Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts of an Evangelical Covenanter on why a line of "In Christ Alone" isn't biblical

Okay, it's more than you ever wanted to know, I’m sure, : ) but here’s my understanding of why Covenanters don’t usually sing “the wrath of God was satisfied” :

“The Scriptures teach that no change took place in God's disposition towards man in consequence of his sin; that, therefore, it was not God who needed to be reconciled to man, but that it was man who needed to be reconciled to God; and that, consequently, reconciliation is a work which proceeds from God and is directed towards man, and aims not to appease God, but to cleanse man from sin, and to restore him to a right relation with God.”  
–P.P. Waldenstrom (a “father” of the Evangelical Covenant Church)

The grammatical problem revolves around the meaning of the words “hilasterion/ “hilasmos” which have been translated as “propitiation” and “expiation.” This is a thorny one, with scholars lining up on opposite sides regarding the proper translation. According to Theopedia,

Propitiation literally means to make favorable and specifically includes the idea of dealing with God’s wrath against sinners. Expiation literally means to make pious and implies either the removal or cleansing of sin.

The idea of propitiation includes that of expiation as its means; but the word “expiation” has no reference to quenching God’s righteous anger. The difference is that the object of expiation is sin, not God. One propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem.

We do not read scripture (or translate it!) alone, but rather as part of a community--­a tradition. (Acts 25:30-31) Depending upon our tradition, we will interpret scripture differently, and “hilasterion/ “hilasmos” is just one of those instances."

I’ve written some other Covenant pastors, to see how they deal with the issue in regard to “In Christ Alone.” Some have  changed the line in question:

‘the love of God was glorified’
‘Till on that cross as Jesus died
The love of God was magnified’
‘the love of God was satisfied" 
while others do not sing the song, period. 

Bottom line: All this pretty much challenges the popular Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement, which will not sit well with those traditions that are grounded in Anselm's theory.

Want to dig deeper?

1. You can read about Waldenstrom here

Waldenstrom was famous for his question, “Where is it written?” This was the motivation for his exploration of the doctrine of the atonement.

2. Here is Waldenstrom’s sermon, “Be Ye Reconciled to God,” which is the classic statement of Waldenstrom’s position.

In keeping with his conviction that doctrine must be grounded in scripture, Waldenstrom presents scriptural arguments for his theory of the atonement, and addresses criticisms of his interpretation.

3. This site gives some historical background for Waldenstrom’s teaching: “P.P. Waldenstrom and the Atonement.”

Here’s a relevant passage:

One of the topics that Waldenström turned his biblical lenses on was that of the atonement, the way that we are made right with God, the way in which our broken and shattered state is made acceptable to God.

In his monumental tome on Covenant history, Karl Olsson tells it this way:

In 1870, young Waldenström was having some conversation about the atonement with some fellow pastors. They were talking about the official Lutheran position called in Latin, satifactio vicaria, the idea that "the suffering and death of Christ had been the means of satisfying God’s wrath. Justice demanded that God punish man eternally for his sin against the majesty of God, but Christ had intervened between God’s justice and man, had appeased God’s wrath, and how his (Christ’s) righteousness could be imputed to man for the latter’s justification" (Olsson, Karl, By One Spirit, Covenant Press, Chicago, 1962, p. 109). So as the pastors where talking about this, Waldenström asks his famous question, "Var står det skrivet?" Where is it written?, the pastors laughed! (By One Spirit, p. 110). Waldenström conducted a lengthy search of scripture and found no where in the Old or New Testament that God was the one reconciled. God’s position did not change in the atonement. Rather, our position did.

In a famous sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 1872, published in The Pietist, Waldenström used our gospel text for the day and outlined the reasons why the official Lutheran belief in the atonement was all wrong for those who live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. He had five points in his core argument:
1) "That through our fall no change has entered the heart of God.
2) That because of this it was no severity or anger against man which through the fall rose up in the way of man’s redemption
3) That the change, which occurred in the fall, was a change in man alone, in that he became sinful and thus fell away from God and from the life which is in him.
4) That for this reason an atonement indeed is needed for man’s salvation, but not an atonement which appeases God and presents him as being once again gracious but (an atonement) which removes man’s sin and makes him once again righteous, and
5) That this atonement is in Jesus Christ." (Covenant Roots: Sources &; Affirmations. p. 119-120).

In other words, the death of Christ does not change God from a wrathful God to a loving God. God has always been gracious and loving. And yes, God has hated sin but God has not hated us! It wasn’t humanity that God was wrathful about, but sin.

Now, one could argue that if one read everything Martin Luther wrote that one would not find a consistent message about God being wrathful against humanity. Luther talks a lot about grace, and he also talks about our inability to see God’s love due to our own sin, therefore we see wrath. Luther speaks in this way to encourage people to try Christ, who alone can put away this wrath of God. (Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, Fortress Press, 1966, p. 171) But Luther does talk an incredible amount about the wrath of God, the law which we can never keep and which therefore leads us to despair and sin, and therefore, deeper into God’s wrath (Althaus, p. 177).

In the Swedish church of the day, the Lutheran teaching was that of a wrathful, angry God who needed the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ to be merciful. Waldenström investigated this thoroughly, and decided that it was not God who moved in the atonement, but humanity which is made righteous as before the fall. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and each of those personae is love. Waldenström defines the role of Christ as the representative of God "to take away our sin," rather than "our substitute in order to take away the wrath of God." (Covenant Roots: Sources & Affirmations. p. 123)

Doesn’t Paul make it very clear that "we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (Rom 5:10) rather than the "God was reconciled to us through the death of his Son?" Waldenström points out verse after verse in which God is doing the reconciling, not being reconciled himself. In the Old Testament it is clear that the many references for the need for atonement is remove the sin of the people, not to change God (Lev 16). From Leviticus, "For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD" (Lev 16:30).

And clean we must be if we wish to approach God, who is righteous. Christ’s death and resurrection allows us to be made clean, giving us fellowship with God.

4. Finally, I think many Covenanters would agree with N.T. Wright here:

“Face it: to deny God’s wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love. When God sees humans being enslaved – and do please go and see the film Amazing Grace as soon as you get the chance – if God doesn’t hate it, he is not a loving God. (It was the sneering, sophisticated set who tried to make out that God didn’t get angry about that kind of thing, and whom Wilberforce opposed with the message that God really does hate slavery.) When God sees innocent people being bombed because of someone’s political agenda, if God doesn’t hate it, he isn’t a loving God. When God sees people lying and cheating and abusing one another, exploiting and grafting and preying on one another, if God were to say, ‘never mind, I love you all anyway’, he is neither good nor loving. The Bible doesn’t speak of a God of generalized benevolence. It speaks of the God who made the world and loves it so passionately that he must and does hate everything that distorts and defaces the world and particularly his human creatures. And the Bible doesn’t tell an abstract story about people running up a big debit balance in God’s bank and God suddenly, out of the blue, charging the whole lot to Jesus. The Bible tells a story about the creator God calling a people through whom he would put the world right, living with that covenant people even when they themselves went wrong, allowing them to become the place where the power of evil would do its worst, and preparing them all through for the moment when, like the composer finally stepping on stage to play the solo part, he would come and take upon himself, in the person of his Son, the pain and shame, yes, the horror and darkness, yes, but also, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in Paul and Acts and Hebrews and 1 Peter and Revelation, in Ignatius and Irenaeus and Augustine and Aquinas, in Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and Hooker, in Herbert and Donne and Wesley and Watts – he would take upon himself the condemnation which, precisely because he loves us to the uttermost, he must pronounce over that deadly disease we call sin. To deny this, as some would do today as they have for hundreds of years, is to deny the depth and weight of sin and the deeper depth and heavier weight of God’s redeeming love. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

I’m grateful that our freedom in Christ allows us to consider multiple ways of expressing the mystery of His work on the cross, and trust that our fellowship in Him will not be broken over this issue. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. May Christ’s blood bind us together in His Spirit!

In Him,



anne said...

does the idea of Jesus taking upon the condemnation of God (as NT Wright points out) fit with Waldenstrom's view of the atonement?

Beth B said...

Maybe I don't understand Wright, but I take it that when he speaks of "condemnation" he is referring to God's attitude toward sin, not toward sinners.

Jesus is like God's sponge, soaking up and absorbing the sin that has defaced us. God has refused to abide the filth of sin that mars His creation, so sends His Son to clean it up. When Jesus "takes upon himself the condemnation," He absorbs our sin and allows Himself to be "wrung out." This is an act of expiation, not propitiation.

Understood this way, I think what Wright is saying is consistent with what Waldenstrom is saying. Wright is cautioning us not to take Christ's action as some abstraction. Extending my image, we can say that Jesus was ultra-absorbent. He became sin, for our sakes. He was so absorbent that when wrung out on the cross, not only water but blood flowed. That water and blood was no abstraction, but real.(cf. John 19:34, I John 5:5-21)

DeAnna ...Loved by the best said...

I just found this blog...Thank you for the links to P P Waldenstroms sermons. I am on an incredible journey, trying to live in Fathers love! It was exciting to realize these thoughts were 150 years old!
He loves me! and in that love I will find the peace and freedom I am so desperately seeking..
Blessings to you !