‘God dies in the world’: an interview with an artist


The front cover of my most recent publication, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth, includes a section of a painting (above) by my daughter Sinead. The decision to use her painting – a decision which, to be sure, required some grovelling for permission – was not, I hope, motivated by cutesiness but rather by a profound sense of the work’s fittingness to the book’s themes. The painting, which is used upside down, is called ‘Crosses’.

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702Now that Sinead and I have both finally seen the book in real life, I wanted to ask her again about the painting, about what it ‘means’ (her word), and about how it relates to the material in daddy’s book. So while on the way to school this morning, I conducted a brief ‘interview’ with Sinead. As part of that conversation, Sinead offered the following statement:

God dies in the world, and the God who dies in the world is the same God who dies in heaven. And yet somehow these two deaths, which are really the same, are related. In the end, it’s all really a mystery – but in the mystery the church is created and the world is saved. And that’s what my painting is about.

I buzzed.

[Copies of the book are available here or via here or by contacting me directly. If you are interested in reviewing the volume, then please contact James Stock at Wipf and Stock. And if you are interested in a copy signed by Sinead, then it’ll probably cost ya some serious dosh, or a packet of mints!]

‘Identification’, by Geoffrey Bingham

William Congdon, "Crucifixion No.2", 1960

In the dark reaches of Golgotha’s anguish,
His cold and nerveless hands—
Heavy with the pain of entire human sin,
And all cosmic evil (embracing all time)—
Reached out in a purposeful groping,
An attempted desire to reach,
Reach me, the lonesome, loathsome object
Of his insistent love.

In that moment I knew—in the moment of pain
And the high, wild cry—I knew he had embraced me,
Become me wholly as I was in my dream,
In my ineluctable anger and hate,
With all the dark deceits of my heart.

Me he became, and he anguished
As the intolerable pollution spread
Across the pure reaches of his holy self,
Drawing there out of me
The evil that was mine alone.

In the soft silence of his tomb I lay,
One with him in the unconquerable peace,
And with him I rose
When the world dawned new,
And I was the new man.

— Geoffrey C. Bingham, ‘Identification’, in All Things of the Spirit (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1997), 1.

‘Adam, where are you?’

descent‘God … has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him … “I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead”‘. – ‘Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday’, ascribed to Epiphanius of Constantia, cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church (Homebush: Society of St Pauls, 1994), 165:

J. Baldwin Brown on the Fatherhood of God

rembrant-prodigal-son‘God is not only a Father, He is the Father, whose restored love is to be the joy of the child’s heart …The Father includes in His Fatherhood and its manifestations, all that is needful to satisfy every need, instinct, sympathy, judgment, conviction, of the child’s nature; while He must equally reconcile Himself, in the wholeness of His nature, to the child. It is no casual yearning of a Father’s spirit, which may find a passing expression; it is the complete Fatherly nature, in the justice, righteousness, holiness, sacredness, of its love, which has to manifest itself to the world. Therefore it is by the Atonement that it declares itself’. – James Baldwin Brown, The Divine Life in Man (London: Ward & Co., 1859), 50.

The way by which God brings about reconciliation

cross‘[W]hat Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the “going down into the pit” of the Old Testament, it became “being in paradise tomorrow”. Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order “to be with the Lord” (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: “If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8).

But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God “made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God’s eyes” (2 Cor 5:21).

Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the “wonderful exchange” between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his “enemies” (Rom 5:10).

Certainly God has the initiative in this reconciliation: he is the one who reconciles the world to himself in Christ. But one must not play this down (as famous theologians do) by saying that God is always the reconciled God anyway and merely manifests this state in a final way through the death of Christ. It is not clear how this could be the fitting and humanly intelligible form of such a manifestation.

No, the “wonderful exchange” on the Cross is the way by which God brings about reconciliation. It can only be a mutual reconciliation because God has long since been in a covenant with us. The mere forgiveness of God would not affect us in our alienation from God. Man must be represented in the making of the new treaty of peace, the “new and eternal covenant”. He is represented because we have been taken over by the man Jesus Christ. When he “signs” this treaty in advance in the name of all of us, it suffices if we add our name under his now or, at the latest, when we die.’ – Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen (trans. Michael Waldstein; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 85-7.

Thomas Wyatt: ‘Ffrom depth off sinn’

Ffrom depth off sinn and from a diepe dispaire,
    Ffrom depth off deth, from depth off hertes sorow,
    From this diepe Cave off darknes diepe repayre,
The have I cald o lord to be my borow;
    Thow in my voyce a lord perceyve and here
    My hert, my hope, my plaint, my ouerthrow,
My will to ryse, and let by graunt apere

That to my voyce, thin eres do well entend.
    No place so farr that to the it is not nere;
No depth so diepe that thou ne maist extend
    Thin ere therto; here then my wofull plaint.
    Ffor, lord, if thou do observe what men offend
And putt thi natyff mercy in restraint,
    If just exaction demaund recompense,
    Who may endure o lord? who shall not faynt
At such acompt? dred, and not reuerence,
    Shold so raine large. But thou sekes rather love,
    Ffor in thi hand is mercys resedence,
By hope wheroff thou dost our hertes move.
    I in the, lord, have set my confydence;
    My sowle such trust doth euermore approve
Thi holly word off eterne excellence,
    Thi mercys promesse, that is alway just,
    Have bene my stay, my piller and pretence;
My sowle in god hath more desyrus trust
    Then hath the wachman lokyng for the day,
    By the releffe to quenche of slepe the thrust.
Let Israell trust vnto the lord alway,
    Ffor grace and favour arn his propertie;
    Plenteus rannzome shall com with hym, I say,
And shall redeme all our iniquitie.

– Thomas Wyatt, Ffrom depth off sinn’, in Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt (eds. Kenneth Muir & Patricia Thomson; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1969), 121-22.

The Cross and Violence

Richard Floyd, author of a wonderful study called When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and a Forsythian scholar, has posted some helpful reflections on the cross and violence:

The purification of the conscience

In his wonderful study, The Conscience – Conquering or Conquered? (Blackwood: New Creation, 1987), Geoffrey Bingham contends that a person ‘cannot displace the creational faculty of the conscience, so he must war with it. He must seek to control its elements which, not being allowed to help man, must now be enlisted – against God – to give him the peace which may only come from true obedience, i.e. true creational functioning. Man then, seeks to control his conscience and re-educate it, even to the point of being enlisted in idolatry’. (pp. 15-6).

Idolatry not only perverts God’s creation, but also demeans God and the idolater. For God to do nothing in the face of such perversion and demeaning is unthinkable. Just as Forsyth argued, for God to do nothing in the face of evil manifested in Germany in the early Twentieth Century would be unimaginable. Judgement is the only possible outcome. So it is on the personal level. Psalms 32:3-4 and 38:1-8 bear witness to the truth that the human conscience refuses to let us off the hook, despite our best efforts to pervert and appease it. Deeply down the nemesis is working. Only perfect obedience from the side of sin will satisfy God and purge the evil rampant in God’s creation. The conscience ever testifies to this, even if the human mind insists otherwise. Satisfaction is a must, and the conscience knows this. The cross alone satisfies the human conscience – and God’s.

So Bingham, this time from Everything in Beautiful Array:

‘The things of which I was deeply ashamed, the things that harrowed my spirit, and that burned their shamefulness into me, are now expending themselves upon this great High Priest who is the true Guilt-Offering, the true Holy Oblation. Into his pure self flow the sin and evil of me, only to be met by such utter purity that the evil dissolves in the pure, the darkness in the light. Pain it all is to him, but effective pain, for it destroys all my evil, all my guilt, and it destroys it wholly until not one fragment remains. There is nothing in me or about me which is evil: no sin remains, no guilt is in my conscience. That conscience has been wholly purified and so has given me the first true sight of the loving God whom now I desire to worship in my purified spirit.’ – Geoffrey C. Bingham, Everything in Beautiful Array (Blackwood: New Creation, 1999), 75.

Mercy comes to us through judgement

Just spent a long weekend up in the Scottish Highlands salmon fishing, watching my 2-year-old daughter ceaselessly enjoy herself, reading Denney’s brilliant commentary on 2 Corinthians, drinking great whisky, and enjoying the rich company of some special friends. Does it get any better than that! Anyway, in the spirit of sharing all good things, here’s just one (long) paragraph of Denney’s extended discussion on 5:18–21 that was too good not to share:

No one who has felt the power of this appeal will be very anxious to defend the Apostolic Gospel from the charges which are sometimes made against it. When he is told that it is impossible for the doom of sin to fall on the Sinless One, and that even if it were conceivable it would be frightfully immoral, he is not disquieted. He recognises in the moral contradictions of this text the surest sign that the secret of the Atonement is revealed in it: he feels that God’s work of reconciliation necessarily involves such an identification of sinlessness and sin. He knows that there is an appalling side to sin, and he is ready to believe that there is an appalling side to redemption also a side the most distant sight of which makes the proudest heart quail, and stops every mouth before God. He knows that the salvation which he needs must be one in which God’s mercy comes through, and not over. His judgment; and this is the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. But without becoming controversial on a subject on which more than on any other the temper of controversy is unseemly, reference may be made to the commonest form of objection to the apostolic doctrine, in the sincere hope that some one who has stumbled at that doctrine may see it more truly. The objection I refer to discredits propitiation in the alleged interest of the love of God. “We do not need,” the objectors say, “to propitiate an angry God. This is a piece of heathenism, of which a Christian ought to be ashamed. It is a libel on the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose name is love, and who waits to be gracious.” What are we to say to such words, which are uttered as boldly as if there were no possible reply, or rather as if the Apostles had never written, or had been narrow-minded unreceptive souls, who had not only failed to understand their Master, but had taught with amazing perversity the very opposite of what He taught on the most essential of all points the nature of God and His relation to sinful men? We must say this. It is quite true that we have not to propitiate an offended God: the very fact upon which the Gospel proceeds is that we cannot do any such thing. But it is not true that no propitiation is needed. As truly as guilt is a real thing, as truly as God’s condemnation of sin is a real thing, a propitiation is needed. And it is here, I think, that those who make the objection referred to part company, not only with St. Paul, but with all the Apostles. God is love, they say, and therefore He does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore He provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God s love to Paul and John? “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us … Him that knew no sin He made to be sin on our behalf” That is how they spoke in the beginning of the Gospel, and so let us speak. Nobody has any right to borrow the words “God is love” from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. Still less has any one a right to use them as an argument against the very thing in which the Apostles placed their meaning. But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel; it will cease to hold men s hearts with its original power when the reconciliation which is preached through it contains the mercy, but not the judgment of God. Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment’. (pp. 200-2)

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 8


Study 8

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter


There is a strange statement in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul speaks of God the Father’s active involvement in the event of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, saying:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).[1]

Given that human sin is not ‘but a remora[2], or drag, on Humanity’[3], but rather, ‘its death and hell’ – and given that, ‘the wrongest thing with the world is its sin’,[4] then the need to deal with sin finally and fully is the matter upon which the destiny of humanity, and the holy character of God, must centre. What it means for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, to be made to be sin lies at the heart of the gospel.


In following P.T. Forsyth’s book, The Justification of God (1917), we now come in our series, to Chapter IX.  It is entitled ‘The Eternal Cruciality of the Cross for Destiny’, and it may remind you (if you know of Forsyth’s other books), of his work first published in 1909, entitled The Cruciality of the Cross. While we have much to read, digest, and study already, I would nevertheless like to include in this study some quotations (taken slowly), from the final few pages of The Cruciality of the Cross.

In being “made sin,” treated as sin (though not as a sinner), Christ experienced sin as God does, while he experienced its effects as man does. He felt sin with God, and sin’s judgment with men. He realised, as God, how real sin was, how radical, how malignant, how deadly to the Holy One’s very being.[5]

When Christ died at sin’s hands it meant that sin was death to the holiness of God, and both could not live in the same world. When He rose it meant that what was to live and rule in the world was the holy God.[6]

Dying as man, Christ placed His whole self beside man under the judgment of God. He was beside man in court but on God’s side in the issue, confessing God’s holiness in the judgment, and justifying His treatment of sin. Justifying God![7]

Forsyth then gives a poignant illustration, with a comment, which is pure theodicy:

A missionary to the North American Indians records that having seen his wife and children killed before his eyes, and being himself harried in bonds across the prairie amid his tormentors, he “justified God in this thing.” I do not know a sublimer order of experience than from the heart to bless and praise a good and holy God in despairs like these. It is to this order of experience that the work, the blood, of Christ belongs. And there is no justification of men except by this justification, this self-justification, of God.[8]

Never is man so just with God as when his broken, holy heart calls just the judgment of God which he feels but has not himself earned; and never could man be just with God but through God’s justification of Himself in the blood of Christ.[9]

In speaking here of atonement, Forsyth is keen to retain the word ‘satisfaction’:

We cannot in any theology which is duly ethicised dispense with the word satisfaction. It was of course not a quantitative replacement of anything God had lost, nor was it the glutting of a God’s anger by an equivalent suffering on who cares whom. It was no satisfaction of a jus talionis.[10]

But it was the adequate confession, in act and suffering, “Thou art holy as Thou judgest.” That man should confess this vicariously and victoriously in Christ crucified and risen is the re-establishment of God’s holiness in the world. We can only understand any justification of man as it is grounded in this justification-this self-justification-of God. The sinner could only be saved by something that thus damned the sin.[11]

In a far more nuanced manner, than is employed by many evangelicals today, Forsyth then speaks of what is not the Father’s action in the cross (punishing Jesus), as well as what is his action in the cross, (namely imparting unto Christ, the penalty upon sin).

The Saviour was not punished, but He took the penalty of sin, the chastisement of our peace. It was in no sense as if He felt chastised or condemned (as even Calvin said), but because He willingly bowed, with a moral understanding possible only to the sinless, under the divine ordinance of a suffering death and judgment which was holily ordained to wait on the sin of His kin.

The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin. The metaphor denotes the radicality, totality, and finality of the whole action in the realism of the moral world which even high sacrifice, not resisting unto blood, only slurs or shelves-when it does not toy with it.

Forsyth notes that Jesus early teaching wholly relates to his suffering deeds in the cross:

It is notable that Christ speaks of His blood only at His life’s end, while during life He spoke only of forgiving grace without any such expiation (except in the ransom passage). Why was this so?

Two reasons are given:

1. Was it not, first, because His grand total witness, which death but pointed, was to the grace of God’s holy love; and the exposure of sin could only come by the light of that revelation?

2. And was it not, second, because His revelation and offer of holy grace without sacrifice and judgment failed of its effect; because even the great, uplifted, and joyful invitation, “Come unto Me,” failed till it was enacted from the mighty gloom of the cross; because only the uplifting of the cross, and not the uplifting of His voice, draws all men unto Him;

The cross draws people. It does so as the holy love of God breaks through to human beings by revelation. God’s very wonderful loving kindness is brought home livingly by the Spirit of God – the mystery of the cross is opened, and poured into hearts and minds.


Forsyth saw the biblical relationship between the cross and grace, in a way, that many others failed, and fail still to see and proclaim (that is why many abandon atonement theology). Robert McAfee Brown followed Forsyth’s corrective theology well:

God is willing to go to the length of suffering and dying to enter into fellowship with man. There is a misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of atonement that goes something like this: God is an angry God, angry at men because men have sinned, and he decides to condemn mankind; but Christ intercedes for man, and God’s vengeance is sated by punishing Christ instead. Although this is a travesty of the Christian position it has unfortunately been too often suggested by interpreters of the atonement as well as by their critics. But Forsyth, who said, “The doctrine of grace and the doctrine of the atonement are identical,” the true interpretation is that the atonement flows from grace, it does not “procure” grace. This extremely important insight means that our reading of the atonement is more like this: Because God loves men, he suffers on their behalf, bears himself the weight of their wrongdoing, and this restores fellowship, or reconciles. Grace is not something Christ earned for us from God; grace is rather something God gave us in Christ. “Do not say: ‘God is love. Why atone?’ Say: ‘God has atoned. What love!’[12]


We are not taught or argued by proofs, or theology into the kingdom of God. Rather we are transferred, by way of rescue. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14) The victory of the resurrected Christ is our salvation. The work of the crucified Christ is our forgiveness of sins, and it means the redemption of the world. We are not seeking our own solution. We are given one.

Not only can God solve the world, He has solved it, in His own practical way of solution, by saving it-by an act done, and not a proof led, nor a scheme shown. His wisdom none can trace, and His ways are past finding out; but His work finds us; and His grace, His victory, and His goal become sure.[13]

The message of the apostles was always of what God had done, in the death and resurrection of Christ (see Romans 5-8). And yet, Forsyth identifies good reasons why God’s ways in revelation, are unsearchable; Drawing upon apostolic insight – O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33) – Forsyth comments:

If we saw all His scheme our faith would be compelled, and not free. It might do more to overwhelm us than to raise or fortify. It would be sight-something too satisfactory to a merely distributive justice; it would not be faith creative and constitutive for the holy soul. The faith we keep means more for our soul than the views we win.[14]

Faith in receiving the truth of God in the cross is an absolutely essential factor. Faith is not some well-reasoned conclusion. Faith is at once a gift from God, and an action of personal trust, of belief, of receptivity.

Job’s friends had sounder views on some points than he, but they did not receive the reward that his desperate faith had. In the Cross of Christ we learn the faith that things not willed by God are yet worked up by God. In a divine irony, man’s greatest crime turns God’s greatest boon. O felix culpa![15] The riddle is insoluble but the fact is sure. The new man, remade in Christ and not simply impressed by Christ, is sure amid a world of strident problems. We know what God has done for the world in redeeming it; we have tasted that in our soul; but we do not know why He took the way with it that He did, why it must mean the Cross. He speaks not an all-solving but an all-liberating word.[16]


Jesus said: the Father and I are one (John 10:3). He also said, the Father is in me and I am in the Father (John 14:10). When we see the Cruciality of the Cross, we see the action of the Father giving up his Son in love, and the Son honoring the Father. God, the Father, was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. We are often made aware of the sufferings of Christ. However, Forsyth draws our attention to the depth of the Father’s suffering too, saying: ‘And the Father suffered in His Son even more than the Son did’.[17]

There is an Eye, a Mind, a Heart, before Whom the whole bloody and tortured stream of evolutionary growth has flowed. We are horrified, beyond word or conception, by the agony and devilry of war, but, after all, it only discharges upon us, as it were from a nozzle, a far vaster accumulation of such things, permeating the total career of history since ever a sensitive organism and a heartless egoism appeared.[18]

The war is an occasion, to turn anew to the sufferings of God throughout human history:

This misery of the ages, I have said, vanishes from human thought or feeling, till some experience like war carries some idea of it home. But there is a consciousness to which it is all and always present. And in the full view of it He has spoken. As it might be thus: ‘Do you stumble at the cost? It has cost Me more than you-Me who see and feel it all more than you who feel it but as atoms might. “Groanings all and moanings, none of it I lose.” Yea, it has cost Me more than if the price paid were all Mankind. For it cost Me My only and beloved Son to justify My name of righteousness, and to realise the destiny of My creature in holy love.[19]

Forsyth spotlights the love of the Father, for the Son, and calls us to consider this. (We are often very self-centred when we ask questions concerning theodicy). He continues, along the lines that the Father, might say, concerning his Son, Jesus:

And all mankind is not so great and dear as He. Nor is its suffering the enormity in a moral world that His Cross is. I am no spectator of the course of things, and no speculator on the result. I spared not My own Son. We carried the load that crushed you. It bowed Him into the ground. [20]

This suffering however, achieved the Father and the Son’s shared purpose for the world:

On the third day He rose with a new creation in His hand, and a regenerate world, and all things working together for good to love and the holy purpose in love. And what He did I did. How I did it? How I do it? This you know not how, and could not, but you shall know hereafter. There are things the Father must keep in His own hand. Be still and know that I am God, whose mercy is as His majesty, and His omnipotence is chiefly in forgiving, and redeeming, and settling all souls in worship in the temple of a new heaven and earth full of holiness.[21]


As we have been saying in other studies ‘that day’ – the coming close of history as we know it, the telos – is an essential part of God’s plan, through the cross and Christ’s resurrection; this is a continuation of what Forsyth, understands the Father is saying to us.

In that day the anguish will be forgotten for joy that a New Humanity is born into the world.[22]

However, the matter is never just hoping for heaven. It is the holy name of God fully honoured, through atonement. It means leaving no room or place for sin, eternally.

But all this is groundless if in the Cross of Christ we have but the love of God shown in sacrifice and not its holiness secured in judgment; if the Cross be but to reconcile man and not atone to God, to impress many and not first to hallow the holy name.[23]

In hallowing the Father’s holy name, Christ is doing more than being obedient unto death he is being obedient unto judgment, the final judgment of holiness. Paul says, ‘For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19) Others who have studied Forsyth have also pointed out that he saw Christ’s obedience as of prime importance:

The important thing is not the “wounds of Jesus”, but the fact that in going to the cross he offered a perfect obedience to the holy will of God. This has never been sufficiently emphasized.[24]

As this series of studies is looking at this whole matter of theodicy, it is appropriate that we close this study, with Forsyth’s closing words for the chapter:

Christ was the new Humanity doing the one needful and right thing before God. God’s justification of man, therefore, was by His justification of Himself in man. The last theodicy is a gift of God and not man’s discovery nor an achievement. It is not a rational triumph but the victory of faith. Christ is the theodicy of God and the justifier both of God and the ungodly. The supreme theodicy is atonement.[25]

[1] Luke also draws attention to the Father’s involvement in the cross, saying that Jesus was handed over to the Israelites, ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God ‘ (Acts 2:23); In Acts 8:32-33 Luke shows how Isaiah 53 is a prophecy including the Father’s involvement in the cross – the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6); similarly Matthew 26:31 takes the prophecy of Zechariah 13:7, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered, indicating the Father’s sovereign activity.

[2] Remora – a suckerfish – which attaches itself to sharks, whales, sea turtles or the hulls of ships.

[3] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 146.

[4] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 167.

[5] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, NCPI, (1909), 1984, p. 212.

[6] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213.

[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213.

[8] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, pp. 213-214.

[9] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214.

[10] Jus talionis: an eye for an eye; quoted from P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214.

[11] P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214.

[12] Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet For Today, Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 82-83.

[13] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154.

[14] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154.

[15] Felix culpa – Blessed fault or fortunate fall’, or “O happy fault”.

[16] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154.

[17] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 169.

[18] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[19] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[20] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[21] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[22] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 165.

[23] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 165.

[24] Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet For Today, p. 83.

[25] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 169.

Who’s blogging what?

  • Halden tells us why John Owen’s soteriology threatens to turn God into ‘little more than an omnipotent demon’.
  • Byron responds to common Christian misconceptions of going-to-heaven-when-you-die in a wee reflection on John 14.
  • Ben introduces us to Matthew Myer Boulton’s new book, God against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship.
  • Cramner has a swipe at Google in his post on the Christian Institute’s suing of the Goliath.
  • If you’re a parent (or planning to be) and you need a good laugh (which you do), then click here.
  • The Theology of UglyGrünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. (Parts I, II, III, IV, V). He writes of Grünewald’s piece:

‘… the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony specialized in hospital work, particularly the treatment of ergotism, the gangrenous poisoning known as “Saint Anthony’s fire.” In ancient times ergotism was largely caused by ingesting a fungus-afflicted rye or cereal. The symptoms of ergotism included the shedding of the outer layers of the skin, edema, and the decay of body tissues which become black, infected, and malodorous. Prior to death the rotting tissue and limbs are lost or amputated. In 857 a contemporary report of St. Anthony’s fire described ergotism like this: “a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.” The theological power of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that Grünewald painted the gangrenous symptoms of ergotism into his crucifixion scene. As the patients of St. Anthony’s Monastery worshiped, and a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined, they looked upon the Isenheim Altarpiece and saw a God who suffered with them.

The Justifying Judgement of God: A Reaction

Over at Theology Forum, James has posted the first of what will be a series of reflections on Justyn Terry’s book, The Justifying Judgement of God. I plan to engage a fair bit in my thesis with Terry’s book so I’ll leave much of what I have to say about it to there. But I would like to say a few things about this book all the same; though more as a brief reaction than a review. Terry’s thesis is well written, and any study that takes on both Forsyth (even though I found his reading of Forsyth unconvincing and distorting at some junctures) and Barth (he does a much fairer job with KB) in the one book is going to be worth reading. Moreover, he is undoubtedly saying some very important things that are – in light of many contemporary attitudes towards God’s judicial work – things that the Church certainly needs to hear and, in some circles, recover as part of its witness to the cross. For this, we are in his debt. But his conviction that judgement is ‘the paradigmatic metaphor’ of the atonement is problematic. Here he trods very close (perhaps too close at points) to the same trap as those who are trying to suggest that penal substitution is the totus of the atonement. (I have posted on this here, here, here and here). He is careful, however, to maintain an important – crucial in fact! – distinction between ‘metaphors’ and ‘theories’, and does so while arguing that judgement is the co-ordinating metaphor.

One of the unfortunate aspects of Terry’s thesis is that such a move threatens to undermine the forward-looking elements of the atonement in favour of predominantly backward-looking ones. By making judgement the key metaphor, Terry then has to proceed to find a way of accounting for the human response to Christ’s saving work, an account which is then fundamentally a separate work. Forsyth, on the other hand (and we could add Calvin, Mozley, Barth, TF Torrance, JB Torrance, Tom Smail, and others), by interpreting the proper human response to have already been offered by Christ in the two-fold movement of his cross – a response in which we participate – keeps the unique act of the atonement and its subsequent action in the life of God’s people grounded firmly in the one person and action of Jesus Christ and so bears witness that from first to last grace is grace and that grace’s name in Jesus Christ.

With that whinge off my hairy chest, let me affirm that the book is certainly worth reading, and there is not a little therein to serve as the basis for some very worthwhile discussion.

The Good News of Psalm 22

God, God…my God! Why did you dump me
miles from nowhere?
Doubled up with pain, I call to God
all the day long. No answer. Nothing.
I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.

And you! Are you indifferent, above it all,
leaning back on the cushions of Israel’s praise?
We know you were there for our parents:
they cried for your help and you gave it;
they trusted and lived a good life.

And here I am, a nothing—an earthworm,
something to step on, to squash.
Everyone pokes fun at me;
they make faces at me, they shake their heads:
”Let’s see how God handles this one;
since God likes him so much, let him help him!”

And to think you were midwife at my birth,
setting me at my mother’s breasts!
When I left the womb you cradled me;
since the moment of birth you’ve been my God.
Then you moved far away
and trouble moved in next door.
I need a neighbor.

Herds of bulls come at me,
the raging bulls stampede,
Horns lowered, nostrils flaring,
like a herd of buffalo on the move.

I’m a bucket kicked over and spilled,
every joint in my body has been pulled apart.
My heart is a blob
of melted wax in my gut.
I’m dry as a bone,
my tongue black and swollen.
They have laid me out for burial
in the dirt.

Now packs of wild dogs come at me;
thugs gang up on me.
They pin me down hand and foot,
and lock me in a cage—a bag
Of bones in a cage, stared at
by every passerby.
They take my wallet and the shirt off my back,
and then throw dice for my clothes.

You, God—don’t put off my rescue!
Hurry and help me!
Don’t let them cut my throat;
don’t let those mongrels devour me.
If you don’t show up soon,
I’m done for—gored by the bulls,
meat for the lions.

Here’s the story I’ll tell my friends when they come to worship,
and punctuate it with Hallelujahs:
Shout Hallelujah, you God-worshipers;
give glory, you sons of Jacob;
adore him, you daughters of Israel.
He has never let you down,
never looked the other way
when you were being kicked around.
He has never wandered off to do his own thing;
he has been right there, listening.

Here in this great gathering for worship
I have discovered this praise-life.
And I’ll do what I promised right here
in front of the God-worshipers.
Down-and-outers sit at God’s table
and eat their fill.
Everyone on the hunt for God
is here, praising him.
”Live it up, from head to toe.
Don’t ever quit!”

From the four corners of the earth
people are coming to their senses,
are running back to God.
Long-lost families
are falling on their faces before him.
God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

All the power-mongers are before him
All the poor and powerless, too
Along with those who never got it together

Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

(HT: The Dancing God)

On Penal Substitution

That Christ died for our sins is foundational for Christian faith and theology. Faithful witness to this fact is, therefore, of the most crucial order.

To speak about the cross in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. One such metaphor and an indispensable metaphor at that is that of penal substitution. Clearly, the Scriptures teach that there is a penal element within Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. Equally clear, however, is that penal substitution is not the sum of what the atonement is about. Consequently, when taken alone (or given over-amplified voice) in describing the action of the cross, there is a danger of distorting the witness to that action, of painting appalling illustrations of the Father-Son relationship, and of positing an unbiblical shift in the divine-human relation from one primarily filial and ethical to one predominantly legal. If the story of penal substitution has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past and it sometimes has, pitting an angry Father against an innocent Son, for example, or positing that ‘Jesus came to save us from God’, then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the whole of the Scripture’s story and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

There are a number of things I would want to affirm in the context of any discussion on penal substitution. These include: (i) that the notion plays an indispensable role in the New Testament’s witness about the cross; (ii) we must maintain the distinction between penalty and punishment. While the Crucified Christ bore sins’ penalty, there is no sense in which he was being punished by God. The Father was never anything but ‘well-pleased’ with his beloved Son; (iii) to be sure, the chastisement of our peace was certainly upon him who entered the orb of our penalty, but the whole of Christian experience ought tell us that we ought not infer from this that there is no chastisement left for us when we are in him, a chastisement with finds the truest, deepest, and bitterest repentance throughout the course of the Christian life; (iv) there was nothing arbitrary about the penalty meted out on sin as if God was concerned with mere clamant justice or abstract wrath; (v) a biblically-faithful atonement theology must adequately account for the forward-looking aspects of the atonement as well as the backward ones. Hence the need for additional models or metaphors of atonement other than only penal ones. Paul Fiddes’ contribution in Past Event and Present Salvation is a valuable study here.

The message of penal substitution remains an important and relevant one to teach us about the nature of God’s love, about the costliness of forgiveness, and about justice for both victims and perpetrators. Penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement instruct us that justice matters, that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside.

That a stream within British evangelicalism has chosen the issue of penal substitution as its defining marker is particularly disturbing for at least four reasons:

1. It represents that some evangelicals are failing to hear and receive the Bible’s own rich account of, and commentary on, God’s action in the cross, an action that all the doctrines in the world (let alone one) could not contain nor bear full witness to.

2. The new enemies of evangelicalism are now fellow evangelicals. It is a very disturbing day when people like Colin Gunton and Steve Holmes (see my review of Steve’s book The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substituion in the Bible and History) are targeted by evangelicals as ‘the enemy’.

3. If Holmes is right that the first full account of the doctrine of penal substitution comes with Calvin, then British evangelicals are again in danger of cutting themselves off from the large majority of the Church and its history. Of course, the evangelical community has its own long tradition of being constantly in search of shibboleths by which to define itself.

4. Not only does it represent a shift in British thinking towards a more North-American way of defining Christian community (rarely a particularly helpful thing in itself), but it fails to recognise that evangelicalism is as much (if not more) a sociologically-defined reality as it is a doctrinally-defined one. Even when some issues seem to move to the fore (as, for example, in some particularly tight definitions concerning the authority of Scripture), it remains that largely cultural phenomenon have traditionally defined how evangelicals have seen themselves (and each other) and others.

What does God value in the cross?

What does God value in the cross? It is neither equivalent penalty, nor even the sympathetic confession of human sin, but rather Christ’s complete and holy obedience, and in that the practical confession of God’s holiness. He who had heard the word of the Father was, in the Spirit,  completely given to it, and called upon all his resources – human and divine – in order to be so. The Father responds to the Son and receives his work – his offering in the Spirit – and in him, the creation he perfects. In Christ, all things are given their full dignity as living conversation partners with the Triune God; that is, holy communion is created.

‘The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History’: A Review

Holmes - Wondrous CrossStephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007). xii + 130 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227541 2. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

It seems that not too many theologians feel just as comfortable writing about Isaiah and Jonah as they do Anselm, Aquinas, Doctor Who, Kierkegaard, Coleridge and Matt Redman. But then Steve Holmes is a particularly gifted theologian.

Holmes’ latest book, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History, has one central thesis: that to speak about the cross – which we must – in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. Those already conversant with Colin Gunton’s brilliant The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition will already be acquainted with where Steve is coming from, and perhaps where he is going.

He begins by reminding us that ‘Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the Cross than to understand it’ (p. 1), before turning in Chapter Two to where ‘Christian theology, if it to be adequately Christian, must always begin and end: with the inspired Scriptures’ (p. 14). In just 14 pages, Holmes introduces his readers to the place and use of typology in biblical literature, and then surveys the key OT material, ‘pictures’ that inform our theology of atonement: principally sacrifice, but also justice, servanthood, wholeness, healing, and representation.

In Chapter Three, Holmes attends to the NT metaphors of atonement: namely sacrifice, victory, ransom, healing and salvation, reconciliation, revelation, new covenant, and justification. He reminds us afresh that ‘the best way to think about the cross is to use many, complementary, models or stories of salvation that hint at and point towards the indescribable truth at the heart of the matter. It seems clear that this is what the New Testament writers did’ (p. 41). Some readers may expect more from these two chapters, but I think given the nature of the book and its intended audience what Holmes gives us is adequate.

In the following two chapters – Four and Five – Holmes sketches the tradition. Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, John of Damascus, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Luther, Calvin, Anabaptists and Anglicans, early Evangelicals, nineteenth-century liberals and twentieth-century neo-orthodox theologians, Aulén and liberation theology are all perused. Holmes argues – against Jeffery, Ovey and Sach in Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, who spill not a little ink trying to prove (force?) otherwise – that the claim that penal substitutionary atonement is found in the fathers is misplaced and that he can find only ‘one isolated passage in Gregory the Great, but nothing else’ (p. 57), the focus there being principally on ransom and sacrifice motifs. This is not a problem however for Holmes: ‘If we understand the various pictures of the atonement to be complementary and (only) partial attempts to grab hold of a bigger truth, as I am suggesting we do, then the history of the early and medieval church will not seem surprising to us’ (p. 58).

The first full account of the doctrine comes, Holmes suggests, with Calvin. Had he wanted to, Holmes could have elicited support here from some negative (and older) critiques of the doctrine from church historians who claim that there is a scarcity of the doctrine pre-Reformation. See, for example, Laurence William Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester/London: Manchester University Press/Longmans, Green & Co., 1920), 191, and James Franklin Bethune Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine to the Time of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co., 1933), 352. Whether or not Holmes is correct here (and I’m not suggesting that he isn’t) is of little significance for his argument however.

Summarising, Holmes writes:

‘Christian theologians and preachers have told many, many ‘stories of salvation’. They have drawn pictures of kings being ransomed and slaves being freed and the sick being healed and guilty prisoners being declared innocent, of human nature being transformed and evil powers being defeated and people being inspired to a new life. The stories have changed through time because culture has changed through time, and different stories communicate the unchanging reality of the gospel to different cultures. At the time of the Reformation, penal substitution became a common and successful way of talking about the cross. Despite some critics, this remained the case for several centuries. Over the past two hundred years, however, several significant criticisms have been raised. Any account of penal substitution today needs to answer three questions:

1. How are all the different ‘stories of salvation’ related?

2. How did penal substitution ever thrive as an idea in early modern culture (i.e. sixteenth to eighteenth centuries)?

3. What, if anything, has changed?’ (pp. 72-3)

With this these questions, the Lecturer in theology at the University of St Andrews turns in the remaining chapters to explore the ‘what do we do with all these different pictures and stories’? question. ‘How do we decide between them which is right and which is wrong? Indeed do we have to decide between them?’ (pp. 74-5). He proceeds to properly note that ‘every story of salvation works by picturing what Christ did on the cross in terms of one particular facet of human experience, whether it be religious (sacrifice), legal (penal), or whatever. If we want to say that one or another of these theories is just plain right, then we have to say that the atonement, what Christ did for us to save us, really is just one example of the some more general part of human life. There are lots of sacrifices in the world, and the death of Jesus is one more. Perhaps more powerful, more lasting, than any of the others, but still, just a sacrifice amongst sacrifices. Or Jesus is one amongst a number of inspiring moral examples that we may find. Again, perhaps the most inspiring, but still, an example of some more general aspect of human life’ (p. 77).

One of the commendable things about this book is Holmes’ concern that the church might be able to communicate the truth to which the doctrine of penal substitution is attempting to proffer to contemporary society: ‘We need stories of salvation that are no decomposed, but that make sense to our culture’ (p. 103). He has most to say about this in the final chapters and in the Appendix (wherein he responds specifically to the challenges of Green, Baker, Chalke and Mann’s theses), but one does not need to wait until the end of the book to get to the ‘practical bits’, for this Baptist pastor has his eye on the world from Page 1. An example:

‘Our account of the atonement must make some sort of sense in whatever modern culture we find ourselves in. The pictures we draw must use symbols and images that people will recognise; the stories we tell must make sense. For academic theologians this is not quite so important: they can study the culture of Anselm’s day, and so work out how his theory made sense. But for preachers and evangelists – and that means every Christian – it is vital. When announcing the saving death of Jesus to people in ringing tones from a pulpit, or explaining it in hesitant conversation over a coffee, we need to be able to tell stories of salvation that will communicate, that will connect with the people we are talking to.

This might seem a very tall order, but if we accept the need for – and legitimacy of – many metaphors, we do not need to find one theory, one picture, one story, that will meet all these conditions. Instead, we can tell many stories, which between them build up into a cohesive, coherent picture. Some of them will underplay, or miss completely, this or that aspect of the biblical witness; some will be easy to grasp in our culture, others difficult and will require additional explanation. But between them all, we will build up a composite picture of all that Jesus has done, a picture that will begin – but probably only begin – to be adequate to explain the wondrous cross.

The question, then, that I want to put with regard to penal substitution as a way of picturing the atonement is not: ‘Does it answer everything?’ but rather: ‘Does it illuminate some things?’ Does it help, alongside other stories, to build up a picture of the cross? Of course it has weaknesses – every metaphor does – but do its strengths counterbalance its weaknesses? Is there some aspect of the work of Jesus that, in our particular culture, it enables us to speak meaningfully of, some aspect that is missed by most or all of the other things we could say or stories we could tell?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then penal substitution may – and must – remain as one of our stories of salvation, balanced by others of course, but an important part nonetheless of our witness to the cross’ (pp. 85-6).

I confess that I am weary of the use (and overuse) of unqualified analogy or metaphor in any christological discussion because, as with the resurrection, we are dealing with something, or Someone, new – a reality which fundamentally challenges all we know, and think we know, about the whole order of the possible. This does not mean, however, that I think there is no place for metaphor. I concur with Gunton’s The Actuality of the Atonement that we must not only speak about the work of Christ but that to do so necessarily means harnessing a broad range of metaphors – both biblical and extra-biblical – with the conviction that no one group of metaphors can exhaust the atonement’s meaning. Therefore, warfare, redemption, judicial and sacrificial dialects are all valid (most often, to be sure, at different times and in different places) – as are dialects of poetry and the social and hard sciences – with the conviction that although no one group of metaphors can exhaust the atonement’s meaning, it is through metaphor that the church has been able to say anything at all about the cross. We ought not be concerned that no one metaphor can translate the reality of the atonement. Christ did not die for a metaphor. Moreover, the dominance of any one metaphor risks distorting the reality which, like conversion itself, carries a totality in it, an eternal crisis, to which nothing in the world is comparable and all metaphor inadequate. To employ an analogy: to stress any metaphors of the atonement at the expense – or even worse, at the exclusion – of others is akin to silencing all the members of the orchestra except the clarinets. Now I’ve nothing against the clarinet (I play one) but it’s not what the score before the orchestra requires. And anyway, 90 minutes of clarinet with nothing else is not even what the clarinetists want.

Holmes recognises the tendency within some evangelical camps to privilege penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement over others; a move, he argues, which distorts the full word of the cross. Instead, he cogently outlines why preachers and theologians – that is, all of us – need all the stories if we are even to begin to understand the many truths of what God was doing in Christ crucified. Penal substitution is one of these stories. If this story has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past – and it has, pitting the Father against the Son, for example – then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the Scriptures and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

In the final chapter Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. On this latter, and rehearsing some things he has written about more fully elsewhere (see Stephen R. Holmes, ‘Can Punishment Bring Peace? Penal Substitution Revisited’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58 (2005): 104-123), Holmes writes:

‘Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ’ (p. 119).

In this short book, Dr Holmes doesn’t answer every question we might have about penal substitution though he does give us enough of an indication of where he might want to suggest the answer might lay. But I have said enough. So, why do I like this book? Here’s four reasons:

  1. I agree with the basic thesis;
  2. It models a good way of doing theology: start with exegesis of Scripture, and then work through the tradition with an eye on the church and the world;
  3. Because it’s easy to read;
  4. Because it’s the kind of book I can pass onto folk at church who are confused about what the bible (and the tradition) wants to say about the cross, and/or who are needing a guide through the current debates on penal substitution. [Unfortunately, not too many are prepared to read Gunton’s The Actuality of Atonement]. As a pastor, I can place this book into people’s hands confident that their love for Christ and praise for his work on their behalf will be matured and deepened.

It is all too rare to find a book written with the educated lay reader in mind by one who so properly has both eyes on the biblical witness, is so consciously aware of the tradition of which the theme is a part, and who is informed by the pastoral and missional implications of the discussion, and who also seeks to say something constructive to those on both sides of a contemporary debate. Holmes’ book does all this admirably.

Advent Reflection 5: The Great Dividing Issue for the Soul

‘Questions about immanence may concern philosophers. And questions about miracles may agitate physicists. But the great dividing issue for the soul is neither the Bethlehem cradle nor the empty grave, nor the Bible, nor the social question. For the Church at least (however it be with individuals) it is the question of a redeeming atonement. It is here that the evangelical issue lies. It is here, and not upon the nativity, that we part company with the Unitarians. It is here that the unsure may test their crypto-unitarianism. I would unchurch none. I would but clear the issue for the honest conscience. It is this that determines whether a man is Unitarian or Evangelical, and it is this that should guide his conscience as to his ecclesiastical associations. Only if he hold that in the atoning cross of Christ the world was redeemed by holy God once for all, that there, and only there, sin was judged and broken, that there and only there the race was reconciled and has its access to the face and grace of God-only then has he the genius and the plerophory of the Gospel’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 73-4.

The Scapegoat and the Trinity

While I don’t concur with every idea in this Good Friday sermon by Hans Urs von Balthasar (for example the notion that ‘that there is room in [the Triune life] for all the alienation and sin of the world’; some things simply just need to be destroyed and are beyond redemption or reconciliation!) I was greatly encouraged reading this sermon today and thought it worthwhile reproducing here that others may also be encouraged.

‘Nearly two thousand years ago a trial took place that resulted in the death of the condemned man. Why is it that, even today, it will not allow mankind to forget about it? Have there not been countless other show trials down the years, particularly in our own time, and should the crying injustice of these trials not stir us up and preoccupy us just as much as that ancient trial at the Passover in Jerusalem? To judge by the constant and even increasing flood of books and discussions about Jesus, however, all the horrors of the extermination camps and the Gulag Archipelago matter less to mankind than the sentencing of this one innocent man whom, according to the Bible, God himself championed and vindicated—as is evident from his Resurrection from the dead.

The question is: Was he the one, great and final scapegoat for mankind? Did mankind load him with all its guilt, and did he, the Lamb of God, carry this guilt away? This is the thesis of a modern ethnologist, René Girard, whose books have attracted much attention in America, France and recently in Germany. According to this view, all human civilization, right from the outset, is constructed on the principle of the scapegoat. That is, men have cunningly invented a way of overcoming their reciprocal aggression and arriving at an at least temporary peace: thus they concentrate this aggression on an almost randomly chosen scapegoat and appoint this scapegoat as the sacrificial victim, in order to pacify an allegedly angry god. According to Girard, however, this divine anger is nothing other than men’s reciprocal rage. This mechanism always needs to be set in motion again after a period of relative peace if world history is to proceed in any half-tolerable way; in this context it reached its absolute peak in the general rejection of Jesus by the gentiles, the Jews and the Christians too: Jesus really did take over and carry away the sins of all that were loaded onto him, in such a way that anyone who believes this can live in peace with his brother from now on.

Girard’s ideas are interesting; they bring the trial of Jesus to life in a new way. But we can still ask why this particular murder, after so many others, should be the conclusive event of world history, the advent of the end time? Men have cast their guilt onto many innocent scapegoats; why did this particular bearer of sins bring about a change in the world as a whole?

For the believer the answer is easy: the crucial thing is not that this is an instance of our wanting to rid ourselves of guilt. Naturally, no one wants to admit guilt. Pilate washes his hands and declares himself guiltless; the Jews hide behind their law, which requires them to condemn a blasphemer; they act in a pious and God-fearing way. Judas himself has remorse for his deed; he brings the blood money back and, when no one will take it from him, throws it at the high priests. No one is prepared to accept responsibility. But precisely by attempting to extricate themselves, they are convinced by God that they are guilty of the death of this innocent man. Ultimately it is not what men do that is the determining factor.

The crucial thing is that there is Someone who is both ready and able to take their guilt upon himself. None of the other scapegoats was able to do this. According to the New Testament understanding, the Son of God became man in order to take this guilt upon himself. He lived with a view to the “hour” that awaited him at the end of his earthly existence, with a view to the terrible baptism with which he would have to be baptized, as he says. This “hour” would see him chained and brought to trial not merely outwardly; it would not only tear his body to pieces with scourges and nail it to the wood but also penetrate into his very soul, his spirit, his most intimate relationship with God, his Father. It would fill everything with desolation and the mortal fear of having been forsaken—as it were, with a totally alien, hostile and deadly poisonous substance that would block his every access to the source from which he lived.

It is in the horror of this darkness, of this emptiness and alienation from God, that the words on the Mount of Olives are spoken: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. ” The cup of which he here speaks is well known in the Old Testament: it is the cup full of God’s anger and wrath, which sinners must drink to the dregs; often it is threatened or forced upon unfaithful Jerusalem or enemy peoples like Babylon. The cry from the Cross is uttered out of the same horror of spiritual blackness, the cry asking why God has forsaken this tortured man. The man who cries out knows only that he is forsaken; in this darkness he no longer knows why. He is not permitted to know why, for the idea that the darkness he is undergoing might be on behalf of others would constitute a certain comfort; it would give him a ray of light. No such comfort can be granted him now, for the issue, in absolute seriousness, is that of purifying the relationship between God and the guilty world.

The man who endures this night is the Innocent One. No one else could effectively undergo it on behalf of others. What ordinary or extraordinary man would even have enough room in himself to accommodate the world’s guilt? Only someone who is a partner of the eternal Father, distinct from him and yet divine, that is, the Son who, man that he is, is also God, can have such capacity within him.

Here we are faced with a bottomless mystery, for in fact there is an immense difference between the generating womb in God the Father and the generated fruit, the Son, although both are one God in the Holy Spirit. Nowadays many theologians say, quite rightly, that it is precisely at the Cross that this difference becomes clearly manifest: at this precise point the mystery of the divine Trinity is fully proclaimed. The distance is so great—for in God everything is infinite—that there is room in it for all the alienation and sin of the world; the Son can draw all this into his relationship with the Father without any danger of it harming or altering the mutual eternal love between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Sin is burnt up, as it were, in the fire of this love, for God, as Scripture says, is a consuming fire that will not tolerate anything impure but must burn it away.

Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it. As we have already said, there is nothing familiar about it to him: it is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering “hell”, for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.

Nor can we say that God the Father “punishes” his suffering Son in our place. It is not a question of punishment, for the work accomplished here between Father and Son with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit is utter love, the purest love possible; so, too, it is a work of the purest spontaneity, from the Son’s side as from the side of Father and Spirit. God’s love is so rich that it can also assume this form of darkness, out of love for our dark world.

What, then, can we do? “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” It was as if the cosmos sensed that something decisive was going on here, as if it were participating in the darkness invading the soul of Christ. For our part, we do not need to experience this darkening, for we are already estranged and dark enough. It would suffice if we held onto our faith in a world that has become dark all around us; it would be enough for us to be convinced that all inner light, all inner joy and security, all trust in life owes its existence to the darkness of Golgotha and never to forget to give God thanks for it.

At the very periphery of this thanksgiving to God, it is legitimate to ask that, if God permits it, we may help the Lord to bear a tiny particle of the suffering of the Cross, of his inner anxiety and darkness, if it will contribute to reconciling the world with God. Jesus himself says that it is possible to help him bear it when he challenges us to take up our cross daily. Paul says the same in affirming that he suffers that portion of the Cross that Christ has reserved for him and for other Christians. When life is hard and apparently hopeless, we can be confident that this darkness of ours can be taken up into the great darkness of redemption through which the light of Easter dawns. And when what is required of us seems too burdensome, when the pains become unbearable and the fate we are asked to accept seems simply meaningless—then we have come very close to the man nailed on the Cross at the Place of the Skull, for he has already undergone this on our behalf and, moreover, in unimaginable intensity. When surrounded by apparent meaninglessness, therefore, we cannot ask to be given a calming sense of meaning; all we can do is wait and endure, quite still, like the Crucified, not seeing anything, facing the dark abyss of death. Beyond this abyss there waits for us something that, at present, we cannot see (nor can we even manage to regard it as true), namely, a further abyss of light in which all the world’s pain is treasured and cherished in the ever-open heart of God. Then we shall be allowed, like the Apostle Thomas, to put our hand into this gaping wound; feeling it, we shall realize in a very bodily way that God’s love transcends all human senses, and with the disciple we shall pray: “My Lord and my God.”‘

Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Through the Liturgical Year (trans. Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 82-6.

McLeod Campbell and Children’s Letters to God

It is not unusual for me to have a plethora of books on the go at once, scattered conveniently around most parts of the house. Of late, I’ve been reading two books (in the same room) whose themes converge that I wish to comment on here. I’ve just re-read (after many years) John McLeod Campbell’s, The Nature of the Atonement. This book must be counted as among the most significant reflections ever penned on the atonement. Denney rightly listed it alongside Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, and Forsyth praised it as a ‘great, fine, holy book’, although both had reservations about some of Campbell’s ideas. Others, such as James Orr, Robert Dale and John Scott Lidgett also gave positive voice to Campbell’s work on the atonement.

The fact that McLeod Campbell is largely ignored today (despite the influence of Tom and James Torrance, and Tom Smail, and a few recent publications such as those by Peter Stevenson and two by Michael Jinkins – here and here), and that not least in publications dealing specifically with the atonement, is scandalous (pun intended). There may be some identifiable reasons for this neglect. Perhaps it is because, like Forsyth, Campbell was a non-conformist and non-conformist British theologians have, until more recently, found it difficult to be heard and taken seriously by the academy. Perhaps it is because Campbell is just not the easiest writer to follow, particularly in his atonement tome (his sermons are much easier going on the reader!). Perhaps it is because Campbell’s best insights have been taken up by others, such as the Torrances. Who know? I often ask similar questions about Forsyth (and Denney and Lidgett). I hope to post more about the relationship between Campbell and Forsyth soon.

The other book I’ve been reading is Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. While Campbell laid much weight on the filial nature of Jesus Christ and his vicarious work of offering to the Father the perfect human response from the side of sin (a response which was at heart about Christ’s intercessory ministry), Children’s Letters to God takes up something of humanity’s imperfect participation in that perfect intercession. Some of these prayers seem quite humorous and even silly. Others betray a deeper cognition. All betray, however, a glaringly beautiful honesty and unpretentiousness that our elder Brother not only makes possible for us, but creates in us by the Spirit.

Here’s a few that I like (and each one could serve as a great sermon starter):

– Dear God. Are you really invisible or is that just a trick?
– Dear God. Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?
Dear God. Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?
Dear God. Who draws the lines around the countries?
Dear God. I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that OK?
Dear God. Are there any patriarchs around today?
Dear God. It’s OK that you made different religions but don’t you get mixed up sometimes?
Dear God. I would like to know why all the things you said are in red?
Dear God. Is Reverend Coe a friend of yours, or do you just know him through business?
Dear God. I am English. What are you?
Dear God. Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Dear God. How come you didn’t invent any new animals lately? We still have just all the old ones.
Dear God. Please put another holiday in between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.
– Dear God. Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.
Dear God. I wish that there wasn’t no such thing of (sin. I wish that there was not no such thing of war.
– Dear God. Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.
– Dear God. I bet it is very hard for you to love everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.
– Dear God. If you watch in Church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes.
Dear God. I am doing the best I can.

‘… For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me’. (Matthew 18:2-5, The Message)