Orthodox? Biblical? What makes a person, action or idea “Christian”?

At our Bible study meeting at Potters Bar this week we discussed the question “Why do we read the Bible (if we do)?” It was fascinating. There were such a range of responses and they were shared with both confidence and respect.

Today I’ve participated in a Facebook thread that touched on the strong aversion some Christians and some ministers have to the doctrine know as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) to which others have an equally strong attachment. My own view is that while I don’t find this view to be well supported in Scripture I do acknowledge that it has been central to the churches of the Reformation and that the passages held to support it can be interpreted in this way.

This view is that humanity is due punishment for our sins. This punishment has been endured on our behalf by Jesus. This is what enables God to overlook and forgive our sins and regard us as “justified” and hence not liable to further punishment (in hell).

It should be stressed that this view, while not hugely popular in contemporary mainstream liberal churches is deeply rooted in our common Protestant tradition, as any acquaintance with our hymnaries will demonstrate. It is also predominant in “evangelical” Christianity today, as acquaintance with both the writings and especially the music of this (broad) strand of Church life quickly shows.

Personally I think PSA fails, on the whole, to grasp adequately the Jewish background of the New Testament. Christ’s action on the cross (as I read the Biblical texts) is mostly understood against the background of the sacrificial system, which dealt with sin primarily under the rubric of holiness and purity rather than that of morality and punishment. The sacrificial system was about purification rather than about retribution (which is why the sacrifice of animals which could not sin makes any sense at all).

What is at stake is the relationships between life and death (with blood the bearer of life) and between holiness and impurity (with blood the cleansing agent as the bearer of God-given life). The point here is that there is no sense in which the animal being sacrificed is being punished. Similarly  I find nothing in the New Testament that conclusively says that Jesus is being punished or is bearing a punishment. To read this into the texts seems to me unwarranted, given what we know about the OT and Judaic understanding of sacrifice.

So I am unconvinced by PSA but I also know that it has a long and illustrious history in the tradition. It is not, I think, fully supported by Scripture (the highest authority) but is very well supported by our tradition, with that tradition resting itself on interpretations of the Biblical writings that, while I’m not convinced by them, I can’t show definitively to be wrong.

These ideas thus have to be accepted, I think, as “orthodox” even while I regard them as unproven and open to question. What do I do about that?

This answer to this question will depend on one’s attitude to Biblical authority (does the interpretation of the passages ultimately decide anything?), to tradition (does what Luther, Calvin and the subsequent consensus of the churches they founded taught have any weight in deciding what I should think?) and one’s own thoughts and feelings (if they disagree with the Bible or with orthodox teaching which should I accept?)

My own view is

1) it is wrong to counterpose too starkly Bible and tradition – our interpretations will always be shaped by our Christian formation and the Bible itself is an authoritative of a tradition that is guided and shaped by the revelation of God

2) only the Church catholic can declare a view heretical (i.e. there can be no new heresies after, at the latest, the council of Chalcedon – in this I depart from the mainstream of the Reformed tradition which is wary of acknowledging the authority of even the first five councils). Thus even a view I can’t see the value or truth of should be accepted as having something to say if it isn’t, on this definition, heretical

3) one’s own views should and must be taken seriously, if we have any attachment to the idea that the Spirit is both at work and essential. However where this conflicts with the Bible and with tradition either by leading to outright rejection of an orthodox position or to the espousal of heretical positions one should be suspicious of oneself and strive to find a way to align to orthodoxy.

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10 comments
  1. Anne Shearer said:

    Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world

  2. Bridget said:

    Nick, I agree Scripture is the highest authority. The ram is a substitute for Isaac, Abraham’s only son. Quite early on in the Old Testament we have an animal being sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son.

    Genesis 22:13
    Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

    Philip, in Acts 8, speaking to the eunuch says the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is all about Jesus.

  3. Yeah, I note the above responses, but you will no doubt draw attention to your comment that the Old Testament sacrificial background is primarily focused on purity and cleansing, rather than legal punishment or chastisement. I would, of course, suggest that the distinction you make there is far clearer than that given in Scripture. Sin is after all a moral issue.

    Isaiah 53:5 is also fairly clear:

    But he was wounded for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his stripes we are healed.

    In the New Testament we also find the concept of substitution, the bearing of sin, punishment for sin, and the law articulated time and time again.

    2 Corinthians 5:21

    For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

    Galatians 3:10-13

    For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”

    1 Peter 2:21-25

    For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and glive to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

    I also object to your limiting this understanding of the Scriptures to the Protestant and Reformation tradition. This is not the invention of Luther or Calvin.

    In the earliest extra biblical evidence of the Christian faith in 95 AD Clement declared that Jesus gave His life in His atonement:“Because of the love he felt for us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, His body for our bodies, and His soul for our souls.”

    And possibly the most important early Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (275 – 339 AD), writes himself:

    Thus the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, became a curse on our behalf.” He then stated, “And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.

    So lets be clear this is not a modern or even Reformation invention anyone who understands how much Calvin’s thought owes to the Church Fathers should understand this. I could quote at length Ignatius, Justin Martyr, The Epistle of Barnabas, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, even Athanasius (when writing against the Arian’s assumes Penal Substitutionary ideas).

    Certainly the idea of ‘substitution’ is rooted in the Fathers and I believe that takes expression in several models –
    a. in ‘a curse for sin’ model
    b. in ‘a ransom, life for life’ model
    c. in ‘sacrificial cleansing’ model
    d. in ‘legal and penal’ model

    Ultimately, each of those models has an element of Christ experiencing something on our behalf for our sin, captivity, impurity, wrongdoing. It is possible to wrangle about the nuances.

    Some argue that the person who issues the curse, holds us ransom, considers us unclean or charges us as guilty is Satan and that this is an exchange between Satan and God, but even if that were the case Satan is not the equal of God but rather subject to Him. If Satan curses us, holds us ransom, considers us unclean, and charges us as guilty it can only be under God’s Sovereign will (or we are bordering on forming some not so new dualistic heresy).

    From my perspective most of the uninformed theological opposition to Penal Substitutionary Atonement comes out of a miss understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and poor caricature of PSA that lacks theological nuance, historical awareness, and biblical literacy.

    • I would agree with a lot of this, James. The main area I would need to hesitate about is your opening statement “Sin is after all a moral matter”. I don’t regard this as straightforwardly true. My view is that sin, after all, is a matter of relationship to God. The question would be how one would see the relationship between these two statements.

      I am inclined to see “morality” as sinful, as the origin and sign of our separation from God. A sinless life would be one lived in direct and absolute obedience to God in which moral judgement had become not just irrelevant but unthinkable. A decisive turn in the New Testament is the emphasis placed on Adam’s disobedience and the expulsion from Eden, which play little role in the Old Testament. This marks the extent to which the new covenant recognises not only uselessness but indeed the harmfulness of our independent moral striving.

  4. The question is would you see a life lived in absolute relationship to God being a morally upright life? Some standards of moral thought would clearly condemn this but Jesus, more than any other, seems to connect concepts of sin and morality:

    John 3:19-21
    And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

    Mark 7:20-23
    And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

    The Genesis story also unfolds over Genesis 1-11 and shows the breakdown of relationship with God leads to brokenness in creation, in the relationship between husband and wife, brother and brother, and ultimately Lamech’s murder without remorse through to there being no one righteous on earth but all doing evil in the eyes of The Lord.

  5. That will depend on what you mean by a “morally upright life”, I guess, James. It should be noted that no word easily identifiable as “moral” appears in the Greek of Mark 7:20-23. “Sexual immorality” renders the word “porneiai” which is closely aligned to sexuality and specifically its sale and “wickedness” and “evil” words in the “poneros” group, where evil is more closely related to “pain” than “immoral”.

    I would in no way want to deny that holiness will have as one of its outworkings a life that is demonstrably pure and free of ill-doing and of harm. What I would hesitate to affirm is that moral uprightness contributes to or approaches holiness. The most morally upright person could be as far from God as the least morally upright. What will matter is the quality of their relationship with him, expressed in prayer and worship and founded in faith, itself a gift of grace.

    In this I am closer to Luther, who denied that any action was inherently good or bad (unless it expressed the highest and impossible to achieve standards set by Christ), than to Calvin who moved towards a more affirmative relationship to the Law.

  6. I’m not going to court a discussion right now on the meaning of the word immoral as opposed to ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’. I think we begin splitting hairs between Calvin and Luther’s approach to the law. Luther’s heir apparent in Philip Melchanthon certainly interpreted Luther’s teaching on the law as closer to Calvin’s than you would appear comfortable with. Luther’s Larger Catechism also begins with The Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, all of which he advises meditating on day by day as he does. I can agree with you that in this life a pretence to have arrived at ‘moral’ or ‘upright’ or ‘holy’, apart from an alien righteousness (Christ’s righteousness) that is ours by faith, is most definitely a sign of our sinful depravity and is presumption upon our part. However, I do like Calvin’s language of growing in grace daily and I think that Luther’s Catechism urging us to meditate upon the Ten Commandments results in benefits in our lives (that should be rejoiced in as signs of grace and out workings of the Gospel).

    • I can’t agree with you about the relationship between Luther and Calvin. I think Calvin (and Melanchthon) differed fairly substantially from Luther in their assessment of the Law. I’ve tried to give a full account of the ways in which Luther’s more urgently eschatological approach expressed itself in the realm of Church/State relations (the infamous “two kingdoms”) here http://nickseekingunderstanding.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/church-and-state-in-luther/ and think something similar is true in the realm of morality (as I try to show through a reading of Kierkegaard here http://nickseekingunderstanding.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/suspending-the-ethical-a-reading-of-kierkegaards-fear-and-trembling/).

      • Tis a predictable answer Nick and really I see you relying too much on Kierkegaard’s reading of Luther and not enough on Luther himself (or his colleague Philip Melchanthon). Some days I wonder whether we have Kierkegaard reborn when I read your thoughts (and given that he is a philosophical giant of the 19th century I hope you take that as a compliment even if I do not agree with you on everything). Contrary to Kierkegaard, however, Luther talks of righteousness in two ways the first before God (coram Deo) and then also before man (Coram hominibus). To ignore this second aspect of righteousness in the thought of Luther leads to a warped picture of Luther who demonstrated throughout his life intense struggles against sin and the devil as he laboured hard in Gospel ministry.

      • The key thing there being how sharply Luther distinguished between the two. If you read him on the Sermon on the Mount, for example, or on the 10 Commandments, it’s clear that his idea of what would be involved in fulfilling Christ’s teaching is way beyond anything demanded by human morality.

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