Recently, at the end of 2014, an interesting book arrived on the market about the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Its title is [translated] CRUCIAL, the surprising significance of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The book is edited by Reinier Sonneveld, former student at the GKv Theological University in Kampen (TUK), and Hans Burger, a minister in the liberated Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKv or RCN) and appointed lecturer in Systematic Theology (formerly known as Dogmatics) by the recent General Synod of Ede. Seven theologians from different church groups wrote contributions to this book.
In this article we want to focus attention especially on the contribution of Dr Burger. Not that the others don’t warrant comments, but this submission is particularly important in relation to an understanding of and faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Yet another reason is that the author is someone with whom until a few years ago we still belonged to the same church.
One of the aims of De Bazuin is to equip each other. That includes equipping each other for the task of speaking with members and ‘distressed’ members of the GKv. As well as for learning to recognise false doctrine. Altogether sufficient reason to dedicate an editorial to this subject.
As yet this important book has unfortunately not been given much attention. We are unable to oversee everything, but so far we have read articles only on website ééninwaarheid with sound, scriptural criticism.
It is always good to first read the accompanying text. In this case on the back cover. What stands out in that text is the word ‘metaphor’. The seven authors each deal with ‘a familiar metaphor to understand the crucifixion’.
The term ‘metaphor’ should immediately alert the Bible-faithful Christian. Metaphor is not just a word. This relates to the error that many parts of the Bible should not be seen as having actually happened, but as images, as paintings and stories, to clarify a point. This is what Dr Loonstra taught in the CGK. And in the GKv Dr de Bruijne, professor at TU Kampen, took this over. Some years ago that viewpoint was contested in the magazine Reformanda on the basis of God’s own Word. The ideas on metaphors have led to, among other things, flattening and erosion of the truth of the Bible and of Christian ethics. Sonneveld on his website also uses the same terminology. ‘Each of them describes an image from the Bible how you can envisage the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion.’
And now we read this on the back cover of this book. The Bible apparently represents the meaning of the crucifixion in metaphors. In pictures that perhaps do not show what actually happened.
It seems that this makes it possible to attach different meanings to Jesus’ death on the cross. Surely we’re allowed to draw that tentative conclusion.
Surprise and model
Of interest is also the surprising subtitle. Jesus’ death on the cross apparently presents very new and surprising aspects; things that until now we have overlooked, or have never understood correctly.
What kind of things? What then is new and surprising?
More information about this is given in the introduction by Burger and Sonneveld, which further explains the intent of the book. Here the theologians speak about images and ‘models’. It appears that there are several other theological ‘models’ about the crucifixion of our Saviour and that you meet these both in the Bible and church history. The authors claim that one of those models became the ‘current’ model: the ‘model’ of ‘reconciliation through satisfaction’.
Now, Reformed believers know that reconciliation through satisfaction belongs to the core of the gospel. It is the foundation of our salvation. The claim that this is just a ‘popular’ model immediately raises questions about that. There also seem to be other possible models, also models developed in the history of the church. This assumption plays an important role in the contribution of Dr Burger.
Furthermore, the editors tell us that in today’s theology there is a growing practice of in one way or another combining different models and images. To choose only one viewpoint is not right. The various images are said to contain valuable elements (we say this in our own words) and we may not favour the one representation over the other.
Is that then the surprising element? We just have to assume it.
‘What the Bible and theology are saying is richer than the model that has become popular, the model of ‘reconciliation through satisfaction’.
We could never have thought of it that way, could we? Well, now it is being made clear to us.
We believe that Dr Burger’s contribution clearly reflects the influence of post-modernism. It is the philosophy, the outlook on life, which believes that there is no absolute truth. Everyone has their own truth. And the skill and duty is to connect these truths together. So that people can really relate to each other.
The pernicious influence of postmodernism has earlier been pointed out and discussed in this magazine. Postmodernism essentially conflicts with uncomplicated faith in the Scriptures. It excludes that faith.
We move on to the relevant chapter of the book.[i] But first some remarks about Dr Hans Burger’s style of writing. It is gripping. He uses appealing examples from his own life’s experience. And while the telling and explaining goes on he takes us along in his reasoning.
The danger is that in that discourse he does not openly indicate that he distances himself from the Reformed hermeneutics, the classic Reformed method of exegesis which is based on Articles 3, 5 and 7 of the Belgic Confession. He also does not very clearly indicate, for example in a final conclusion, that he distances himself from the Biblical doctrine of reconciliation through satisfaction.
No, we have to draw that conclusion while reading all kinds of sentences and sections of text. And therein hides the danger. An unsuspecting reader will easily by carried along by the easy-to-read argumentation. Especially since it uses quite a lot of recognisable Biblical and Reformed language.
Such writing is dangerous. The ordinary Bible reader can easily think that it is very Reformed. We come across such writings more often. But we think it is not good, because it has a concealing effect.
We have already signalled a number of important issues: looking at Bible passages as metaphors; reconciliation through satisfaction being just one model among others; connecting together all kinds of viewpoints the postmodern way, instead of pointing at one viewpoint as the only one that is true; a style of writing that conceals.
But now for a look at the chapter itself. We are not in a position to discuss everything but mention a few central points.
First of all, the aspect of alienation. That is the starting point of the discourse. With the claim that our society has become alienated from the Biblical concept of ‘sacrificing’. Sacrificing is weird. A God who wants to see blood? That’s not possible, is it? You really can’t sell that. And when we use the word ‘sacrifice’ it has a negative, dark connotation; not positive. Only orthodox Christians work with the term ‘sacrifice’. And even for them it is awkward. The question is: if that is so, how can we use this to reach out to non-Christians?
And this is the question on which the argumentation expands.
We insist that that question is typical for the so-called new hermeneutics. Readers could have read something about that in the previous issue of De Bazuin. One of the starting points of that hermeneutics is that the Bible, which originated in a particular context, must be interpreted and explained in a manner that makes what it says acceptable to people of our days. Or, to put it another way, the Bible must be explained in a way that its message is pleasing for contemporary man. And then it may very well be that we come to the conclusion that the message of the Bible for our time and our world is very different than for the people who lived in the time of the Bible. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and reconciliation with God through payment of the debt by the substitutionary death of Christ, can therefore also take on a very different meaning.
And that is exactly what Dr Burger is going to do. He gives a different content to the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.
Is that necessary? Because the world has become estranged from God’s Word? So we had better adapt?
This forgets that it is unbelief that estranges from God’s Word!
The author claims that our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, simply formulated as reconciliation through satisfaction, cannot be found back in those terms in the New Testament.
That kind of speaking should have arisen in the middle ages, when the sacrament of penance was introduced. It is a legal form of approaching the suffering of Jesus. (The author makes a distinction between ‘language fields’, you can speak juridically about the cross, but also ‘cultic’; independent from each other. It goes too far to work that out in this article). It is claimed to be a theological-historical development, a medieval construction.
This is exceptionally serious reasoning. Reconciliation through satisfaction? It’s just an idea (it is claimed), a medieval derailment that unfortunately became popular in history.
Over against this, we confess in Article 21 of the Belgic Confession:
‘… He presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease the Father’s wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted.
For it is written that “the punishment that made us whole” was placed on the Son of God and that “by his bruises we are healed”. He was “like a lamb that is led to slaughter”; he was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:5, 7 and 12), and condemned as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, though Pilate had declared that he was innocent.
So he paid back what he had not stolen (Psalm 69:5), and he suffered—the “righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18) in both his body and his soul—in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44).’
With the evidence of many Bible texts. We mention Heb. 9: 22: ‘And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.’
The Heidelberg Catechism echoes Scripture in Lord’s Day 16 Answer 40: ‘Because of the justice and truth of God satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.’
That’s what reconciliation through satisfaction is. That’s the nature of Christ’s sacrifice! That’s what God’s Word teaches us! Un-complicated.
Un-corrected. The message for believers of all times and places. Without re-interpretation for the unbeliever and anti-believer of our days.
Burger thinks he can build his reasoning on Biblical data. Jesus’ sacrifice should be no sacrifice in the strict Old Testament sense. For he was not a Levitical priest.
This is exceptionally strange reasoning. For our Lord was a priest indeed. No, not Levitical, not after the order of Aaron. But more than that: He was a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
‘… where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’ (Heb 6:20).
Precisely because he was more, a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek forever, he was able to also sacrifice Himself.
Consecration of life
It is not possible to discuss everything in this chapter. However, in order to make clear what, according to Dr Burger, is the significance of the sacrifice of our Lord, we pass on the following quotes:
‘That sacrifice consisted of a complete dedication to God; he obeyed God’s will to perfection and in that way finally dedicated people to God’ (p 58). ‘Through his sacrifice Jesus sanctifies himself and dedicates himself to God; the result is that we are being sanctified and dedicated to God’ (p 58). ‘That utter devotion of Jesus to his Father in order to accomplish his mission, that is Jesus’ sacrifice’ (p 59).
His ‘mission’: to restore us to a relationship with the Father. In that mission, in his utter devotion, he was faithful. So faithful that he was murdered for it.
And then, how wonderful, we learn that God turns that murder to the good, then something good comes from it.
That all-out consecration, that’s the example to follow.
‘We are able to identify ourselves with him.’ And that is supposed to be the explanation of Rom. 13: 14, ‘But put on the Lord Jesus Christ …’
That then is how we, too, should consecrate our life to God.
We will now briefly summarise what Burger says. Reconciliation through satisfaction? No, that is not the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. That viewpoint is only a theological model, an outgrowth from the middle ages. The sacrifice of Christ consists only in his utter devotion to the Father. That’s why he was slain. For us it means that we can identify with him by also dedicating our whole life to God.
That’s what Dr Burger claims here.
And what are we left with? A flat gospel, an empty gospel. Without hope. Because we are thrown back on ourselves: we are supposed to identify ourselves with Christ. Then we will also dedicate our life to God.
But reconciliation through satisfaction has gone out of the window.
And that is not redemption.
The title of the book is CRUCIAL. Literally this means: that which relates to the cross. But it has also another meaning: convincing, decisive. It is a word-play by the editors. For the cross is crucial indeed. Faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is decisive for our salvation. But that is not all that the editors mean.
Dr Burger’s contribution, it may be clear from the outset, damages the core of the Biblical doctrine. It is in direct conflict with the Bible and the Confession. Whoever believes in this way can no longer be sure of his salvation! That is the serious conclusion we have to draw.
Thus this work is crucial indeed.
The awful thing is also that this can be promoted by someone who has to enlighten future ministers in the doctrine of the church! Yes, it is awful that the GKv willingly and knowingly appoints this man as lecturer at the TUK.
This contribution of Dr Burger becomes a low point in a miserable series: the ideas of Dr Doedens, back in 2000; of Dr de Bruijne, Dr Van Bekkum, Prof. Douma (Gen. 1), Dr Paas, and now those of Dr Burger.
On his weblog Dr Burger gives a detailed and complicated explanation of his theory. But take anything back he does not.
May the Lord still grant a return to His Word in the GKv!
[i] The next (short) sentence has not been translated. The Dutch text is: ‘Voorbij de offercritiek’ heet het.
The above article is a translation from Dutch of “Aan het kruis geofferd” published in De Bazuin, Vol 9, No. 05, 11 March 2015.