Mar 27, 2013

Can We Talk?

by Dale Harris.  First appeared on terra incognita, October 4, 2009. 

One of the things I find indispensably useful in my work as a pastor is my HTC Smart Phone. I confess this with not a little sheepishness, because there was a time when I held out against cell phones on principle. And now, here I am, with no mere cell phone, but a touch-sensitive cellular communications device with instant access to email, gmail, text messages and chatting, roaming internet, youtube viewing and GPS capabilities. It's like a member of PETA getting caught on camera sporting a fur coat.

Now I say I held out because for a long time I had this sense that cell phone technology stunted the growth of genuine community by making us so independent and self-sufficient that we no longer need to have any real connection with the actual flesh-and-blood human beings around us. For example: time was when my car broke down on the side of the highway I would have to knock on the neighbour's door and ask for help; and more often that not, they would. Now I can call nameless, faceless roadside assistance from the comfort of my car (and view a variety of inane Youtube clips while I'm waiting for them to come).

I was talking about this with a friend a way back when cell phones were just exploding on the scene, and she told me that she found her cell phone helpful because when she had to walk home from her university classes at night and felt unsafe, she could call her dad to come meet her. Then she said: "Of course, if I didn't have the cell phone, I'd have to get to know the other students in the class well enough that I could walk home with one of them..." And I think that was my point in the hold-out days: I felt that roaming communications technologies like cell phones allowed us to seal up our spheres of influence so tightly that the strangers around us never had to be anything more than strangers.

And maybe there's a kernel of truth there.

But here I am with my HTC Smart Phone and it is, as I said earlier, indispensably useful.

But I'm also wondering about the revenge effects of such technology.

Author and social scientist Edward Tenner argues that all technologies have a natural tendency to "bite back" with "revenge effects" on the societies into which they are introduced. His theory is that societies are really just systems that constantly seek the "status quo." He suggests that as new technologies significantly upset this status quo, the system itself will naturally adjust in unexpected, unintended, even unconscious ways to counteract their effect, and so maintain the status quo.

Example 1: As we introduce a plethora of ingenious time-saving appliances to the kitchen, the system adjusts to maintain a status quo of busy-ness: once it's been freed from meal prep-and-clean-up hours, it's possible to overload our evening schedule with other things, and so we find ourselves busier than ever.

Example 2 (and perhaps more to the point): As communications devices make communication increasingly clear and easy, we find our actual communicating and decision-making processes more (not less) cloudy and confused because now everything has to be answered and decided and acted on under the tyranny of the now.

I'm not sure if Turner's on to anything or not (though they say that the advent of email has significantly increased-- not decreased-- paper consumption in the office workplace). But I do know this: the other day a friend called me at home and when I picked up the phone he said: "Finally found you." He'd tried my gmail, left a message on my voice mail, called my office phone, and when he couldn't get me at any of these he tried me at home. All the ways to connect with me, it seems, had actually made me harder to find.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth HTC.

Mar 4, 2013

"In Christ Alone" and Atonement Theology

by John Vlanic

I love a great deal about the worship song, "In Christ Alone." I think that it strikes me as so good in so many ways that for a long time I was able to use my gifting in obliviousness to blot out any real awareness of the phrase, “And on that cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

There has been a long debate over the meaning of Christ’s death. The names of great Christian thinkers have been attached to one side or the other. One of the crucial issues has been the correct way to translate the “hilasterion” word group.

Some have wanted to understand that word as referring to “propitiation”, the act of gaining or regaining the favor or goodwill of someone, as in the example in one English dictionary: “He made an offering to propitiate the angry gods.” Others have seen it as referring to the removal of the problem between the deity and the person who needed the “hilas-” work.

Thus I John 2:2 gets quite a range of translations:

King James Version And he is the propitiation for our sins Revised Standard Version and he is the expiation for our sins New International Version He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins New Revised Standard Version and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins New Living Translation He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins The Message When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good

Much needless polarization and unChristlike nastiness resulted in some circles over the years from the dropping of ‘propitiation’ in most modern translations, and, more recently, as some evangelicals are questioning the use of “penal satisfaction” language for the work of Christ.

I have long felt that ‘expiate’ was more true to what the New Testament authors were trying to say, but have been grateful for the “atoning sacrifice” language (which steps around the problem a bit) in the NIV and NRSV.

Interestingly, not long ago I heard a prominent and respected evangelical pastor/teacher say he has real reservations about the song “In Christ Alone” because of the inaccurate view of God and of salvation that it presents through the use of that phrase. It was then that I realized I had suppressed that issue in an otherwise beautiful song.

Then I read the book arising from the debate in among evangelicals in England about this issue, Derek Tidball, David Hilborn & Justin Thacker, eds., The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of the Atonement (Zondervan, 2008).

More recently I was reading a book of essays by one of the finest New Testament scholars of the past century. I found in that book a short note on this issue, and saw in the footnote that it was occasioned by the words “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the worship song, “In Christ Alone.”

The scholar is C. F. D. Moule. After Moule's death in 2007 a couple of volumes of his notes written since his retirement from Cambridge University have been published. One of them is Christ Alive and At Large: Unpublished Writings of C. F. D. Moule, edited and introduced by Robert Morgan and Patrick Moule (Canterbury Press, 2010). On pp. 113-114, we read his thoughts after hearing “In Christ Alone” sung in his church.

His careful survey of the New Testament evidence seems to me to make the matter clear. I wish we could get the authors of “In Christ Alone” to fix their song by improving on Moule’s own suggestion at the end of this article.

To me, this is not a small technicality. It has to do with the nature of God, and the nature of salvation. If a seeker were present while we were to sing that song, I would not want him or her to get the erroneous notion that we Christ-followers believe that a loving Jesus died to placate the wrath of an angry God. That is NOT what the New Testament teaches, as Moule demonstrates below.

Then I wondered what the Free Methodist Church said about this. It turns out that I think Professor Moule would have been happy to read the words in ¶115 of our Articles of Religion:

¶115 THE NEW LIFE IN CHRIST A new life and a right relationship with God are made possible through the redemptive acts of God in Jesus Christ.

Note that it does not say that Jesus Christ did something to God in the atonement, but rather that God – in Christ – provided the atonement!

Enjoy Moule’s explanation below!
John W. Vlainic
January 2013

P.S. I know that someone will ask if I have read ¶114.

¶114 CHRIST’S SACRIFICE Christ offered once and for all the one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. No other satisfaction for sin is necessary; none other can atone. I don’t know the history of ¶114, or what in particular is meant by “satisfaction”. It may be a remnant from the “penal” view, but I would comment that if our deity is “satisfied” to have the blockage removed, then it doesn’t need to be “penal”. And I would point out that the next, ¶115, makes it clear that Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins did not do something to God, for God was in Christ, doing the atoning.

P.P.S. Moule also has a section in the book, “Sacrifice and propitiation — do the words belong in the proclaiming of the Christian gospel?” (pp. 182-185).. Table of Contents of the book is attached.


Some Christians speak of Christ as making an alienated God propi¬tious by the offering of himself as a sacrifice on our behalf. This is alien to the startlingly original thought of the New Testament. In the Old Testament the idea of propitiating God by sacrifices and other means is indeed common enough; but in the NT it is almost extinguished.

The root behind Greek words for propitiation (hilas-) shows itself eight times in the NT. The verb (‘make [someone] propitious’ or, with¬out an expressed recipient, ‘make propitiation’) occurs in Luke 18.13, in the penitent tax-collector's prayer to God: ‘be made propitious to me’, and in Hebrews 2.17 in a description of an Old Testament priest’s duty to ‘propitiate sins’ (presumably there meaning ‘to propitiate God regarding sins’). An adjectival form, hileos, comes at Matthew 16.22 (Peter's protesting exclamation ‘[God] have mercy on you!’) and at Heb¬rews 8.12, in a quotation from Jeremiah 31 where God promises that he will be ‘propitious to sins’ (i.e. sinners?).

The neuter noun, hilasterion, is, in the Greek OT, a term for what, in the Authorized Version, comes out as the ‘mercy seat’ — the throne of God overshadowed by the cherubim, on (or as) the lid of the ‘ark’ in the Tabernacle or temple sanctuary. In the NT it occurs at Hebrews 9.5, simply as that item in the Tabernacle, but, importantly, also at Romans 3.25, with reference to Jesus Christ, ‘whom God set forth [or ‘designated beforehand’?] hilasterion’, i.e. ‘as a mercy seat’ (if the word is meant as a noun) or (if it is an adjective) ‘with propitiatory power’ (though, as we shall see, ‘expiatory’ power would be preferable). Finally, hilasmos, a noun meaning 'a propitiation' or 'a propitiatory sacrifice' occurs as a description of Christ at I John 2.2; 4.10. At 4.10 God is specified as (not receiving but) himself sending Christ as hilasmos.

Thus, what, for our purposes, is important is that in the NT God is not spoken of as the recipient of what is referred to, but that, where its initiator is mentioned, he is the subject, not the object: Romans 3.25; I John 4.10. If, then, God is the subject or originator, not the object or recipient, of hilas- procedures, it is manifestly inappropriate to translate them as propitiatory; one is driven to use a word such as ‘expiatory’, which has as its object not propitiating a wrathful God but removing a barrier. It is this which is expressed in the famous words of z Corinthians 5.19: ‘God was, in [or ‘by’?] Christ reconciling the world to himself’. So far from being propitiated, God it is who initiates the necessary ‘expiation’, himself ‘one’ with his Beloved Son. ‘In Christ's name, be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5 .20) is the Christian exhortation, for ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin [?sin-offering] on our behalf.’ Regularly, God is the initiation of the action, not its recipient. The only exception in the NT is at Ephesians 5.2, where ‘Christ gave himself up on our behalf as an offering and sacrifice to God for a fragrant perfume’ — a virtual quotation from the standard propitiatory language of the OT.

In the Johannine writings a further metaphor is introduced — that of advocacy. John 16 speaks, it seems, of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, a Paraclete, and I John 2 uses the same language of Christ. By itself, such language might suggest a friend to plead our cause before an alienated Judge; but that is hardly compatible with John 16.26f.: ‘I do not say that I will ask the Father concerning you, for the father himself loves you. . .’.

I submit, then, that NT usage virtually prohibits the translation ‘pro¬pitiate’, ‘propitiation’, and necessitates the use of some word with God as subject and sin as object, e.g. 'expiate', in the sense of paying the price for sin’s annulment. This is not the only instance of what seems like the centrifugal force of the Christian gospel spinning an OT con¬cept to the circumference, if not beyond, in favour of the astonishing conviction at its centre, classically stated at 2 Corinthians 5.19, ‘God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’.

Every reconciliation costs an untold price — the price of forgiveness, the price of repentance. In Christ, both God and man, that price is paid, absolutely and finally. Nowhere in the NT is it said that the wrath of God was satisfied by the death of Jesus. Rather, it is God himself in Jesus Christ who pays the cost for sin. I haven’t the smallest spark of lyricism in me, but we need something like, but infinitely better than:

Till in the blood of his dear Son
The love of God redemption won.

From: C. F. D. Moule, CHRIST ALIVE AND AT LARGE: UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS OF C. F. D. MOULE, edited and introduced by Robert Morgan and Patrick Moule (Canterbury Press, 2010), pp. 113-114.