Friday, April 18, 2014

Agnus Victor: Satan defeated through the substitution of the Lamb

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism views the atoning work of Christ as dealing with the satisfaction made for all our sins (penal substitution) and his redeeming us from all the power of the devil (Christus Victor).
What is your only comfort in life and in death? 

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.
Thus the Catechism holds together what ought never to be separated. Here we have the God-ward dimension of the atonement (satisfaction) and the polemic dimension (conquest). The latter, however, is dependent on the former.

When Scripture explicates how Christ conquers the devil, the reality of which is anticipated in the proto-evangelium (Gen. 3:15), it views the power of the devil as the power of deception and accusation.

Our legal position before God, in view of Adam's breaking of the covenant of works (Gen. 2:15-17), and our own sins, has rendered us guilty, cursed, and under the sentence of death (Rom. 6:23).

How does Christ redeem us from the power of the devil?

By dying for us (1 Peter 3:18). By taking our curse and punishment (Gal. 3:13). By enduring the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25-26). By taking the full penalty of the law (Gal. 3:10).

The legal accusations of Satan are silenced by the blood of the Lamb that has brought us forgiveness for all our sins (Col. 2:13-15; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 12:10-11; Rom. 8:1, 33-34).

How has Christ conquered Satan?

By his active and passive obedience, by making atonement and justification. And now without God's law to condemn us, Satan has no power to accuse us (1 Cor. 15:56).

What truth then will he seek to overthrow with all his might? The truth that the blood of the Lamb saves, the doctrine of penal substitution.

The Lamb slain saves us.

The Lamb slain silences Satan's accusations.

Satan has been defeated through the substitution of the Lamb.

It is seeing this connection that will stop the pendulum from swinging from penal substitution to Christus Victor. As Henri Blocher argued, in a much neglected essay, these doctrines are seen in the biblical proportions and glory together. It is really Agnus Victor, not what is commonly understood as Christus Victor, that best explains the conquering of Satan.

The Condemned King: Penal substitution and the narrative of Mark 15

In order to establish the doctrine of penal substitution we are not dependent on a few isolated proof-texts here and there in Scripture. The doctrine is woven indelibly into the very fabric of the account of the crucifixion, with numerous threads drawn from the Old Testament.  Rather than instinctively looking to the gospels to provide the facts about the crucifixion, and to the letters to supply the meaning of those facts, we must turn to the Old Testament as the vantage point from which we are to survey the cross.  Antecedent Scripture provides us with all the categories we need to understand the cross.
This is the apostolic approach in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  The Apostle Paul records the Church's testimony about the gospel that was universally proclaimed and believed.  Paul states the facts. Christ died, was buried and was raised on the third day. He then gives the meaning of those facts. That Christ died for our sins.  Thirdly, he tells us where that meaning is to be found and authoritatively interpreted for us: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. 

In Mark's Gospel we find a compelling unity of fact and meaning, of event and interpretation.  The factual details of the crucifixion speak to us about the nature of Christ's death. They are much more than a bare description of the events, merely "bare" facts that are open to different interpretations. The historical details have been interpreted in advance for us.  

Once we look below the surface, and specifically in terms of the Old Testament background, we will see that the details of the narrative in Mark 15 testify that Jesus is dying under the wrath of God, and that he is doing so as a substitute for sinners.  

Mark shows us six signs that Jesus died under God's judgement. Some of these signs are well known to Bible readers, others less so.  Taken together they speak clearly and powerfully to us about the sin-bearing, wrath averting, substitutionary nature of Christ's death.

1. He was handed over to the Gentiles 

Six times in Mark 15 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews (2, 9, 12, 18, 26, and King of Israel in 32). This King of the Jews has been handed over to the Gentiles. At one level this is the fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen. Consider his words in Mark 10:33-34:

"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise."
At another level being delivered over to the Gentiles is a traumatic sign of being under God's judgement. Psalm 106:40-41 speaks of God's people being handed over to the nations as a consequence of being under judgement:
Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them.
The same idea is expressed by Ezra as he acknowledges the guilt of the people of God that led to the exile. Ezra 9:7b reads:
And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today.
In the OT being handed over to the nations was a sign of God's anger. This was happening to Jesus in Mark 15

2. He was silent before his accusers 

We know that the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders were both unjust and incoherent (Mark 14:55-61). Before Pilate, as again Jesus is falsely accused, he remains silent. Why does Jesus not speak up in his own defense? Why does he not silence the lies of his enemies? Pilate is amazed at this (Mark 15:3-4). But the silence of Jesus is spoken of in the words of Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
The silence of Jesus before his accusers is a confirmatory sign that he is the suffering servant who will bear the penal consequences of the sins of others by substitutionary atonement (Isaiah. 53:4-610). 

3. He was hung on a tree 

The very instrument of execution spoke of the nature of Christ's death. In the words of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:
If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.
Jesus was not personally guilty of any crime that could issue in his death. His death therefore was as a substitute for clearly it was a death that showed him to have been "cursed by God."  This point is drawn out of course in Galatians 3:10-13:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone    who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." Now it is   evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith."    But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." 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." 
The significance of this was not lost upon the framers of the Heidelberg Catechism:
 Q. 39 Is there anything more in His having been "crucified" than if He had suffered some other death?  A. Yes, for thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay upon me, because the death of the cross was accursed of God.
4. He was mocked by his enemies 

When Hollywood wants to portray the death of Jesus it does so by focussing our attention on the physical details of his sufferings. The graphic nature of his beating and execution is brought to the forefront. Mark, however, places that in the background. Mark places minimal attention on the act of crucifixion; he simply says "and they crucified him" (15:24). 

Mark draws our attention not to the wounds of Jesus but to the words of his enemies. He goes into great detail to record the taunts and verbal abuse that Jesus suffered (15:29-32, 35). Why does he do this? Why do we need to know about this mockery of Christ? Because this too is a sign that Jesus is dying under God's judgement. Consider Psalm 89:38-42 (in context this is about God's king from David's line):
You have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins. All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors. You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.
In Psalm 89 being scorned by his enemies was a sign that God's king was under God's judgement for his sins. And here in Mark 15? King Jesus is scorned by his enemies. He is the condemned King.  The King of the Jews is bearing God's judgement, not for his own sins, but as a substitute for sinners. Similarly compare Lamentations 2:15 with Mark 15:29
All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the   daughter of Jerusalem: "Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all    the earth?" (Lamentations 2:15)    And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "Aha! You who     would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from     the cross!" (Mark 15:29-30
The suffering city of Jerusalem, under God's wrath, scorned by her enemies, has been replaced by the suffering Saviour.  

5. He died in the darkness 

We are surely meant to recall the darkness that fell upon Egypt during the plagues as we see Jesus plunged into the darkness in Mark 15:33. This too was what God threatened Israel with in Deuteronomy 28:29 "and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness." Amos also warned of this sign of judgement (Amos 8:9):
"And on that day," declares the Lord GOD, "I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight."As Jesus dies even the very elements testify to the presence of God's judgement at the cross. 
6. He was forsaken by God

Here we come to the words of Jesus in Mark 15:34:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Was God present at the cross when Christ was forsaken? He was spatially as present in Jerusalem then as he is today. Nevertheless in a way that we cannot comprehend but which is the cause of all our hope in time and eternity, we believe that the Son of God knew all the torments of a condemned sinner, and all the relational distance that guilty sinners will endure.

Christ's experience of being forsaken was not imagined (Mark 15:33-34). In that cry of dereliction he knew abandonment.  Jesus of Nazareth, the only true and perfect covenant keeper, bore the full weight of the covenant curses (Gal. 3:10-13). This was not separation from God that could be measured in space, rather it was the separation felt by the Son as he endured the curse that should be borne by sinners.  What was happening to Jesus on the cross? He was bearing sin, its full penalty, in the place of his people.   

Were these six threads to be unravelled we would be left with a totally different crucifixion narrative.  The handing over to the Gentiles, the silence, the tree, the mockery, the darkness, and the cry, all belong to history.  They cannot be undone.  Furthermore, they cannot be separated from the verbal revelation that preceded their occurrence and explained them in advance.  Let me conclude with two doctrinal statements about the atonement.  The first is from the Free Church theologian George Smeaton (1814-1889) who powerfully expressed the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in vivid and memorable words:

 Jesus was visited with penal suffering because he appeared before God only in the guise of our accumulated sin; not therefore as a private individual, but as a representative; sinless in himself, but sin covered; loved as a Son, but condemned as a sin-bearer, in virtue of that federal union between him and his people, which lay at the foundation of the whole. Thus God condemned sin in the flesh, and in consequence of this there is no condemnation to us. 
The second is from the much neglected Larger Catechism which summarizes the traumatic nature of Christ's humiliation in death as follows:
Q. 49. How did Christ humble himself in his death?
A. Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by     his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt   and borne the weight of God's wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the    painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why do they hate Aslan so? Polly Toynbee on the repugnant notion of substitutionary atonement

One from the archives:

The columnist Polly Toynbee wrote an article in The Guardian on 5th December 2005 with the rather acerbic title “Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion.” 

I will spare you the full extent of her invective against the Christian imagery found in C.S. Lewis' children's stories. The following extract exposes the thin veil between Aslan and the One he represents:

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion...Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves.
But among her numerous thorny remarks this sentence stands out: 
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?
Perhaps the most obvious thing to say by way of explanation about her choice of adjective, is that it is indicative of a heart wedded to the wisdom of this passing age. It is as straightforward a statement of aversion and distaste at the very notion of a substitutionary atonement as one could wish to find. And yet, to those who hold to the presuppositions laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:8, it hardly comes as much of a surprise.

It stands in marked contrast to the expression of the regenerate heart that sees in the cross both the wisdom and power of God. Of all the great confessions of faith perhaps it is the Belgic Confession (Q. 26) that best verbalizes the sentiments of the regenerate mind:

If, then, we should seek for another mediator who would be favorably  inclined toward us, whom could we find who loved us more than He who laid down His life for us, even while we were His enemies? 
And what should we make of her question? Of course we did not ask Christ to die for us. None of us wanted him to. 

This is a point underlined, as it were in thick marker pen, time and again, on the pages of the Bible. From Isaiah's description of Christ as despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3) all the way to Paul's retrospective description of Christian believers as being ungodly and enemies toward God (Romans 5:6, 10). 

Take a further example of this antipathy we feel towards the God-who-comes-to-the-rescue from the pages of the Old Testament. In the book of Judges there is the pattern of apostasy, oppression from enemies, and cries to God for relief from this misery. In his grace, God raises up judges who save the people of God from the hands of their oppressors. Judges 13 seemingly opens with this same pattern. Israel has turned from God to their evil ways, and God has handed them over to the Philistines. But the pattern ends there. Just when we expect to hear a cry to God for relief and rescue there is nothing but silence. 

When the Angel of the Lord announces the birth of Samson, who will begin to save Israel from the Philistines, it is therefore clear that this is an act of sheer grace on God's part. God sent them a Saviour, even though they did not ask him to. The span of time between the book of Judges and that column in The Guardian may have spread over several millennia, but chronology does not cover up the similarities that exist. 

The very glory of the atonement is that Christ died for his enemies. We were not seeking after a Saviour from heaven, but running and hiding from our Maker. As Paul reminded the Colossians, it was for those who were hostile in their minds toward God that Christ hung on the cross. It was by that death that he made peace and effected reconciliation with God (Colossians 1:19-22). 

Like Polly Toynbee, I never asked him to do this. But that is grace for you. Unexpected, undeserved, uncalled for, and offered in the teeth of hostility.  

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Making him known

Stunning parallelism in John's Gospel:

The Son at the Father's side/in the bosom of the Father, making him known John 1:18

The disciple-author at Jesus' side/leaning on his bosom, during the Supper in John 13:23, and making him known John 21:20, 24 

Monday, March 31, 2014

4th Century Wisdom for 21st Century People

Sanity and spirituality from Hilary of Poitier's De Trinitate.

First, some 4th Century wisdom for 21st Century people:
For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. 
Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself.
Secondly, married to that, some 4th Century spirituality to sweeten and guide 21st Century exegetes:
We shall bring an untiring energy to the study of Thy Prophets and Apostles, and we shall knock for entrance at every gate of hidden knowledge, but it is Thine to answer the prayer, to grant the thing we seek, to open the door on which we beat.
Our minds are born with dull and clouded vision, our feeble intellect is penned within the barriers of an impassable ignorance concerning things Divine; but the study of Thy revelation elevates our soul to the comprehension of sacred truth, and submission to the faith is the path to a certainty beyond the reach of unassisted reason. 
And therefore we look to Thy support for the first trembling steps of this undertaking, to Thy aid that it may gain strength and prosper. We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit Who guided the Prophets and the Apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fides quaerens intellectum

Fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) is a famous phrase of Anselm's.  It is a fitting expression for that central vein of faith's quest for intellectual understanding, as fleshed out here by Augustine:
No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable...Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought...Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.
Augustine, The Predestination of the Saints, 44:962-3, cited in Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. xiii-xiv

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The sanity of grace

"There is hardly a page of Scripture on which it is not clearly written that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble" 

Augustine, Reply to Faustus

Unless we understand the freeness and sheer magnitude of the grace of God in the gospel, and the workings of grace in the life of the believer by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we will be left with either a warped view of our own works or a distorted view of God's gracious work. In all likelihood, it will be both.

Grace restores our sanity and our sight.

We see our sin, in greater measure, from God's perspective.

We see his grace, the gift and the Giver, in true perspective too.

Unless we have this vision we will descend into the insanity of trusting in works righteousness, either from believing that our best works merit the favour of God, or in despair because in unbelief we lament our lack of them, as if the free gift of God were not what it is, the giving of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

At root, to despair because of sin is still to be looking within for the cause of God's acceptance of us.

To look away from ourselves, to the Father's love in Christ, to the Son's death in our place and to his resurrection from the grace, to his finished work on our behalf, is to see things as they really are.
Woe even to those of praiseworthy life if you put their life under scrutiny and remove mercy.
If anyone lists his true merits to you, what is he enumerating before you but your gifts?
Augustine, Confessions, Book IX:xiii (34)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fragments on Scripture and Subordinate Standards

Some fragments on Scripture and subordinate standards:

Scripture is the norma normans (the norming norm, the rule that rules)

Confessions are the norma normata (a norm that is normed/a rule that is ruled)

Christian faith begins with a confession of faith by the individual (e.g. Rom. 10:9) and the reception of confessed truths by the Christian community (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:1-3)

A Confession of faith is not an arbitrary, unnatural, or purely cerebral artefact, that is somehow foreign to normal Christian life and experience, but (as the texts above indicate) belongs to the very essence of Christian existence

A Confession is a corporate ecclesiastical statement of Christian belief and practice

A Confession of faith is a verbal affirmation of truth and implicitly, or explicitly, a verbal denial of error

A Confession is composed out of biblical and extra biblical language, the latter out of necessity in order to distinguish orthodox appeals to the teachings of Scripture from heterodox ones

A Confession is a subordinate standard

As a subordinate standard a Confession is derived in whole and in part from Scripture

A Confession is accepted as authoritative insofar as it is in agreement with Scripture and faithfully represents the content of what the Scriptures teach

When the teaching of a particular Confession is denied, by an appeal to Scripture, a new Confession (personal or corporate, written or unwritten) has been posited in place of the old one (in part or in whole)

It is impossible to be Non-Confessional, even if a church body, or network of churches, has an aversion to written Confessions

Without a written, or unwritten, no fellowship, unity, or co-operation is possible within or between churches

Confessions can be maximal (think Westminster Confession) or minimal (think Apostles' Creed or parachurch statements of faith)

Minimal confessions are implicitly maximal is their exposition as they rely on more comprehensive statements and definitions to clarify, explain, define and defend their brief propositions

And to round off, here is a helpful and thought provoking comment by R. A. Finlayson:

A Confession is referred to as a Church's 'subordinate standard' because it is in very fact subordinate to the Scriptures, the fountainhead of all revealed truth. This subordination, however, does not affect its authority in matters of faith, but rather serves to emphasise the fact that it is derived from Scripture.

When a Confession is accepted, therefore, it is accepted as in accordance with the truth of Scripture, and we profess that we have examined both the Scripture and the Confession and that we have found them in agreement.

For that reason we cannot appeal from the Confession to Scripture in a way of repudiating the Confession, without thereby withdrawing our subscription to it as agreeable to the Scripture and the Confession of our Faith.

To set aside its doctrine in favour of some other interpretation of Scripture is manifestly to abandon the Confession altogether.
"The Significance of the Westminster Confession" in Reformed Theological Writings, p. 231-2