This article provides further information about recent changes in thinking by some professors within the RCN about Christ’s work of atonement. We’ve always learnt that Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins. Prof Burger and others call this an “atonement through satisfaction model” and imply that this is actually not based on the Bible but on the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of penance.
Reconciliation through satisfaction[i]
Lately within the RCN (GKv) questions about the conciliatory nature of Jesus’ suffering and death are increasingly being raised. For example, Nederlands Dagblad[ii] (7/3/2014) published an article about Tim Keller’s book Centrum-kerk in which Keller states that postmodern people are not averse to hearing the message of sin and salvation. However, Stefan Paas (professor at TUK[iii]), reacts by saying that you
“should carefully distinguish between two things: the gospel, and Keller’s version of it. The latter is not unbiblical but certainly selective. In his book Keller defines in particular a line of ‘reconciliation through satisfaction’ through the work of Christ. That’s what he calls the gospel. But the gospel is Christ, and not a particular theory about atonement. There are several biblically responsible ways of articulating the gospel. The question is whether Keller’s version of the gospel is the only one you can use on the mission field.”
Recently a booklet entitled Cruciaal – de verrassende betekenis van Jezus’ kruisiging[iv] appeared on the market. According to its editors, Hans Burger and Reinier Sonneveld, the main reason for this book is
“… that in the spirituality of many western Christians a single ‘reconciliation’ model has become dominant, whereas more can be said about reconciliation. That particular model is known as ‘reconciliation through satisfaction’. When you inquire about its designers the same names always come up: the brilliant thinker Anselm of Canterbury and the reformer John Calvin. It is professed by Calvinists, Puritans and contemporary evangelicals. Many involved Christians know only this explanation. You get an idea of this thinking from e.g. the Heidelberg Catechism (Question and Answer 15 and 16).”
By publishing Cruciaal… the writers wish to create awareness that …
“the language of the Bible and theology is richer than the ‘atonement through satisfaction’ model that has become popular. The authors participating in the booklet differ in their appreciation of ‘atonement through satisfaction’.”
In a chapter titled ‘Beyond the sacrifice criticism’, Hans Burger (researcher at the TUK) writes that although the Bible itself speaks about Jesus’ death as a sacrifice:
“It is important to distinguish this from dogmatic formulations like: ‘Jesus brings a sacrifice by taking our place in bearing the punishment as payment of our debt and in this way he gives the required satisfaction to God and obtains our salvation’. You do not find that line of thinking in the New Testament.
How then has this interpretation become so dominant? It originated during the Middle Ages, when the image of the sacrifice became associated with the sacrament of penance and reconciliation which is of a legal nature: it focuses on individual guilt, God’s judgment on it, about the satisfaction that is demanded, about penance by way of good works. Against the background of that medieval struggle with the sacrament of penance, theologians have formulated the liberating message of the gospel. Calvin sees the suffering of Jesus under God’s punishment as payment of our debt and the purchase of redemption. This effect is understandable against that medieval background. But realize that this is a later theology-historical development. Once you see this, there will be more critical questions. Does our western-European thinking over the centuries about sacrifices indeed do justice to what the Bible means by Jesus’ death? Or do we surrender to a medieval structure that belongs to the sacrament of penance? And will the sacrifice then not become isolated from Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom, of his resurrection and ascension, of the history of Israel? And is that not contributing to a narrowing, an exclusive focusing on the forgiveness of individual guilt? And is the sacrifice really something about Jesus alone, or is it not so exclusively tied to him?” (p. 54).
In Cruciaal…, in which also the legacy of Tom Wright can be found, the issue is about more than differences in emphasis. As Calvinists we have learned much from Calvin. In the beautiful collection of Aryan Hendriks Geleerd door de Geest[v] Hendriks writes about Calvin’s vision on the preaching: “What is preaching?” The preacher [Calvin says], as sent by God, comes with an authoritative message. We hear the profound seriousness of what the minister must do in the pulpit
“when the Heidelberger in Lord’s Day 31 speaks about the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The first key is namely ‘the proclamation of the Holy Gospel’. While the priests of Rome exercised this key in the confessional, the Reformation placed it in the pulpit where the kingdom is opened to those who believe and shut to those who do not love the Lord Jesus. Reconciliation is ‘proclaimed’: to the believers it is proclaimed and openly declared that there is forgiveness for them in the blood of Christ.”
During the training course More about crown witnesses (Bible Studies by prof. J. van Bruggen) a student remarks that the Saviour, in His teaching, hardly speaks about his atoning suffering and death. That His death is atonement, a payment for our debts, is something the student misses, even though it is the core of Christ’s teaching. Notwithstanding the words of the Saviour Himself at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (in Matthew 26:28), he does not believe in a ‘Pauline doctrine of atonement’.
In his reply Prof Van Bruggen points at the redemptive-historical [vi] perspective. Only when we bring that into account will we see both the historical birth and the preaching of reconciliation in the proper perspective. Prof van Bruggen says:
“In the gospels we read very much about the Saviour’s public activities and teaching. The aspect of ‘must suffer’ hardly figures in them. This shows up particularly in the training of the disciples (Mt 16, 21-23); the multitudes did not even get as far as to understand Jesus’ humiliation (which irritated them), let alone ever understand His ‘having to suffer’. Even among the disciples there was resistance to, and a lack of understanding of, the teaching of reconciliation. That teaching did however lead to the Holy Supper where Jesus very clearly speaks about it and confirms it. It is to that private teaching about the reconciliation based on the scriptures that the Saviour points after His resurrection (Lk. 24, 44-49). We get to hear that private teaching of Jesus in particular when the apostles have their say (Acts and the Epistles). Much of the apostles’ appeal to the Scriptures goes back to the instruction in the law and the prophets that Jesus had already given them. And so it happens that the ‘reconciliation doctrine’ emerges unobstructed only after the Ascension. But it is indeed the reconciliation teaching of the Saviour Himself, taught at first to reluctant disciples, and later preached everywhere by the Holy Spirit using the same disciples. During Jesus’ humiliation the streams of living water still remained largely underground, but they came to the surface when the Spirit had come upon the apostles (see John 7:, 37-39).”
[i] Translated from website ééninwaarheid. The article finished with a poem written by Nel Benschop. It is not included here, because a quick translation cannot possibly do justice to its content.
[ii] A daily newspaper with historical links to the RCN.
[iii] Theological University at Kampen, for which the RCN is responsible.
[iv] Crucial – the surprising meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion
[v] Instructed by the Spirit
[vi] in Dutch: heilshistorisch, which means: looking at history from a salvation perspective