Tag Archives: Kevin Vanhoozer

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.

In Memoriam: John Webster

John WebsterIn the abstract to my doctoral dissertation I write, “Following the lead and suggestion of John Webster, the thesis adopts a chronological and exegetical reading of Barth’s work…” Then chapter one starts with a long citation from John Webster’s Barth’s Moral Theology:

Close study of Barth’s ethical writings is still in its infancy.…[The] conventional treatment of Barth often revolved around an anxiety that the sheer abundance of Barth’s depiction of the saving work of God in Christ tends to identify real action with divine action, and leave little room for lengthy exploration of human moral thought and activity.…A great deal of work remains to be done. What is required more than anything else is detailed study of Barth’s writings which, by close reading, tries to display the structure and logic of his concerns without moving prematurely into making judgments or pressing too early the usefulness (or lack of it) of Barth’s work for contemporary moral theology.…For Barth, ethical questions are not tacked on to dogmatics as something supplementary, a way of exploring the ‘consequences’ of doctrinal proposals or demonstrating their ‘relevance.’ Dogmatics, precisely because its theme is the encounter of God and humanity, is from the beginning moral theology. An inadequate grasp of this point often lies behind much misunderstanding, not only of Barth’s ethics but of his dogmatics as a whole (Barth’s Moral Theology, 1, 8).

I never knew John Webster, although I did correspond by email with him once or twice, and to my surprise and delight, received answers from him! I knew Webster through his several books, especially those on the theology and ethics of Karl Barth. He was one of the foremost Barth scholars in the world, and we are the poorer for his untimely passing.

Professor Webster died a few weeks ago, aged just sixty years, and Kevin Vanhoozer has written a very appreciative eulogy.

Like Webster, evangelicals need to learn not to be overly concerned about what others will think of them, and to be more concerned with bearing cheerful and true witness to the gospel.

 Another appreciation can be found over at First Things.


Kevin Vanhoozer, Again

Vanhoozer at MooreThank you Jamie, for letting me know that the Kevin Vanhoozer lectures from the Annual Moore College Lectures have now been posted online. The lectures can be accessed here.

(See my earlier post on the first lecture here, including my comment about the question I asked Kevin.)

I was present for the first (public) lecture on Friday night, and my question can be found at about 1 hour, 10 minutes of that lecture. Listening to Kevin’s answer again, I still think he misunderstands my question, but perhaps not so drastically as I thought on the night. He still suggests that the problem with interpretive pluralism as Smith presents it, is located in the biblicist interpreter who wants the Bible to address questions it was never intended to address. This is certainly an aspect of Smith’s argument, and I agree with Vanhoozer on this point. Smith, however—and this is the question that Kevin did not concede—does locate interpretive pluralism in the biblical text itself, however, in addition to the problem of the biblicist interpreter. The biblicist approaches the Bible as though its meaning was univocal, as though it speaks clearly with a single voice and meaning. Smith continually suggests, however, that this approach is itself inadequate:

If these descriptive accounts and analogies about how the Bible is actually read and made sense of by real Christians are essentially correct and revealing, then that tells us something very important. It tells us that the Bible is multivocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things. […] Whatever biblicist theories say ought to be true about the Bible, in their actual, extensive experience using the Bible in practice, Christians recurrently discover that the Bible consists of irreducibly multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent texts (polysemy means “multiple meanings” and multivalent means “many appeals or values”) (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 47, original emphasis).

Or again:

The ideas of biblical multivocality, polysemy, and evidential under-determination may not fit the biblicist theory about scripture. Biblicists instead tend to assume the single, univocal meaning of biblical texts. […] The multivocality and polysemy of the Bible, and the diversity and division to which they give rise, are undeniable, historical, empirical, phenomenological facts.  It is not that multiple possible meanings are necessarily read into scripture by readers’ subjectivities (although sometimes they are) but rather that, even when read as good believers should read the texts, the words of scripture themselves can and usually do give rise to more than one possible, arguably legitimate interpretation. This very biblical multivocality and polysemy is exactly what explains a great deal of why Protestantism in particular—the tradition that, as the historical champion of sola scriptura and biblical perspicuity, has primarily fostered biblicism—is itself extremely fragmented doctrinally, ecclesiologically, and culturally. […] To deny the multivocality of scripturure is to live in a self-constructed world of unreality (Smith, The Bible, 52-54).

My question to Kevin was asking for his response to this claim. I would still like to hear it, and I will listen to the lectures with interest to see whether he does address it in one of the later sessions. To me, Smith’s contention has more than a grain of truth, and if anything, makes Kevin Vanhoozer’s project all the more necessary. We need carefully devised hermeneutical principles for reading scripture well. Kevin’s proposal for a gospel-oriented (the five solas) and ecclesial (the priesthood of believers) model for biblical interpretation will be, I believe, an important contribution to this essential discussion.

Kevin Vanhoozer Sings “Sola”

Vanhoozer at Moore

When in Sydney last week I took the opportunity to head out for the first of this year’s Annual Moore College Lecture, to hear Kevin Vanhoozer address the theme, “Mere Protestant Christianity: How Singing Sola Renews Biblical Interpretation.” It was the first of six lectures and I would have liked to have heard the whole series which finished just this morning. At some point the whole series will be available online to download.

The lecture began with a question: “Should the church repent of or retrieve the Reformation?” Vanhoozer surveyed some recent opinions which suggest that the Reformation was responsible for the development of secularism (Brad Gregory), scepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). I even learnt a new word during this section: fissiparous, which means—in a non-biological context—having a tendency to divide into groups or factions. Vanhoozer recognised the partial truthfulness of these charges though he also noted that (a) the Reformers never sought division or thought it desirable; and (b) that at least part of these unintended consequences of the Reformation were due to the revolution Luther instigated with respect to biblical interpretation, including allowing individual Christians to read and interpret Scripture. He cites McGrath at this point, suggesting that this is “Christianity’s dangerous idea.”

But, has the Reformation also set interpretive anarchy in play? What are we to make of the fact of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith)? If the Holy Spirit is guiding our interpretation—as so many claim—why are we not led to identical or at least similar interpretations of Scripture? Here Vanhoozer displayed the intent of his lectureship: what is needed is a viable criterion by which we can arrive at a warranted interpretation of Scripture. For Vanhoozer, an over-reliance on sola scriptura when mixed with an individualistic understanding of the priesthood of all believers has resulted in interpretive pluralism. Thus he wants to rethink biblical interpretation in light of the Reformation solas, a corporate understanding of the royal priesthood of all believers, and a commitment to the catholicity of the church.

Nor does all this entail a traditioned interpretation frozen in time. Theology is not simply repetition of positions held in the past, nor repristination whereby previous interpretations are simply dusted off and dressed afresh for presentation in a new environment. Retrieving the gospel requires translation, a style of biblical interpretation and theology which not only looks back with appreciation to explore, understand and retrieve the tradition of the church, but which also looks forward, bringing the word of the gospel in present contexts in light of future hope. Overall the lecture was a great entrée, and I look forward to hearing the whole series to see how Vanhoozer works out these themes in detail.

But then in the question time a funny thing happened. In forums such as these my natural caution (pride issuing in fear?) often keeps me from asking a question. In this lecture, however, because I am familiar with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible which Kevin addressed explicitly, I asked for his comment on Smith’s assertion that the Bible is inherently “multivocal and polysemous,” that is, inherently capable of various meanings and interpretations because it speaks with multiple voices. At this point Kevin, it seemed to me, back-pedalled. He did not answer my question but instead launched into a brief defence insisting that he did not think that Smith was claiming the Bible had “errors,” for if he had done so, that would be “easy to refute.” Rather, he was taking Smith’s critique to heart to make his own task more difficult. Perhaps Kevin misunderstood my intent, and conscious of his environment (Moore College), felt he needed to utter a defence of inerrancy. I had opportunity the next evening to chat with someone else who was there and who had wondered about Kevin’s response to the question, not understanding why he said what he did.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Vanhoozer seeks a “viable criterion” and is developing a sophisticated hermeneutic for the people of God suggests that the meaning of the Bible is simply not as plain as we often like to believe. It is precisely this kind of simplistic belief, so prevalent in some sectors of the church, that needs urgent redress, and I wholeheartedly support Kevin’s efforts in this direction. Biblical interpretation is an ecclesial rather than merely an individual practice, deeply respectful of Scripture’s provenance and authority, informed by practices of interpretation in the history of the church, and oriented toward a clear re/presentation of the gospel for the church and wider world in its present context, and robust Christian formation in the same context.


DiarmaidMacCullochKevin Vanhoozer lectures in Sydney
On Friday August 7 I happen to be in Sydney and so intend heading to Moore College for the first of Kevin Vanhoozer’s lectures. For those who live in Sydney, Kevin’s series of lectures will continue the following week. The series, “Mere Protestant Christianity: How Singing Sola Renews Biblical Interpretation (and Theology),” promises to be rich fare for those who can make it along. Further details are here.

Evangelical History Association Conference
The reason I am in Sydney is for the Evangelical History Association Conference the next day with Professor David Bebbington as plenary speaker. The Conference theme is “Christianity and Crisis.” Further details of this one-day conference are available here. Peter Elliott and I are heading across from Perth and are both giving papers at the Conference – scary for me, as a non-historian. I am working on it at the moment. The abstract of my paper is:

“Theological Existence Today”

At lunchtime on June 24, 1933 August Jäger was appointed Commissioner of all Protestant Landeskirchen in Prussia. Klaus Scholder notes that, “the long-feared event had taken place. The state had intervened directly in the church” (The Churches and the Third Reich, 1:355). That night, in the face of mounting social, cultural and political crises, Karl Barth famously—infamously—announced that he would “endeavour to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened.” Barth’s essay, Theological Existence Today, was and is a clarion call arguing for the independence and integrity of theology in the face of formidable cultural pressures. At stake is the integrity of the church and its faithful witness to Jesus Christ. While he addresses the issues of the day such as the deposing of Bodelschwingh, the relations between church and state, and the various parties seeking the renewal of German Protestantism, the real issue lies elsewhere. The battle is not against the German Christians, but for them. The battle is not against foes outside the church but is within the church: it is the battle for the Word of God, to be waged by prayer, proclamation and genuine theological work.

This paper sets Barth’s essay in context, identifies his central concerns and claims, and explores his response to the crisis unfolding in German Protestantism in June 1933.

Diarmaid MacCulloch
And speaking of historians, does being gay make you a better historian? ‘Immensely, immensely,’ says Diarmaid MacCulloch. A friend sent me a link to the following interview with Diamaid MacCulloch.

Finally, this has nothing to do with public lectures or history, but perhaps provides grist for the theological mill: Is this narcissism, being adventurous, or the over-concern of a nanny-state mentality?