I have chosen, in prayer (of course) during Lent and approaching Easter Sunday, to preach through different angles on the atonement, or what academia calls, models or theories. We mustn’t be confused by how the idea of “theories” is being used here. It is not a way to shoe-horn in a text into an abscure or concocted formula, but rather, a working method or structure for how to legitimately view a biblical text.Continue reading “Angles on the Atonement”
“When we speak of the centrality of the Atonement, I have said, we mean much more, worlds more, than its place in a religious system. We are speaking of that which is the centre, not of thought, but of actual life, conscience, history and destiny. We speak of what is the life-power of the moral world and its historic crisis, the ground of the Church’s existence, and the sole meaning of Christ himself. Christ is to us just what His cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth was put into what he did there. And all that man’s moral soul needs doing for it eternally was done centrally there.
See the short video (June 2019) on The Fuel Cast, filmed at Torre Abbey ruins, Torquay.
Who was P. T. Forsyth?
Peter Taylor Forsyth was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on this day in 1848 to a working-class family, and was educated there through his university years. Afterwards, he became a Congregationalist minister serving in five successive congregations in England at Shipley, London, Manchester, Leicester and Cambridge.
In chapter nine of Thiselton’s 2015 Systematic Theology, he asks the question, ‘Why Consider Historical Theologies of the Atonement?’ The section he covers on Colin Gunton’s 1988 work ‘The Actuality of the Atonement: A Study in Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition’ is not only astonishingly concise but well worth popping into this blog:
“Colin Gunton (1941-2003). Gunton also contributed a classic modern study in his Actuality of the Atonement…He had two aims. One was to show that interpretations of, and approaches to, atonement were complimentary, not alternatives. The other was to exhibit the value and power of metaphors among images of atonement. He regarded Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel as indirectly responsible for the “intellectual and cultural poverty” that characterizes much of our age. He singled out especially Hegel’s devaluation of “images” (Vorstellungen) in religion, as against the critical “concept” (Begriff) in philosophy. Metaphor, Gunton argued, was “an indispensable means for the advance of cognitive knowledge and understanding” (17). Janet Martin Soskice and Paul Avis also argued this convincingly. Metaphor and discovery occur together “with metaphor serving as the vehicle of discovery” (31). He appealed for this explicitly to Paul Ricoeur, Eberhard Jungel, and Janet Martin Soskice, as well as to Coleridge.
In the course of more detailed theological argument, Gunton challenged the comprehensiveness of [Gustav] Aulen’s [Christus Victor) approach, and showed concern that he advocated “too triumphalist a view of the atonement” (58). He valued the victory motif as a metaphor, rather than the “laws for a theory of the atonement” (61). This approach also tended too readily to personify the devil, which seems to happen in Gregory of Nyssa. “Evil powers” may includes “political, social, economic, and religious structures of power,” as George Caird, Oscar Cullmann, and others have maintained (65).
In his chapter 4 Gunton considered the justice of God, and corrected misunderstandings of Anselm. God governs the universe in a way analogous to the duty of the feudal ruler “to maintain the order of rights and obligations without which society would collapse” (89). He affirmed the grace and love of God, but insisted on “some objective righting of the balance” in the governance of the universe (91). Here he appealed to P. T. Forsyth, Balthasar, and Barth, as well as to Anselm and Luther. This governance is “the central metaphor” (112).
In chapter 5 Gunton sought to rescue the concept of “sacrifice” from being regarded as an outworn, “dead” metaphor. He carefully examined sacrifice in the OT, together with the work by Mary Douglas and Francis Young. In this respect, he argued, Calvin was faithful to priesthood and sacrifice in Hebrews, and to the passage about “correct exchange” that we noted in the early Epistle to Diognetus. He concluded, “There are in Calvin elements of a substitutionary understanding of the atonement; indeed it seems unlikely that any conception that remains true to the Bible can avoid it” (130). The two final chapters return to Gunton’s regular theme of the Holy Trinity, and the need to reconcile the various approaches to the atonement. He concluded: Jesus is “our substitute because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves” (165, italics mine).
Among Gunton’s eighteen or so books, this book is a masterpiece. It seems to address a central nerve in the [atonement] debate, and should not be underestimated. “
I have recently been enjoying The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (c.1132 – 1138) by Peter Abelard and Heloise with a translation and introduction by Betty Radice and M. T. Clanchy. And this has caused me to theologically investigate what is a very interesting Medieval man and his theology, a poor token offering of which is offered below (that’s my attempt at being humble):
Peter Abelard was a highly gifted intellectual. He outshone his fellow French pupils and tutors alike during the High Middle Ages, being also a supreme master logician. One of his pupils was a young woman named Heloise, who was, arguably, more gifted than he. The short story is that they fell in love (or fell in lust?), had a secret affair that was then exposed, leading to a strange story of marriage, revenge (castration – ouch!), love and ministry.
I have been reading from the Penguin Classics series by updated by M. T. Clanchy from the work of Betty Radice’s own work of the 1970s, featuring the letters of Abelard and Heloise (including his really fascinating autobiographical account – worth the book alone – Historia Calamitatum) plus other bits, such as letters between Peter the Venerable and Heloise, two hymns by Abelard and extracts from the Lost Love Letters. Another of Clanchy’s books opens with: ‘Peter Abelard, now forgotten, was once the most famous man in the world.’ Well that may be what it is, but it is not what all it is.
The Lives of Abelard and Heloise
Peter Abelard was born c.1092 at Le Pallet, near Nantes, the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. His father wanted his son to have a career in the military as he did, but Abelard pursued life as an academic, and a gifted one at that. Abelard excelled at the art of dialectic, and during this early part of his life he “began to travel about in several provinces disputing, like a true peripatetic philosopher, wherever I had heard there was a keen interest in the art of dialectic.” One gets the impression he rather enjoyed being the know-it-all, but I suppose to many (including himself), he did!
Having had the best part of the weekend in Oxford (Baptist Union Assembly), I must say what an inspiring place it is. I’m sure the sun shining was a major factor, not to mention the incredible falafal wraps I enjoyed, with a decent pint at the famous pub favoured by C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
I wandered around the oldest University in the world, Balliol College (£2 entry fee!), established in the 13th century, and counts among its past students Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, and in 1360 AD John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English – a dangerous thing to do.
The main entrance to the college is on Broad Street, and it was here that a terrible event took place in both 1555 and 1556. This cross marks the spot where three Reformers were burnt at the stake for their part in the Reformation, accused of “heresy”, i.e. Protestantism.
Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester); Nicolas Ridley (Bishop of London); and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), were burned alive on this spot. To the left is Balliol College, and to the right are some shops, including outside seating areas for the coffee drinkers. It is an incredible thing to see and think about. This sign to the left of the cross describes the scene:
“Without doubt Dr Peter Forsyth’s book is one for contemporary preachers. The writer himself was a grand preacher of the great eternities, but he spoke the language of his day and brought the realities of the gospel to his listeners and readers with power.
In Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind he has given us a valuable, crafted treasure to stimulate us to true preaching. He was the man who said of true proclamation, ‘Revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God … God in the act of imparting Himself,’ and added, ‘Preaching is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself’
His primary emphasis was upon the nature of God as holy love, and he saw such love displayed in the Cross. At heart he burned with passion for the Atonement. More correctly, it was the Atonement which evoked such passion within him. His many books throb with this strong response to God’s grace.
He says of himself, ‘It pleased God by the revelation of His holiness and grace which the great theologians taught me to find in the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way which submerged all school questions in weight, urgency and poignancy. I was turned from a Christian to a believer, from a lover of love to an object of grace.’ It is this sense and understanding of grace which pervades Forsyth’s writings.
The book is not written only for preachers, but for all who seek to know fire in their bones from the reality of the Gospel. That is why all should read the man and his theology.”
New Creation Publications Inc.
This is about an encounter this very week with a dear old saint who had lived with a view of her own sin as too large to deal with because her Jesus was too small: Continue reading “Guilt, Atonement and a Little Old Lady”