(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

A quiz on the atonement (in narrative-historical perspective)

The day before Good Friday seems a fitting time to launch a narrative-historical alternative to Tim Challies’ thoroughly Reformed Quiz on the Atonement. Well, not quite an alternative, more a commentary on the standard Reformed account of the significance of Jesus’ death. There are 33 questions in Tim’s quiz, so this is not for the faint-hearted. I only got two wrong, and one of those was attributable to fatigue.

You have to decide whether the statements are true or false. Click on the statement to see Tim’s “correct” answer, the biblical references provided, and my commentary, though you may want to take the proper quiz first and see how you get on.

Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants: an exercise in narrative-historical hermeneutics

There is a struggle going on in the church—or at least in parts of the church—over how we should read the New Testament. Basically, as I see it, it comes down to this: do we read through the lens of later theological constructions (Patristic, Orthodox, Thomist, Reformed, Pentecostal, modern evangelical, etc.), or do we interpret according to a first-century Jewish framework of thought and historical perspective?

I am strongly in favour of the latter. I think we should base our “theology”—our self-understanding as the people of the creator God—as best we can on how the New Testament communities understood the texts, not on how the later church, under divergent intellectual and historical conditions, came to understand the texts. But it’s by no means a straightforward task.

Jesus and redemptive violence

At the heart of the critique of the traditional doctrine of (penal) substitutionary atonement is a moral revulsion against the idea that a good God would think it necessary to use violence to bring about the redemption of humanity. Chuck Queen, for example, whose argument against substitutionary atonement I reviewed last week, asks what kind of God would require the “death of an innocent victim” in order to satisfy his “offended sense of honor” or pay off a penalty that he himself had imposed in the first place. “Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?”

The problem with this line of thought is that in the Gospels Jesus appears, on the one hand, to predict future violent events which he regarded as direct, concrete expressions of the will of God, and on the other, to have thought of his own death as being entailed in them. In other words, he is not quite the out-and-out pacifist that we would like him to be.

Substitutionary versus anti-substitutionary theories: both lose, one more than the other

Having critiqued Owen Strachan’s defence of the atonement doctrine, it seems only fair to examine a thesis from the anti-substitutionary camp. My friend Scott pointed me to Chuck Queen’s combative essay on the Baptist News site: “It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitionary atonement”. It will do nicely.

Queen bundles together a number of related motifs under the heading of substitutionary atonement: bearing the penalty for sin, paying the debt of sin, ransoming the sinner, bearing the wrath of God, propitiating God, and the imputation of humanity’s sin to Christ on the cross.

Stories about Jesus: how they fit together, and what he means for us today

Theology has always had a “narrative” shape to it. The problem with propositional or systematic theologies is not that they are non-narrative but that they have reduced the dense historical narrative of scripture to a bare sequence of cosmic-level events: creation → fall → redemption → final judgment. Theology then systematically expounds those events.

In this crude “meta-narrative” the story about Jesus has two parts to it. There is the “Jesus is God” story about the eternally existent Second Person of the Trinity, who at a certain place and time in history became incarnate of the virgin Mary; and there is the “Jesus is man” story about the Saviour who died on the cross to redeem humanity from sin and death, before returning to heaven.

A commentary on Owen Strachan’s less than biblical defence of the atonement

It appears that famous people like Michael Gungor and William Paul Young, author of The Shack, have been causing a stir by questioning the morality of the doctrine of atonement for sin. Owen Strachan, who is described on the Gospel Coalition website somewhat vaguely as a “systematic professor”, has offered a robust defence of the traditional view: Scandalized by the Substitute: A Response to Young and Gungor. I do not disagree with everything he says, but I think his approach illustrates very well how and why systematic theology is such a poor guide to the meaning of scripture. I offer a brief commentary on several of his statements.

How Paul made up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions

One of the passages that crops up in discussions of what Paul meant when he talked about being conformed to or transformed into the image of Christ—and to whom that language applied—is Colossians 1:24. Davo mentioned it in a comment recently, and I have been meaning to get back to it.

The ESV translation of this verse is fairly typical: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church….”

On the face of it, Paul appears to be saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient and that he himself needed to suffer in order to make up the deficit.

The Christ-encomium of Philippians 2:6-11 and “Christian” formation

It was put to me by Crispin Fletcher-Louis on Facebook that my argument about being—or rather not being—transformed into the image of Christ is at odds with the general scholarly view these days that the so-called “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6–11 is “determinative of Christian identity at every stage”. The objection is basically that Paul makes the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication a universal model for Christian formation and ethics. Christian faith is inescapably cruciform. Crispin certainly knows a thing or two about these matters, but I will try to explain why I disagree.

Jesus the great high priest: no deep magic involved

I started looking at Hebrews 10 in order to reply to a comment from Chris Wooldridge, who cited the chapter as an example of how Jesus’ death is treated not only as a historical event but also as a theological or metaphysical event.

But you quickly discover that Hebrews 10 is part of a long, dense, tightly woven, intertextual (i.e. it draws extensively on the Old Testament) argument about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the community of Jewish believers (presumably) to whom the letter is written.

You can’t prise a few statements about Jesus’ death as a one-off sacrifice from it and expect them to stand up on their own as general theological propositions. They don’t. They fall over.


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