A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be devoting much of my summer blogging to the subject of the atonement and that if people were interested in participating they should contact me with their suggested contributions. That offer still stands, if anyone would like to take part. The following is the first contribution from Mark Jones. Mark is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, currently working on his doctoral thesis on the Christology of Thomas Goodwin. He blogs at thomasgoodwin.wordpress.com.
Alastair and I go back many years as partners in crime on the Sermonaudio debate boards. Since then he has become somewhat of an authority on N.T. Wright (among others), for good or for bad depending on one’s theological proclivities, whereas I have remained firmly entrenched in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where I have tried to understand our rich theological heritage, for good or for bad depending …
The topic under discussion is the atonement, a subject that, to use Calvin’s phrase, “cannot be put into words” (ineffabili quodam modo). Yet, the importance of the subject at hand forces me to speak, despite my own trepidation. At Alastair’s suggestion, I have decided to use my knowledge in historical theology to give a descriptive-historical study of the atonement as it was understood by theological luminaries such as Luther, Calvin, Owen, and Goodwin. Tentatively, I will seek to show in two separate posts that the aforementioned men pioneered the doctrine we call penal substitution. While Calvin and Owen, for example, both held to penal substitution, the latter’s writings on the subject were no mere duplication of the former. Moreover, to the surprise of some perhaps, I will seek to show that the Christus Victor motif (Aulen would not call it a theory), is very much an integral part of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century atonement formulations. As sports enthusiasts can appreciate, when something is wrong with the team, a substitution is made in the hope that the substitute will facilitate a victory. Our Reformed forefathers have shown that in Christ we have the substitute par excellence who has brought about the victory over sin, a victory that only a penal substitutionary atonement could make possible.
Between Calvin and Owen stood the Unitarian Pelagian, Faustus Socinus, whose work De Jesu Christo Servatore, “Of Jesus Christ the Savior” (1578), gives us important clues into the content of Calvin’s and Owen’s writings. In this first post I want to spend the majority of my time in the sixteenth century looking at both Calvin and Luther whose writings led to Socinus’ hostile reaction. Socinus referred to the idea of Christ’s undergoing of vicarious punishment on behalf of sinners (i.e. as their substitute) as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. What was it about the Reformation doctrine of the atonement that caused Socinus to respond so negatively? That question will be central to our discussion. Moreover, towards the end I hope to contextualize Owen in order to provide a more significant treatment of his doctrine of the atonement in my second post.
It should be noted that Socinus was not alone in rejecting Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. With him were the Remonstrants who posited what has become known as the governmental theory (i.e. that Christ suffered for all men). What, then, were they rejecting? This point will serve to contextualize Owen in his seventeenth-century context as an opponent of both Socinianism and Arminianism. But before we discuss Owen’s response to those two groups it seems prudent to give a brief distillation of what fueled Socinian and Arminian polemics.
Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement might be understood as a refinement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? To be sure, Anselm understood the atonement in satisfaction terms, but Calvin emphasized the vicarious punishment (poena) aspect of the atonement (space constraints limit me from detailing further differences between the two). “The priestly office belongs to Christ alone because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our guilt and made satisfaction for our sins [Heb. 9:22]” (Institutes. II.15.6). Furthermore, in his catechism (section 20, iv) he writes: “For because God was provoked to wrath by man’s disobedience, by Christ’s own obedience he wiped out ours, showing himself obedient to his Father, even unto death. And by his death he offered himself as a sacrifice to his Father, in order that his justice might once for all be appeased for all time, in order that believers might be eternally sanctified, in order that eternal satisfaction might be fulfilled. He poured out his sacred blood in payment for our redemption, in order that God’s anger, kindled against us, might be extinguished, and our iniquity might be cleansed.” Elsewhere, “[a]t every point he substituted himself in our place (in vicem nostram ubique se supposuerit) to pay the price of redemption” (Institutes. II.16.7).
The above only gives half the story however. T.H.L. Parker locates several different motifs in Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. They are: 1) sacrifice; 2) satisfaction; 3) obedience; 4) expiation; and 5) victory. The fifth is, of course, crucial to my stated intention; namely, that the doctrine of penal substitution cannot be divorced from that of Christus Victor. John F. Jansen speaks of the prominent place of the Christus Victor motif in Calvin’s theology: “the regal conquest of Christ over the devil, death, and sin … is Calvin’s most recurrent theme”. This is certainly true if we are speaking in terms of Christ as King. But as priest he is also the substitute, the one who expiates sin and satisfies the Father. The two elements of Christus Victor and penal substitution are well described in the following: “Our common nature with Christ is the pledge of our fellowship with the Son of God; and clothed with our flesh he vanquished sin and death together that the victory and triumph might be ours. He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath” (emphasis mine) (Institutes. II.12.3; cf. II.12.2; II.16.7). I have purposely refrained from dealing with the much-vexed issue of particular redemption, especially in relation to Calvin. For my own part, it was not an issue that Calvin, unlike Owen, saw the need to address.
Aulen’s famous study on the atonement has several shortcomings, especially with reference to Luther. He places Luther in the Christus Victor camp and there is some merit to this. But, he ignores the obvious presence of penal substitution. Luther’s comments on Gal. 3:13 will prove especially helpful in highlighting both penal substitution and Christus Victor. “[Christ] sustained the person of a sinner … [he] took our sins upon Himself …. This, no doubt, all the prophets foresaw in spirit, that Christ should be accounted the greatest transgressor that could be, having all sins imputed to Him …. The schoolmen spoil us of this knowledge of Christ, namely, that Christ was made a curse that he might deliver us from the curse of the law, when they separate Him from sins and sinners, and only set Him out to us as an example to be followed …” But mixed with the penal element is Christ the victor. “So in Christ all sin is vanquished, killed, and buried, and righteousness remains a conqueror and reigns forever …. The victory of Christ is most certain …” Pannenburg was therefore correct to say that “Luther was probably the first since Paul and his school to have seen with full clarity that Jesus’ death in its genuine sense is to be understood as vicarious penal suffering.”
As I have mentioned, Socinus saw these treatments as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Three of his criticisms are worthy of attention: 1) Transferring the sins from the guilty to the guiltless (Christ) is not consistent with justice; 2) Christ’s temporary death is not a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and 3) a perfect substitutionary satisfaction would result in an unlimited permission to sin. The result led Socinus to promulgate a doctrine of the atonement that allowed God to forgive – based upon repentance – without requiring satisfaction. This element in Socinus’ thought played a significant role in Owen’s polemics on the necessity of Christ’s death. J I Packer was correct to suggest that Socinus’ work led Owen to adopt a defensive approach rather than doxological and kerygmatic. This approach is one I hope to lay out in more detail in the coming weeks.