Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dueling Duo on Atonement & Repentance

So there is this common argument that abounds that says we can't believe in a substitutionary atonement because then God asks us to do something (forgive others unconditionally) that he doesn't do himself (since the cross is a condition of forgiveness). The idea then that people who hold this view would propose is that God can simply forgive and accept repentance without having to punish Christ and pour His wrath out of Christ. They would argue the cross is an example to us of sacrifice not a means by which God's wrath comes upon Christ.

So Brian McLaren says it this way:

At about 1:48 he states:
"Yeah. And I heard one well-known Christian leader, who—I won’t mention his name, just to protect his reputation. Cause some people would use this against him. But I heard him say it like this: The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive…. And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving. Unless He kicks somebody else."

So hears the dueling duo (explanation) that I propose in response:

Athanasius The Incarnation of the Word 6.1-3
For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution. 2. For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression, and the result was in truth at once monstrous and unseemly. 3. For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false—that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken. For God would not be true, if, when He had said we should die, man died not.

Athanasius The Incarnation of the Word 7.1-5
But just as this consequence must needs hold, so, too, on the other side the just of God lie against it: that God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation. 2. So here, once more, what possible course was God to take? To demand repentance of men for their transgression? For this one might pronounce worthy of God; as though, just as from transgression men have become set towards corruption, so from repentance they may once more be set in the way of incorruption. 3. But repentance would, firstly, fail to guard the just claim of God. For He would still be none the more true, if men did not remain in the grasp of death; nor, secondly, does repentance call men back from what is their nature—it merely stays them from acts of sin. 4. Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought? 5. For His it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruption, and to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all. For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father.

This whole caricature against penal substitutionary atonement is a tired old straw man. It actually shows little or no reflection on what the opposing view holds and how they'd respond. So much for open dialogue. The above argument against penal substitution makes a category error in equating our sins against man and our sin against God. Indeed, it misses the larger issues at play in redemptive history and the effects of the fall. My sins against man on a human level is a mere shadow of the offense and consequences of my sin against God.

Mere repentance is not enough. As Athanasius argues in chapter 8, 9 and 10, the debt of the law must be satisfied by the death of Christ. The law which causes ruin because of the transgression of men must be undone. When Christ offers up his body, made like us in every way except without sin, he thus "satisfied the debt by his death." Of course, the atonement is impossible unless Christ is truly human.

When your conception of 'the kingdom of God' has little use for substitutionary atonement and you run roughshod over the whole of church history, might it not be time to rethink your conception?

Far from having a 'gospel of sin management', Athanasius understood the original goodness of creation and what was neccessary to restore it and bring it to its final state of glorification. Thus, incarnation, atonement and resurrection were intertwined. This too was not divorced from the effects on the individual who placed faith in Christ.

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