Bell in the Dock, Part 5

Chapter 5 of Love Wins is about the cross.  Bell argues, first, that we should embrace a multiplicity of metaphors to communicate the meaning of what Jesus achieved on the cross:

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism.  To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors.  They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate the epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.

Bell then turns to the resurrection, arguing that the movement from death to life that we see in creation all around us is exemplified most fully in the death and resurrection of Christ, an event that has worldwide saving implications in the beginning of a new creation, or I should say, in the rebirth of this fallen creation.

I have several observations on this chapter:

(1) Bell did not do what I thought he would do here.  Given what he has already said about God and Hell, I was expecting him to argue against the idea that Jesus bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners on the cross (the idea known as “penal substitution,” where Jesus paid the penalty that sinners deserved as a substitute in their place).  This doctrine of the cross has come under attack in recent years, and I am glad to see that Bell did not join in the attacks here.  I am not sure what he would say if he were questioned directly on this issue, but I am glad to see that this chapter was not a diatribe against penal substitution.

(2) I agree with much of what is said in this chapter.  We must speak of Christ’s work on the cross with a multiplicity of metaphors because the Scripture does so.  Also, we must speak of Christ’s resurrection as the beginning of a new creation with worldwide saving implications, again, because the Scripture says so.  No complaint from me here.  Bell and I disagree a great deal about the details of how this works out, but most of what he says in this chapter, spoken at a more general level, is right on target.

(3) I do, however, think Bell’s understanding of the cross needs to be refined.  He pictures the authors of the New Testament looking at the world around them, trying to find different metaphors to communicate the richness of the truth about what Jesus has done.  I am not saying that the NT authors never did this.  But I do think there is a lot more to it than that.

Bell apparently assumes that what is most important when we employ a metaphor to communicate the meaning of the cross is the ability of that metaphor to connect to its audience.  Thus, just as the apostles found various metaphors for their setting, we should feel free to find various metaphors in our setting.  We should not elevate any particular metaphor or view of the atonement.  They are all equally legitimate, and the only criterion to use when determining which one to employ is what will most appeal to your hearers.  I hope I have not put words in his mouth, but that is what Bell appears to be saying.

But what did the apostles actually do when they spoke about the cross?  Did they look around for random images and ideas that would somehow make intelligible explanations for the cross?  No.  They derived their doctrine of atonement from the metaphors, categories, and images of the Old Testament.  I do not mean that they spoke and wrote in ways that were unintelligible to their Greco-Roman audiences, for there are many Old Testament categories and metaphors that overlap with that of the Greco-Roman world.  But I do mean that they interpreted the cross as an event set within a storyline that comes from the Old Testament, a storyline that is laced with atonement theology.  They communicated the cross to a Greco-Roman world by pulling their audience back into the story of the Old Testament.  And that, I submit, is what we must do today.  The most important factor to determine the way we speak about the cross is not what is intelligible to our audience.  It is, rather, what accurately communicates for our audience the biblical nature of the atonement as an event set within the storyline of Scripture.  To be sure, modern people are not very familiar with the storyline of Scripture.  And that’s why evangelism is primarily about story-telling, educating, drawing our audience into the Bible rather than accommodating the Bible to them.

I have explained more of that storyline in this post, where I argue that the basic conflict of the Bible’s storyline is that of God vs. man.  Our greatest problem is that we are not properly related to God.  As treasonous rebels, we stand under the threat of his wrath.  So that means that if our understanding of the cross is going to do justice to the Bible’s storyline, it must address primarily the problem of the wrath of God that hangs over us due to our sin.  We need, first and foremost, to be forgiven of our sins.  I elevate penal substitution, not as the only possible way of speaking about the cross, but as the fundamental way of speaking about it.

And then, once penal substitution is in place, various other images and metaphors shoot right out of it like spokes from the hub of a wagon wheel.  In fact, I would argue that, as an integrating doctrine of atonement, penal substitution actually supports and strengthens all of the other legitimately biblical views.

How does the cross give us victory over Satan?  Clearly, the resurrection represents triumph over the devil, but why did Jesus have to die to defeat Satan?  Without penal substitution, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain without resorting to sub-biblical ideas about God.  But with penal substitution, the victory over Satan falls right into place.  Christ has disarmed our enemy by taking away his greatest weapon: the power to accuse us before God (see Colossians 2:13-15, where these two ideas are linked together; see also Revelation 12:9-11).  Divine victory over the devil is not a matter of raw power.  Against an omnipotent God Satan’s raw power is nothing anyway.  God could wink at him and obliterate him in an instant.  No, divine victory over Satan is a legal matter.  Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and that left the Accuser (the literal meaning of the word “Satan”) with no further legal basis to accuse.

How is the death of Christ a demonstration of the love of God for us?  Without penal substitution, it does not make much sense.  Can you imagine a father telling his son, “I want to show you how much I love you,” right before jumping into a lake to drown himself?  What’s the point?  But if Jesus, by the will of the Father, willingly gave up his life to endure God’s wrath in our place, then it is perfectly clear how such would be an act of love for us.  It is no surprise to see John connecting the love of God with the act of giving up Christ as a propitiation (a sacrifice that turns God’s wrath away) for us in 1 John 4:10.

How does the death of Christ result in our reconciliation to God?  Without penal substitution, it has no inner logic.  We are at enmity with God, and he is at enmity with us.  Jesus dies and is raised, and somehow that ends the hostility.  But how?  Again, it is because Christ died in our place, taking the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins.

The biblical view of the atonement is a rich one, and I commend Rob Bell for seeking to explore its riches with a multiplicity of images and metaphors.  But he is wrong to say that these images and metaphors all stand on a level playing field.  They do not.  We must reckon with the following realities:

First, we must seek to understand the cross according to the God-given metaphors of Scripture.  We may come up with our own metaphors today to help in the task of evangelism, but the only normative metaphors are those that God himself has communicated through the inspired Scripture.  If we do draw from modern day ideas to communicate the cross, these ideas must be in harmony with the God-given metaphors of Scripture.

Second, we must understand the cross in terms of the Bible’s storyline, as the climactic moment in which our greatest threat–divine wrath–is overcome.  This is the conflict that drives the whole story, and if the cross does not address it, then the cross is not a fitting climax to the story, and we are left with the threat of divine wrath hanging over our heads.

Third, we must understand penal substitution as the heart of the atonement and of the gospel, the central achievement that supports and sustains all other biblically legitimate ways of speaking about the cross.  This is where the Bible itself leads us.

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15 Responses to Bell in the Dock, Part 5

  1. Bill says:

    Would be interested to know what you think about molinism . . . it seems that’s the only logical way out of the theodicy created by holding both exclusivism and Calvinism together.

    And, you didn’t mention anything about limited atonement here. I find this to be a common occurrence amongst Calvinists. I don’t understand how a Calvinist can honestly talk about the cross without mentioning limited atonement, which is I think the weakest of the five points, biblically speaking. Rather, I think it has clearly been invented to make the determinist system more coherent – otherwise God propitiates for unrepentant sin twice: once on the cross, and once in hell.

    You can read Piper’s explanation here, with which I’m sure you’re familiar:

    Piper bends Scripture left and right to fit limited atonement – it’s painfully clear. I’m not saying this is typical of him, but here it is obvious. And as usual, Piper misrepresents Arminianism. If someone writes you a check as a gift, and you endorse it, did you earn that money? Of course not, but this is essentially what Calvinist accuse Arminians of thinking. The sin has already been paid for, unlike what Piper says. The second second however – a reconciled relationship – depends on faith, which is also a gift, but not without human agency (as demonstrated very well by the illustration above).

    The prodigal son is an excellent illustration for how God’s atonement must be understood as unlimited. Here we are at the age-old debate! The only way possible way around it – again, I think – is through Craig’s middle knowledge (though in my view he does not preserve human autonomy despite claims to the contrary).

  2. Well, there are several things here to discuss:

    1. Regarding Molinism, I am fascinated by that proposal, but I ultimately reject it for three reasons:

    (1) I think the “grounding objection” is fatal to this view. If human beings have libertarian free will, so that our decisions are, by definition, unpredictable in any given situation, then how can God know what every free agent would do in every possible situation? On its own terms, Molinism is self-contradictory.

    (2) But even if I found it coherent, I would still reject it because I reject libertarian freedom. I don’t find that concept either compatible with Scripture or philosophically persuasive.

    (3) Furthermore, while I like Molinism better than Arminianism, I still believe it promotes error with regard to the doctrine of God. It compromises his aseity by making his decree dependent on the autonomous decisions of free agents that God (fore?)knows by this strange category of knowledge. God’s decree, and therefore his knowledge, become dependent on man, and thus God’s freedom is limited by human freedom. God cannot do as he pleases; he must select from a range of options that are presented to him apart from his will.

    I’m not sure why you say that Molinism is the only theodicy available if I uphold both Calvinism and exclusivism. Why does that combination of doctrines create an unusual need for a theodicy?

    2. No, I did not mention limited atonement. I did not think it was necessary in this post, but I have written at length about it in a series of posts I wrote last year:

    (Scroll down to the bottom and work your way up to read the posts in order.)

    Obviously, I don’t think the doctrine of limited atonement was invented by men. I think that, properly understood, it is taught by Scripture both implicitly and explicitly, but I’ll leave you to my series to see the arguments I give for it.

    3. The Piper article (actually, a statement from all of the elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church) does not bend Scripture left and right to fit limited atonement. Which Scripture passages do you find it bending?

    There is one place where I might harbor some disagreement. Their take on 1 John 2:2 is a possible reading, but I don’t consider it the most likely reading. I think John’s statement regarding “the whole world” is universal in scope, but it is focused on the exclusivity of Christ as Savior, not on the scope of the intention of his redemptive work. Wayne Grudem, noting verbal parallels elsewhere in the NT, argues that it should be translated, “He is the propitiation available for our sins, and not for ours only but also [available] for the sins of the whole world.” This reading, which is also compatible with limited atonement, is one I find to be more plausible. What John is saying is that if anyone is going to be saved, he or she is going to be saved by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, which is available for any and all who will receive him by faith.

    When the authors of the document say that in Arminianism “we are left to save ourselves,” it is important to understand what they mean by that. They are not accusing Arminians of promoting a works-based system of righteousness in which salvation is earned as a wage. Arminians are clearly not Pelagian. Nor are they Semi-Pelagian, as Roger Olson has argued well in his book on Arminian theology.

    But I don’t recall this article saying that Arminians earn their salvation or that they are Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in their theology. What it says is that the decisive element in salvation, the one that distinguishes the saved from the damned, is the human element. God has done everything he is willing to do to save us, making salvation possible for all, and then he leaves the final and most decisive part to us. So, in a very real sense, he leaves us to save ourselves by distinguishing ourselves from those who do not make as wise a choice as we do in receiving it.

    Imagine a scenario where Michael Jordan, feeling ill one game night, sits on the bench for the whole game until the last thirty seconds. The game is so close toward the end that his coach (at the time it was Phil Jackson) calls on him to enter the game in spite of his illness in order to attempt the game-winning shot. Jordan enters the game and sinks the game-winning shot right as time expires. Obviously, Jordan’s shot was not the only factor that won the game. In fact, it in comparison to the number of points scored by his teammates, it was miniscule. But it was THE decisive element that won the game for his team, so that it would not be unfair to say that Micahel Jordan won the game for his team.

    That is what the Bethlehem elders are saying about Arminianism. In that theological system, God does almost everything. But when the seconds are ticking away on the clock, we have to enter the game and sink that final shot on our own, or else we lose, and God fails to save us. Man is decisive in salvation, not God.

    4. With regard to the prodigal son, we must remember that this is a parable with one major point, and if we press the details of it to address questions it was never meant to address, we will go off course in our interpretation. The point of the parable is to show that we should rejoice when the lost are found, unlike the older brother who refuses to share in his father’s joy at the younger brother’s return. Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for their grumbling over the fact that tax collectors and sinners are welcome guests in Jesus’ presence (see v. 1 of the chapter). The three parables of Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) all climax with joy when the lost is found. The main point of the lost son parable is to call out the Pharisees for being like the older brother and failing to rejoice in what delights the heart of God.

    The parable does not directly address atonement theology, nor was that Jesus’ intention. There is no sacrifice of atonement in the parable (no single parable can communicate every truth). It is simply an illustration of the joy that God takes in forgiving the repentant, a joy that should be matched in our own lives when we see drug addicts, prostitutes, and other lost ones turn from sin and come home to their Father.

  3. Bill says:

    Aaron, I don’t have nearly enough time to address everything you’ve mentioned – I feel that you sometimes overwhelm my questions with excessive responses – but I’m especially bothered by your ignorning of my “signing the check” illustration and assigning instead the Michael Jordan example. How convenient. How is that like accepting God’s invitation to submit and commune with him? There is almost no correlation. Making a last-minute shot requires incredible skill and precision. Endorsing a check does not. You have completely discounted my main point about Arminianism by changing the metaphor – sneaky, typical Calvinist rhetoric. Meet me on my own terms here.

    Secondly, you describe the decision to choose God from the Arminian perspective as “wiser.” This too is a common and misleading characterization. I do not see it as a “wise” decision at all. Rather, it is the humble, broken decision of surrender, and the “wise” are not likely to make it. Regarding your oversimplification of the prodigal son parable, I see it as just that, and again, very convenient for your argument. I’m not saying there’s an explicit atonement theory in the parable. But there is a lot more there than what you say – there’s no reason historically or literarily for why there can’t be layers of meaning (see Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God” for instance . . . Bonhoeffer is another good source). Conservative evangelicals often use other parables in this way to make claims about hell (e.g., the rich man and Lazarus). But one can press that main point alone – about the lost being found – and still get way deeper than you suggest with all three of those parables. How are the lost found? What exactly makes them found? Sometimes the shepherd goes searching. Other times the lost come home. Sometimes they’re found because they decide to repent. Other times Christ swoops them up in his arms. It’s impossible to separate the Father’s posture in the story from the gladness about the son’s return. His posture is ALREADY one of forgiveness BEFORE the son comes back. This is the most beautiful picture of love I can think of, and one that is consistent with Jesus when he says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Do you think God answered this prayer? How? Had those men heard the Gospel, or are they too like the thief on the cross?

    Also, this depiction of love is consistent with the kind of love that God in Christ commands us to show one another. Does God not perfectly embody this same kind of love? According to your logic, apparently not.

    As for your many questions and concerns, maybe I’ll return to them later. There’s much to say about the way Piper conforms Scripture to limited atonement, but many others have pointed this out. Oh, and Calvinism and exclusivism make a theodicy because of what Craig argues – namely, that it’s contrary to heart of God as revealed in Christ for God to create a universe where only those who hear the gospel have a chance to be saved, and for God to have predestined it this way. Therefore, Craig says, it must be the case that God knows everyone’s response in every possible situation in the best possible universe.

  4. I would gladly respond to each issue you have raised here, Bill, but out of fear of further overwhelming you with my responses, let me ask you to provide me a list of things you would prefer me to answer.

  5. Bill says:

    I believe I said that your answers sometimes seems to overwhelm my QUESTIONS – not me. I wouldn’t want to flatter you so . . . In other words, your verbage drowns out the point I’m trying to make by exhaustively and selectively treating some comments and ignoring others. Of course we all do this to sometimes, and to some degree, but you’re pretty consistent. I’m not sure why you feel the need to be snide. I don’t know how else to interpret your tone. I admit I’ve expressed my frustration quite candidly at times, and maybe this is inappropriate, but you err on the side of expressing condescension, and that is what I find particularly regrettable.

    Specifically, I’ve accused you of mishandling my first question by inserting your own metaphor. Therefore, I don’t see why I should have to exhaust my response to your reply before you return and re-address my concerns – particular with the silly Michael Jordan example. But, this is your blog . . .

    • Bill says:

      To clarify, I think I only asked two questions in the first place: the one about Arminianism, and secondly about Jesus’ prayer to God for the forgiveness of his crucifiers.

  6. Bill,

    Let me start by explaining why I responded the way I did. After just typing out what I thought were thorough and helpful responses to your numerous comments, I felt like you were berating me for a relatively minor issue. I never feel like I can address absolutely every single word that anyone offers on my blog, so I try to generalize and categorize. And when I provide answers, I am rarely satisfied with half-measures, so I try to explore issues in a manner that is as thorough as I believe is necessary to give a just response.

    Having said that, I do think you are correct that my last comment was a snide remark. I didn’t really think of it that way when I first posted it, but that is a fair description. In the context of a conversation like this one, it was unwise and unwarranted. I apologize and ask for your forgiveness.

    Now, to move on with this discussion, I’ll try to come back now to the one issue that seems to be of greatest concern here. There is something good and right about the metaphor of endorsing a check. It indicates that faith is not a work, but rather an act of reception. No complaint from me there.

    But on the other hand, if it really were that easy, then surely every single person in the world would exercise faith. And yet the way is narrow that leads to life. What is it about exercising faith that makes it so hard for us to do? It is our sin. Sin blinds us to the truth. Both Calvinists and Arminians are agreed on this.

    Calvinists say that God opens our eyes unilaterally so that we exercise faith. Arminians say God begins the process of opening our eyes, but leaves the last little bit to us, and it turns out that that last little bit is very difficult for us to do on our own, otherwise more people would do it. So I don’t think that a metaphor that indicates some kind of achievement is necessarily wrong as a complementary perspective here.

    In any case, I wasn’t so much focusing on that point anyway. I was simply trying to explain how the authors of that document could say that in Arminianism “we are left to save ourselves” in a certain sense, even though salvation is still by grace.

  7. Okay, now about Jesus’ prayer in Luke 23:34. There are at least two issues here:

    (1) First is the textual issue. It is not clear that this prayer even belongs in the text. All four members of the committee on the UBS 4th edition Greek New Testament considered it a textual corruption (hence the “A” reading that omits it in UBS 4). Denny Burk has recently written in defense of the originality of the reading here:

    I’m still undecided on that question.

    (2) If we accept it as Scripture, what then does it mean? I think the best interpretation within the context of Luke’s overall story is to see that God did indeed answer this prayer in the book of Acts when the church was born among 3,000 people in Jerusalem who repented and believed in Christ. Notice in particular that in his Pentecost sermon Peter accused them of the crime of crucifying the Lord’s Messiah (Acts 2:36). So, God did answer this prayer (if Jesus actually prayed it) by showing mercy to those in Jerusalem who later repented of their act of rejecting the Messiah. Some of the very ones who called out for his crucifixion and mocked him as he hung there on the cross were later baptized in his name for the forgiveness of sins. Their forgiveness came as a result of their receiving the message of the gospel through Peter.

  8. Bill says:

    Thanks for the apology. No problem, and I reciprocate it to the extent that I’ve been too reactionary – probably wont be the last time for me!

    You’ve given a good response here (I’m referring to the one about Arminianism, not Jesus’ prayer in Luke yet). And I know you maybe weren’t intending to go into a detailed discussion here about the Arminian view, but here are a few more thoughts – don’t feel like you need to respond.

    The problem from my perspective is that you continue to describe “the last little bit” of acceptance, in Arminian terms, as doing something, as active, when it in fact it is a passive, receptive posture of the heart – just like the rest of the time. I think you’ve already shown that you understand this argument though, even if you disagree, so we can move on.

    It is precisely in this way that I’ve described above, however, that I am also able to understand salvation as something difficult and narrow – camel through the eye of a needle. Surrendering everything to Christ is a painful, purging process, but the process itself is constituted by letting go (again, passive) of everything that entangles, distracts, and causes one to rely on himself or herself rather than on God (i.e., sin, as you say) unilaterally for grace. So it’s a misunderstanding to say that human agency comes in for one brief second. It’s passive the whole time, so I see justification itself as a process AND a moment – not a flash-decision point. Sanctification is not achieved either – it’s always given in grace, so I don’t identify a sharp distinction between sanctification and justification like most Protestants do. Rather, the focus is on participation and attachment after God descends and elevates or heightens our nature – very Patristic language here. It’s dynamic and dramatic, but without being based on works. Lots of tensions. This also explains in part why I’m weary of the idea of preaching being necessary for salvation in all cases. All of existence itself is a gift. Most Reformed theology deprives nature of God’s immanence by positing unnecessarily breaking divides between saving, or special, and common grace that don’t seem biblical – admittedly though, I’m ok with Greek philosophy playing a role, because it obviously did in some parts Scripture already without becoming gnostic.

    So here I’m turning our conversation back to exclusivism vs. inclusivism a little bit, because that is more important to me (for some reason I don’t think this comment is going to make you into an Arminian or a classical theist, no matter how “good” I make it 🙂 I’m actually more appreciative of some Catholics on this point anyway, as you might guess based on what I’ve said above – similar to someone like von Balthasar, who is just incredible if you haven’t read him (he and Barth, along with Pannenberg in my opinion, are the best that the 20th century has to offer in theology – all of them are very much removed from liberalism, and they are ecclesio-centric). I lean this way because it allows for more mystery than both Calvinism and Arminianism, and in this regard it is a lot more analogical – an essential aspect I appreciate and feel we need to retrieve.

    So human hearts can be set on a trajectory towards Christ long before people actually hear the message, and because of this, I don’t think God would refuse these people just because the missionary gets a flat tire – here’s another reason why Calvinism and exclusivism don’t mix. How paradoxically anthropomorphic that human beings would become conduits for the salvation of others, even if only on a functional or transactional level. This is the very problem that led Moltmann and Barth to universalism, though each of them in different ways of course.

    Regarding the notion that individual salvation is determined by every person’s decision in response to an invitation for faith, Moltmann answers:

    “Is this theologically conceivable? Can some people damn themselves, and others redeem themselves by accepting Christ? If this were so, God’s decisions would be dependent on the will of human beings. God would become the auxiliary who executes the wishes of people who decide their fate for themselves. If I can damn myself, I am my own God and judge. Taken to a logical conclusion this is atheistic.”

    This is not my view really, but I think it’s a good way to argue against exclusivism if you’re Calvinistic (even though Motlmann is no five-pointer) – because Moltmann obviously doesn’t limit salvation to those who have heard/accepted the gospel.

    I’ve said a lot here already, and maybe now I’m the one “overwhelming,” but here’s a “departing” remark. After some reflection, I think the biggest difference between us – though there are many theological issues – is probably regarding our hermeneutics. Your seem to be supremely biblicist in a very reformed way, whereas I take a Wesleyan approach – Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience held together, none of them completing trumping any of the other criteria. This would explain a lot I bet. In other words, if my conscience and experience with Christ simply doesn’t allow me believe in a God that condemns everyone who hasn’t heard about Him, then one debatable verse in Romans 10 (it’s debatable in scholarship anyway) isn’t going to change that conviction for me, or even several verses for that matter, and I don’t see a major problem with this, whereas I’m sure you do. I think there is an identifiable whole and direction in the greater body of Scripture that runs against this. Not to mention, I think biblical criticism has shown us that despite my very high view of Scripture as authoritative and inspired, I think there’s a canon within a canon (the personhood of Christ), and even some human elements that make certain passages less authoritative than others. I do not think this is a slippery slope. Rather, it’s living in a tension. I think it means hard work, prayer, discernment, trusting the Spirit, and continued wrestling with the text.

    Of course, this is why you are SBC and I am not 🙂 – along with the rest of American Protestants, most Catholics, the majority of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, many Pentecostals (for different reasons though, like charisms), and some progressive evangelicals.

  9. Hi, Bill. I accept your reciprocated apology. That matter is done and behind us now.

    The previous comment is very helpful in highlighting our differences. I want to continue this conversation in the most cordial way possible, so I want to preface what I am about to say with this: I am speaking with respect and concern for you. Please do not think I am condescending. I am not. I doubt I will change your mind here, but at the very least I would like you to hear my concern about what you have just said. If you have similar concerns about me, I will be glad to receive them. Anyway, here it goes:

    I think your approach to theology is deeply flawed and thus very troubling.

    It sounds sharp when I put it that way, I’m sure, but I doubt the statement really comes as a surprise to you. I don’t say it as an insult, but simply as an invitation to consider another perspective and to see what your theological method looks like through my eyes. As I said, I doubt I will change your mind, but if I can help set your thoughts on a course of refinement that may make you aware of potential dangers, then it will have been worthwhile. Or if other readers benefit from seeing this conversation play out, it will be worthwhile.

    The most troubling thing here is that you admit to holding to a canon within the canon. You argue that the personhood of Christ is your canon, and thus (presumably) that parts of Scripture that more directly reference Christ must be more authoritative for you than the others. There are numerous problems with this approach:

    (1) We only know Christ through Scripture, and ALL Scripture is a testimony to him. If we pit one part of Scripture against others, we are dismissing parts of the Bible that point us to Christ in some way.

    (2) Most often this issue swirls around the writings of Paul vs. the Gospels. But this view fails to note that Paul was a chosen apostle of the risen Christ, as Luke (the Gospel writer) relates in Acts 9. Paul’s apostolic instructions, therefore, are authorized by none other than Christ himself, unless we want to dismiss the Acts account. And in that case, what stops us from dismissing all of Luke and Acts together? So if Paul’s words are authorized by Christ, they come to us as though Christ himself spoke them (and, through the doctrine of inspiration, we can say that Christ did, in fact, speak them).

    (3) This is a subjective approach to the Bible. Inevitably, it will degenerate into the elevation of your preferred passages over your less preferred passages. Rather than being challenged and stretched by the Word of God, you will go to it to confirm what you already believe.

    (4) Who is really calling the shots here? Are you bowing humbly before every word God has spoken, or have you decided in advance what kinds of words God can and cannot speak?

    (5) In any case, elevating the Gospels (or the teachings/words of Jesus) over other passages doesn’t really help you out of the theological issues we have been discussing here, for Jesus is the one who said the following:

    – “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:25-27). Jesus delights in sovereign divine election of some unto salvation.

    – “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. . . . No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37, 44). These two complementary truths (that ALL whom the Father gives to him will come, and NO ONE will come who is not drawn by the Father) indicate that ALL of the elect, and ONLY the elect, will come to Jesus.

    – “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). Jesus limits his intercessory work to those given to him by the Father, i.e., the elect. All of these passages (and others) indicate a particularity in Jesus’ redemptive purpose, thus countering your claim that God’s revelation in Christ requires a universal salvific will.

    – And if Jesus is your authority, don’t you have to agree with what Jesus teaches concerning Scripture itself? In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus says not one jot or tittle will pass away from the Law (the Old Testament) until all is accomplished. This is on par with what preachers say today about the Bible, namely, that every word is from God from the table of contents to the maps at the end. In John 10:35 Jesus says “The Scripture cannot be broken.” Jesus speaks of Scripture like a fundamentalist. He does not allow the possibility that it could err, for it is the very Word of God.

    I have not studied Wesley much, but I don’t think he would be happy with your use of his quadrilateral. The way I understand it, the Wesleyan quadrilateral draws from reason, experience, and tradition (as all theology does), but it does so under the norming norm of Scripture. That is what sola scriptura means. I wholeheartedly affirm that reason, experience, and tradition have a vital role to play in theology, but none of them play the role of master. Only Scripture speaks to us with an infallible voice, for it is the very voice of God. I don’t like a lot of the theological conclusions that Wesley came to, but if I understand him correctly he would say that he came to them under the supreme authority of Scripture. He sought only to teach what he understood Scripture to teach, and he would never knowingly contradict anything that he thought Scripture teaches.

    I invite you to read a blog post from my old blog site that I wrote several years ago that speaks to this issue. I think we have here a fork in the theological road, and we have to decide whether we will bow humbly before all God has spoken or whether we will seek to sit in judgment over what he has spoken. Here is the address:

    Let me close simply by saying that I know this is a bold comment, but I hope you will receive it in the spirit it is being offered: with absolutely no maliciousness or sense of superiority on my part. As much as is possible in an internet relationship, I speak these words in love and out of concern for you, and as I mentioned, I would gladly listen to similar words from you if you have them.

  10. Bill says:

    Aaron – thanks. I don’t consider your response to be malicious. Since you’ve been especially careful to make that clear, let me do the same. Below when I use ALL CAPS, it is meant to stand in for italics, not YELLING. You understand.

    Basically, we are just in two totally different philosophical and epistemic worlds.

    Let me just point out that you’ve selected basically one of my statements – canon within a canon – and focused there, and that’s fine, but I said a lot of other things that I think should influence the way you understand what I mean by “canon within a canon.” You jump to many conclusions about my position, but that is partly my fault for not explaining what I meant by it – I will try to get to that. I’ve tried to explain to you how I view Scripture, which is different from how you view it, but then you turn around and criticize me PRECISELY ON THE GROUNDS of how you view Scripture – do you see the problem? It’s just a circle. So now we have to ask WHY I view Scripture the way I do – in other words, let’s step back BEFORE we choose the Bible, and talk about HOW we choose it (in most cases, it was probably just given to us by our parents actually, but that’s another point). My take is a very common move, however, and here’s what I think many people mean by it:

    It has to do with the bigger picture of revelation, epistemology, and how we conceive of truth in the first place. The words of Scripture are symbols, because they are words. Of course these words have meanings – but that’s exactly the point: meaningS pural. Scripture mediates. It is not 1:1 with God. In this regard, it is a sacrament, a sign, which culminates around the fact that God has chosen to reveal God’s self by taking on flesh. The Christ-form, both human and divine, is the archetype of why we’re even listening to this book in the first place. Because the claim has been made that God interrupted things big time and is reconciling all things to himself. Otherwise, I see no reason to consider it a special book. It would just be on the same level as the Torah and the Koran. So when I say that I read Scripture in a christocentric lens, I do not mean that I trust the gospels more than Paul’s letters. This is the first mistaken assumption you make. Paul himself is christocentric, so there’s no problem there. Rather, what I’m emphasizing is that the incarnation is the focal point – the incarnation is a New Testament theme, not just a Gospel theme. I have the same canon you do, but the canon within a canon is not a book, or a verse, or a chapter. It is the unified, but not UNIFORM, witness to Christ that we find throughout the whole NT. Out of all the passages from Jesus that you gave me, I consider you to be making ridiculous proof-texting moves – most of the them abusing the wider context of John – and really only one of them presents a legitimate concern for me – the last one, but you and I define election differently, so we really can’t discuss this any further. What you have done, however, is use a 19-20th century version/invention of innerancy and put in the mouth of a 1st century Jew. Now that is bad form. Completely untenable. Sometimes you sound sophisticated when you talk about Scripture, and at other times, you sound like you’ve never taken a single class biblical studies – an honest class anyway. Jesus’ statements about the letter of the law and Scripture not being broken – are you serious? Surely you see how weak of ground you stand on. There is no compelling or decisive reason to interpret that in the way you just have. You also interpret Jesus’ words about who the Son chooses to reveal himself to be unnecessarily narrow. There’s no problem there for me either. Great passage about the reminder to be humble like little children in our faith. In other words, it’s about TRUST more than knowledge, which is my central point.

    You act as if I have no consistently identifiable criteria for my reading of the Bible. There are many undisputed things in the Bible that can govern discrepancies. We all rely on this to some degree. How is it any different from your approach? Yours is equally subjective. Like you’ve, I’ve chosen a WAY to read and interpret Scripture. ALL of our approaches are subjective! If you want to be systematic, YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE to privilege some passage and neglect others. Everybody admits this, and does it. The idea that every word in the Bible is equally God’s chosen word falls apart with even a dab of historical-critical study (the check of reason). It’s just a lip-service doctrine that nobody actually consistently follows in practice. Of course we can still argue about which set of passages is “louder” and more consistent with the overall unfolding revelation, and so on . . . we will do this until Christ returns, with little consensus be reached.

    You accuse me of coming to the text with my presuppositions and not submitting to it as God’s Word. Here’s another misconception. Your view quickly privies yourself to the ONE, RIGHT translation. So you’re only submitting to what you already think is the right understanding. This is fundamentalism at its fiercest. It’s why there are suicide bombers, and it’s why many people left your denomination (i.e., epistemological arrogance and naivete, with almost no regard for the complexity of hermeneutics . .. your interpretative lens is reductive to empirical exegesis – a modern phenomenon – not classical Christianity). I do not think there is ONE, RIGHT translation of any passage that WE can ultimately grasp – I do think there is ONE TRUTH. I’m just much more skeptical about how thoroughly and easily we can directly access it than you are. Just because we have the Bible doesn’t mean we know so well what it always says. I would never know this based on the way you use Scripture against me. At the same time, I think we CAN know A LOT of what it says, and ENOUGH of what it says to still have faith in Christ and in the overall metanarrative, and to become disciples, and tot even write systematic theologies! I do stand under Scripture’s its authority. It just think it’s a very MESSY authority as far we are concerned. Frankly, I think stand OVER it, because you KNOW exactly how to interpret it. In this way, my epistemological approach is already far more open and humble in its stance before God, whereas for you, the Bible becomes God exact WORD that you more or less fully possess and understand, and this is frightening to me. In a way, I actually think this understanding is so much more powerful when scrutinized by modern science, biology, anthropology, and so on. YOUR treatment of the Bible is much closer to the way Muslims view the Koran than the we the majority of Scripture view the Bible.

    You are right about Wesley privileging Scripture, but reason, tradition, and experience are checks and balances for him. Your view of Scripture is so “high” (which for me is actually NOT high, but unrealistic, which makes it LOW) that I don’t think these other three things do much checking at all.

    You are also dishonest I feel (though maybe not consciously), about the extent to which you yourself might be guilty coming to the text with preconceived ideas and systems of belief that shape the way you read the text in the first place. EVERYONE does this to some extent. The key is to be self-critical. I’m willing to admit that some passages challenge my on-going systematic theology (I’m always reforming and constructing/deconstructing it – maybe you are too). But I don’t see this in your thinking, even if you claim it. You basically take your view for granted as the criteria by which you can judge mine. I too have a view, but the difference is my epistemology. It’s that I’m SO CONFIDENT in my view. It’s that I strongly doubt the basis for the certainty of your view. I have a different view, but it’s mostly different in that I don’t agree with how comfortable you are with staking a flag down on ABSOLUTE TRUTH. I think you are guilty of idolizing Scripture itself and missing what it testifies to, which is not so easily formulated. I think the manor in which you theologize reflects a lack of historical awareness about the very horizon of your knowledge, where you fit in the grand scheme of the Christian tradition, with it’s GREAT diversity of interpretation. No doubt these things I am saying will lead some to criticize that I’m just being relativistic and postmodern or something. Nonsense. I’m decidedly NOT post-structuralist. I’ve wrestled, however, the the linguistic turn and critique of those like Foucault, Derrida, Levinas, etc., and I still confess the faith. They have made an important contribution that every Christian can benefit from.

    In sum, I think you take a bird’s eye view of the word, with God and the Bible in hand, and tell us how YOU think it is (and others who think like you, which is a shrinking number compared to all of global Christianity), without the appropriate awareness that you are actually standing firmly on the ground next to everybody else. This was maybe understandable (though still mistaken) in much of history when weren’t being nearly as confronted by OTHERNESS. In today’s globalized world, I do not see how it is anything other than obnoxious. We can still make truth claims, and we can still receive revelation, and have faith, but it is much more conditioned and limited than you let on.

    There is needs to be a greater FEAR about our assertions. We need to be brutally confronted by our finitude. I’m stepping way back here and not talking about specific passages or even theology yet, because this is precisely where our differences BEGIN and are much more fundamental. You can “agree” with what I’m saying here about intellectual humility, but your theology and view Scripture says otherwise. We are not so wise, so privileged, so chosen, we rich, white, male, upper-middle class US citizens who were born in Christian homes. Have you meditated on this? The Bible comes across as more of a weapon and control mechanism in your hands, and it’s as if you fuction as an elite spokesperson for it. When you associate your own views so closely with that of the so-called BIBLE – as if that settles it – there is no longer any distance between yourself and the truth. In this way, YOU make YOURSELF the determiner of truth – not God – or you at least know it exhaustively enough to tell everyone else what it is. I tremble at this notion, just like I tremble at the notion that you think you have been saved, while most throughout history have not been. That is the most convenient and oppressive belief imaginable.

    There are many strong believing Christians that share this view. You can still TRUST and PROCLAIM the revelation we have been blessed with and gifted to hear and be shaped by, and we struggling journey toward a better understanding. You seem to already be there, telling me where to turn so that I can arrive with you.

  11. Bill says:

    Sorry for typos – one in particular: above should read I am NOT so confident in my view.

    One last point: the theological view I adopt does not consign all non – Christians to hell. Yours does. From a human view, yours is much more threatening to others, so there is a much higher burden of proof placed on you. You are claiming higher staked insight into ultimate reality. The only way for you to respond is to say: God wills it. Thus you essentially become a crusader. Maybe the bible says this, maybe it doesn’t – but either way I’m not willing or able to embrace that kind of view.

  12. Bill,

    I gladly admit that I am critiquing your position from my own perspective. What alternative do I have? We are finite, and thus all human reasoning will be circular at some point. The question is not whether I am thinking from my own perspective but rather whether my perspective reflects submission to what God has spoken. I believe it does.

    I submit, however, that my understanding of Scripture as the inerrant, infallible word of God is not a theological novelty. It is what Scripture claims for itself (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21), what Jesus claimed for it (I have already referenced two of those passages, and your dismissal of my view without offering any exegetical observations is one I found to be unpersuasive). It is also what the church has believed for 2,000 years. The old argument that the Princetonians invented inerrancy is tired and widely discredited. John Woodbridge turned that argument into mulch decades ago. See his book “Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Roger-McKim Proposal”.

  13. Bill says:

    What I was suggesting by saying that you were only criticizing me from your own view, was that it might be helpful to step back and talk about why you hold that view in the first place. Regarding the specific Scripture passages you cited in the previous post, the burden of proof was never on me to disagree with your use of them. I reject the way you use them altogether – as textbook answers to presupposed, modern systematic questions. Hence I felt no need to play your exegetical game. You gave no exegetical argument either, for that matter. You just inserted them as quotes for “proof” of your argument, hence the phrase “proof-texting.” You do the exact same thing with the inerrancy question. The word inerrancy obviously does not appear in those verses. That is an interpretation of what those verses are saying that I reject, and I’m certainly not alone. I affirm that all Scripture is God-breathed, inspired, authoritative, useful for instruction, correction, etc. I can do that without being an inerrantist. Actually, I find it much healthier and consistent with the way many Christians have always read the Bible. I would use the same argument against you. I feel no need to describe the Bible in any other way than how it describes itself, which is without the concept of inerrancy. I wasn’t referring to Roger-McKim. You have a very narrow channel of sources that you’re working with for support of your views.

    The same problem arises here that we have been dealing with all along. Many people within orthodox Christianity (those who affirm the incarnation, resurrection, salvation by grace through faith, authority of Scripture, and substitutionary atonement – like your most recent post, which I mostly appreciated and agree with) feel no need to use the word inerrancy (we don’t even have the original manuscripts – what irony for an empirical, plenary claim), but your construal of orthodoxy doesn’t make them feel very included. Those of us who aren’t like you are “at risk” Christians in your view, or as you described my theology, “deeply flawed and troubling.” I find this extremely patronizing and unChrist-like.

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