UC Riverside, where I got my B.A. in history and met my lovely wife, is just down the hill from Arrowhead Springs, now the former headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ. So our college campus was crusaded quite a bit by young men, primarily. They dutifully delivered the Four Spiritual Laws from their holy mountain.
One of my roommates had just become a Christian in a rather random, personal way when he was accosted on campus by these Evangelicals. They were talking about Jesus, so he thought he should talk to them, since he was now a Christian. Then he couldn’t figure out how to get away from them as they made their pitch, going through their boiled down, mass-produced elevator speech about substitutionary atonement. When he got back to the dorm, he was furious with me. “This is what you got me into?” I think he waved the booklet in front of my face.
I don’t think I had a lot of answers for him. But since he was smart and mad, I listened to his critique. And then we all got into a study of the booklet which is still making an impact on me, and which leads me to this fourth exploration of atonement explanations for Lent.
What do Gospel charts teach?
The Four Spiritual Laws tract starts with: “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws that govern your relationship with God.” We thought:
- Laws? We’d already picked up on Paul’s disdain for law.
- Laws that govern? We weren’t sure that God was not governing the universe personally and couldn’t figure out if we needed laws to govern our relationship with God if Jesus wasn’t doing that himself.
When we got to the page above, we were not immediately confused because we trusted Jesus to be the way to eternal life. But the chart just did not sit quite right.
- We already knew there were other ways to describe what Jesus did in the Bible.
- We weren’t sure there was a gulf that needed a bridge, since we lived in Creation.
- And even then, “pay the penalty for our sins” just seemed strangely violent if God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life, yet is also obliged to roast us in hell if we don’t find it and follow it.
But, honestly, I think the biggest problem we had was when we got to the train. The train made me feel, in particular, like I was getting the wool pulled over my eyes.
- We definitely did not think we could accept a Christianity supposedly based on fact. Even as undergrads we knew that facts are rather squishy; even we debated the relative meanings of words all day. And none of us could really think of the Bible as “fact” that did not need a second opinion from God and others.
- We tried having each car at the front of the train. Faith probably got the most votes. But we also thought “God is love” was more connected to feeling, so maybe the caboose should be first.
- But then we thought a train going somewhere was too linear and that was our problem to begin with. So we put the train cars on a circular track and that made the most sense. At one time or another, they each took the lead.
The problem with penance
As far as the various explanations of the atonement, the one which might be best attested in the Bible is substitution. Paul did not turn it into a graphic, but he describes it well. Before Anselm, the explanation had a more personal, metaphorical feel to it, something like a parable Jesus might teach. Then the Reformers get a hold of it in the 15-1600’s.
The Protestant Reformers refine Anselm’s “satisfaction theory,” which also has a substitutionary feel to it, and focus it on justice. The gist is: There are laws God needs to follow to be authentically just. And one of them is that sin must be punished. Plus there is a more personal “law:” humans need to feel sorry for breaking the law, not just do penance and think that takes care of their sin.
Penance might be a word you can’t even define now, but it was a big deal then. Martin Luther got a protest going against the corrupt Church of his time when he could no longer stomach the “penance” system. You’ll see a theme start growing here: penance, penalty, penal substitution. “Penal” means: “relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.” The gospel of the reformers who win the Reformation wars is, “Humankind is on the wrong side of the law. Jesus stands in for them and receives their punishment. He endures God’s wrath. Just be sorry and stop sinning.”
Luther was a 33-year-old theology professor at Wittenberg University on October 31, 1517 when he walked over to the main church and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion about their contents. He had said more provocative things in a lecture earlier, but this posting became a key event that ignited the Reformation. The first thesis of his 95 was about penance.
The penance system Luther experienced got started because the early church was trying to figure out what to do with people who were baptized into Christ and then sinned. Tertullian (c.155-c.220 AD) decided they were forgiven for original sin and saved, but they needed to satisfy the debts they incurred subsequently. The church was an alternative community, so they basically came up with their own “penitentiary.” What should a person pay to get back into the good graces of the Church and be restored to fellowship after they have sinned? They work out a major application of “step three” in Matthew 18: “If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”
There were (and still are) three main steps to penance: confess to the priest, be absolved in the named of Jesus and the Church, do something to demonstrate you’re seriously sorry and intend not to sin. Sometimes this was just, “Say this prayer,” or “Give alms.” But sometimes it was like a court sentence where you were out of the church and brought back in incrementally. At some point you can stand in the back of the meeting. Then you able to sit in the audience. Finally, you get the OK to take communion again. You can see that this was mainly “doing penance,” not necessarily feeling penitent. By the time of Luther, the church was offering indulgences for donations to shorten time in purgatory where dead people with built up sin had to stay before they’d worked it off and achieved heaven. I think this felt like drive-through forgiveness to Luther. Plus the whole process was administered by a faceless institution that ran like the Roman Empire.
The reformers were trying to make things work better according to the Bible and not according to some development fund manager in Rome. Their movement unwittingly rode the wave of the communication revolution the printing press brought in (Luther might have had tons of Instagram followers). I also think they were the flower of the individualism tree that was planted when Aristotle became the continent’s favorite philosopher.
Penal substitution wins at Dort
100 years after Luther went public, Calvinists are becoming the premier interpreters of the Reformation. John Calvin was trained as a lawyer and it shows in his theology and ministry — and even more in his descendants. Calvin turns justification by faith into the legal argument it remains. Mary Lane Potter says, “Calvin’s theology may be accurately described as a lifelong meditation on the law of God.” His successors take obedience to the law to a new extreme. I think their behavior points out why I think penal substitution is not adequate to stand on its own or to be made into a reductionistic booklet.
You’ve probably never heard of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 (short for Dortrecht, in the Netherlands). It is a meeting called by the Dutch Protestant Church for Calvinist leaders from across Europe to affirm the famous five points that undergird orthodox Calvinism. You can summarize the five articles in their statement with TULIP if you mix up the original order:
- Total Depravity – “Man” (not trying to fix the sexist language for them) is completely touched/affected by sin in all that he is (in nature he is completely fallen), but is not as bad as he could be (in action, i.e., not all people murder, etc.). Furthermore, this total depravity means that the unregenerate will not, of their own free will, choose to receive Christ.
- Unconditional Election – God elects a person based upon nothing in that person because there is nothing in him that would make him worthy of being chosen; rather, God’s election is based on what is in God. God chose us because he decided to bestow his love and grace upon us, not because we are worthy, in and of ourselves, of being saved.
- Limited Atonement – Christ bore the sin only of the elect, not everyone who ever lived. Christ’s blood was sufficient for all, but not all sin was imputed to Christ. Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all people. But the sufficiency relates to his divine value which is different than our legal debt. Sin is a debt since it is breaking the Law of God. In limited atonement, Calvinists are saying that there was a limit to whose sins were imputed to Christ in a legal sense.
- Irresistible Grace – The term suggests a mechanical and coercive force upon an unwilling subject, but this is not the case. Instead, it is the act of God making the person willing to receive him. It does not mean that a person cannot resist God’s will. It means that when God moves to save/regenerate a person, the sinner cannot thwart God’s movement and he will be regenerated
- Perseverance of the Saints – We are so secure in Christ, that we cannot fall away.
The other advantage of the TULIP acronym is that it arranges the five points of Calvinism logically and progressively and gives a read out of substitutinary atonement, with each point contingent on the other, as follows. If humans are totally depraved, then they are unable to make an initial response to God. God must call people to salvation through unconditional election. God must also provide the way of salvation by the death of Jesus Christ. He makes salvation secure by the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. He keeps his saved ones secure so they will inherit the eternal life he has promised them.
The Synod of Dort sounds like a theological study group. But it is also (and, I think, primarily), a legal, political meeting. With the synod, the Calvinists anathemize the Arminians who rose up to protest the increasing legalism and politicization of the Calvinists. Arminius was a Dutch Reformed theologian whose followers published Remonstrance in 1610, which is the opposite of TULIP.
The acts of the Synod were tied to political intrigues that arose during the Twelve Years’ Truce, a pause in the Dutch war with Spain. The Arminians were accused of propagating false doctrine AND perceived as ready to compromise with the Spanish. The Dutch Calvinists were not ready to deal. So Arminianism was considered by some to be not only theologically unsound but also political treason. The synod concludes with exile for theological opponents and execution for traitors — another episode in the ongoing Wars of Religion in Europe.
After the Synod rejected the teachings of the Remonstrants as falling outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions, a political condemnation of the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt followed. He was a high official and had been the protector of the Remonstrants. For the crime of general perturbation in the state of the nation, both in Church and State (treason), he was beheaded on May 13, 1619, only four days after the final meeting of the Synod. With this process, the Dutch Reformed Church rid itself of Arminianism, but the ideas escaped to England where they were embedded in the budding movement called Methodism.
The fact that the application of the synod’s findings were implemented by judges and resulted in execution exemplifies my problem with today’s prevailing doctrine of penal substitution. It continues to be exclusive and interested in not only God’s sovereignty but its own. The teaching of it continues to be like an ongoing legal argument, as most people who have argued about predestination in a Bible study will attest. I see the Calvinists as the descendants of Constantine, who conquered in the name of the cross, the symbol of power over the powerless.
Give us a plan for our dialogue, Lord
The fiercely argued ascendancy of substitutionary atonement as the premier explanation of the gospel remains. Richard Rohr shows that Arminians vs. Calvinists is not a new argument in the church. Augustine and his followers fought with the “pelagians” (like John Cassian), and Dominicans argued with Franciscans (Rohr).
We need to keep having loving dialogue because we are not all built the same way and differing views need to be integrated in the peace of Christ, not allowed to become red or blue talking points. I connect the players in the Synod of Dort with Jeffrey Russell’s helpful distinction of the movements of “prophecy” and “order” in the medieval church, the Arminians being more on the “prophecy” side. I think the Calvinists are part of the general takeover of Eurocentric thinking in the 1600’s and onward by the “scientific” left brain; but the left brain is necessary to the whole, just should not rule.
The church has always had a helpful dialogue about the many, deep meanings of the atonement, which describe the grace of God — a grace which speaks to individuals and people groups in all ages and all places. The work of Jesus is bigger than our understanding and perfectly obvious to our needy hearts. The idea of “substitutionary atonement” is in the Bible and in the dialogue of the Church from earliest history [atonement explanations]. I’m not a fan of the corrupted version made in the image of Eurocentric thinking from the 1600’s. But I accept the grace of God in Jesus who bears my sins and sets me free from guilt.
So let’s end with a meditation on the death of Jesus for us, a song that came out in 1609, a decade before Dort. Maybe it unites us all — it has quite a diverse background. The tune is by the German Protestant composer, Hans Leo Hassler. The words we sing are a rewrite by a 26 year old Presbyterian minister in 1830. The original lyrics were attributed to the warrior mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, but are now attributed of Arnulf of Lueven (ca 1250), Lueven being a town just a couple of hours south of Dortrecht in Belgium. The original poem is long and includes all sorts of body parts, but the head is what became most vivid and lasting.
Here is the second verse for your prayer:
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.