The Atonement

Is God Active in the Cross?

Theories of the atonement are often a proxy for wider theological positions, and how we answer the question “what is God like?” As I noted in my last post, I am working my way through Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence. In that previous post, I discussed the “cruciform hermeneutic” that Boyd puts forth as the key to how we understand the Bible. I was critical of the way he presented the cross in a one-sided way—speaking of it as an expression of love, but not of God’s wrath. Boyd does go on to speak of the violence of the cross, but his view of what is going on here is different from what most people consider to be happening.

One of the Boyd’s central tenets is a commitment to non-violence. This extends to the Levitical sacrifices as well. Boyd asks, “are we to believe that the God who is fully revealed in Jesus actually sanctioned this animal cruelty and enjoyed the smell of burning animal carcasses?”[1] Remarkably, given the cruciform hermeneutic, Boyd does not consider that the sacrifices are typological of the sacrifice of Christ. They present a picture of the suffering and death of Jesus. In other words, the passages that speak of sacrifices are particularly Christ-centered. When John sees the Lord Jesus arrive on the scene, and he proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” he is referencing the Old Testament pictures. Boyd does not deny that the sacrifices occurred; rather, he suggests it was never God’s will and that he did not in fact find them pleasing. Yet he casts his own cruciform hermeneutic aside, failing to see that the sacrificial system is a clear picture of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

When we come to the cross, this commitment to non-violence disallows Boyd from seeing God’s hand in the cross other than through an allowance of sinful humanity to do what they did to Jesus in the crucifixion. Boyd is critical of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) as an explanation of the cross, but he displays some rather surprising views about what PSA advocates believe. It’s unclear whether Boyd chooses to ignore historical Protestant views on PSA, or is in fact ignorant of them. One example is his contention that PSA “restricts salvation to Jesus’s death on the cross, thereby rendering the rest of his life and ministry superfluous in terms of the way Jesus reconciles us to God.”[2] A vast body of teaching on imputation renders this comment wholly untrue. The life of Christ is decidedly vital to the atonement in all nearly every expression of Protestantism.

He also contends, “the penal substitutionary view of the atonement does not make clear how our guilt could be transferred to Jesus, nor how God the Father’s decision to pour out his wrath on Jesus rather than us is just.”[3] 2 Cor 5:21 tells us how God did this. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the essence of substitution. While there is disagreement on this verse as to whether Paul is saying God made Jesus to be sin, or a sin offering, the distinction is unimportant for this point. In either case, it is still substitution at work. As to how God can do it, God’s estimation of a thing makes it so. Similar to the way that God spoke the world into existence, his words have creative force—uniquely so. There is no higher authority than God, no one to throw a penalty flag and say, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t work, it doesn’t make sense.” If God considers the death of Christ substitutionary, then by that consideration it is so.

What, then, is happening at the cross? For Boyd, the curse is divine abandonment, God pulling back, and allowing sinful man to do to Jesus what their wicked hearts wish. But a similar criticism such as he raises of PSA can be noted here. What is the source of the curse, if not God? And how does this view of divine abandonment pay for our sins, atone for our guilt? No clear explanation is given. What Boyd does affirm is a view of sin that is very much tied to consequences. The wrath of God is not God punishing rebellion, it is allowing sinners to experience the natural consequences of turning away from God.

Boyd’s interpretation of divine judgment proves unsustainable, however. He says “With the exception of its violent portraits of God, the Bible always describes God’s judgments in terms of divine abandonment.”[4] This caveat means (I suppose) that anytime that force is involved, it must not have God as its source. But it denies the obvious. We have several places where wrath and vengeance against sin are explicitly attributed to God.  Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” 2 Thess 1:6-8.

Paul is not speaking of God’s withdrawal from rebellious people. Rather, he speaks of the glorified Christ bringing vengeance and affliction. It is active, planned. This is another passage Boyd does not discuss in the book. Boyd has no category for the wrath of God apart from a passive allowance of consequences to run their course. The repeated references Jesus makes to Scripture being fulfilled in the events of his arrest, trial and crucifixion, however, demonstrate that the cross is not just God letting man have his way, but that God was active. The Lord Jesus is, after all, the Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world, long before mankind’s opposition could have ever had any role.

Cross Vision is mainly about Old Testament violence, but the topic cannot receive a full treatment if one does not consider Jesus’ own pronouncements of coming judgment, of the apostolic warnings about coming wrath—wrath attributed to God, and of the events of Revelation. It is likely that with a commitment to an allegorizing hermeneutic, Boyd would see Revelation as entirely symbolic, and not predictive of any actual events, but such a stance raises questions. Was the beloved apostle also mired in a culturally-conditioned mindset? Did he who knew the Lord Jesus in his earthly ministry still have a flawed understanding of what Jesus was about? Did the apostle Paul, likewise, receive flawed revelations, mistaken and inaccurate ideas of what Jesus is like? New Testament wrath is left unaddressed in the book, but it is part of the picture, of the unfolding of salvation history.

The cup of God’s wrath cannot be made to be only the consequences of sinful man’s rebellion, but apart from God having a role in it. It is the just recompense for a turning away from the one true God. Scripture ever portrays God’s wrath against sin as just. On Calvary, Jesus satisfied and propitiated that wrath, willingly, indeed, but it is this that allows our sins to be put away. God was doing it, God was active in the cross and in our redemption because his son absorbed the just punishment for sin.

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2017), 90.

[2] Boyd, 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Boyd, 149.

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