Monday, February 19, 2007

Blog Break

On two week break - returning March 5.

Did I say two weeks? I meant five - returning March 26.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Conclusion

As I stated at the outset, I don’t think Forde necessarily denies vicarious satisfaction in toto. Rather he dismisses what might be considered the cruder forms of it - those forms that make God the primary obstacle to reconciliation, rather than us. Such thinking can turn God into a blood-thirsty God who demands his pound of flesh before he can show mercy. Such a view makes God out to be neither righteous nor merciful.

Forde concedes that certainly the work of Christ does satisfy God’s wrath. But he insists on placing this in a context that does not ignore the real problem - our wrath against God, and specifically our wrath against his mercy.

“There is indeed a sense in which we must say that Christ’s work is to “ satisfy” the divine wrath. But it is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God’s honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be “ satisfied “ before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God.”

Forde clearly does not deny that the death of Christ removes God’s wrath against us. He writes,

“As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally.”

At the same time, Forde does not deny the victory motif either. The cross absolutely marked the defeat of Satan, sin and death itself. Forde would not argue with this. He simply recommends that this victory be placed in a context that does not remove us from the scene. He says about this view:

“Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys.”

In the end, it seems to me that Forde does not discard any of the atonement theories entirely. They each display some aspect of what actually was accomplished at the cross. I think he is merely reminding us to be careful when we search for the necessity of the cross, especially if that search takes us away from the actual event itself, our personal involvement with it, and the unconditional love and mercy of God. ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son...")

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 4

Forde says that we move too quickly past the “brute facts” of the crucifixion in search of our atonement theories. He suggests that before trying to look at it from God’s point of view, we would do better to start with looking at it from ours. Only then will we perhaps get “’caught in the act’ in more ways than one: caught at it and at the same time caught by it.

So when we look at the actual facts and consider the question, “Why could God not just up and forgive?”, we find that the simple fact is, he did!

"Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his “Father.” The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our complaint against God is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that."

Forde says we are all implicated in the universal rejection of such unconditional forgiveness. We do not necessarily reject the idea of unconditional forgiveness in the abstract. We could maybe handle that. But we could not handle the actual forgiver himself - the one who actually did the deed - actually forgave sins without conditions. We could not tolerate the one who “actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort.”

The crucifixion exposes us for who we really are “sinners, fakes, liars, deniers, unbelievers.” We don’t really want uncondtional forgiveness, because it is a threat to our conditional world and all our religious ambitions. To consent to such forgiveness would mean that we would have to give up on ourselves - essentially lose our own lives (our old selves). So Jesus had to go. It was a matter of self-defense.

In looking at the facts in this way, from below instead of from above, we are able to see that it is not God who is the obstacle to reconciliation. It is us. This is Forde’s main point. God did indeed have a problem. But his problem was not necessarily how to satisfy his righteous wrath against us. His problem was how to get us to stop rejecting his mercy. Put another way, the problem was never reconciling God to us. The problem was reconciling us to God. God needed a way to put an end to us and our religious ambitions. When we finally let him have mercy on us, only then would he be "satisfied." And this could only be done by killing us.

So here is how we get “caught by the act.” Through faith, we are crucified with Christ. The old self, which refuses to accept unconditional forgiveness, is destroyed. It is put out of business. The final obstacle to reconciliation between God and man is removed.

His death is, therefore, our death. As Paul put it, Christ “has died for all; therefore, all have died” (2 Cor 5:14).

So Forde concludes, when looked at from our point of view, the cross must always be understood as an act of God's mercy toward us - one in which we participate personally. We first participate by killing Jesus (we reject the God of mercy and get him out of the way). Then we die with him (he gets us, our sin and our spiritual ambitions out of the way) and a new us is born. Now there is true reconciliation.

Atonement theories which put us on the sidelines, abstractly assessing the crucifixion from afar (or from above), can distract us from knowing the cross in this way.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 3

In the section of his essay subtitled “Theories Aside”, Forde brushes away the other two atonement theories as faring no better than vicarious satisfaction. The theory of moral influence centers on the idea that Jesus' sacrificial act was needed to serve as an example to inspire human selflessness and faithfulness. Forde merely asks a few rhetorical questions.

“How can God possibly be “justified” in sending his Son into this world to be cruelly murdered at our hands just to provide an example of what everybody already knew anyway? If the cross does not actually accomplish anything new, is not the price too great? Is not a God who would do such a thing fully as thoughtless and cruel as the God of vicarious satisfaction?”

He disposes of Gustaf AulĂ©n and the “victory motif” just as hastily. Under this theory, Christ’s work in incarnation, death, and resurrection was required to conquer Satan and the demonic powers that hold us in slavery to sin and death. But Forde says that under this theory, like the others, the actual act of us killing Jesus is ignored.

“Once again the killing has been covered up. Jesus’ death is somehow necessary to defeat the demons. We are exonerated because the demons did it. God, too, is exonerated in the process because he can appear as the hero of the piece, the mighty conqueror of the demons.”

Forde points out that this theory seems to undermine God’s sovereignty, as he again asks the unanswerable questions.

“Why should the cruel death of Jesus be necessary to defeat the demons? Surely if God is God, he could just put the demons out of commission whenever he wished.”

He then briefly references the troubled history of atonement theories, pointing out that even the early church fathers struggled with this question, as they pondered the idea of “ransom” and debated to whom the ranson was paid. He also notes that the vicory motif, popularized by Gustaf Aulen in his 1931 book, Christus Victor, was the classic view that both Anselm (vicarious satisfaction) and Abelard (moral example) were contending with in the 12th century when these theories were first developed. Thus we have come full circle.

Having brushed the theories aside, Forde restates the issue before moving toward his goal.

"So we come back to our original question: Why the murder of the innocent one? What does that accomplish for us—or for God? What is “the word” of Christ? What does he actually do for us that God could not have done with greater ease and economy in some other way? The crucial and persistent question emerging from discussion of the various views seems always to be that of the necessity for the concrete and actual work of Christ among us.

It is, of course, ultimately the question of the necessity for Christology at all. Cannot God just up and forgive and/or cast out demons? Or to use another current form of the question: Is there not grace aplenty in the Old Testament? Or in nature? Or in other religions even? Why Jesus? Why the New Testament?"

Monday, February 12, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 2

I base my understanding of Forde’s atonement views on his essay “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ.” This essay is not an exhaustive theological work (thankfully), but a relatively short essay. Actually, it’s more like a very long sermon.

Forde introduces the essay by briefly discussing the shortcomings of the three most prevalent atonement theories - vicarious satisfaction, moral influence and the victory motif. But as he goes through these, I sense he is in a bit of a hurry. He is on his way to the “brute reality” of the cross itself - the actual event and our involvement with it. This is the main focus of his essay, and the atonement theories are but the path he uses to get there.

So while Forde does not expend much energy debating or debunking the major theories, it is clear they don’t much impress him. He dismisses them as insufficient to prove the necessity for Christ’s death (which may not need proving). More importantly he argues that atonement theories can distract us from the message of the cross, obscuring the very thing they are designed to explain.

“Indeed, the fatal flaw in most thinking about the atoning work of Christ is the tendency to look away from the actual events, translate them into “eternal truths,” and thus to ignore or obscure what actually happened and our part in it. We interpret Christ’s death as though it were an idea, a necessary part of a logical scheme of some sort, as though God were tied to a scheme of honor or justice making him the obstacle to our reconciliation. We exonerate ourselves, so to speak, by blaming the necessity for the cross on God.”

With this he begins to explain his complaint concerning the vicarious satisfaction view of atonement.

“ is maintained that God needed the death of Jesus in order to be able to be merciful to us. God is the object of the atoning act. The demands of his law, or wrath, or justice had to be “satisfied.” So we are exonerated because the cross was necessary to God. But the inevitable consequence of such thinking is that it doesn’t finally reconcile us to God. If the cross is necessary to pay God, God will be pictured as at worst a rather vindictive tyrant demanding his pound of flesh or at best an inept subordinate caught in the same inexorable net of law and justice as we are. The theory intended to foster reconciliation actually contributes to further alienation.”

“The persistent criticism of doctrines of vicarious satisfaction and substitutionary atonement since the enlightenment have the same root. The picture painted of God is too black, too contrary to the biblical witness. If the death was payment, how could reconciliation be an act of mercy? Mercy is mercy, not the result of payment. If God is by nature love and mercy, why could he not just up and forgive? Jesus, it seems, forgave sins before his death. Why then was the death necessary? The logic of the theory threatens the very thing it wants to promote: the mercy of God.”

Forde, of course, is not the first to question the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction. As I understand the historic criticism, it is rooted in the rather straightforward logic that grace and mercy cannot be made dependent on payment or satisfaction, else grace and mercy cease to be.

Forde does not dwell on this problem, but is moving on toward his main point. First, however, he quickly deals with the two other popular atonement theories.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Forde on Atonement - Part 1

It may seem odd that Christian theology is still struggling with what actually happened at the cross. We’ve had two thousand years to consider the matter. One would think it not that difficult to come to some conclusion, especially since it stands at the heart of Christianity - the sina qua non, if you will.

But the cross event is unique. And it is called foolishness by the Apostle Paul. So perhaps it is not unusual that our explanations don't necessarily measure up to the event itself. I won't criticize those who struggle to comprehend the cross. I've found that I’m certainly not immune from wondering about the wonder of it all myself.

I don’t wonder about the historical accuracy of the event or who exactly was involved. Questions of this nature don’t interest me. The crucifixion itself and the divine nature of Jesus have long ago been settled questions - settled at least to my satisfaction and most who consider themselves Christian. But the question of why still lingers, and the why raises questions of what actually took place - beyond the physical crucifixion of the Son of God.

Why did Jesus have to die? Could not have God reconciled the world to himself some other way? When we enter this realm, we encounter differing theories of the atonement, and now even the word theory sounds strange. Don’t we know for sure? Are we still speculating about all this? The use of the word theory seems dangerous in itself. But that is what we seem to be faced with - atonement theories.

I was first confronted with the whole notion of atonement theory when I discovered that my new-found theological hero, Gerhard Forde, was accused of denying the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. Now, as it turns out, I don’t believe he really denies it so much as challenges us to think of it in an entirely new way. But I will get to that later. The point is that vicarious satisfaction is but one of several theories of atonement, all of which come in various flavors. It is the most common and the one I had always believed without question. It was also the one I assumed Luther taught, and what had been taught down through the ages.

Christ had to die because the justice and wrath of God against us had to be satisfied. The sins of the whole world had to be paid for, and the sacrificial death of Jesus was the only price acceptable. Theologically, this is called vicarious satisfaction - Jesus taking our place in satisfying the justice of God the Father. It is also sometimes called substitionary atonement - Jesus substituting himself for us in order to make us acceptable to God.

So I was faced with the question, why would a Lutheran theologian, especially one of Forde’s stripe - someone obviously devoted to Luther’s theology of the cross and the radical preaching of the unconditional Gospel - why would such a person seem to question the vicarious satisfaction view of atonement?

Friday, February 9, 2007

Hier Ich Stehe

There is a Luther gift shop across the street from the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It was here that my friend Jerry bought me a pair of souvenir socks imprinted with the words “Here I Stand” (in German, of course.)

I wonder if some are offended by the gift shop and the socks. They might seem to trivialize the importance of what took place on the door across the street - and what Luther was actually risking when he said those words in front of Emperor Charles V himself, heir to the 1000-year-old Holy Roman Empire.

"Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning - and my conscience is captive to the Word of God - then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.

Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen"

There have been numerous movies made of Luther. Most portray this scene of Luther at the Diet of Worms as a towering, heroic figure - defying Emperor and Pope with certainty and courage. But I like the most recent movie (Luther), where the filmmakers tried to more honestly capture Luther’s terror and doubt. He was, after all, just human.

And I think Luther would approve of the socks - at least in this sense. They bring us back to earth. Luther was nothing if not earthy. “We are all still beggars,” said Luther, shortly before his death. Shoeless beggars - in ridiculous looking socks.

The socks remind me to not take myself too seriously - even while considering the weightiest of matters, the defense of the very Gospel of Christ itself. This is useful to remember when blogging. Or when doing anything else, for that matter.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


In our postmodern world, we are now also confronted with postmodern Christianity, post-Evangelicalism, post-liberalism, post-conservatism, post-denominationalism, and even post-Christianism.

Whence cometh post-Lutheransim?

Alas, there is no such beast. My Google search comes up empty.

Sigh. What to make of this. Does not Lutheranism need some post-like improvement along with all the rest? If we have no post-, we have no future. For that matter, we may have no present, since it seems everyone else is already living in their post-ness.

Well, whatever.

I now have at least one blog entry on post-Lutheranism. I’ll see if Google can find it. Maybe it will inspire some creative Lutheran to get off the dime and discover post-Lutheranism before it’s too late.

Monday, February 5, 2007

God Hidden

Growing up Lutheran, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were inseparable from my concept of church. Like pulpit and pew, the font and altar table were part of the architecture. I suppose I just took them for granted. I did not question the Lutheran view of the meaning of the sacraments as I learned them in confirmation class. I could recite the orthodox explanations. On the other hand, I never quite understood it all. The more I was exposed to other Christian views about them, the more confused I got. Eventually I arrived at a point where the diversity of explanations, coupled with the apparent Biblical ambiguity, caused me to not even want to think or talk about them. They were just one more theological minefield, and a bit of an embarrasment. Now, the more I study Luther’s theology of the cross, the more I am beginning to appreciate the meaning and mystery of the Christian sacraments.

It seems as if nothing has divided Christianity more than differing views over the theology of the sacraments. But I think this is somewhat of an illusion. What divides Christianity is still (I believe) the theology of glory over against the theology of the cross - an emphasis on the works of us over against the works of God. The sacraments are just one of the battlegrounds, albeit a highly visible one. They are out there in plain sight, confronting us, speaking to us. But what do they say?

The theologian of the cross hears the sacraments as simply another form of the Gospel. Nothing more. Nothing less. The sacraments speak the language of the cross, the language of salvation, forgiveness of sins, and life eternal. As the Gospel clothed in physical forms, they have somewhat of a mystical edge, but they are, underneath, no more or less mysterious than the Gospel. There is no difference. Thus it is not proper to elevate them above the Gospel - as was common in the church of Luther’s time - nor is it proper to lower them beneath the Gospel - as is common in our time.

The Gospel itself is a sacrament - the power and glory of God hiding in the humblest of places. The Gospel hides in a baby born in a barn. It hides in an ordinary man with little to recommend him (no visible means of support and no place to sleep.) It hides, finally and most dramatically, in a horribly shameful execution - nailed to a cross.

This Gospel in human form then rises from the grave, but does not announce the triumph to a skeptical world. Rather, he remains still humble and hidden among the people - so hidden that it later seems almost too easy for his enemies to claim that somebody made the whole thing up. Then this Gospel seems to disappear entirely - except for the word of it, spoken and written.

So now, to us, the Gospel is mere words - a bit of human language - recorded in a book written by many different authors who sometimes (to us) seem not to have gotten their stories straight. This same Gospel also comes to us verbally and extemporaneously, in the lame and tired phrases of cracked-pot preachers - people who often don’t seem to know what they are talking about and tend to be more than a little annoying. And yet, in this word of the Gospel is hidden the power of God’s Holy Spirit, testifying of a humble Savior who also happens to be the God of the Universe. And in this person of Jesus we are shown the nature of God’s interest in us - how much he loves us! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.

The Gospel is, therefore, not just a story or a piece of language. It is love clothed in language, and love has power unspeakable. The love of God hidden in the Gospel has a power that can be found in nothing else. It is a love that requires a faith to believe in it, and then it creates the faith that it requires. Thus it is a love that does not allow itself to be unrequited. One way or another, not with glory but with power, it has its way with us.

In this context, I understand the sacraments as but another form of the Gospel. This seems even more humble (and perhaps more foolish) than words alone. Now we have common water, bread and wine - nothing special. But they are not water, bread and wine alone. They come in communion with the word of the Gospel, and so they are not religious rituals we perform. They are the real presence of God hidden - not just hidden in the word, but now also hidden in the physical elements that we can actually see, touch, taste and feel.

If this were not hard enough to believe, the doing of the sacraments comes clothed in the humblest garb of all - the church. Jesus (for some odd reason) gives to the church the job of distributing his Gospel. At the same time, he seems to have allowed his church to be the most unlikely candidate to conduct such holy work. What a train wreck, this thing we call the church! This church is us! Who can honestly say they can find one speck of goodness among such self-righteous sinners?

But that is precisely the point. While we are yet sinners, God loved us. If the church were righteous, it would have no need of any gospel, much less this one. This Gospel is exclusive - it is for sinners only. And it is distributed by sinners only. Then, in the heart of the sinner, God finds his final hiding place. What more humble, unlikely place to hide than that?

So now, in light of what the Gospel actually does (as opposed to what it is), and its final hiding place, the sacramental form of the Gospel becomes clearer, at least to me. Like the Word of the Gospel, the Gospel of Baptism requires faith, and it creates what it requires. No where is this drama more clearly hidden than in the baptism of infant children. Here is perhaps the only time and place where the work of God in reaching us cannot be mistaken as our own work to reach him. The work of God in the baptism of believing adults is not so apparent, but it is nevertheless the same work. And the Gospel of the Lord’s Supper is also the same work of God. As Gospel, the bread and wine, the body and blood, come to us again and again. Each time they require a renewed faith, and then create what they require - sustaining us in the absolute certainty of God’s love and forgiveness.

We can try to attach other meanings to the sacraments. We can try to strip them of all meaning. We can try to turn them into religious rituals, signs and symbols. Or we can load them up with rules and regulations to try to convert them into laws we must obey (or suffer the consequences). But there is no law in them, and therefore no condemnation. The sacraments are the Gospel, and as such contain the real presence of the Hidden God of Love. And this Love will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish, whether we see it or not.

I understand that this does not answer my every question. Maybe it answers very few. The sacraments will always remain a source of mystery. But it is a mystery I can live with. Because while I know God is hidden in them, I also know that God is revealed in them. And the God revealed is the Jesus of the cross - the one who gave himself up for me out of love.

Friday, February 2, 2007

No Ifs in the Gospel

“In defining the essence of the gospel, everything depends on whether it is a conditional or an unconditional message of grace.”
- August Pieper, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel and Its Application for Pure Teaching and Spiritual Life (1910)

One of the characteristics of Luther’s more radical theology was his understanding of the gospel as an unconditional proclamation. He did not see it as an invitation. Or an explanation. Or an argument. Or a theological contruct. It was a proclamation preached without conditions.

The gospel can be said in many different ways, but, to be the gospel, it cannot contain any if’s. So it sounds something like this:

“Your sins are forgiven.”
“God loves you just the way you are, for Jesus sake.”
“Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins.”

This is in contrast to a gospel with conditions, which might sound like this:

“Your sins will be forgiven if you repent and are truly sorry for them.”
“God loves you and wants you to accept his love. If you do, you will be saved.”
“Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins. If you believe in him, you will be saved.”

These conditional gospels are very common in the church, and sound entirely Biblical. True as they might sound, however, they are not the gospel. This took me a long time to really understand.

I think maybe I always believed in an unconditional gospel, but never quite understood how it could be preached so boldly - especially in the face of what seems to sound like a whole lot of conditions in the Bible. Both Forde and the Wauwatosa theologians were of particular help to me here.

In the essay quoted above, August Pieper lays out the Biblical case for preaching the gospel promise without any conditions. He does not mince words. A gospel preached with conditions is not just an impure gospel, or a watered-down gospel, or a hedge-your-bets gospel. It is no gospel at all.