The Doctrine of Atonement & Reconciliation
Increasingly people are doubting whether the Reformed doctrine of reconciliation really capture the modern thought of reconciliation between God and man - the so called doctrine of atonement like Tony Jones, Rob Bell, Brian McClaren, and others. Tony Jones for example, has written a book; a Better Atonement in which he discuss 8 models of reconciliation. I will later discuss his models in a blog, but for now, I want to dust off the dust from my Dogmatics handbooks and revisit the Reformed doctrine of reconciliation.
It is interesting to note that the Christian theological history never developed a doctrine of the atonement, like for example the doctrine of the Trinity, which maybe is an indication of how differently it is and was understood over time (see below). The confession of Nicea says that Jesus became man for us and for our salvation. Exactly how Jesus' crucifixion contributed to our salvation, was never officially developed (Van der Kooi, 2002:104). But, before I continue, let me just draw a few parameters in which I operate:
- We're talking about a mystery! We, humans, try to figure out God's original intention as if we can fully explain God. Let us never forget; we work here with a mystery and we can only speculate, come to some conclusions how we understand it, but it is certainly not the final answer. There is not just one answer to these theological questions. As Brian McClaren in his book, Generous Orthodxy writes of "7 presentations of Jesus". Each faith tradition bring something to the table from which we all can learn , or something that enriches our pilgrimage.
- It's nothing new. We work here with a doctrine that have come along for centuries. Anselm and Abealardus are probably some of the first to formulate some ideas about the atonement.
- The Bible remains the highest authority; for me anyway. If Calvin says it is "A", I will not necessarily believe it to be "A"; only if the Biblical data convince me thereto. That's why I like the principle of accepting the creeds "insofar" as they are consistent with the Bible, versus "because" they are consistent with the Bible. Point is; the biblical data carries a higher authority than Calvin or any other writer.
When we talk about reconciliation, it must be seen in the first place as the restoration of the broken relationship between God and man, and between man and man. Sin brought a separation between God and man and between man and man and the "Ministry of Reconciliation" (2 Cor 5) was given to restore this broken relationships. When the Bible speaks about the coming of Jesus and the atonement, there is not just one way of talking about it. Several images are used in the Bible to explain the reconciliation between God and man; images like slaves that were redeemed, the relationship between a man and a woman, a shepherd who lay down his life for the sheep, victory over the power of the bad, debt paid in a technical legal sense etc.
Historically, there are three main streams of thought:
- The victory over evil. Developed in conjunction with Paul this poses the idea that Christ's coming, suffering and death was God's victory over evil forces (see also Heidelberg Catechism 1). The focus is here on the victory (in the resurrection of Christ) that christ accomplished over the powers of evil forces and is still today the focus of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
- Objective reconciliation of Anselm. Anselm had a problem with the previous argument in which the devil "owns" everything and that Jesus came to free man from satan's clutches. He made more use of legal concepts such as justice, guilty, wrongdoing etc. (Meiring, 2005:54). According to Anselm's view, man's guilt was so overwhelming that no human can avoid judgment.
Anselm's objective atonement doctrine says that sin brought alienation between God and man and consequently affected God's glory. Therefore God Himself, in His love and goodness, decided to reconcile man and God by sending the Messiah. However, this Messiah cannot be a human being (because he would be guilty of his own sin); yet he also must be a human being (to be representative - doctrine of two natures of Christ). Therefore, it is God who sent Jesus as the Messiah, the One who would fulfill His justice.
Heyns (1999:283) explains it this way:
God and Man
1. God gave the first humans, Adam and Eve, instructions and promises, with consequences for disobedience.
2. Man violated God's command and therefore stand guilty before Him.
3. This kindled God's wrath on man which necessitates punishment.
4. But, God wants to restore the broken relationship.
God and Jesus
1. Because of love, God decided to restore the relationship
2. The Son of God is sent to become human.
3. As a person He did what man had to do but did not (obedience), but he also represent the full punishment that was meant for humans.
4. So, doing the demands of God's righteousness are met, and God reconciled the world with Himself.
Jesus and Humans
1. Jesus' obedience is representative.
2. People benefit from what Jesus had done, and he is reconciled with God.
3. Man is called to a ministry of reconciliation and a renewal of all the relations in which he lives.
4. Those who believe in Jesus Christ, are those who is the elect and is given to Christ to save the by his Spirit and His Word. As in the covenant, it is God who takes the initiative. It is God that reaches out to us by providing Jesus as the only way by which man can be reconciled with God (Acts 4:12). Some schisms in this age-old debate believed that Jesus' obedience "convinced" God (coming from those religions where gods had to be pleased by offerings). Jesus' obedience did not convince God to act in love. Rather, Jesus' death on the cross is precisely the proof of God's love for mankind! It's the basis of reconciliation! To this day, this is the basic precipice of the Reformed tradition.
- Subjective reconciliation of Abelard. Following from the previous paragraph about the love of God, and in objection to the objective reconciliation doctrine of Anselm who, according to Abelard, made too much of God's wrath and too little of God's love, the subjective reconciliation emanated.
Now, according to Abelard's subjective reconciliation God sent His Son to reconcile man with God, not because He needs it in terms of His wrath or justice, but because of His love. Christ did not pay for our sins; He came to reveal God's love. Christ did not fulfill God's wrath; He revealed God's love.
Those who concur with Abelard is of the opinion that it is unthinkable that God would find delight in Jesus' suffering, and the cross is therefore not about punishment, but about God's love (Schleiermacher, Dorothy Solle, Wiersinga and newer theologians like Rob Bell and others). This "love" as the main point of reconciliation is the theme of Rob Bell's book "Love Wins". For Rob Bell, God's love is so overwhelming that eventually no one will be lost.
Wiersinga writes that we are not saved because someone was killed "in our place" (representative), but because Jesus showed God's unconditional love (Meiring 2005:57).
The criticism against Abelard's subjective reconciliation is that there is then no need for Christ to be God (his Divinity); a mere ordinary human being could just as well die to demonstrate God's love. Further, the main criticism against Abelard is that he should be more serious about sin and God's wrath (God's righteousness). According to Abelard, love is in a sense a condition for reconciliation and deny God's righteousness, while for Anselm it was the result. God is love, but at the same time God also requires obedience. In the covenant, God gave promises to man but also made certain demands. Man did not obey those demands and could therefore not receive the promises of the covenant. Because God is love, does not mean that he had given up on obedience. God does not give up on his claim to obedience just because of His love. Its like two sides of a coin (Ex 34:7). He can not be untruthful to Himself (Heyns, 1999:284).
Because the Reformed tradition largely follows Anselm's objective reconciliation, the following additional comments must be noted:
- An aspect of the atonement is that Jesus acts as the representative of man in the cross. Because Christ dies on behalf of man, he becomes the atoning sacrifice, and therefore, God reconciled the world with Him through Christ (2 Cor 5:19). This also refers to the two natures of Christ, which I will blog later. No man can meet God's demands (Rom 3), but Jesus as the mediator could and therefore acts as representative. God demands justification; but provides for it in Christ. What God asked, he Himself provided, because He knows that no one else can do it. He gave Jesus Christ who, through his obedience, complied to the righteousness of God (Heyns. 1999:284). As a substitute, it meant that God dealt with Christ like he would've dealt with me. His death was my death, but his life is my life! (Gal 2:20).
- Another aspect is the uniqueness of Jesus' sacrifice. Nobody can imitate or add on to Christ's obedience and eventual crucifixion. It was and is a perfect sacrifice and make additional sacrifices unnecessary.
The next question is how people partake this reconciliation? How is the atonement realised in me? Before I get to the Calvinist's limited atonement doctrine, the following:
- Although the reconciliation with God is acquired through Christ, it can only be realized through faith. Faith does not "realise" reconciliation (because faith would then have a redeeming quality which would affect Christ's uniqueness); but reconciliation cannot happen without faith! "The objective acquired reconciliation is subjectively realised through faith, which is done through the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the Word." (Heyns, 1999: p287). The result is that those who receive God's reconciliation also received the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) and become agents of reconciliation. It is not a private matter between me and God (my personal Saviour) as McClaren complains often happens. The reconciliation should have an impact on people and the world around us. We are agents of reconciliation by word and deed to heal everything and everyone who is broken because of sin (Heyns 1999:288).
Who share in this reconciliation?
According to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Christ's atonement applies only to the elect; "his sheep"; those whom God had chosen before the foundation of the earth (Eph 1:10 ; John 17:9, Matthew 26:28, Eph 5:25). Even from 2 Peter 3:8 it is argued that the atonement is not for "all" people, but that the author only referred to all of "them" the elect. This often causes hopelessness. How do I know I was chosen. No matter whether I believe or not, if I'm not chosen, it is not for me. And worse yet, if I was not chosen, it's ultimately not my fault and therefore I can not be held accountable. For some it is totally unacceptable to think that God find delight in the fact that some are destined for destruction. It is on this point that we must agree that it is a mystery and we can only speculate because:
- First, God is much more merciful, loving than us. I was so worried about those who were not chosen, but I should not imagine that I'm more kind and loving than God. Therefore, who is and who is not, is not something I should worry about. As the young people say: "He got this ..."
- secondly, that God chooses people is out of His unconditional love and grace, and it is surely God's sovereign right as Creator. The fact that there are people who will perish, cannot be ascribed to God, but the man's choice.
- thirdly, can we work with a linear concept of time when God said that a day is like a 1000 yr and a 1000 yr like a day? Is there a beginning and an end to God, to the Creation, like in our concept of time? If there is the slightest chance for an alternative concept of time, it might then be possible that the election is still taking place and is not a finished "product". Just wondering ....
- God knows the intent of the heart, so writes the author of Hebrews. Is it possible that God knows beforehand who would respond positively to the invitation of Jesus and who does not, and that the election is taken on that precept?
I know this might not answer all the questions, but it's possibilities I'm thinking about. Or, maybe we must admit that the Canons of Dordt needs rewording. It is because of this limited atonement and all its questions that Randy Alcom and others rejected this point of Calvinism (the so-called 4-point Calvinism).
Whenever I hear synthesis passages interpreted by those who advocate limited atonement, I have the distinct sense that rather than accepting what the passages are saying, we are trying to make them say something else that is foreign to the intent of the author and the natural understanding of the words and contexts. The passages that say Christ died for his sheep and his bride do not nullify this, for they do not say he only died for his sheep and his bride.
A very good article of Alcom's problem with the Limited Atonement is available here.
It seems to me that we cannot really fully understand the doctrine of atonement without the doctrine of election. There is a close relationship between the two. More importantly, there are positives and negatives in all the models that have been proposed over the centuries (even Tony Jones' 8 models). Must we necessarily choose between them? Is it not true that all have something to bring to the table? Is it not possible that one would sometimes appeal to us, and another one at other times, depending on circumstances and the context? It might even fit in with our post-modern thought (Meiring 2005:66) of not knowing the final truth.
Secondly, it is important that we do not question the authenticity and genuineness of those who think differently than we. No one has the last word on these issues. Just because someone else thinks about something so mysterious different than we, should not result in us condemning and denying them the grace of God. The grace of God is so much more that what we can define in words. There are, after all more similarities than there are differences in Christ.
I have also noticed that Reformed theology as we believe as Protestants differ materially from the American Evangelical theology. I suspect that American theology undergone an evolutionary development of Protestant / Reformed theology, with a cup of Baptist / Charismatics, with a tablespoon of independentistic influence. I do not agree with everything that modern American exponents (mostly labelled as Emergent Church) say, but it does seems though as if the they have problems with the typical Evangelical Christianity and wants to be more Biblical. And to me, that is Reformed theology.