Prof J Douma on Burger’s Criticism in “Cruciaal” (translated from jochemdouma.nl)

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Burger’s criticism

One would expect that the article of the liberated Reformed theologian Burger[i] defends the doctrine of atonement – the doctrine which states that Jesus has delivered us from our sins through the sacrifice of his own blood on Calvary.

But that is not the case. Burger claims that in a ‘strict sense’ Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice because he himself was not a Levitical priest but came from the tribe of Judah. Moreover, no priest became involved with his death. Jesus did not die in a temple and not on an altar, we read in Burger’s article (54).

How much weight do such remarks have when the New Testament tells us in numerous places that Jesus was a priest, yes a high priest? The letter to the Hebrews qualifies him ten times as high priest, and tells us also why, in spite of the fact that he came from the tribe of Judah, he was high priest (Heb 7:14).  As high priest he offered the sacrifice, not with the blood of goats and bulls, but with his own blood (Heb 9:12). Once at the end of the ages he appeared, and once and for all He has sacrificed his life to bear the sins of many (Heb 9:25ff). Is this not a sacrifice in the ‘strict sense’?

I think Burger has quickly given in to the estrangement (as he calls it) which nowadays is sticking to the word ‘sacrifice’. Sacrifice, victim, scapegoat – they all have a dark undertone (52).

According to Burger orthodox Christians cannot escape the criticism levelled at the sacrificial image, which is difficult also for them. Surely God will not be manipulated by sacrifices, will He? Surely we cannot go along with the terrifying image of ‘a cruel anthropomorphic God’, can we (52v)?

No, that is clear, even to me. But I am allowed to ask whether we ourselves have already become so ‘estranged’ as to join in with the remarkable criticism of others at the ‘sacrifice image’, instead of listening to Paul (and others) who glories in the crucified Jesus (read 1 Cor 1 and 2!).

Even then there were those for whom Jesus’ crucifixion and death aroused astonishment. Paul knew very well that to pagan ears his message was foolishness and for Jews it was an offense.

But there was still a third category of people: those who believed in the crucifixion of Jesus as an unfathomable mystery. No eye had ever seen anything like it, no ear has ever heard of it, and it had not come up in the heart of any thinker. It was God’s hidden and mysterious wisdom which he had decided on before the ages for our glory. The secret was revealed in Jesus Christ. Had they known of it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:7ff)!

I do not cling to Anselm, however respectable he was as a Christian thinker. But I will let myself be carried along by all those New Testament writers who describe the wonder of the coming of Jesus Christ, given over by his Father for our salvation, who was born, has suffered, was crucified, died and rose from the dead. In all that he took us with him to cleanse us by his blood and awaken us to a new, eternal life.

Burger mentions a ‘dogmatic’ formulation of Jesus’ sacrifice: ‘Jesus offers a sacrifice by substitutionally bearing our punishment as payment of our debt’ (54). What is his criticism on this? Well, ‘you do not find this train of thought back that way in the New Testament’ (54).

Yes, the New Testament does not say this anywhere in the sequence Burger puts it. But I still feel free to endorse this clear summary of Jesus’ life and death as a sentence from my dogmatics, because the sentence Burger criticises represents what I read in the Bible.

Let me cut the sentence Burger criticises into three parts:

1) On the cross Jesus took our place. He died for the ungodly; we were justified by his blood (Rom. 5:6vv). Through one man’s righteous act … justification of life came to all men (Rom. 5.18). We were crucified with Him, died with him and rose again (Rom. 6,4ff). We live for God in Jesus Christ.

Often the words in, with and through Christ direct our attention to the cross of Jesus Christ. He was made sin so that we through Him could be righteous before God (2 Cor. 5:18 to 21).

2) Jesus bore our punishment. The Old Testament already testified to it (Is 53:5). Peter applies the stripes mentioned there without hesitation to the stripes of Jesus’ scourging (1 Pet. 2:24).

3) Jesus paid our debt. The Son of Man came to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). Our bodies are members of Christ; we have been purchased, paid for, by him (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13).

I apologize to Burger that I cite all kinds of texts from the Bible which will be just as familiar to him as to me, and which are echoed by the Confessions of the church and the liturgical Forms.

But it is for that reason that I do not understand why the phrase Burger mentions (or formulates) should not occur in his or my dogma. He says that Calvin saw the sufferings of Jesus Christ as payment for our debt and as purchasing redemption. But Calvin dug this up from the New Testament, as his Institutes show in all clarity. It is up to Burger to convince us that both Calvin’s and our (mine and his) Reformed Confessions and Forms have it wrong when they speak about substitution, bearing our punishment and about divine payment.

In the rest of Burger’s article I sometimes find phrases that make me wonder what could be against calling Christ our substitute.

Clarity of argumentation is not the strongest point in this piece of Burger. What should I do with his statement that this is Jesus’ sacrifice: He is completely devoted to his Father, and He makes us into people who just like him are dedicated to God (59)? Certainly, that is true. But there is more that is true than Burger’s likes.

A few lines later he writes that the removal of sin from our life ‘apparently is possible only through death’ (true), but that this calls for terms other than cultic (not true).

What the Bible writes about our salvation is largely clothed in the garb of a sacrifice: Christ is the high priest, he is the lamb that is slain (John 1:29; Rev. 5:6—in that book of the Bible he is called the Lamb more than twenty-five times). He is the propitiation (Rom. 3:25). He has given himself for us as a sacrifice, as a fragrant offering to God (Eph. 5:2). He sacrificed his blood that cleanses us from all our sins so that no sin offering is needed (Heb 10:14; 1 John 1:7). And so on, and so on.

We must not succumb to modern ‘estrangement’ when it comes to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We joyfully accept the exuberant sacrifice language in the New Testament when it comes to Jesus’ atonement.

We should also not succumb to phrases like: ‘The Bible therefore does not portray a harsh God who wants to see blood. As if God wants at all costs that some should die’ (64). I find them astonishing statements coming from a Reformed theologian. I prefer the subtle remark in the Holy Supper Form about the ‘glorious remembrance of the bitter death of God’s dear Son Jesus Christ’.

21 April 2015

[i] in Dr H Burger’s article in the booklet Cruciaal (published late 2014)