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] 


  1. Of course, this is all a bunch of nice philosophophizing, but the Scriptures teach what Forde denied.

    But it is kind of you to try to rehabilitate the chap, he needs all the help he can get.

    As many have said, rightly, what's good about Forde's writings are his quotes from Luther, the rest? Not so much.

  2. Forde is good at two things: Theology of the cross and the Hidden and Revealed God. His commentary on the bondage of the will is quite delightful. I used it in my Luther class. I wouldn't describe myself as attempting to "rehabilitate the chap"- I take what I consider to be good in people and leave what I consider to be bad. There are many theologians which I have received a great deal from who I have serious problems with on a number of different issues (Jenson is another good example). It's part of being a discerning reader.

  3. How did the Lutheran Scholastics mesh the eternal law with things like God's command not to eat of the tree? It would seem like we could point to a time when that Law didn't exist... or even with the Law given to Moses, like the Sabbath? Was the idea that these always existed and were just revealed in time? I'm not familiar with that terminology.

  4. I don't know, Jack, I think I'll go with Scripture on this one and not the Scholastics. I find it pretty hard to hold to a LEX AETERNA when Scripture tells us plainly that "Therefore, Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes." (Ro. 10:4) Something which "ends," "terminates," or "ceases to be" obviously can't be eternal.

    Couple this with Paul's language in Galatians 3:24-25 regarding the "schoolmaster" status of the law ending when Christ comes and we "graduate" from the law to faith, and it's pretty obvious that Paul himself did not think of "the law" as an eternity compared with Christ.

    In fact, the Lutheran Scholastics whole LEX AETERNA seems very much akin to a deistic notion that God could just "set things in place" and let the machinery run. Kinda sounds like those folks in the ELCA who were always saying, "If we just get the right process in place, then everything will be OK!"

    Those who have protected status within some proposed "orders of creation," must reject the notion that God provides an "ordered creation"--that is, his Word "orders" it from moment to moment which means that sometimes the so-called "orders" are turned topsey-turvey when God tears down the proud and raises up the humble, or when the first shall be made the last and the last shall be made first.

    And you are quite right about theologians: one should definitely be discerning... take what is good and leave the rest.

  5. The idea that the Law is eternal is found in Luther's antinomian theses. Likewise, of course, penal substitution.

    Perhaps the scholastics are an easier target though?


  6. Isn't the lex aeterna love? I think Scaer points this out in his essay on Law and Gospel in Logia 3-1:

    Though law appears to man in the state
    of sin as demanding and punishing, law as it exists in God is neither demanding nor punishing, but it is the positive affirmation expressing God’s relationship to his creation. The transformation of law as positive affirmation into demand and punishment was caused by man’s transgression. Within himself God is not an accumulation of moral negatives, but is throughout perfect love.

  7. Eric and Tim,

    Thanks for your fine questions. You've raise some important points. If I may, I respond to much of this at length in my article this month in CTQ. Nevertheless, I will respond here in a shortened form.

    1. First, Tim, the argument against lex aeterna that you make is largely the same one that Forde makes. Since the law ceases with the gospel, the law cannot be eternal. The law is identical with God's demanding and threatening activity in creation. Hence, it ceases in heaven and in the inner person of those who have faith.

    This is not necessarily incorrect, but it needs to be nuanced. First of all, when the Lutheran scholastics (and Luther!!!!!!!!) talk about lex aeterna, they mean the content of God's statutory will. They do not mean God's activity of threatening and demanding in creation. Hence, criticizing them by saying "well, if there's an eternal law, wouldn't the demand of the law go on forever!!" is a category confusion. Why? Because one is talking about the existential experience of the law by sinners in creation. The other is talking about the content of the divine will. The content of the divine will is necessarily eternal, insofar as God is himself eternal. Moreover, by abrogating the existential threat of the law, God does not cease willing the law. It's not like the moment that we receive the gospel God decides that murder is good. Rather, as Luther puts it, the law becomes empty (lex vacua). The law is still God's will, but it lacks the existential effect on sinners that it previously did.

    I better way of describing this comes from the Erlangen theologian Theodosius Harnack. He suggested that there is a distinction in Luther between the "essence" of the law (God's eternal will) and the "office" (that which threatens and demands in creation). In heaven the latter will cease, but not the former.

    2. Secondly, Eric, concerning the objection regarding the law in the garden of Eden. First, God certainly willed that Adam and Eve not murder one another or commit adultery before the fall. Nevertheless, this was simply obvious to them and in fact part of their nature. Hence, it didn't need to be spelled out. Similarly, the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil was an expression of the eternal law that all rational creatures should be subject to God and obey his will. This eternal law or even the love command may relate to different contexts differently (for example, loving my neighbor in 1935 might involve giving them welfare benefits, whereas it might involve taking them away in 1995), but the essence of the command remains the same. So, hence the difference between the law of Moses and the application of the law in our context.

    3. Tim, I'm confused as to what is deistic about the concept. All Lutherans prior to the 20th bought this concept. None of them were deists.

    4. Orders of creation: The orders of creation are simply historical "givens" which we live out our lives within. They do not carry with them specific instructions regarding how life is to be lived within them. For example, marriage in one form or another is simply inevitable in human life. Nevertheless, God comes along and says "do not commit adultery." He does not say "get married"- that is already a given. In the same manner, God needed to given commands to Adam and Eve regarding how he was to be worship (hence, as Luther states the command not to eat of the tree- it was an act of worship). Adam and Eve necessarily had a relationship with God already. Nevertheless a command needed to regulate the structure of that relationship.

  8. Jack - thanks! I figured it was something along the lines you gave (an eternal law that is applied in specific ways) - but I just wasn't quite sure - especially as Forde's objection seems to be based on asserting the end of the various specific ways.

  9. Jack, was i out in left field with my previous comment?

  10. Steven, No. I just started the response before I left for work on that day and left my computer on before I posted it when I got home. Therefore, I didn't see your comment and that's why I didn't respond to it. I think it's pretty much right.