Friday, September 30, 2011

Forde's critique of the Conquest or "classical" theory.

Forde's critique of the Conquest or "classical" theory.  I discuss my own critique later.

Finally, Forde discusses the “classical” or what is often called the “conquest” theory of atonement.  This theory of atonement primarily views the work of Christ being the conquest and destruction of demonic forces (i.e., sin, death, the devil, etc.).  In describing this model of atonement, Forde draws heavily from the scholarly findings of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén in his classic work Christus Victor (1931).  After reviewing the various versions of this motif in patristic theology,[1] Forde discusses what he considers to be weaknesses and strengths of theory.  Among the strengths, Forde argues that the conquest theory represents “. . . a protest against any legalistic rationalization that oversimplifies the human problem and ends with a God who is either a vindictive bookkeeper [penal substitution] or an overindulgent lover [subjective theories].”[2] 

In this, Forde appears to largely adopt Aulén’s own interpretation.  For Aulén, the conquest motif was the most fitting description of atonement because it represented a movement of God towards humanity, rather than a movement of humanity to God.[3]  In both the satisfaction and moral influence theories, he detected an often latent and sometimes not-so-latent legalistic and anthropocentric impulse.[4] Beyond this, Aulén viewed the conquest motif as representing an important negation of what he considered to be the rationalization of theological discourse found in scholasticism and post-Reformation theology.[5]  As mythological and anthropomorphic as the theories of conquest offered by the Church Fathers were, they nevertheless functioned as accurate narrative representations of the event of redemption.[6]  The event of redemption in Christ transcended normal human categories of rationalization and therefore the actual mechanism of redemption is best left undescribed.[7]  The most, Aulén believed that one could say is that atonement was a unilateral movement of the Second Person of the Trinity towards the created realm in order to saved it from the snare of demonic forces.[8]   

According to Forde, the difficulty with the view of Aulén and the Church Fathers is that the gritty reality of the cross once again becomes obscured.  For the Greek Fathers in particular, Jesus’ humanity is invested with divine glory in order to overcome and conqueror where previously Adam had failed.  Does this not, asks Forde, come perilously close to the Gnostic idea that Christ did not actually die?[9]  Does not his redemption therefore reside in his hidden glory and not his death?  Moreover, taken to its logical conclusion, the true battle of redemption for the Church Fathers occurs not in the concrete reality of the cross, but in the unseen realm of demonic forces.  In looking for redemption in Christ, the believer is therefore asked to look past the actual and concrete reality of the cross to something invisible beyond it.  Ultimately, “. . . the dramatic-dualistic imagery can also misdirect our attention away from the Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate to a mythic figure who was paying a ransom to the Devil”[10] The cross is therefore transcended and its existential force is blunted through mythological and cosmological speculation. Indeed, yet again “roses still obscure the truth.”[11

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Forde's Critique of Moral Influence Theories of Atonement.

More on Forde's view of atonement.  Personally I find much of this critique by him to be out in left field.  But this will be discussed at greater length later.

Having discussed Forde’s critique of penal satisfaction, we will now move to describe the status of so-called “Subjective” theories of atonement in his theology.  “Subjective” or what are frequently described as “moral influence” theories of atonement, fair somewhat better in Forde’s appraisal than the class of theories described in the previous section. 

Forde’s assessment is more favorable on several fronts.  First, Forde appreciates[1] many of the critiques of penal satisfaction doctrine offered by Abelard[2] and by the later Socinians,[3] particularly with regard to issues of rational coherence.  Secondly, according to Forde, those who advocate subjective theories of atonement understand the gratuity of divine love.  The recognition that divine love is a love that does not need to be “bought off,”[4] was, and remains, the main contribution of those who advanced this theory of atonement.  This is particular insight is very strongly represented in the nineteenth-century Liberal Protestant theologies of atonement.  In his treatment of this class of atonements theologies in the Jenson-Braaten dogmatics, Forde mainly focuses on the figures of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl[5] 

Ultimately though, Forde does not find this theory of atonement to be without fault either.  To begin with, he observes that both Schleiermacher and Ritschl identified Jesus’ work with the communication of his peculiar consciousness of God to the Church.  The vocation of the Church is then in turn to communicate this consciousness to the world.[6]  In Schleiermacher, this consciousness is that of divine sovereignty (i.e., “absolute dependence”), whereas in Ritschl, it is primarily that of divine love.  For the Liberal theologians, these experiences were not meant to contradict previous or normal human experiences of the divine, but rather to fulfill and complete them. 

Herein lays the difficulty with these theories for Forde.  For Forde, the eschatological nature of atonement necessitates that the work of Christ be a wholesale reversal of all that has come before.  The gospel cannot be identified with an activation or supplementation of the possibilities already present in the old age.  This is true, whether these possibilities or potencies are to be identified with an eternal law or a particular description of universal religious experience.  The cross is a brutal, harsh, and utterly disruptive reality, smashing to pieces all previous realities.  It is the end of all human attempts at controlling God, including the attempt to control God by forcing him into the straightjacket of human conceptual schemes.  Such schemes attempt to resist God’s radical judgment and grace, by fitting them into parameters of the old age.

Hence, when Ritschl and Schleiermacher claimed that Christ went to the cross merely to demonstrate his loyalty to his mission of communicating his consciousness of God, the harsh, brutal, and eschatological disruption of the cross was obscured and obfuscated.  It is obscured by the need to harness the cross into the service of a particular theory of religious consciousness.  This theory therefore ultimately does little better than to serve as a means of sinful humanity of protecting itself from the brutal negation presented before its eyes in the crucified Jesus.  Therefore Forde writes, “The bleakness and disaster of the cross are covered by all the theological roses.  Jesus is rescued from death by theology, so any further resurrection is largely superfluous.”[7

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Forde's Critique of Substitutionary Atonement.

Here's an excerpt from an article I'm writing on Forde's view of atonement.  I'm also going to use some of this same material for my paper at the Ft. Wayne symposium- though this is obviously not word-for-word what I'm going to say.  These are of course Forde's views and ones I rather violently reject.  My full response will come in the near future.

We will begin our examination with Forde’s theology with a preliminary discussion his critique of various theories of atonement proposed within the larger Christian theological tradition.  Of all the doctrines of reconciliation that Forde discusses, it would seem that he dislikes none more than that of penal satisfaction.  Forde’s negative judgment upon this view of atonement first took shape in doctoral dissertation The Law-Gospel Debate and largely colors his view of the doctrine his subsequent writings. 

In this early work, prior to discussing the doctrine law and atonement in the theology of the nineteenth century German Lutheran theologian Johannes von Hofmann,[1] Forde enters into a short of critique of the doctrine of reconciliation as expounded by the Lutheran scholastic authors.  Lutheran scholasticism held that there was an eternal law (i.e., the holy and eternal statutory will of God) which was reflected both in natural law and Sacred Scriptures.  Since the law is the eternal will of God, it must be fulfilled in order for redemption to take place.[2]  To put the matter succinctly: In redeeming creation, God simply cannot ignore his own will.

As it pertains to the nature of atonement, Forde primarily registers his dislike of the doctrine of lex aeterna because it seems to place redemption within the structure of eternal law.[3]  According to Forde, if the gospel only comes about as a result of the fulfillment of the law, then the gospel is necessarily subsumed under the form of the law.  As a result, the law becomes God’s primary reality and the gospel is, at best, merely derivative and, at worst, something of an afterthought. 

Forde’s second objection to penal substitution touches on the eschatological nature of salvation.  According to our author, conceptualizing redemption as the fulfillment of the law by Christ does not make redemption a maximally disruptive eschatological act.  Forde divides the human relationship to God between an old age of law and a new age of the gospel.  If the law was fulfilled in the gospel, then the new age of grace would in fact represent an unactualized potency latent in the old age of law.[4]  Much of Forde’s treatment here appears to be dependant on early to mid-twentieth century interpretations of New Testament eschatology proposed by such figures as Albert Schweitzer[5]  and Rudolf Bultmann.[6]  These treatments focused on the notion of the advent of the kingdom of God in Jesus and Paul’s preaching as representing a total reversal of previous reality of the old age. 

Lastly, in The Law-Gospel Debate, Forde dislikes the idea of substitutionary atonement because it describes reconciliation as an act that simultaneously fulfills God’s justice and mercy.  Forde feels that atonement is best thought of as a fulfillment of God’s unilateral love, without any attempt to balance-out love with justice.  According to Forde, in contrast to this the Lutheran scholastics “. . . attempted to understand the nature of the divine act in Christ in terms of an equivalence between wrath and love.”[7]  Therefore, implicitly Forde seems to suggest that the Lutheran scholastic doctrine of atonement makes the grace of redemption less authentic with its insistence on the need for the satisfaction of justice. 

What is implicit in his criticism in The Law-Gospel Debate is made explicit in his treatment of the issue in the Jenson-Braaten dogmatics. Having described Anselm’s theory of atonement[8] Forde asks “But what of God?  Can God not simply forgive?”[9]  In other words, not only is God’s sovereignty constrained by the concept of the eternal law, but the doctrine of substitution represents God as an ogre who can only forgive as a result of Jesus’ death.  Ultimately, for God’s mercy to truly be merciful it must be the result of spontaneous forgiveness.  A God who demands that sin be punished would actually not be merciful since mercy by definition is the relenting from judgment, not a pardon resulting from judgment’s fulfillment.  Therefore states Forde:  “The question remains: If God has been satisfied, where is God’s mercy?”[10] 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Grace or Free Will?: Trent's Logical Morass.

In the sixth secession of the Council of Trent, (the one dealing with Justification) the Tridentine Father attempted to come up with a reconciliation between two competing views of conversion.  The first the the Thomistic/Augustinian view, which was that free will was prompted by previent grace before it was capable of acting.  The second was the Scotistic/Ockhamistic view, which was that free will was competent to cooperate with grace apart from a prior act of previent grace.  

The ultimate solution?  There was none.  The Fathers simply laid down both position and more or less pretended that they hadn't made a contradictory statement.  So, Trent tells us that grace is necessary for free will to act, but then it turns around and says that free will has to actively cooperate with grace or refuse it- otherwise previent grace is ineffective.  

This brings about a logical problem at the heart of the Roman Catholic attempt to balance out free will and grace.  If free will acts first, and cooperates with grace, then grace is unnecessary to start the process of salvation.  Consequently, free will rules the roast.  If one says that grace is first necessary for free will to act, then there logically was a point at which grace was acting and free will wasn't acting.  Grace had to act first and the human will had to be passively acted upon.    

The problem with either of these solutions for Roman Catholics is that they want to claim both/and.  We, Catholics say, affirm both free will and grace.  Both are balanced out.  If one isn't present and active, then the other is ineffective and salvation doesn't come about.  But here's where it all breaks down.  It is simply logically impossible that both act at once to begin the process of salvation.  Either one starts the process of salvation or the other does.  There's no balancing them out as I showed above.  Consequently, they are left with an utterly incoherent position.  This is the main reason why they have never stopped arguing about this issue since Trent and they probably never will.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Words and "The Word": Derrida vs. Luther.

There is one guest on Issues, etc. (whom I will not name) who keeps on using the term "deconstruct" and "deconstructionism" incorrectly.  So I thought I would write a short piece on it in order to explain its actual meaning and also to give a kind of preliminary Lutheran response to Derrida.

Deconstructionism is what Jacques Derrida (a now deceased French-Jewish postmodernist) uses to describe his method of studying literature.  According to Derrida, pieces of literary production is aimed at representing reality.  The problem with this is that representation cannot fully encompass the reality which it is aimed at representing.  Hence, it does and does not represent reality.  That means that all representation is a contradiction.  It is, a yes and a no.  The term that Derrida uses to describe this is "differance."

One example that the Derrida uses of this (which I read in a seminar in college) is the Book of Revelation.  The Greek title of the book is "Apocalypse"- which means to unveil.  But is it really an unveiling?  What Derrida points out is that it is meant to unveil the end.  But since the end hasn't really happened yet, it still remains somewhat veiled.  Therefore, claims Derrida, the work is a contradiction.  It claims to unveil and then it really doesn't.  What it does is unveil, and then defers the truth that it is supposed to represent until a later date.  Ultimately, all writing does this.  It may be a partially correct representation, but it is only partial.  Truth is in the whole (similar to Heidegger) and since the whole never arrives, truth is infinitely deferred.

How is one to respond to this as a Lutheran Christian?  One Reformed Christian, Kevin Vanhoozer has made some interesting observations.  Though Derrida was an Atheist during his life time (he obviously no longer is now that he has passed on), he was also Jewish.  There is, argues Vanhoozer, something distinctively Jewish about Deconstructionism.  The infinite interplay of signifiers mirrors the endless and contradictory results of Rabbinical hermeneutics.  Lacking the Messiah and his final interpretation of the Word, the Rabbis were free to defer meaning in their interpretations infinitely until the Yom Yahweh

I think this also brings out a point that Peter Leithart has made in his book on postmodernism.  Postmodernism is not relativism, the way that many conservative Christians often characterize it.  Really, it would be better to call it "provisionalism."  There is no truth that is final.  There may be truth in our representation, but the final representation is deferred forever and ever.

This brings me to the Lutheran response.  One keen observation that Oswald Bayer has made is that there is a connection between Luther's so-called "Reformation breakthrough" and his doctrine of the communication attributions.  Just as the humanity of Jesus possesses the fullness of divine glory (genus majestaticum), the Word of the gospel is the very presence of God.  It is also the final verdict of God on the sinner.  Hence, according to Bayer, Luther's great discover was that the words of the priest "I absolve you" are identical with God's own action.  
What this suggests is that for Luther and Lutheran Christians, there can be no infinite deferment in the manner of Derrida.  The man Jesus is in fact the very presence of God (genus majestaticum) and therefore his word (validated by his resurrection) is the final eschatological verdict on the sinner.  The signified is present in, under, and with the signifier.  This is why Jesus emphasized his role as the Son of Man.  For Second Temple Jews, the Son of Man was a cosmic judge that would come at the end of time.  Jesus revealed himself as the Son of Man who's verdict was already a present reality to sinners.  He gave this same Word of justification to the Church and thereby the proclamation of the Church lacks any deferment in its truth.  This is one of the reasons why the Trent's position that the sinner can only be certain of his final vindication in a provisional sense is so utterly wrong.  The Son of Man's verdict is already present and complete in Word and sacrament.  There can be no uncertainty about it.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Trinity and the Internal Clarity of Scripture.

My wife and I have been re-reading Bondage of the Will for our nightly devotions.  When reading the section on the internal clarity of Scripture I noticed something interesting for the first time.  Luther does not merely identify the internal clarity of Scripture with Christ but with the whole creedal faith.  He states that the inner clarity of Scripture can be found in the truth that "the three are one God."  He then talks about the article of Christ as the central.  This nevertheless does not sever the article of Christ's redemptive work from the rest of the Trinity.

Now you might not find this particularly significant, but it has implication for how Luther has been read by modern theologians.  Ever since Schleiermacher and the demise of the scriptural principle, modern theologians have been searching for an alternative principle.  Most have held it is Christ and therefore used a theological method that deduces all the articles of the faith from Christology.  The exclusive focus on Christ as the meaning of Scripture present in modern Luther interpretation comes from this impulse.  It lay in the background of the phenomenon of gospel-reductionism.

Of course, it is important to recognize that Luther does view Christ and the gospel as central to the message of the Bible.  Nevertheless, such a message of salvation is meaningless apart from the whole of the creed.  The article of the gospel doesn't make any sense if it is not situated between the article of creation and the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church.  Moreover, if taken too far, overemphasis on the article of the gospel can lead to a kind of Gnosticism (which Gustaf Wingren warns against) which focuses so exclusively on redemption to the point that it denies importance of the restoration and fulfillment of creation.  This, as I have pointed out in the past in great detail, ultimately distorts how redemption itself is understood.  Redemption ultimately comes to be understood as the overcoming one's creaturely status and a denigration of the orders of creation.