Wednesday, July 01, 2009

On the Atonement in Hebrews

Yesterday I said that I would comment today on Steve Motyer’s essay “The Atonement in Hebrews” (in The Atonement Debate [Zondervan, 2008], 136-49). I hesitate to follow through on this because I have so much to say and yet so little time to do so that I fear these few comments will be misunderstood. But I’ve decided to take that risk and briefly state my issues with his essay. I will raise four particular issues but first I want to say that, despite my strong tone and rejection of his position, I do appreciate Motyer’s work and I do not consider myself his jury, judge, or executioner! I would greatly value the opportunity to converse with him face to face over these things, but that’s not possible so I must simply respond to what he has written. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that vigorous debate does not imply disrespect.

Having said that, I do not think the issues at hand here are small or peripheral. We are dealing with the atonement which means we are dealing with the very core of Christianity—get this wrong and you will necessarily get all else wrong. I was speaking with a brother about the atonement debate the other day and he lamented that he sometimes grows weary of the theological nit-picking in the body of Christ. I understand the sentiment, and to be sure, some theological debates are nothing more than that. However, others are worth spilling blood over as when Paul actually took a hiatus from his missionary work to travel to Jerusalem and debate the law and the cross. He was willing to lay it all down, and even oppose someone so prominent as Peter, for the sake of getting the truth right at this point. Much was at stake and it was worth fighting over. I think the atonement debate rises to this level—we must get this right or we will of necessity get all other things wrong.

Having said that—I feel like I’m playing ping pong here—I don’t want to give the impression that I think I have this doctrine right at all points for I do not think that of myself. However, I am passionate about seeking truth until I do get this right at all points because this doctrine is just that important and just that precious.

Okay, so much for the preface. I have four issues to raise with Motyer’s essay. First, near the beginning of his essay, Motyer’s argues for letting the author of Hebrews—whoever he was—speak for himself. He warns against importing ideas into the book that are foreign to its logic and purposes. This isolationist perspective has taken hold in certain scholarly circles in the last few decades and I would love to pause and say a few things about it but time will not permit. So let me just say this: okay, Motyer, I would want to qualify what you said in several important ways, but good enough—let’s let the author speak on his own terms.

However, not too far into his essay it became apparent to me that his agenda overpowered his ideal. Motyer tries to argue that the author of Hebrews contrasts the old and new covenants so as to highlight the incongruities between them, not the congruities. Specifically, he points to five contrasts: place—the old covenant was enacted on earth while the new covenant was enacted in heaven; focus—the old covenant focused on regulations for the physical body while the new covenant focused on the cleansing of the conscience; scope—the old covenant dealt with sins of ignorance while the new covenant deals with all sins, including deliberate rebellion against God; means—the old covenant utilized the blood of bulls and goats while the new covenant utilized the blood of Jesus Christ; timing—the old covenant relied upon repetitious sacrifices while the new covenant relied upon the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

From this Motyer concludes, “So in all these crucial respects, the sacrifice of Christ is different from those of the old covenant. This means we cannot use the Old Testament to explain what God was doing in Christ. He has done something new” (139). This is a perfect example of drawing a false conclusion from questionable premises. In other words, Motyer first articulates the contrasts between the covenants in a dubious way and then draws a conclusion that is not even necessary given the shaky premises he has built. Oh how I wish I had the time to show you more particularly what I mean, but alas I do not. Therefore, I can only hope you see some of the issues related to his premises and the ensuing tenuous nature of the conclusion he draws, or more pointedly, the absurdity of it. It is ludicrous to suggest that we “cannot use the Old Testament to explain what God was doing in Christ.” This is isolationism in the extreme.

Second, Motyer argues, on the preceding premise, that “The work of atonement in Hebrews focuses upon our deliverance from death, because that is our fundamental existential problem. The accent falls not so much on our guilt as on our mortality: not on our sinful lives before a holy judge but on our hopeless death in impurity and alienation” (140). All I will say in response is this: Dr. Motyer, death is the result of our guilt! In order for death to be overcome the cause of death had to be removed, and permanently so, which the blood of bulls and goats could not do. Thus, the blood of Jesus was necessary to remove the sins which caused death so that death could then be overcome forever. Our “fundamental existential problem” has a more fundamental existential cause.

Third, Motyer argues that the point of Jesus entering into suffering, of his learning obedience through suffering, is that atonement “arises fundamentally out of the incarnation, rather than just out of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (144). Therefore, he goes on to say that the “atonement proceeds from relationship” and “the fundamental action in atonement is, therefore, that he goes before us,” he becomes our forerunner who leads the way into the most holy place where we too can have communion with God (144). “Jesus is perfected first (2:10; 5:9; 7:28), then we are perfected after him (10:14; 11:40; 12:23)”—this is the essence of the atonement (145).

Oh there are so many issues here but I must be brief. I agree that the life of Jesus Christ is an integral, a profoundly meaningful, a necessary part of his saving work but this fact does not undo the force of Hebrews 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The only way Jesus could become our forerunner is by first becoming our Savior because without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Thus, Jesus’ dealing with the legal, or judicial, realities of our sin by suffering as our substitute is not to be held in contrast with the relational goal of communion with God. It is the means of this communion! Thus, while it’s true that Jesus was perfected and we were also perfected in him, it is not true that we were perfected in the same way. He became perfect through obedience in that he earned the status of one who did not sin at any point; we become perfect through faith in him because in him alone are our sins removed. Thus, he is our forerunner, but he is more than our forerunner—he is our “atoner,” if you will, and this is rightly and necessarily focused on the shedding of his blood, even in Hebrews. One does not have to import ideas from elsewhere to show this.

Fourth, Motyer asserts in the conclusion of his essay, “This [the picture of atonement in Hebrews] is not penal substitution but something even more compelling and rigorous. We are not dealing here with a static satisfaction of a principle of justice in God or a negative dealing with wrath on our behalf. These ideas are completely foreign to Hebrews” (146). As soon as I read that I thought, “How in the world, then, does he makes sense of the warnings and examples of wrath all throughout the book?” This must have been a predictable question because almost immediately Motyer himself raises the issue and answers as follows: “This argument relies on importing a perspective from elsewhere—most usually from the Old Testament. A penal substitutionary interpretation of Hebrews argues that in the Old Testament, the judgment of God is the fundamental presupposition of atonement and must be in Hebrews also, since the letter views the atoning work of Christ through Old Testament spectacles” (146).

This is such a convenient way to argue—the author of Hebrews is writing on an island and no idea from anywhere can be brought to bear in order to interpret his meaning. And not only is it convenient, it is utilitarian because it is the only way Motyer can sustain his argument. If there is any substantial link between the sacrifices of the old and new covenants then his house of cards falls down. And I would suggest that there is such a link: the contrasts between the covenants in Hebrews have to do with differences in the quality of the two so that the new covenant is superior, but they do not have to do with the essential nature of function of sacrifice in those covenants. The same fundamental problem is being addressed in the same fundamental way in both covenants and this assertion is most certainly not imported from outside of Hebrews.

In the end, I find Motyer’s exegesis, and criticism of penal substitution, to be almost completely without merit because he builds his case on premises that cannot be sustained and then draws unnecessary conclusions based on those premises. And again, this is not theological nit-picking—much is at stake here, the whole gospel is at stake here. In order to mount a respectable case against Motyer, all one would have to do is show that, in the mind of the author of Hebrews, there was not total incongruity between the covenants. I’m sure someone has already done this, and when I find his or her work I will let you know!

For now, I must conclude by saying that I really feel the weight of these words in my soul right now:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:1-5).

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