The Atonement in Evangelical and Liberal Thought: Part II

The Rational, Moral and Political Versus the Biblical, Historical and Theological

     In Part I of this series, it was shown how the fundamental act of the Atonement secures for the elect a total blotting out of their sins and a total covering with Christ`s righteousness which is secured for them in Christ who was chosen from eternity to unite them with Himself through His ransoming, vicarious suffering, obedience, death and resurrection. This is the faith once delivered to the saints according to the wisdom of God, which is proclaimed foolishness by the wise in their own esteem. The history of mankind is full of such worldly-wise figures.

Abelard’s alternative atonement

     Although there has been nothing under the sun in new heresies since Satan’s rebellion and man first wished to become as the gods, the main break away from the Biblical doctrine of the Atonement was made by Pierre de Palais (1079-1142) better-known by his assumed name, Abelard. He maintained that the doctrine was immoral. Not too saintly to father the child of the woman he refused to marry, Abelard told the world that God could not have been so immoral as to plan the death of His son as the grounds for forgiving sin. God is love and demands no satisfaction to help Him forgive penitent sinners. Christ’s aim, he vainly believed, was to assert a sound moral influence on man, proving divine love by assuming our nature and living an exemplary life even to the point of death. It is a contemplation of this great love that awakens love in our heart and it is this love given back to God which is the basis for forgiveness of sins. As a result of this act, the saint can live freely in obedience to God, motivated by the love in his heart.

     Abelard brought into theology an entire new picture of God, a God who is so lost in His attributes, that His Personality disappears and He becomes a mere moral philosophy. His is a God so motivated by love that He pays neither attention to His own justice nor His own holiness and completely fails to answer the question posed by Anselm, ‘Why did God become man?’  Rather than it being a cruel thing for God to reconcile sinners to Himself through the vicarious, voluntary death of Christ, Abelard’s theory of a God who allows His Son to suffer and die the death of a criminal when he could have morally influenced the sinner in a thousand other, safer, ways, seems cruel indeed. Abelard, too, must have had a very imperfect view of the grip sin has on man if he thought that an example alone, no matter how good, might cause him to live a life pleasing to God.

The Socinians follow suit

     The followers of Faustus Socinus (1539—1604), were delighted with the views of Abelard which helped support their own brand of heresy. They too, had no real teaching of the Trinity, believing that the Holy Spirit was a mere divine influence and that Christ was a man born in time. They, as Abelard, denied outright the need for justice in God’s dealing with sin. In their view, God is not limited in His forgiveness of sins by the need to do it for the sake of Christ who bore them. He forgives freely, His love and mercy alone determining who is to be forgiven. This display of love and mercy is granted to all who repent and obey. This example is given by Christ who shows us how to obey. The Socinians do not seem to have been in need of an example of how to repent. There is, therefore, no direct link between the death of Christ and redemption, indeed, redemption in the sense of ransom is rejected by the Socinians just as fervently as by Abelard. However, the Socinians did connect salvation in some way with Christ’s death as they taught that after Christ died, God raised Him from the dead and gave Him the power to grant eternal life to those who accepted and followed His example.

The atonement as a political, governmental hypothesis

     As both Abelard and Socinus had been declared heretics by various church councils, those in public office thought it prudent to declare their opposition to their teaching, however they might sympathise with it. One Dutch dignitary and statesman to protest in this way was Hugo Grotius. This highly gifted man was born on 10th April, 1583 and became a pupil of Uyttenbogaert the Remonstrant leader and friend of Jacob Arminius. Viewed by all who encountered him as a child genius, he was sent to Leyden University at the age of 12 and made rapid progress, reaping all the academic honours available. By the time he was 14, he was known as the ‘Boy without an equal’ and it is said that his professors were ashamed to debate with him as his knowledge was far superior to theirs. By the time he was 20, he was looked upon as one of the leading intellects of the Dutch Provinces and was entrusted with writing the official history of the Dutch struggles with Spain besides being given high government posts, representing the Dutch in international diplomacy as, for instance, in the fishery disputes with the British.

     Grotius, alongside Jan van Oldenbarnveldt, strove to put into politics the Five Points of the Remonstrants (or Arminians) drawn up by Uytenbogaert and forty-six other ministers of in 1610, a year after Arminius’ death. Grotius’ power was so great that in 1614 he influenced the Dutch Provinces in passing a bill forbidding any exegesis of the doctrines of grace from the pulpit, a move which pleased neither Calvinists nor Arminians. Grotius` policy became to seek peace by using political power to ban controversy. It was a most ineffectual way of exercising political reason. Inevitably, there was a tremendous outcry from both the Calvinists and Arminians and soon the religious and political tables were turned drastically against Grotius’ party. Oldenbarnveldt was put to death as a traitor and Grotius was imprisoned for life. His escape, after being in prison for two years, was as dramatic as his whole life. Grotius’ wife received permission to provide her imprisoned husband with a trunk of books. The trunk was duly carried into Grotius’ cell, emptied of its contents and returned to Mrs Grotius’ quarters. Little did the guards know that on the return journey her husband was tucked up safely inside. Grotius then fled his country, never more to be accepted by its governing bodies. He had, however, obtained a name for himself abroad as a great statesman and it was not long before the Swedish powers chose him as their Ambassador to the Court of France, an office he carried out for a period of ten years. Grotius died at Rostock in 1645 whilst on his way to Stockholm to hand in his resignation.

     Grotius views, which were to challenge the work of the 18th century revivals, were first published in a popular verse form and were eagerly taken up by the people and became the favourite shanties of many a ship’s crew. These ditties were then worked out into a more academic form in 1627 which was published in Latin and appeared under the presumptuous title de Veritate Religionis Christianae. The most marked feature of the work is not a trust in the revealed religion of the Bible but in the validity and demonstrability of natural reason and the supremacy of Christian ethics as understood merely by the human mind. The three main thrusts of Grotius’ argument were the high ideals of the Christian religion, the excellency of its rules of duty and the pre-eminence of Christ seen in His demonstrated ability to work miracles. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Atonement, are entirely absent from this work. They are superseded by the emphasis on the reasonableness of living the Christian life according to Christ’s teaching .

Atonement by token

     Grotius’ political theory of the Atonement is taken up in his Defensio Fidei Catholicae de Satisfactione Christi in which he strives to distance himself from Socinianism. His view of Christ’s substitutionary, propitiating death is however, far nearer the Socinian view than the Biblical doctrine of redemption in Christ. He rejects, as the Socinians, any idea that Christ could take over the debts of another and provide payment for them in suffering as a ransom to settle the debtor’s account regarding the broken law. God, he argues, is not to be viewed as a creditor but as an administrator, rector or benign governor. This divine administrator admittedly rules by laws but these laws are mere guides to right living and not absolute chains. As God does not demand that the law be obeyed in every particular, there is no need for a full satisfaction as if He did.  Sin is always viewed by Grotians in a non-theological way as that which is contrary to ‘the nature and fitness of things.’ The Grotian idea of punishment need not fit the crime as God’s statute book is not absolute, laws and punishments being entirely at his benevolent discretion.

     Rather than view Christ as the One who bore our exact penalty for breaking an absolute law, Grotius sees Him as a Probation Officer who gives God an opportunity of displaying benevolence to His Adam-like probationers. Christ’s defence on behalf of the probationers is not what He has done to settle the score for them in the vicarious penal and jural sense of ransom and remission. It is a plea for a removal of man’s obligations through God’s benevolent discretion. God, on His part, does not demand that the whole law, spirit and letter, be kept in any way by anyone but especially not His Son. He simply requires that some symbolic act or token should be performed in order to demonstrate that man’s obligations have been cancelled. This token demonstration is claimed by Grotius as being a true satisfaction. He sees no point in Christ’s putting Himself under the Law on our behalf, thus both  fulfilling and establishing the law. Indeed, he lifts the entire doctrine of the atonement out of its spiritual, theological and historical background and places it in the airy-fairy world of moral philosophy and governmental speculation, shunning the revealed Word. Grotius can thus sum up the atonement by saying, ‘There is no unconditional absolute; there is no payment of the exact debt; there is no substitution of a new obligation; but there is a remission in consequence of a precedent satisfaction.’ This satisfaction was merely a nominal or token one, in Grotius’ view, though He is quick to add that there was no inherent necessity for God to supply this, but He thought it was the best way to make sure that His administration was shown to be unquestionable. The main thrust of Grotius’ theology is, however, that remission of sin comes via relaxing the law. Thus Christ’s death was in no way retributive but, in accordance with Socinianism, merely exemplary.

Christ’s death a mere moral deterrent

     Throughout all this teaching, which is claimed to be a metaphor explaining the common sense of Natural Law, the Persons of the Godhead, especially those of Christ and the Holy Spirit are almost phased out. The role of Christ as in Socinianism, is reduced to that of a hero who is prepared to suffer in order to act as a deterrent for others so that they might shun evil. The truth expressed by the words of the well-known hymn ‘There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,“ is entirely absent from Grotian thinking. Jesus, in Grotius’ eyes, was merely a Person of incomparable dignity who was used as a symbolic means of demonstrating God’s displeasure (the nearest the Governmentalists come to speaking of the wrath of God) and a moral deterrent and a demonstration of God’s benevolence to man. In no way do we see Christ as providing a full and perfect compensation for man’s wrongs as a result of his fallen nature. Through emphasising Christ’s death as a moral deterrent against man’s future sins and an establishment of God’s administration of the world as a result of Christ’s example, there is no back-working in Grotius’ theory and one wonders what happened to the world’s sinners before Christ’s deterrent death and how did God administer his rule of benevolence then?

     Though Grotius constantly speaks of man’s reason and logical powers, there is no reason or logic whatsoever in Governmentalist politico-theology. The whole system is a mere dupe to frighten man off from doing wrong and to convince him that his sins do not really cut him off from God;  they do not really need to be atoned for by a redemptive act which removes the deadly penalties under which he is eternally damned. Grotius’ Christ never reaches even the dignity of the Socinian hero. He pictures Christ as performing an act to save sinners which was merely arbitrary and in no way compelling. Worse still, Christ is actually lowered to God’s dupe as He suffered untold agonies where there was no jural or redemptive necessity to do so.

     In presenting his view of salvation, Grotius’ major mistake was in believing he could make religion popular by drawing it into the realms of political and philosophic thought, redefining the theological terms of the Bible and traditional theology to make them appeal to natural reason. Even here, Grotius failed as his vocabulary, apart from his sea-men’s yarns, is more reminiscent of the ancient Greeks than the language of the party he sided with in his time as Advocate General of the Dutch Provinces. For a statesman, Grotius is surprisingly unconcerned with law and order as he portrays God as not being so much concerned with a broken law and a reign of justice as in demonstrating benign benevolence. His naive belief is that a God who does not want to be taken seriously must be a good God.

An atonement at discount prices

     Grotius, in wishing to demonstrate the loving nature of God, nowhere reaches the expression of love found in Christ’s act of redemption. There is no union of Christ with His people in Grotius theology and no absolute identification. Christ did not go the whole way to save the otherwise unsavable. He did not stand where we stood in having our sins imputed to Him and we cannot stand where He stands by having Christ’s righteousness placed on us. Indeed the Biblical doctrine of imputation is as foreign to Grotius as that of ransom. The Biblical account of the ‘greater love` of Christ in redemption is seen by Grotius as a pictorial metaphor. Against this, he taught, that Christ’s demonstration of suffering to deter man from sinning was not by placing the onus of fulfilling the law on Christ on our behalf as Christ was above the law all along and could not, because of His innocence, have ever really taken our place. This led him to deny that Christ paid the price demanded by God out of Love to His people in order to balance the scales of God’s just claims against them. He thus rejects the deep divine benevolence of Christ’s vicarious act of loving grace for His Church and substitutes it for a veritable charade of a mocked-up, benignant token sacrifice which gives spectators no real clue whatsoever to the great and crucial act it is supposed to signify.

Sola scriptura rejected

     Though Grotius was prepared to accept the Bible as a true record of Jewish and Christian traditions, and, indeed, made a name for himself as a Bible expositor, he refused to come down on the Reformed side regarding verbal inspiration. This is chiefly because he believed that man can attain to a perfect knowledge of the nature and fitness of things through understanding the law which is within his own nature which Grotius called the conscience. The canonical authors would thus have no reason for lying. The Dutchman, in fact, seemed to think that the nearest the saints were to New Testament times, the more perfect was their understanding of the inner law. This caused him to develop his doctrine of pia antiquitas, lean heavily on the teaching of the early Church Fathers and reject the entire idea of sola scriptura.

Natural Law versus divine will

     Grotius distinguishes between the divine will and Natural Law. The latter is ever fixed and unchangeable but this is not the case with the divine will. God, unlike Natural Law, does not will a thing to be because it is just but decrees that a thing is just because He wills it. Though Natural Law is permanent, revealed law, which reflects the divine will (Governmentalists insist on spelling Natural Law with capitals but the divine law in small letters) is only as permanent as God wishes it to be and is, in fact, merely a metaphorical demonstration and illustration of Natural Law, requiring human reason to interpret it, in this way removing the kernel or spirit of a law from its outer shell or letter.

     True to his desire to combine theology with theories of statesmanship, Grotius outlined his views concerning divine revelation and the Word of God in his Latin treatise on war and peace, de Jure Belli et Pacis, written in 1625. The Laws of Nature, he argues, are so infinite, unalterable and fixed that even God could not change them as He is subject to them Himself. All God’s creation reflect these laws as God has no other alternative but to work according to them. Rational man is able to comprehend these laws by means of a priori and a posteriori reasoning. The laws can be deduced a priori from the conception of human nature itself. Though Grotius wrote at a time of acute political and religious unrest, his optimism concerning the perfections of human nature were boundless and he really thought that human reason could accept and understand the underlying nature and fitness of the universe as the best of all possible creations. Grotius found this basic conviction in man – one could almost call it instinct – strengthened a posteriori as what he called ‘the more civilised nations’ were unanimous in their respect for and adherence to Natural Law. This has its relevance, Grotius believed, in interpreting the Scriptures, which often seem to contradict human reason. Grotius even went further by affirming that every man has not only an awareness of these eternal laws but has a natural feeling of duty towards them. Here we see the seeds sown which have produced the duty-faith weeds of modern evangelism. Man’s eyes, we are to believe, are naturally open to his predicament and the way of salvation is clear before him, all he needs is the encouragement from the gospel to change his moral disposition.

A gospel that ignores sin and the grace of God to deal with it

     Such a view is to confuse law with gospel and the work of Moses with that of Christ. In his great work Christ Alone Exalted, Tobias Crisp (1600-1643), that great winner of souls, tackles Grotian-like Christian Pharisees and explains to them the difference between a blind sinner and one whose eyes have been open:

‘The first of all these kinds of the grace of God, that he doth ever bestow upon a person, is, The opening his eyes to see himself filthy, and to see what he is: here begins a closing with Christ, to see a need of him, and to see the usefulness of him being received. Now mark this great business, of the opening of the eyes of a person, and you shall see he is a way unto it, Isa. 42:6. There the Father doth treat with Christ, and in his treaty he speaks thus to him, ‘‘ will give thee for a covenant to the people, to open the blind eyes.’’

You see this, it is Christ that must open the blind eyes of men. Beloved, men are mistaken that think that the law makes them to see their own vileness; for a gracious sight of our vileness is the only work of Christ. The law is a looking-glass, able to represent the filthiness of a person; but the law gives not eyes to see that filthiness: bring a looking-glass and set it before a blind man, he seeth no more spots in his face than if he had none at all; though the glass be a good glass, yet the glass cannot give eyes; yet, if he had eyes, the glass might represent his filthiness. The apostle James compares the law to a looking-glass, and that is all the law can do, to have a faculty to represent; but it doth not give a faculty to see what it doth represent: it is Christ alone that doth open the eyes of men, to behold their own vileness and filthiness; and when Christ will open the eyes, then a man shall see himself what he is.’

   Part III will show how Grotianism was fought in England by John Gill and in America by Benjamin Warfield and how their arguments form a firm basis for tackling modern Governmentalist theories which are masquerading under the name of ‘Evangelical Calvinism’.