No Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture

April 29, 2014

Recently, someone asked me in a text message what I thought of this Holy Week-themed blog post about atonement from Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author from Missouri. “So let’s be clear,” Zahnd writes, “the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god.” As I texted to my friend:

Oh good! I’m glad he clarified that. Because didn’t you think that’s what the cross was about?… This is a straw-man argument. Put forward the worst caricature of substitutionary atonement and then tear it apart. “Well, yes,” I would tell him, “If this were what God’s wrath looks like, then I agree that [penal substitution is] horrible.”

I write these strong words as someone who once censored a praise-and-worship song that the band performed years ago. It included this couplet (from memory): “You died upon that tree/ You killed your Son for me.” I explained at the time that this song was wrong on two counts: The first problem is a nitpicky liturgical mistake: the song addresses Jesus in the first line, and then it addresses the Father in the second. We’re supposed to be consistent throughout our prayers and songs.

The second problem, however, relates to the same thing that Zahnd criticizes: that it’s not theologically appropriate, even among those of us who endorse penal substitution as the primary understanding of atonement, to say that the Father killed the Son.

No: the Romans and the religious authorities—who represent all of us sinful humans—killed the Son. And the Son, who wants what the Father wants—namely, to reconcile sinful humanity to God—offers himself as propitiation for our sins. (Yeah, that’s right… I said propitiation! To say that Jesus was a propitiation for sin is fighting words among many revisionist-minded mainline Protestants.) I wholeheartedly endorse the words of this 19th century Anglican commentator, James Denney, whom N.T. Wright quotes with appreciation in an essay he wrote about penal substitution:

God is love, say [some], 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?… 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… 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… 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. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Regardless, Zahnd doesn’t write as if he’s aware that penal substitution could mean anything other than a vindictive “monster god” murdering his son in order to be appeased. I suppose this was the version of substitutionary atonement he learned and taught when he was evangelical? Who knows…

But it causes me to wonder: Are there really so many disaffected former evangelicals nursing wounds from their upbringing? They’re all over the place these days! Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are a couple of famous examples… Donald Miller… Rachel Held Evans… In fact, her blog—seemingly her entire writing career—is devoted to the subject of being hurt and angry about the conservative evangelicalism she endured as a child.

Aren’t there any happy evangelicals out there?

Well, of course there are. As someone who has moved in the opposite theological direction—from the liberal mainline Protestantism to conservative evangelicalism—it’s funny how differently I see problems within American Christendom than these ex-evangelicals!

My recommendation to my disaffected evangelical brethren is to stop being so American and start reading British evangelicals—most of whom are or were found within the Church of England. Some examples I know of: the late John Stott, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Michael Green, John Goldingay, and C.S. Lewis (of course). These are Christian intellectuals who faced exile within a post-Christian culture long before we Americans did, who’ve already reasoned their way through the tough questions, and emerged on the other side with their strong commitment to the authority of scripture intact.

These are my role-models.

I only just heard of Brian Zahnd a few months ago, when someone quoted this statement from him:

God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.

The first few sentences are great: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.” But what about the last part? By all means, our understanding of God is made complete by the Incarnation, but Jesus himself doesn’t reveal anything about God that contradicts the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus (and the whole New Testament) teaches us to read the Old Testament in light of his revelation, but when we do, we find that it’s very consistent.

Moreover, there are plenty of red-letter words in the Bible about judgment, hell, and God’s wrath, too. It’s as if Jesus went around saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” without adding, “Go and sin no more.”

Just as there’s no God other than the one revealed in Jesus, there’s no Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture.

Not quite as pithy as what Zahnd writes I know… but still true.

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Matt Smethurst blogs about the danger of reading Jesus’ red-letter words as somehow more authoritative than the New Testament’s black-letter words. He writes:

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2Heb. 1:1-2Rev. 19:13and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35Acts 17:11Heb. 4:1213:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.

5 Responses to “No Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    Yes, long live the British evangelicals! I’d add R.T. France, F.F. Bruce, Howard Marshall. France & Marshall were/are Methodists! Oh, and Christopher Wright.

  2. Gary Bebop Says:

    And let’s not omit T.F. Torrance (Scotland). Torrance was not Methodist, but he’s awesome on both the Incarnation and the Atonement. I especially like his short work, The Mediation of Christ. Read one of Torrance, you will read them all.

  3. jwlung Says:

    Please include Phillip E. Hughes, Anglican, from New Zealand. His “True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ” is a classic.

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