Friday, October 7, 2011

My Response to Forde: Part 1

We will now turn to a brief assessment of Forde’s teaching from a confessional Lutheran perspective.  The first and most important issue to be tackled in this evaluation is the nature of atonement and its inner relationship to the article of justification.  What Forde’s interpretation of the doctrine of atonement makes clear is that there is a necessary relationship between the article of the work of Christ and that of justification.  In other words, if one rejects the notion of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction of the law (both actively and passively) the entire soteriological apple cart is, so to speak, upset and the forensic nature of justification is lost.  Put succinctly: If Christ does not fulfill the law on our behalf, then someone else must, and that someone is necessarily us.  This is evidenced by the fact that without fail those who reject vicarious satisfaction (for example, the aforementioned Abelard and Socinians) posit the fulfillment of the law by believers in some sort of watered-down form.  In Forde’s case, the believer does not fulfill the law by his or her own efforts per se, but is rather recreated by God’s effective address as one who has fulfilled the law by faith.  Thereby God is “satisfied” and his wrath is silenced.

Nevertheless, beyond the brunt fact that this description of justification is in total disagreement with the confessional and biblical authorities, Forde’s description of justification lacks coherence with his own theological presuppositions in at least two ways.  First, in his discussion of penal substitution, Forde endlessly complains that to believe that God needs bloody sacrifice order to save makes him into a cosmic ogre. Ultimately though within Forde’s own doctrine of atonement, God does apparently need the law to be fulfilled or divine wrath will never cease.  The redemptive fulfillment of the law is simply moved from external location (in Christ) to internal one (within the believer). Moreover, despite Forde’s attacks on the Lutheran scholastic doctrine of atonement, the structure of the fulfillment of the law in his theology and theirs remains roughly the same.  For Forde, the law is fulfilled by the old, unbelieving creature being killed by the law (this corresponding to the Lutheran scholastic concept of passive righteousness), and then being raised up into the power of the new creation by the gospel (corresponding to the concept of active righteousness). 

Though we cannot explore the sources of Forde’s thought within this context, perhaps it is not too bold to suggest that we detect here a lingering Kantian preference (endemic for so much of post-Enlightenment Protestant dogamtics) for the phenomenal over the noumenal.[1] Just as for Kant one cannot know the “ding an sich,” so too Forde considers the idea of an objective lex aeterna to be an abstraction and therefore must focus on the existential impact of the law alone.[2]  Correspondingly, he considers the idea of vicarious satisfaction to represent a mere “abstract payment,”[3] rather than the more concrete fulfillment of the law actualized internally through the existential impact of the cross on the consciousness of the believer.


  1. Did Forde have problems with the Sacrament of the Altar? It seems like he would have, from your description. Did he affirm Luther's statement that the Sacrament is the Gospel? I don't really see how he could, if everything happens internal to the believer and he abhors a necessary bloody sacrifice.

    Also, only a theologian could think that "fulfillment of the law actualized internally through the existential impact of the cross on the consciousness of the believer" is "more concrete". What's more concrete than body and blood broken and shed on the cross?

  2. Could it be that Forde saw that, since mankind was to live and so is saved, by faith alone apart from the working of the law (as Paul says), that Christ's death wasn't so to fulfill the law, but to done completely by faith? Christ says in the Garden, "Not my will, but Your's be done."

    It is in that sense that the wrath of God was placed on Christ-He took mankind's place as the only one who would receive from the Father whatever the Father decided. Thus, as Forde does say, that Christ does take our place; the Father is satisfied, etc.

    I think, as Forde speaks, his problem isn't simply with the various theories out there, but since there allusions and words to them in Scripture, then how does the Church understanding the various ideas in the Bible?

    Craig Nehring

  3. The thing I find odd is that Forde loves to speak of the audacity of the Cross - how it is so utterly shocking and cuts across what we would expect... and then he himself rebels against the idea of a vicarious satisfaction. It is an irony - he himself does what he laments so often in others....

    Also, it might be a more simple reaction against (rather than a matter of strong reason) -- the lex aeterna and the wrath of God isn't... nice sounding. His complaint is the image of God presented is not to his liking. This sounds like it could mainly end up being an emotional reaction which then has a theological approach developed to justify it.

  4. Brent, The answer is no, he didn't. Of course, this is one of the more odd aspects of his position, because what is the sacrament of the altar? It is Christ's sacrificed body and blood! That's the point of body and blood being spoken of as separate things. In the OT, a sacrifice is a separation of body and blood, because the idea is that since the life was in the blood and the wages of sin is death, then the life-blood pays for sin. Hence blood in sacrifice must be drained. So, though the sacrament is not a re-presentation of the sacrifice of the cross (as Catholics claim) it is certainly the presence of that sacrifice. See Jeremias for similar observations.

    Craig, Some of what you're saying seems a little unclear. Certainly Forde does try to sound like he believes in substitution at certain points. In doing this he tries to reinterpret biblical rhetoric meant to teach substitution in favor of his view. Johannes von Hofmann (who Forde wrote his dissertation on) did the same thing. At the end of the day though, he simply rejects substitution. Moreover, without substitution forensic justification is gone. Both von Harnack and Thomasius pointed this out in their writings against von Hofmann.

    Eric, I would be curious regarding what the origins are of Forde's dislike of the doctrine. I think a lot of it is that he was simply a child of his times and felt that the Lutheran scholastics were too parochial in their formulations. Existentialism seemed very hot and a better alternative. From our perspective this seems very dated. From my own perspective, as a student of the history of Protestant scholasticism, his attacks on it seem deeply childish. Moreover, Lutheran scholasticism is a highly nuanced system of theology that takes serious the authority of the Bible, the tradition of the Church-catholic and the necessity of clear and cognitively understandable critically realistic claims about the God. It is not a form of proto-fundamentalism as mainline Protestants continue to claim. It is a far better alternative than formulations and methods like those of Forde.

  5. Jack - I agree -- there are points where Forde seems clear and calm... and then there is this visceral reaction against certain ideas... and the rhetoric against shifts. I do think "child of his times" is probably the best answer.

  6. My question is whether penal substitution based upon the law or faith? Was Christ sinless b/c He kept the law or because He lived by faith alone and so kept the law? Are we sinful b/c we do not keep the entirty of the law or b/c we have a problem of unbelief and so will not keep the law? I think that is what and where Forde was coming from.

  7. Christ's righteousness was that he had perfect faith and this resulted in his perfect fulfillment of the law in our place according to active and passive righteousness. Similarly, we are indeed sinful because we are born slaves to unbelief. Nevertheless, it is for this reason that we express our unbelief through not obeying the divine commandments. It's important that we recognize that the root-sin as Forde emphasizes is unbelief. This of course does not make disobedience to specific divine commandments irrelevant. As I pointed out in my recent article for CTQ regarding Forde's view of the law, since Forde focuses on the law as an existential experience and sin as unbelief, the concrete expression of unbelief in the form of disobedience to specific commandments tends to fall by the way side. When I was at Luther Seminary and would go to chapel, I think this was strongly expressed in the form of preaching that obtained there. So, we were constantly told that we were sinful (that was completely clear!), but why and how we were sinners was not always forthcoming and clear.

  8. I'm a tiny bit confused. Why would a denial of penal substitution imply that the Sacrament of the Altar is unnecessary? The fact that we need a sacrifice to be cleansed from sins, that we need to be united to God to live, that our sins separate us, and it is only through Christ's Cross that we may live does not imply penal substitution, but it is all that is necessary, it would seem to me, to say that the Eucharist is the Gospel.

    So far as I can see, the two questions are completely independent. What am I missing?

  9. Matthew, It would indeed. Of course this only one of the few bizarre inconsistencies in Forde's position.