Leithart on successful theories of atonement

I have just started reading Peter Leithart’s recent book, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission, which promises to be a fascinating exploration of one of Christianity’s most disputed areas of theology. I was motivated to read it in part by preaching on Good Friday and thinking about how to make sense of the atonement in my particular context, as well as by seeing other colleagues discuss the matter.

In laying out the structure of the book, Leithart concludes his introductory chapter with a list of ‘several criteria of a successful, comprehensible theory of the atonement’ (19). For him, an atonement theology must be:

  • Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a nominal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in a first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide an account of all human history. It has to be a theory of everything.
  • Levitical: A successful atonement theory treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfils Levitical ritual in historical events.
  • Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).
  • Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.
  • Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave an impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” (Lk 24.26). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of a history of sacrifice.
  • Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved (19-20).

If nothing else, Leithart knows how to entice his readers. The thoroughness of what he demands from an atonement theory is particularly striking, and I look forward to seeing how this develops as I continue reading.

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How can a good God allow suffering? Wrong question.

Tim Keller’s book, Making Sense of God: Finding God in a Modern World, is something of a follow-up to his earlier book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism, although as Keller says, it should be seen more as a prequel, since ‘[The Reason for God] does not begin far enough back for many people’ (4). Where the earlier book took a fairly standard Reformed and evangelical (even ‘presuppositional’, if you like that term) approach to answering some of the popular objections to Christianity, this more recent book offers more of a challenge to secularism, examining and critiquing some of its efforts to make meaning of the world.

Depending on your tradition, you might have different appraisals of Keller’s ministry. But there can be no doubt that his writing, particularly on engaging with non-Christians, is immensely helpful in understanding sceptics and how they think about Christianity,  because it is borne a great deal of first-hand experience and reflection on the actual practice of ministry in a profoundly secular community.

One of the more interesting things that emerges in this later book is the way Keller takes some of the standard objections to Christianity apart to demonstrate that often these objections begin by asking the wrong questions. A good example of this is the problem of evil, or the question of how a good God can allow suffering. Drawing on the work of Michael Polanyi and Charles Taylor, Keller argues that we have significant background beliefs that shape our perception of the world and the questions we ask, and that we are barely aware, if at all, of these preunderstandings. In this instance, the modern mind operates with a profound trust in autonomous rationality, and thus assumes that the problem of evil, and God’s relationship to it, is something that can be perfectly comprehended. If not, the only conclusion can be that there is no God.

Keller observes that this deep trust in our rational faculties is as significant of a faith commitment as anything else, and that ‘the problem of evil is a good case study of how background beliefs control our supposedly strictly rational thought’. He continues by highlighting the difference between ancient and distinctly modern approaches to the question:

The book of Job, for example, presents the outrageousness of undeserved suffering as well as any ancient text, yet in no way does it present it as an objection to the existence of God. Ancient people were arguably much more acquainted with brutality, loss, and evil than we are. Their literature…is filled with laments about inexplicable suffering. Yet there is virtually no ancient thinker who reasoned from such evil that, therefore, there couldn’t be a God. Why does this argument against God’s existence seem so rational and convincing today?

Charles Taylor explains why modern people are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than those in times past. He says it is because, culturally, our belief and confidence in the powers of our own intellect have changed. Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgement on how an infinite God was disposing of things. It is only in modern times that we get “the certainty that we have all the elements we need to carry out a trial of God.” Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.

There is, then, a significant backdrop of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. it is assumed, not proven, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist. This is, of course, a form of begging the question. Our background beliefs set up our conscious reasoning to fail to find sufficient evidence for God (36-37).

Though Keller only briefly mentions Taylor here, it is clear that his perspective is shaped in significant ways by Taylor’s disenchantment thesis. That, I think, is important when we consider the future of the apologetic task. Recognising the deepening influence of secularism, Keller has made efforts to take a step back in order to meet people where they are as he engages with them. Drawing deeply on the work of thinkers who have devoted themselves to making sense of our changing context, he is able to understand the shifts that are taking place and pitch his message more appropriately. And in part, as seen above, that means being attentive to the deeper frameworks in play, and how they shape the (wrong) questions and objections people to have to Christianity.

Given that we have resources like the work of Taylor to help us come to grips with the ongoing shifts in Western culture, I wonder if it is time to question more traditional methods of apologetics, and particularly, being willing to answer the questions and objections put to us just as they are. Perhaps it is the case that too often we have rushed to answer these questions (how many talks, leaflets, and books are generated by the Christian publishing machine attempting to definitively answer the question of the problem of evil?), and in doing so, have unwittingly validated the background beliefs of the modern world, when what was really needed was for us to say, ‘Actually, you’re asking the wrong question’.

In this changing context, it seems to me that Keller’s approach is wise: simply to begin by trying to bring people to an awareness of their preunderstandings, and how this shapes the questions they have. Until we do that, answering their objections is likely to prove increasingly fruitless.

Boersma on a sacramental view of time and tradition

Hans Boersma’s book, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, is an extended plea for a recovery of a sacramental view of reality. He begins by tracing the undoing of this view of reality from the high Middle Ages onward, and argues essentially that modernity is the result of a loss of this sacramental ontology. More, the church’s response to and engagement with the world has suffered since it too has lost its sacramental rootedness. Boersma suggests that by looking in particular to the patristic era, and its reappropriation by the nouvelle théologie movement, we can find resources for reweaving the sacramental tapestry.

In one of the chapters in the second part of the book, which focuses on ‘reconnecting the threads’, Boersma discusses the role of tradition in theology, and calls on evangelicals (though he uses the term loosely, and a various times seems to mean different things) in particular to reconsider the place of tradition. Our view of time and history, he argues, means that ‘we tend to look at time as a simple succession of distinct moments, unrelated to one another’ (125). This shapes our view of tradition and how we do theology – later theology always takes precedent over something earlier, and though he does not say as much, the implication is that what comes after is to be seen as fuller or better than what has gone before.

This linear view of time also means that we are given to see theology both as something much more malleable, and as dependent on our individual interpretations, which gain a considerable normative status. Recognising this, Boersma continues with a warning:

A desacramentalized view of time tends to place the entire burden of doctrinal decision on the present moment: I, in the small moment of time allotted to me, am responsible to make the right theological (and moral) choice before God. The imposition of such a burden is so huge as to be pastorally disastrous. Furthermore, to the extent that as Christians we are captive to our secular Western culture, it is likely that this secure culture will get to set the church’s agenda. If we do not see ourselves sacramentally connected to the tradition (and thus to Christ), we sense no accountability to the tradition, and we are likely to accommodate whatever demands our culture places on us and capitulate to them (129-130).

This changes, however, when we adopt a sacramental view of time that sees a unity of past, present, and future as they are tied together in God’s eternity. As it pertains to the development of doctrine, Boersma notes that in doing theology we always have a responsibility to the tradition we are rooted in. This means that, ‘when we are faced with a theological and moral conundrum, a participatory approach to tradition will always ask how the catholic, or universal, church throughout time and place has dealt with the issue’ (130). A sacramental view of tradition sees the church’s collective interpretation of Scripture as a shared calling, and seeks to balance speaking faithfully to our present context with faithfulness to what we have inherited.

‘The widespread assumption that Christian beliefs and morals are to a significant degree malleable has its roots in a modern, desacrilized view of time,’ Boersma argues (130). This, of course, does not mean that doctrine does not develop, but only that we are not pioneers who do theology apart from what has gone before. In a sacramental view of time, to ignore the church’s tradition is to ignore the Christ who is eternally present with his church, and who leads and guides it throughout history as it seeks to interpret Scripture and shape its life in faithfulness to the one who gave it life.

A list of theology conferences

As a theologian, I love a good conference. Having a few days together with other theologians listening to papers on various topics, enjoying good conversation, and just generally sharpening our thinking is anything but a chore for me. In fact, I often come away feeling refreshed.

Now that I have stepped away from the academic world, I’m especially keen to attend conferences as a means of continuing to exercise my mind. But the other day I was thinking about booking something into the calendar in the coming year, and realised that there was no easy way to find out what conferences were being held here in the UK or over in Europe (places that would be relatively easy for me to get to). So with Ian Paul agreeing to host it on his blog, I decided to put together a list of everything I could find.

That list is now live, and can be accessed here. It is focused on distinctly theological conferences, academic or otherwise, and is limited to international conferences held in English. That said, the list is delightfully varied, representing lots of different traditions and aspects of theology.

The idea is that we keep it continually updated as new conferences are announced. You can help by letting us know of anything you might be aware of that we missed. I want this to be of service to anyone with an interest in an area of theology who wants a few days together with others stretching their minds. So have a browse!

On thinking about hell

It is my practice to always have a novel on my bedside table. In the past few days I have been reading Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Lila, which is a deeply engaging and thought-provoking work. Having just preached on Mark 8.31-38, a passage containing a very stern warning from Jesus for those who choose not to follow him, I was struck by this thought from the Reverend, one of Robinson’s two main characters in the book:

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live in the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgement of any kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin (101).

He concludes these words with the statement, ‘I believe this is sound theology.’ I will leave it up to the reader to decide if that is true.

Moberly on the relationship of faith and the authority of Scripture

In his recent book, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith, the renowned biblical scholar, Walter Moberly, explores questions of the Bible’s continued relevance in the modern world.

Part of what Moberly takes to task is the notion that biblical authority must stem in some way from its historical reliability, noting that this is a thoroughly modern idea, and pushing back on it in a number of different ways. One of the more intriguing arguments in the book has to do with the relationship of faith and trust in the authority of Scripture. Moberly raises this point by pointing to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. ‘Jesus says that there is a test of his claim that his teaching is from God’, Moberly writes (136). Emphasising Jesus’ humanity, Moberly says that Jesus is not just ‘a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy’, but that he uses his own words; it is instead that ‘the origin of what is his is, in reality, God’ (136). The question, then, according to Moberly, is ‘how…might one be able in principle appropriately to recognise human words as not merely human but also as in some way authentically from God?’ (136) He continues:

The criterion for grasping that the true origin of Jesus’ words is God is clear: it is that one must resolve to do the will of God. What does that mean? …The key point is that a certain kind of knowledge – that particular human words genuinely originate with God – is inseparable from a certain kind of personal responsiveness. The knowledge that is envisaged is participatory. Unless heart and mind have a certain openness towards that which Jesus says and does, the issue of divine origin can only be a matter of mere words, a contestable and unverifiable claim. Whether faith comes in a flash or is a slow and possibly hesitant process does not affect the point that without at least some degree of participatory faith, any possible divine reality in Jesus remains beyond human perception. There is an empirical dimension to faith, but it is the empiricism not of the natural sciences but of the existential engagement of a person with dimensions of reality that can easily remain opaque to the unresponsive (139).

Moberly makes a big deal of plausibility structures in the book, arguing that one of the ways people become open to the possibility of Scripture’s authority is by encountering a community of people who have accepted and live by that authority. The argument is similar here – that one of the ways to test the authority of the words of Jesus is to live as if his words are true, to ‘be led on to dare to believe that which…others believe, that in and through the biblical portrayal of the person, teaching, and works of Jesus (in his life, death and resurrection), the reality of the living God is encountered’ (139). As John Calvin says, ‘All true knowledge of God stems from obedience’ (Institutes, 1.6.2).

In other words, try it on for size. You may be surprised what you find.

Why it’s important to understand theological controversies well

The whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios, which was sovereignly proclaimed at the Council of [Nicaea], because this word stands for both a real unity and a real distinction. It is impossible to mention without reverent fear and holy trepidation that moment – infinitely significant and unique in its philosophical and dogmatic importance – when the thunder of Homoousios first roared over the city of Victory.

So writes Pavel Florensky in his book The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Florensky’s vivid language aside, this is a common understanding of Nicaea. But, argues Lewis Ayres, in his book, Nicaea and its Legacy, it is a misunderstanding. There is no doubt, Ayres writes, that ‘the fourth century…witnessed a controversy that produced some of the basic principles of classic Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, the most important creed in the history of Christianity, and theological texts that have remained points of departure for Christian theology in every subsequent generation’ (1). Yet much of what happened at Nicaea is not so cut-and-dried as it is often made out to be.

It is commonly held that the Nicene controversy was fundamentally between Arius and his followers, and orthodox theologians, and focused entirely on the question of whether or not Christ was divine. This is problematic, argues Ayres, because ‘it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius’ writing’ (2). In reducing the controversy to this, it covers up the complexity of the theological issues and tensions of the time. And so,

we should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’. They focus, first, on debates about the generation of the Word or Son from the Father. Second, the controversies involve debates about the ‘grammar’ of human speech about the divine.

The rest of Ayres book is given over to a thorough unpacking on those two debates in order to help provide a much more rounded picture of what actually went on at Nicaea, and how that should shape our theology today.

Christians have a tendency to downplay the complexity of such theological controversies, for a number of reasons. To be sure, as Ayres 475-page book demonstrates, it can take a substantial amount of effort and research to understand such a key historical event properly. However, we are also people who like clearly defined boundaries. Ayres notes how quickly the term ‘Arian’ began to be thrown around, because this heresiological label ‘enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute’ (2). This is a long-standing problem: much popular Reformation history pits Luther against the Roman Catholics, while today we toss around labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’. But labels only cover up the complexities, and in doing so, fail to help us deal more robustly with the actual theological issues and tensions.

As someone who is heavily invested in Trinitarian theology – indeed, he has weighed in on some of the most recent Trinitarian debates – Ayres is concerned that we understand Nicaea well. And that is because relying on shallow accounts of Nicaea has meant that ‘modern Trinitarianism has [not just] engaged with pro-Nicene theology badly, but… it has barely engaged with it at all. As a result the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast’ (7).