Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Are the Solas of the Reformation Coherent?

You may have heard it said that the solas of the Reformation (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide) are incoherent. I know I have. How can we be justified only in Christ, only by grace, and only by faith? Can't there only be one "only" at a time? Don't multiple solas cancel each other out?

There may be some important objections to the Reformation doctrine of justification, but this is not one of them. Why? Because this criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the meaning of the Reformation solas. The mistake is taking the adjective "only" in an absolute sense. But the intent of the solas is to rule out very specific answers to very specific questions.

This misunderstanding may arise from the solas functioning as slogans outside the polemical context from which they emerged. In order to avoid such misunderstanding, it may be necessary to re-embed the solas within this polemical context so one can see the relative sense in which "only" is used in each case. This can be done by adding to each of the solas an absque ("apart from") clause.

Christ alone ... apart from law. The mediator of justification before God is Jesus Christ. By fulfilling the law, the law does not function for us as the mediator of righteousness. Rather, we are justified by the alien righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us. God's law is not set aside, however, but fulfilled by Christ. Nor is the ongoing function of the law in the Christian life necessarily ruled out. But with specific regard to our justification, it is in Christ alone apart from the law that we are justified.

Grace alone ... apart from merit. The means by which justification is given is God's own gracious gift of mercy. Justification is not merited or earned from God. It is not deserved. We have no claim to make on God and what he owes us. This does not mean the language of merit or reward need be expunged entirely from our thinking. For instance, Christ may in some sense be said to merit righteousness for us. And we may find ways of speaking of a "reward in heaven" as the Bible does. But with specific regard to justification, it is by grace alone apart from any merit of our own that we are justified.

Faith alone ... apart from works. The instrument through which justification is received is human faith or trust in God's promises. Justification is not accrued through human working. It is received through faith, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit who comes to the justified person. Faith bears the fruit of works of love, so they are not ruled out entirely. Works have their place. But with specific regard to justification, it is through faith alone apart from works that we are justified.

"Christ alone," "grace alone," and "faith alone" do not rule each other out. Rather, each rules out a specific aspect of an alternative soteriology. Understood within their polemical context, the solas can be take in their highly specific and relative sense. Therefore, to hold on to the solas does not entail self-contradiction, as some have claimed. Perhaps there are successful criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification, but its supposed incoherence is not one of them.

Any thoughts?
Have you heard this criticism before? How did you respond?
Does this re-embedding of the solas in their context illuminate the matter?
Am I correct in attributing a relative rather than absolute sense to the solas?
What are some more significant criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fuzzy on the Atonement ...

I often receive questions from students and ministers about the atonement. Here's an edited version of one such email:

"I’m still fuzzy on atonement... [especially concerning] how atonement should be communicated to unbelievers... [I recently heard a preacher] go over substitutionary atonement as what we should be sharing with people to get them saved. Then, after his explanation of that, they had folks from [the church] parade up with signs that they would flip over (eg. Side A-sinner/Side B-saved; side a-broken, side b-whole; side a-living for myself, side b-living for God; side a-cancer, side b-healed.) It was really moving. I know that atonement is at least substitutionary in that Jesus does something for us that we can’t do ourselves. [This preacher] was more particularly talking about Jesus taking the punishment from God that we deserved—that God is able to forgive us because of Jesus taking the fall for us on the cross. As I watched, though, I had a hard time seeing the connect between God’s ability to forgive us because of Jesus’ taking our penalty and some of the life changes that were on the cards. And I wonder why God can’t forgive because of his mercy and not need someone to take the penalty... Ok, John. Tell me what to believe ;-)."

Here's how I responded:

Yeah, its kind of inherently fuzzy, so don't feel bad about that. Although I can't tell you what to believe, I can share some thoughts that may be helpful.

The first is to make a distinction between substitution and penal substitution.

Substitution is the genus: the notion that Jesus takes on something of ours and gives us something of his. The fathers called this the "wondrous exchange," and it permeates the pages of the New Testament. Any account of reconciliation that undermines this pattern is inadequate.

Penal substitution is a species of substitutionary thinking, whereby the penal (forensic/judicial) metaphor is the dominant motif for collecting, ordering, and presenting the substitutionary pattern of exchange. Satisfaction (honor) and Sacrificial (blood, covenant) are additional species of substitutionary thinking, each of which may or may not be easily compatible with the penal motif. All of these motifs appear in scripture, and it is a matter of reasoned judgment of how to employ them. See the introduction to my paper "The Priest Sacrificed in Our Place" for some reflections on relating these species of substitutionary thinking.

The practical pay-off of this distinction is that while you search for more adequate, relevant, and/or illuminating motifs to describe the atonement, be careful to keep the logic of substitution in the background and be open to the breadth of metaphorical explanation it permits. If the judicial metaphor doesn't do it for you, that doesn't mean you should drop substitutionary thinking altogether. Regarding the image of the people with the posters, you can see how that expresses a kind of substitution, provided you believe these changes were wrought by Christ and he in some sense bore the negative side (and bore it away!). The logic of substitution is not restricted to what happened "there and then"; it also characterizes what happens "here and now" on the basis of what happened there and then. In more technical terms, substitutionary thinking provides an arc of continuity between the atonement and justification. Both are substitutionary exchanges, one achieved by Christ in his life, death and resurrection, the other worked out in us by the Spirit of Christ in our particular life-histories.

As for the matter of whether God "needs" the cross to forgive, there is much speculation on the matter, but I am inclined to think in terms of what God has done and infer his character from that, rather than than the other way around. In other words, God became man to die and rise for us, so apparently God can do such things. The cross is the manner and mode of establishing his covenant, which in a principled, speculative sense he doesn't "need" to do, but he did do it, so it must be the way. I trust God's judgment on this account. This is probably not a satisfying answer, but I suspect that going down the speculative road of what God must do or what other options he had will be even less satisfying (we have no information on this; we only known what God has done and must reason from there). The common presentation of the atonement as some kind of "bind" or "problem" in which God is caught and solves with the incarnation and cross is misleading at best, and perhaps has pernicious results. I prefer to just narrate what God has done for us and call people to a life of joyfully obedient witness to such a Lord.

Any thoughts?
Are these distinctions and implications helpful?
Do they make the atonement more or less fuzzy?
What additional insights have helped you speak intelligibly of the atonement?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bearing With One Another (Col 3:13)

Someone recently asked me about the meaning of the injunction in Col 3:13 to "bear with one another." As this instruction is so seldom followed and yet is so easily abused, it requires some careful reflection. Here's the beginnings of my thoughts on the matter.

(1) Col 3:13 (bearing-with-each-other) can be differentiated from Gal 6 (bearing-one-anothers-burdens).

The former concerns bearing persons; the latter concerns bearing things. To bear another's burden is to help them carry it. This plays out it prayer, service, etc. To bear another person is to have forbearance with regard to them and their way of being in the world, to have compassion on the person even when their actions and attitudes are wrong. I bear a person who is annoying, troublesome, needy, even disobedient, just as God bears me. We are called to bear both persons and things, but the two can be differentiated and we should understand the difference in order to make sure we do the word rightly.

(2) Forbearence should be understood within the context of forgiveness.

Notice that all the other instructions in this verse deal with forgiveness: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." So forbearence does not mean ignoring or blowing off people's wrongdoing, but forgiving them. Forgiveness implies wrongdoing. Therefore, forbearence never means making excuses for people. The Lord did not make excuses for us; he judged us as sinners while taking that judgement upon himself. To forgive as the Lord forgave, then, is not just a word or a feeling, but is a practice, a way of treating people, dealing wisely with the consequences of sin, giving others space and time to be convicted, to repent, to grow, etc.

(3) We are called to bear one another together.

The verb in this verse is a plural imperative: "ya'll should bear one another." Paul is addressing the community as a group and instructing them as a group to bear one another as a group activity. Therefore, this instruction should not be performed by one alone. This is not just saints bearing sinners, or wives bearing husbands, or me bearing everyone else. Such a one-way forbearance can become blasphemous as the individual takes on a messianic role of bearing others. The church, not the Christian alone, is the Body of Christ. So, as the community of Christ, we bear with each other. Unidirectional bearing should be disciplined by the community. One who is forebearing another without any mutual forbearance has just cause to call that other person to account (along the lines of Matt 18). The goal is to bear one another together.


All this implies that biblical forbearance is not just being a dormat. We needn't hide our own grievences in order to forgive others; in fact, doing so just hides them from the light of truth and lets them fester, turning into grudges. Bearing with one another is an active practice of the Christian life, even as it includes a passive aspect.

Any thoughts?
Do these points clarify or obscure the meaning of this text?
What additional thoughts would you add toward understanding and living out this injunction?
Can you think of additional misunderstandings and abuses surrounding the application of this text?