Thursday, April 8, 2010

In my place condemned He stood

Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood --
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
-P.P. Bliss

I was reading a comment thread on a post over on the blog Stand Firm on Good Friday and I saw a claim being made there that I've seen made in other forums and have heard in many conversations. It is first said that the church fathers, the earliest Christian writers outside the New Testament, did not dwell much on the atonement or have a well-formulated view of this doctrine. That claim may be true. I know that some early writers, such as Origen, believed in a "ransom theory" of the atonement.

It is then assumed that because some patristic writers did not elevate the doctrine of the atonement to a high level of importance that it is alright today to have many different views of the atonement and that it is wrong to judge and say that one of these views is the correct view.

What amazes me is that these debaters, who mostly have a strong dislike of penal substitution or satisfaction, often claim that this view was not even formulated until St. Anselm of Canterbury writing in the 11th Century, and was not believed by many to be central to the Christian faith until the Reformation and therefore a penal substitutionary view is either unimportant or wrong.

The reason that this amazes me is that these deniers of a penal substitutionary atonement seem to completely ignore the inspired writings of Paul or the even earlier writings of the prophet Isaiah, both of whom were writing long before the church fathers, Anselm or the Reformers. Paul wrote, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God," and also, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree (2 Cor 5:21 and Galatians 3:13).'" Keeping in mind that Christ became both sin and a curse in order to redeem and save us, we also read that Christ was, "put forward as a propitiation by his blood," by God (Romans 3:25). And as a propitiation by His blood Paul tells us what Christ was saving us from, "we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9)." Here the Apostle Paul does not say that the elect are saved primarily from "the devil" or "from corruption" or even "from our sins." Paul says we are saved from the wrath of God by Christ. That is not to say that we aren't also saved from bondage to the devil or corruption or our sins, but we are primarily saved from God's wrath and it is the wrath of God which is the primary problem for those who are outside of Christ.

And if there were any doubt about what Paul might mean by his use of the word "propitiation" or how exactly Christ saved us from God's wrath I think Isaiah makes it clear in his prophecy concerning the Messiah. I've heard some argue that what Isaiah wrote in the 53rd chapter of his book could be written concerning the prophet himself and not about Christ. But if one were to take this view they would be disagreeing with all four gospel writers, with Luke writing in Acts and with St. Peter. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is quoted as having predicted things concerning Christ in Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32 and 1st Peter 2:22. These are places where the 53rd chapter of Isaiah is applied to Christ in the New Testament but other parts of the book of Isaiah are quoted in numerous other places, including by Paul as having foretold aspects of Christ's life and ministry. So to deny that Isaiah 53 applies to Christ and His sufferings is to reject the witness of almost the entire New Testament.

And what does Isaiah tell us about the Messiah's sufferings? Isaiah writes that He "was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace(53:5)." Verse 6 says, "and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." And whose will was it that Christ be crushed? Who was putting upon Christ the chastisement that brought us peace? Verse 10 reads, "Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief." Ultimately it was not Satan or man who made Christ suffer. No ransom was payed to the devil. To believe such things is to reject the clear teaching of Scripture. Christ suffered in the place of sinful man, having taken upon Himself our sin, being made "to be sin," He bore the wrath that the justice of God demanded sinful humans to receive.

So it may be true that a penal-substitutionary view of the atonement is not clearly taught in the patristic writings. If this is true it is unfortunate but it is only one example among many of doctrines which were taught by the Apostles being obscured by sinful men in the history of the Church. And it is not only the Church where the obscuring of the doctrines of God have occurred. The same had occurred in Ancient Israel when Josiah discovered the Book of the Law in the temple and had it read aloud to the people, re-revealing the truth of God. If God's people Israel were not immune to the obscuring and loss of true doctrine then there is no reason to assume that the Church would somehow be immune to the same evil. But God in His mercy has used men like Anselm and the Reformers to bring us back to the Word of God and the un-tainted truth which is revealed there.


Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

Certainly the gravity of the atonement is something that we are all striving to better understand, with the acknowledgment that we probably will not fully comprehend it in this life.

But, ultimately, how we perceive the atonement will reflect how we perceive Jesus Christ and our relationship with Him.
WHO Jesus is to each of us personally will ultimately determine WHAT the atonement is to us personally.

And I can't tell you or anyone else what kind of a relationship you have with your Savior.

I'm sorry I didn't have a question today...


Ed said...

Well I can't resist making a tired snipe at your last point: if the Church can have lost "many of the doctrines which were taught by the Apostles" over time, in what sense is it then "the pillar and ground of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15)?

Other than that, I think you have a serious problem in your emphasis here, but we've no doubt been down this road before and walking it again would no doubt prove fruitless.

But I will say, in your defense, that while it should be obvious to all that the apostles never taught the "Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement" formally, its late provenance does not mean that it does not accurately reflect and articulate the apostolic mind. For some other notable examples, one might argue that the Apostles never taught the Trinity doctrine, Christ as "Theanthropos," or (for specifically Eastern critics) the Palamite Essence/Energies distinction. However, just because the formal terminologies of later eras did not exist in the Apostolic vocabulary does not mean that the later formulations do not correctly restate and potentially clarify the earlier faith.

Matt Perkins said...

Hey Ed,

I agree that the apostles never formally taught penal substitution as it may have been articulated by Anselm or Calvin. But, as you seem to have suggested, I think this is a case where although certain formal terminologies didn't exist in the Apostolic vocabulary, some later formal terminologies like the Trinity are faithful to the Apostolic teaching nonetheless.

When it comes to your quoting of 1 Tim. 3:15, I'll just quote 2 Tim. 3:16 back at you, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." I think that can be applied in correction even of an erring church. But for me this verse isn't why I view Scripture the way I do, it's because of the way Christ viewed Scripture when He walked the earth. When we look at the way Christ viewed Scripture, there is nothing to indicate that He did not see it as completely truthful and trustworthy. He rebuked the religious institutions of His time quoting Scripture to show how they were unfaithful. After rebuking the Pharisees for their additions to the Law Jesus said, "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men (Mark 7:8)." I think the Church does exactly the same whenever it is unfaithful to the revelation of the Bible in any way, including a denial of a penal-substitutionary atonement. I'm not saying that I think Christians have to use "formal terminologies" in expressing this doctrine but I think if one were to reject the basic meaning of what is being expressed in the idea of "penal-substitution" then I think they are rejecting the revelation of God for some tradition of man.

Thanks for commenting Ed.

Ed said...

Not to be rude, Matt, but your comment does not seem to answer what St. Paul might have meant when he calls the Church the pillar and ground of Truth. If anything (and perhaps I'm being unfair to you here, if I am, please let me know), you seem to be making an excuse for why you do not believe what St. Paul wrote. If, as you have quoted, "all Scripture is god-breathed and useful for teaching," what do you make of this tiny little phrase? Was it an accidental slip of Paul's pen? Was the Church "the ground of truth" in Paul's day but ceased to be after the Apostolic era? (And again, if it did, what Scripture might you cite in support of this? There are certainly Scriptures that support the coming of heretics within the Church in the last days, are these what you are thinking of?)

Matt Perkins said...

Hey Ed,

If you were just rude I probably deserved it =) Well, I could see how it looks like I'm making an excuse for not believing Paul's inspired words. I guess my real point was that I think it's maybe not a great idea to base some central theological belief on one verse that could be misunderstood. When it comes to the Reformed view of the authority of Scripture, there are many verses which support this idea and I think more strongly than that the way Jesus, the Apostles and even Old Testament saints seemed to relate to Scripture. When it comes to God working through an authoritative human institution as His chief authority, even over Scripture, I don't see any pattern like that in the OT and you have quoted what I think may be the only verse in the NT which blatantly might support that point of view. Which leads me to believe that 1 Tim 3:15 may not be saying exactly what you think it is saying and whatever the case may be I'm not going to base some central theological belief on that one verse. Kind of like I'm not gonna start baptizing for the dead or become a Mormon just because somewhere Paul talked about baptizing for the dead. There are many other examples of this same way of relating to Scripture.

Anyways, what do you think?


Jacob M. Aho said...


After reading this current
post twice, I must heartily
conclude with a resounding

Ed said...

I have my doubts that there are many verses which support "the Reformed view of the authority of Scripture."

For one thing, how do you even arrive at the Scriptures themselves without the tradition of the Church? Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find a list of canonical books. Yes, St. Peter in his Second Epistle seems to refer to St. Paul's writings as "scripture - lit. 'the writings,'" but how do we know without some external authority that St. Peter's Epistles are themselves "Scripture" which can give authoritative testimony to the nature of the rest? The loop, I infer, is not a closed one. The Scriptures themselves must rest on some other testimony, the testimony of another witness.

No doubt you are well aware from your schooling that a number of other (generally wonderful) books were being read in some churches along with the books that commonly comprise the post-Nicean New Testament. But on what grounds do you stand with Nicea? Nicea spoke for the Church and sought to answer questions that you are not really even asking. The questions were never "is this document (e.g. Hebrews, Revelation, Second Peter, Ignatius to the Magnesians, the Shepard of Hermas, etc.) that we are considering truly 'God-breathed' or 'inspired?'" The assumption was that the ancient writings of the holy men of the Church were all inspired on some level. The primary question was "is this apostolic?" and the primary focus was not intended to set up a set of documents that would fully delimit Christian doctrine, it was to answer primarily liturgical questions such as "what is to be read in the services?"

Moreover, and I think this is important to note, Nicea never officially adopted an "Old Testament." And I would think this should be a serious dilemma for you, though I have never heard you discuss it. There was no "OT Canon" of Second Temple Judaism. Various groups held various stances, with "mainstream" types accepting anything from only the Pentateuch to all of the modern so-called "Septuagint" (with "Apocrypha") and possibly even a little more. The Jews (the followers of the old Pharisaic religion as we know them today) did not retrench around their Bible until late in the first or early in the second century. And in essence, their questions never had to do with the inspiration of documents, either. Their first question seems to have been "is it in Hebrew?" This was of course a highly defensive question in many ways, because the Christians used Greek translations of the OT greatly to their advantage amongst god-fearers and Hellenized Jews.

In other words, what books did Jesus consider to be the "canon" of the Old Testament? Perhaps you can pick out many from the pages of the gospels, but even here you are relying fully on a witness which is beyond the pages of the New Testament to know that the gospels themselves are trustworthy and worthy of the appellation "Scripture." In other words, you must be unknowingly or knowingly resting your belief in the Scriptures fully on that which is external to them: the testimony of the Christian Church. Again, in other words, you need tradition even to begin to approach the Scriptures themselves, and it is obvious who you seem to rely on: Martin Luther, who himself relies on the authority of the Ancient Church for his credentialing of the New Testament and on the Jews for his credentialing of the Old (after all, obviously those who would blindly reject their very God and King and put him to death naked on a tree should have the final say in which books qualify as inspired by Him...).

{-Had to split my originally intended post in two here to fit format-}

Ed said...


But I'm sorry, I've rambled for far too long for a mere blog comment. At the end of all things, it never can come down to Luther's eloquent "Scripture and plain reason," because Scripture is not itself sufficient to the task of identifying itself apart from tradition, and reason (I believe) if properly utilized, demonstrates that the authority of the Scripture is dependent on the authority of the Church, and not the reverse. Indeed, it cannot be the reverse, because the Church preceded and created the New, and by the Spirit shed light on the true meanings and import of the Old. If the Church were not there in the background standing as "pillar and ground of Truth," how could we even identify these books as special?

I have said before and I'll say it again, I became Orthodox because I was a Bible scholar and a Bible-believing Christian. And there were just some things I could not reconcile to the Bible (and admittedly also to the fist three hundred years of the Church) as a United Methodist.

Sorry again for my longwindedness (and also for diverting the discussion somewhat from the content of your original post).

With love,


Matt Perkins said...

Hey Ed,

Thank you for the interesting posts. You said:

"If the Church were not there in the background standing as "pillar and ground of Truth," how could we even identify these books as special?"

To that I say amen. You seem to think that I don't actually believe what Paul wrote concerning the church being the "pillar and ground of truth." But I do believe it and because I believe it I can have confidence in the canon of Scripture just like I have confidence in the doctrine of the Trinity, or worshipping in a liturgical manner every Sunday.

The difference between us is what we do with Scripture and the fact that the church is said to be "the pillar and ground of truth."

You wrote a lot about the canon and how it came about as if to cast doubt on the authority of Scripture before saying that you were a Bible-believing Christian. But just because there is a lot of interesting history connected with the formation of the canon it in no way lessons my desire to be completely submitted to the Word of God, the Bible. Jesus constantly referred to Scripture and used it to measure and judge the religious authorities of His day and the gospel writers used Scripture to validate Christ's ministry in showing that He fulfilled the OT. Do I know exactly what canon they used? No. But that doesn't change that fact that they saw Scripture as authoritative above any religious institution. I know of only a couple of places, such as in Jude where Enoch is quoted, where books not currently in most OT canons were quoted as Scripture. Does this bother me? No. Why? Because I, like you, believe that the church is inhabited by the Holy Spirit and is the "pillar and ground of truth." I know that before Nicea there was no formalized canon but I also know that the apostolic witness was circulating among the churches which served the purpose of Scripture in that day. Did some churches use writing which wouldn't make the canon? Of course. But I trust that God still revealed His gospel truth through the writings which were genuine and would eventually be in the canon.

I'm not against tradition or "the church." It is the bride of Christ and something that I should love. But I think tradition and the church must be in submission to Scripture.

Anonymous said...

Amen, spot on Matt. Thanks for the stimulating blogs...very thought provoking. ~A.J.