Atonement

January 28, 2014

from-heaven-he-came

For those who are interested in the exciting world of evangelical debates over the atonement — scope, efficacy, and related concerns — then I commend the following:

Two Tales of a Doctrine: Reviewing Definite Atonement

The book in review is From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Crossway, 2013), a rather large volume of essays defending the doctrine of limited atonement, the dominant (not unanimous) view of scholastic Calvinism. As for the reviews, Tom McCall from TEDS represents the Arminian side, and Aaron Denlinger from Reformation Bible College represents the Reformed side. In particular, I appreciate Denlinger’s points about hypothetical universalism, which is effectively “de-Reformed” in the book, contrary to the tradition. Denlinger is a good guy, who I enjoyed meeting a few times while at Aberdeen. He knows this stuff backwards and forwards. David Gibson, one of the volume’s editors, is also a sharp guy. He was finishing his doctorate at Aberdeen, while co-pastoring a Church of Scotland parish (which has since departed the C of S) that I attended when the university chapel was not in session.

_______________

While I’m recommending reviews, I see that Thomas Schreiner from Southern Seminary has posted a lengthy review of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). His review is in the latest issue of Credo Magazine, which is free online. The review is pp. 26-56. I just started reading it, so I cannot opine yet. While Southern Seminary is, needless to say, not my style of Calvinism, I have always appreciated Schreiner’s integrity and fairness. His latest book, The King in His Beauty, is a joy to read.

I realize that I have never discussed Wright or the New Perspective on this blog. I actually did my undergraduate dissertation on Paul (and Christian mysticism), for which I read Sanders for the first time. This was in the mid-00’s. Since then, I have tried to keep abreast with the debates in Pauline scholarship, including the newer variant offered by Douglas Campbell at Duke. Yet, it is hard for me to get really excited about these debates. The good things in Wright (and the NPP more generally) I have since imbibed from Barth, such as the “faithfulness of Christ” emphasis. Appropriately, Barth manages to maintain this emphasis while sufficiently attending to the substitutionary depths of δίκαιος, which Wright reduces (in my opinion) to a historical construction that is remarkably limited and shallow. I do not have the time or energy to defend this, but I know that my impressions are widely shared among theologians of a more systematic orientation.

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12 Responses to “Atonement”

  1. The atonement books is doing exactly what I figured it would be doing – getting good reviews from folks who agree, bad reviews from the ones who don’t. I’ll give them props for at least not turning it into a proof-texting war, according to that review, but so far it seems that their engagement of Barth/Torrance leaves a lot to be desired. Or so I’ve gathered from reading the reviews.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, those are my impressions as well. I appreciate that Aaron offered some constructive criticism, though he is firmly scholastic himself. Most of these guys just pat each other on the backs, regardless of the merit of the scholarship.

  2. Rod said

    My reading of Barth, re: the New Perspectives, seems to suggest to me, that Barth finds a balance? (maybe maintains a tension – or dialectic about God’s yes and our yes in response?) between the faithfulness of Christ and the human response and responsibility within the N.T call to faith in Christ. I haven’t done much more research on this due to wrestling with finding time to move through church Dogmatics. I also empathise about not having the energy to debate it.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, you will especially see Barth’s balance in CD IV.1, where Barth treats substitution (christology) and faith (anthropology) under the heading of “the Lord as servant,” and then victory (christology) and love (anthropology) under the heading of “the servant as Lord.” These are, respectively, the doctrines of justification and sanctification. It is so ridiculously fine-tuned and masterly constructed, I am in awe!

  3. It’s cool you did your dissertation on Paul and Christian mysticism, since mysticism played such a huge role in his theology. Alan Segal’s book ‘Paul the Convert’ pretty much convinced me that Paul was a Merkabah mystic. YOu definitely can’t seperate mysticism from Paul’s thought.

    ‘Paul, the Law and the Jewish People’, is the only full-length sanders book I’ve read (well, that and ‘Paul, a Brief Insight, which is like 120 pages long). Great book. I don’t find the label of the ‘New Perspective’ too terribly helpful, for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s not a monolithic movement and (2) a lot of the stuff about it isn’t all that ‘new’ – the Eastern Orthodox church, while not having a systematic theology of justification like Protestantism does, has pretty much affirmed what Wright et al have been arguing for all along, if in spirit more than in actual fact. I agree, though, about not having the energy to debate it. It gets old after a while. I’d rather have a nice conversation than a debate any day.

    • It was a strange but illuminating dissertation. I was reading Simone Weil at the time (inspired by the ancient philosophy professor at UNC-Charlotte), so I wanted to see how her dominant themes may resonate with Paul and vice-versa. I didn’t read Segal, but that would have helped. I focused on some of the “union with Christ” stuff in Pauline scholarship, the NPP, and then Bultmann was my primary foil to argue against.

      Yes, Wright has presented his material as innovative, but, moreover, he is really just arguing against a caricature of the “juridical” West, without doing any actual scholarship that engages the Western dogmatic tradition. He routinely admits that he read the reformers “30 years ago” as a student and knows virtually nothing about anything thereafter (from Ursinus to Turretin to Barth), which is precisely the tradition he is criticizing. The absence of Barth or Torrance (a fellow Brit) is especially striking, because Barth was translating pistis christou as a subjective genitive (e.g., in his commentary on Calvin’s catechism), emphasized the incarnation of God as “a Jewish person” (in IV.1), emphasized the election of Israel for the world, and formulated justification in terms of God’s fidelity and glory — all before the NPP made it cool. Yet, the one thing that the NPP brings to the table that is “new” — second temple Judaism — has been challenged to say the least (e.g., Dunn’s student, Gathercole).

      Alright, now I’m starting to debate and defend! I will cease and desist. Thanks for the thoughts.

      • I don’t remember where, but I did once read Wright say how one of Barth’s great contributions to theology was the focusing on the overall narrative of Israel as being of central importance to understanding Jesus/salvation and of the reclamation of Jesus as a ‘Jewish person’. So perhaps Wright simply doesn’t have much to criticize on that score, who knows.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Right, but I do not know why Wright does not constructively weave Barth’s insights into his own exegesis, which would have the significant advantage of balancing Wright’s criticisms of imputation. (I always imagine that Wright had some really bad experience with a street preacher, scarring him for life!)

        But, Wright is convinced that he can do exegesis without the tradition, without theology, without anything but his exegetical tools.

      • Ha, maybe he did. I really couldn’t tell you. But that’s actually a pretty funny mental picture.

        In the interest of keeping this from becoming a debate, I’ll just note my disagreement WRT the exegesis – but a full dicussion would be good to have at some point.

  4. Robert F said

    “…which Wright reduces (in my opinion) to a historical construction that is remarkably limited and shallow. ”

    It’s also extraordinarily fragile, depending on a very specific and fragile historical reconstruction, a cut and paste job that may be compelling to some specialists in historical theology and related scholarly undertakings, but not many others. And it takes the Bible out of the hands of the whole people of God, and plants it firmly in the hands of the specialists, confirming and deepening the modern habit of depending on a class of hierophants to decipher the meaning of the text, which is really a kind of step back into the situation that existed before the Reformation, when the interpretation of Scripture was controlled by the priestly class in the medieval church. The whole idea of the perspicuity of Scripture evaporates under such conditions, since you need to possess special intellectual tools for the “true” meaning of the Bible to be unlocked.

    The other ironic thing I’ve noticed in following the conversation about some of the NPP is that they seem to lead to a view of history, and God’s dealings with the Jews, that could easily be used to underwrite the traditional theological justifications of anti-semitism that occurred in history. I mean, it seems to me as if Wright asserts a very strong link between the destruction of the Temple in the first century, and the resulting diaspora of the Jews, and the judgement of God. I’m not at all saying that Wright is antisemetic, but his perspectives could easily be used by those who are.

    At least that’s the way it seems to me. As someone who has studied Wright far more than I have, do you see any warrant for my apprehension here?

    • ‘…it takes the Bible out of the hands of the whole people of God, and plants it firmly in the hands of the specialists, confirming and deepening the modern habit of depending on a class of hierophants to decipher the meaning of the text, which is really a kind of step back into the situation that existed before the Reformation, when the interpretation of Scripture was controlled by the priestly class in the medieval church. The whole idea of the perspicuity of Scripture evaporates under such conditions, since you need to possess special intellectual tools for the “true” meaning of the Bible to be unlocked.’

      To zero in on this briefly: you’re correct in saying that it does *not* require any special tools for the true meaning of Scripture to be unlocked – the true Word within the words is availible only by illumination of the Spirit. *However*, I don’t think the truth of that statement means that modern scholarship or specialists in any given field are the same as medieval priests. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, to a degree, I rely on scholars and specialists – I know not a word of any of the original languages of Scripture, and probably wouldn’t know any of the historical context of Scripture, without academic and scholarly legwork done by folks waaaaaay smarter (and with a lot more free time) than me. Biblical truth does not come by possessing an infallible methodology, but Biblical truth may, and often does, run congruent with various methodology (historical criticism, et al).

    • I largely agree with your first paragraph, Robert. I will, however, echo the reminder that we all (including the Reformers) depend upon scholarly tools and those capable of wielding those tools. Yet, as the Reformers also demonstrate, this does not dislocate the authority of Scripture from the tradition of the church, who is our mother and has given us the “lenses” by which we approach Scripture in the first place — even if we adjust these lenses from time to time (as during the Reformation). Wright would probably agree as well, in principle, but in practice his hermeneutic is scarcely indecipherable from either liberal or fundamentalist modernism. In fact, the very notion of a “biblical scholar” who is not a dogmatic theologian is entirely a modernist construct.

      As for the second paragraph, I am not so sure. I try to avoid the whole discussion of “supersessionism” (perhaps the most ill-defined word ever!) or “anti-semitism” in this or that theologian, unless we’re talking about the Deutsche Christen! My own view, in agreement with Barth, is that Judaism is an “impossibility,” which is construed as “supercessionist” by some and not by others. I don’t really care. We are grafted into Israel entirely by grace — that is all that matters.

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