectations:

Ricoeur especially wants us to get beyond the ‘moral vision,’ together with its economy of retribution and logic of equivalence, in order to perceive the ‘eschatological vision,’ with its economy of restoration and its logic of extravagant excess. The moral vision is guilty, Ricoeur thinks, of an overly literalistic reading. … It is only by interpreting within the old economy of law, where the loss of an eye demands exact compensation (another eye), that we arrive at the notion of penal substitution theory of atonement. … In Ricoeur’s view, the doctrine of atonement belongs, not in an economy of crime and punishment, but in a hyper-economy of gift and grace (395-396).

Continued tomorrow…

The Blood of His Cross (6) – Kevin Vanhoozer (i)

agnusdeiIn his excellent survey of modern atonement theories, Kevin Vanhoozer identifies seven lines of thought (“Atonement” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology). The classic lines of atonement theology were, of course, laid down a thousand years ago by Anselm and Abelard in the so-called objective and subjective theories of atonement. The Reformers focussed primarily on the former, while in the nineteenth century the ‘turn to the subject’ in philosophy was echoed by a similar ‘(re)turn to the subject’ in atonement theology. The rise of psychology, an emphasis on human history and experience, and a rejection of divine retribution all contributed to a new focus on Abelard’s approach (178). The first five lines of modern atonement theology are characterised by Vanhoozer as:

  1. Jesus’ spirituality and socio-politics: Jesus, the exemplary human, communicates divine love, a consciousness of forgiveness, a new consciousness of God, and a new ideal of sociality and justice (Schleiermacher, Harnack, Ritschl, and Theodore Jennings). The cross overcomes our enmity towards God and calls us to a new way of life.
  2. From Substitution to Representation: Incarnation as Atonement. Atonement occurs not simply in the death of Jesus but in the entirety of his life. The focus is more ontological than moral, more incarnational and participatory, though the question arises, how one does participate. (Irving, McLeod Campbell, T. F. Torrance).
  3. Non-Violent Atonement: the cross is not an atonement as such, but an exposure of the myth of violence, a divine refusal to overcome sacrifice and violence with more violence. Sacrifice and violence are not redemptive but self-perpetuating; God never uses them, nor requires retributive justice before he can or will forgive (Girard; feminist, black and liberation theologies.)
  4. Christus Victor Recapitulated: the older account of the atonement demythologised: cultural rather than cosmic powers have been defeated in the work of the cross. Against the violence of the cultural powers which crucified Jesus comes the non-violent ethos of Jesus in the face of violence. This is not a passive submission to violence, but its unmasking through non-violent forgiveness and witness to the reign of God (Aulen, Wink, Weaver).
  5. The Cross as an Event in God’s Being: Hegel proposes a metaphysical account in which God overcomes the estrangement between the finite and the infinite by taking alienation and the finite into his own being and overcoming it. God is the reconciliation, the overcoming of opposites. Moltmann proposes a similar eschatological account of the cross as death in God, in which the event of the cross is constitutive of God’s nature as suffering love that takes the whole of created history into itself. Barth, too, sees the cross as an event in God’s being, but as the outworking of the divine self-determination established in the divine election. “The cross is not a contingency plan but part of the content of God’s self-determination to be our God and to embrace humanity as his covenant partner” (195).

Following this survey Vanhoozer questions the place of penal substitution in modern evangelical theology noting that it is both criticised and defended by different groups and theologians from within the evangelical camp.

One merit of the penal substitution view is the clarity and conciseness with which it is able to answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The answer: in order to bear the condemnation (penal) in our place (substitution). … The outstanding question for evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic now concerns not only the legitimacy of penal substitution but its centrality: is it merely one among many possible models, first among equals, or the one true explanation? (197, 199)

Vanhoozer’s comment about defenders and detractors of the doctrine shows these two groups dividing along classic Anselmian-Abelardian lines: “While defenders of penal substitution affirmed divine justice and human guilt, it detractors…emphasized divine love and human repentance” (197).

The seventh line of modern atonement theology is identified as a “unified” or “non-reductive” approach, in which proponents seek to bridge the divides between various models and incorporate the various strengths of each (Sherman, Boersma, Spence). In the end, Vanhoozer too adopts a unitive approach understanding the atonement in terms of ‘triune covenantal mediation.’ Vanhoozer refuses to play one set of divine attributes off against another: “God is all that he is—all holy, all loving, all just, all merciful—in all that he does. The cross, as the sum of divine wisdom, displays all the divine perfections.” Further,

The cross is the climax of the history of the Son’s covenantal mediation, the culmination of the whole triune economy of redemption. The shed blood is a graphic sign that God has proved faithful to his Abrahamic promise (Gen. 17) precisely by undergoing the sanctions, legal (i.e. death by execution) and relational (i.e. exile), for covenant disobedience (Deut. 28:15-68). By dying for us, Jesus makes possible new and expanded ‘in-law’ relationships (Rom. 5:15-19; 8:15), giving us a share in his Sonship (201).

It is clear, however, that while Vanhoozer seeks to include the positive contribution of all the approaches, he prioritises the objective nature of the atonement as the ground by which the subjective response might be realised. The ‘penal’ nature of the atonement is still present but reimagined within a broader covenantal context and narrative. Jesus’ death is for us and in our place, a redemptive suffering on our behalf. His blood plays a positive role: as witness that he has borne the legal and relational covenant sanctions for us—rejection and death—that we might be given a share in his divine Sonship.