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, 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. 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. 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. 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 and Rudolf Bultmann. 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.” 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 Forde asks “But what of God? Can God not simply forgive?” 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?”