Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I. Howard Marshall, Holy Love, & the Atonement

The book I'm reading right now, The Atonement Debate (Zondervan 2008), is neatly divided into five sections: introductory essays (2 essays), biblical foundations (6 essays), theological contributions (5 essays), historical perspectives (3 essays), and contemporary perspectives (3 essays). (For more information about the genesis and aims of the book, see a few posts below.)

Today I read the section on biblical foundations. The first essay, by I. Howard Marshall, is a basic overview of the biblical foundation of the penal sustitutionary view of the atonement. I'll come back to this in a moment. The next two essays, by Christopher J. H. Wright and Geoffry Grogan, respectively, provide an overview of the doctrine of atonement in the Old and then the New Testaments, while the fourth through sixth essays detail into specific portions of the Scripture. Sue Groom's essay explores the meaning of Is 52:13-53:12, Rohintan K. Mody's essay explores penal sustitution in Rom 3:25-26, and Steve Motyer's essay explores the nature of atonement in Hebrews. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will return to comment on Motyer's essay because I think he makes several critical mistakes and I'd like to offer a bit of a rebutal. Not to say I didn't appreciate his work, because I did, but again I think he is mistaken at several important points.

Now, as for I. Howard Marshall's essay, it was such a confirming experience to read his work because several days ago I laid out a basic pattern of how I would respond to critics of the penal substitutionary view, and in essence Marshall followed this very pattern. The one thing he dealt with that I left out of my overview but realized later I would also add, is a discussion of the holiness and love of God.

A rightful treatment of both the holiness and love of God, each envisioned in light of the other, solves many of the problems that honest critics of the penal sustitutionary view have (I say "honest" because some critics want to destroy this point of view at any cost and are not actually asking authentic questions--their minds are made up). For instance, Marshall shows, following the work of P. T. Forsyth at this point, that when the holiness of God is understood in light of his love, one cannot come away with the idea that God is tyrannical, that he lashes out and seeks vengence for vengence sake, or is otherwise not in control of himself. God is always love--this is a constant in his being--and therefore when he is aroused to anger he always expresses that anger in a way that is congruent with his love and holiness and glory.

Thus, in the end, Marshall (and I) would agree with critics of the penal sustitutionary view that we must not envision God as an out of control tyrant, or as a sort of schizophrenic being who is merciful one minute and wrathful the next. But he (and I) would disagree with these critics that the penal sustitutionary view does in fact proport this to be the case. To the contrary, we simply argue that when the holiness and love of God are held in proper balance we derive a vision of God as one who must deal with sin, because of his holiness, but one who is loving in everything he does and always in control of himself.

Let me share one more example of how careful exegesis helps us to avoid unnecessary and unbiblical errors with regard to this doctrine. Some critics of the penal sustitutionary view argue that it paints a picture where Jesus Christ sees the anger of God the Father toward sinners and essentially positions himself between the two in an effort to keep the Father from acting out his anger. In other words, these critics argue that this view of the atonement necessitates a division in God, where God stands against God. This division is displayed on the cross, they argue, when the Father becomes angry at the Son and punishes him as though he were a criminal.

Marshall responds to this criticism by first showing that Calvin himself abhored the idea that the Father was angry at the Son. In the Son, Calvin pointed out, the Father was well pleased, and he was always and only well pleased. This fact was never altered for a moment. Hence, the teaching of penal sustitution is that the Father, out of the love and mercy in his own heart toward sinners (Jn 3:16; Eph 2:4), sent the Son to live a life of obedience and then to die in the place of sinners as though he were guilty of their sin, so that through the suffering of the Son the Father might simultaneously (1) honor his holiness by executing his perfect justice against sin and (2) honor his mercy by forgiving sinners who look to Jesus Christ by faith. Having briefly laid out this case, Marshall then challenges the critics to point to one single scholar who actually argues for this division between the Father and the Son. In other words, he asks a pointed question to show an inherent weakness in this criticism: the critics are attacking penal substitution for something no proponent of the position actually argues. He admits that there may be a preacher here or a teacher there who inadvertently argues in this direction, but insists that no serious, careful exegete in fact does.

I would love to give more examples of how Marshall's careful work clears up misunderstandings about the penal substitutionary view, but it's late and I'm tired! I hope I've been clear enough to help you see my point and to make you want to read Marshall's essay. If you do want to read it--and I really hope you do--you can find it here.

Soli Deo Gloria

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