Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Father is Merciful

I remember seeing Rob Bell's clip where he asks the question whether Jesus saves us from the Father! An orthodox theology (i.e., one that is Trinitarian) would say emphatically "no!" because the cross is a triune event. Here are some words from Bruce McCormack on the subject:

“If the Father were not mercifully inclined toward the human race all along, why would he have sent his only Son into this world in the first place? Surely, a determination to be merciful and forgiving must precede and ground the sending of the Son into the world to die in our place. Surely forgiveness is not elicited from the Father (grudgingly?) by what Christ did on our behalf; it is rather effected by the Father in and through Christ’s passion and death. So the picture of an angry God the Father and a gentle and self-sacrificial Son who pays the ultimate price to effect an alteration in the Father’s ‘attitude’ fails to hit the mark.”[1]

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, “The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement,” in The Glory of the Atonement, ed. C.E. Hill and F.A. James (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004) 366 (346-66).


FrGregACCA said...


And this would rule out any Anselmian account of the atonement, would it not, whether in terms of "satisfaction", "penalty", or even, "moral government"?

The sacrifice of Christ is first expiatory. It is propitiatory, pleasing and acceptable to God, precisely because it is expiatory: "the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin".

Andrew said...

But we're not being saved from Satan... Why can't we say that we are saved from God's wrath.

Unknown said...

So the wrath that remains on all those who don't believe (John 3:36) is not an example of the fury of God that has been removed for all who do believe and follow Jesus?

FrGregACCA said...

Andrew, of course we are being saved from Satan. Note, first, that a prominent part of Jesus’ earthly ministry was that of exorcism, freeing people from the immediate domination by demons. See also, for example, Ephesians 6:10-17, Colossians 2:15, I Peter 2:9, I John 3:8, and especially, Hebrews 2:14-15. The question of liberation from Satan is a big concern underlying the Ransom/Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. This was the original understanding, only being replaced by Anselm’s satisfaction theory in the 11th Century.

Lindsey, go back to John 3:18: "He who believes in [Christ] is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, BECAUSE he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."

The Divine wrath is poured out, in the end, not because of sin per se, but because of the specific sin, the ultimate sin, of refusing the remedy for the fallen human condition, that remedy being Christ. This is also what St. Paul means when he speaks of "being saved from the wrath to come". This is why we read in Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent”

Jeremy said...

How did Bell respond to his own question?

Be aware of any theology that only includes one model of atonement in its theory of the cross. It is dangerous and unfair to Scripture.

"This was the original understanding, only being replaced by Anselm’s satisfaction theory in the 11th Century"...original to who? Certainly not the clear trajectory of Scripture that makes plenty of room for penal substitution. I would heartily recommend Paul Wells' "Cross Words" on this.

Nicholas said...

According to the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Scriptures "make room" for Arianism, torture stakes, etc.

So it's not really about what the Scriptures "make room" for. It's about how the Apostles and their successors interpreted the Scriptures.

Peter Gurry said...

Greg, this in no way rules out Anselmic notions of the atonement. It does rule out some common caricatures, however.

I still don't understand your bifurcation between sin per se and refusing to accept the remedy. If the only real sin is refusing the remedy, then it would seem better for God not to give the remedy in the first place, wouldn't it? I think you're over-interpreting the logic of John 3:18. If people are only condemned for for unbelief, then what is the "already" doing in that verse? In the context it is much better to see Jesus' arrival as compounding the world's condemnation, not creating it ex nihilio. In fact, John 3:17 explicitly says his purpose in coming was not to condemn the world. If condemnation is only based on unbelief, then wouldn't it have been best if he never came at, thus precluding the very possibility for unbelief? You can't disbelieve in a Son who's never come to earth, right?

The fact is that in John's theology the 'world' is not some neutral entity that only becomes guilty when Jesus arrives on the scene. On the contrary, the world exists in massive rebellion against God and because of this stands under his just condemnation. When the Son comes, he does not come to condemn precisely because he doesn't need to. He does come to save. Rejecting this Savior in rebellious unbelief does compound the condemnation, to be sure. But, strictly speaking, it does not create it.

FrGregACCA said...

Amen, Nicholas. Precisely.

Peter: I am confused. Your suggestion that it would have been better if Christ had not come is like saying that no one should have developed treatments for serious physical illnesses.

The primary issue is not the wrath or condemnation of God. The main issue is the damage, the chaos, the death, that sin, including my sin and your sin, and Satan wreak on humanity and on all of creation. It is precisely THIS that Christ comes to rescue us from.

No, the world is not a neutral place, but its rebellion is secondary to its alienation from God, and frankly, at least for the past millennium, a big chunk of that rebellion has been occasioned by Anselmian soteriology.

Here is how one very traditional Eastern Orthodox theologian understands these matters:

Peter Gurry said...


I think the difference may be that you you think of sin as something we are victims of whereas I think it is something we are both victims and perpetrators of.

Our biggest problem with sin is not what it does to us or to creation (though that is massive and terrible and Jesus deals with that too). The biggest problem with sin is what it does to God. David says to God after causing massive horizontal chaos, death, and sin, "Against you and you only have I sinned" Ps. 51:4. To my understanding, the Orthodox tradition, for all the wonderful things it has to say about the horizontal dimensions of sin, has failed to recognize that the vertical dimension of sin is always primary. God is always the most offended party in our sin and thus the vertical dimension is always the most serious of all. How could it be otherwise? Our sin is an intensely personal offense against God before it is anything else. If it were otherwise, God should have corrected David's exaggeration. He does not. Because at a profound level, David is exactly right.

This is not to say that the West has nothing to learn from the East about the atonement. I appreciate the Chrisus Victor emphasis in the East. I just don't think it makes sense of the Bible without Penal Substitution. If we have not been saved from our vertical guilt before God, then we have no victory over our Accuser. Satan's accusations against us are all right and God would be unjust to ignore them if he has not punished our sins on the cross.

So no, I do not agree that the world's rebellion stems from its alienation. Didn't Adam & Eve rebel against God before they were removed from the Garden? In Gen 3, rebellion leads to alienation not the other way around.

But thanks for your thoughts. I don't deny that the West has much to learn from the East. I just wish the East would listen more to the West too.

FrGregACCA said...

Peter, I agree that we are both perpetrators and victims of sin, but our perpetration of sin comes out of being in bondage to Satan "who has the power of death", via our fear of death. Again, see Hebrews 2:14-15. Thus, we are first victims, then perpetrators.

As St. Ireneus, writing late in the Second Century, tells us, our first parents did not "rebel" against God as much as they were tricked into disobeying God.

I think that one has to be careful with how one understands the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 51:4. Your understanding of it reminds me how JW's use John 17:3 to deny the Trinity.

I don't know exactly what to do with this, in Psalm 51, but I do know that all sin involves other people. David's certainly did.

Further, in John 5:22-27, we find that the Father has delegated all judgment to the Son precisely because the Son is not only God, but also human.

God is utterly transcendent and impassible. Therefore, sin does not affect God unless God so allows, which God does in the death of Christ, meaning that God, in Christ, suffers the direct consequences of human sinfulness, including the sinfulness that we ourselves perpetrate, in order to free us from them.

I agree, BTW, that there are things the West can teach the East. However, this is not one of them. Why? "By their fruits you shall know them." The results of Anselmian soteriology have been, first, turning God into something other than the Father of Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the story of the Prodigal Son and, in reaction to that, a theological liberalism which denies the reality of Satan and human sinfulness.

Peter Gurry said...

Actually I think protestant liberalism was quite happy with the Father of Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the story of the Prodigal Son. And I'm quite sure their denial of Satan and human sinfulness had more to do with the Enlightenment than with Anselm. These are strange accusations indeed.

David's sin certainly did involve other people. All the more shocking that he should say it was against God and God alone that, wouldn't you agree?

FrGregACCA said...

I would argue, Peter, that the theological roots of the Enlightenment are found in reaction to Anselm, Augustine, and Calvin. Nothing comes out of a vacuum.

Peter Gurry said...

Greg, theological roots of the Enlightenment? Methinks we are not talking about the same thing when we each say, "Enlightenment." But that would be a most interesting argument to see attempted.