God-in-a-Box

A phrase in the contemporary Christian song, “In Christ Alone,” has sparked a great deal of discussion lately. The phrase in question reads, “as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.”

The phrase reflects a particular interpretation of the saving efficacy of Jesus’ death that is popularly called substitutionary atonement. It is one of several ways Christians have tried to make sense of the rather loose and varied New Testament metaphors employed in reference to the atoning significance of Jesus’ death.

This became the dominant view in the Western Church when theologian Anselm explained Jesus’ death as a satisfaction of divine honor using the framework of the feudal system in the 11th century.

Progressive Christians level numerous criticisms against any theory that would demand Jesus’ death by God as a payment/punishment for sin or satisfaction of divine justice, which would seem to legitimize violence and make God guilty of cosmic child abuse. The primitive deities demanded blood; the “Abba” of Jesus forgives freely.

The source of controversy was a Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song charged with putting together a new hymnal. They wanted to include the song but change the above line to read: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” But there was one serious hitch. The authors refused to authorize the change. So the Committee decided not to select the song for the new hymnal.

The controversy in Baptist life was ignited when the editor of the Alabama Baptist, Bob Terry, published a piece explaining why he disagreed with the original wording.

Terry does not believe that Jesus “appeased God’s wrath” on the cross, but he does believe that “the atoning sacrifice of Christ satisfies the demands of God’s holy law.” This is clearly an interpretation within the broader category of substitutionary atonement. Terry is no progressive.

He quotes the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by LifeWay Christian Resources (which is about as conservative as one gets in the Christian publishing business) where the author says, “God was not waiting to be appeased (as in the pagan, Greek conception). Rather God condescended to meet us on our level to remedy the situation.”

This is clearly a conservative view of the atonement, but apparently not conservative enough for many Southern Baptist leaders. R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), in response blogged that substitutionary atonement was a major issue in the Conservative Resurgence (moderate Baptists call it a “takeover). He concluded by saying that whenever this teaching is questioned what is “at stake is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the central message of the Scriptures.”

Chad Brand, professor of theology at SBTS, rebukes Terry for quoting the old edition of the Holman Bible Dictionary, no longer published by the ultra-conservative LifeWay Christian Resources. He says the new Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary has a new article on expiation that “specifically argues for a biblical understanding of propitiation.”

There were other Baptist leaders who joined in the attack/rebuke, but you get the picture. It was not enough for Terry to embrace substitutionary atonement; he had to subscribe to a particular view of God’s wrath being appeased/satisfied through Jesus’ death.

Apparently, Terry was under such pressure he felt compelled to offer a clarification to his original editorial. While he doesn’t retract it all, he comes very close. He says, “Sin had to be punished to satisfy the righteous justice of a Holy God and only the Son of God could satisfy that demand.”

The God of the Southern Baptist Theological Brokerage Firm is a God-in-a-box. This God has been made to conform to their rigid interpretations of substitutionary atonement and whatever other teaching they deem absolutely essential to the gospel as they conceive it.

It seems to me that the God of the Southern Baptist leaders is awfully small and petty. Their God is more like the primitive deities who demanded the blood of the firstborn or a virgin to appease the deity’s wrath, than the God/Abba of Jesus who freely forgives and loves his/her enemies.

The God of Jesus cannot be reduced to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message or for that matter, any other creed or doctrinal statement. The real God is so much deeper, wider, larger, and greater.

Chuck Queen is a progressive Baptist pastor formerly affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but now associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He blogs at http://www.afreshperspective-chuck.blogspot.com

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