Thursday, May 15, 2014
Theology Thursday: Agreement on Atonement
This week's "Theology Thursday" takes on the light-weight issue of the atonement of Christ. :) Rarely among pastors--let alone laity in our churches--is the subject of atonement theories raised. But when it is, the discussion seems to evoke strong emotions on both sides which can very easily escalate into a vitriolic debate that dishonors both Jesus, and the price He paid for sinners.
In our Association, our pastors hail from Reformed and non-Reformed schools of thought where this issue is concerned. Thankfully, both sides have understood that what we agree on is greater than what we disagree on, since for most all of our churches, there is a common understanding of penal substitution as the "heart" of the atonement--the belief that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners, bearing the wrath of God in our place so that those who repent and turn to Him in faith have eternal life.
But as recent as last week, a national debate regarding the "extent" of the atonement ignited again. On one side, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to a question about "limited atonement" in a May 3 podcast, arguing that Calvinists and Arminians aren't as far apart as it might seem, while at the same time defending his own understanding that Christ died for the elect. Four days later, Truett Seminary theologian Roger Olsen issued a written response to Mohler's statements from the Arminian viewpoint. The online responses to these public words substantiates my claim above that it is hard to separate this discussion from strong emotion.
I'm a two-time alumnus of Southern, and overall, I admire Dr. Mohler, and to a large degree share his theological convictions, so its difficult for me to critique this discussion. Also, I freely admit that both Mohler and Olsen are way smarter than I am on a number of issues. Still, as I heard these two men speak, I heard nothing particularly new from either position, which concerns me, given the fact that I believe both sides of this debate have talked past each other for many decades now--principally by asking the wrong question.
By "wrong question" what I mean is this: Asking "who did Jesus die for?" is, in my view, an over-simplified way to begin this discussion. For one thing, how one answers this question, regardless of which "side" one takes, will carry some degree of nuance. As a seminary student, I studied historical theology under Tom Nettles, who held to what has been pejoratively called a "commercial view" of limited atonement. That is, Dr. Nettles claimed that Jesus died for the elect, and the elect alone. He believed that there is no sense in which Jesus' death on the cross benefited in any way those who reject the message of the Gospel. I don't believe this, which is why when I stand in a room that includes non-Christians, I have no problems telling them "Jesus died as an expression of God's love for you, so that you can have eternal life." And in that sense, I'm not only comfortable, but confident to tell unbelievers "I believe Jesus died for you." At the same time, when I'm asked what I believe actually took place on the cross, my understanding of texts such as Colossians 2:13-15 cause me to answer that question in a way that sounds a lot like someone who believes in particular redemption.
So where does that leave a guy like me? Honestly, I don't know. And honestly, I'm OK with that ambiguity, because I think focus on "extent" is, to a large degree, problematic, and ultimately solves very little. A better question to ask is, again, "What took place on the cross?" Because the crux of the difference between the Calvinist and Arminian positions lies here. One believes that Jesus made debt payment possible for all people, while not actually paying a debt for anyone until they repent and believe. The other side believes that Jesus actually paid a debt. This is, in my view, the appropriate question to ask, because its the question the text actually answers.
As I ponder these deep questions with the work of our network of churches in view, I'm deeply thankful for the men in our pulpits who, while on different sides of an issue like this, have not allowed it to interfere with their cooperation with others. After all, regardless of what you believe about the extent of the atonement, if it keeps you from sharing the death of Christ with an unbelieving world--even alongside people who may reach a different conclusion than you regarding the minutae of what took place there--you ultimately help no one. Truth is, Mohler is right to state that preachers on both sides of this debate are much closer than it might appear. Perhaps what makes the distance between these two positions seem further apart are the questions we are asking.
You can find Mohler's podcast here:
Roger Olsen's response on his patheos site is here: