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Atonement sparks discussion at NOBTS forum

EDITOR’S NOTE: Also see story below about a chapel address in conjunction with New Orleans Theological Seminary’s centennial by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — New Testament scholars N.T. Wright and Simon Gathercole addressed the meaning of the atonement at the 14th annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, Nov. 10-11, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

The question considered was whether substitution — the view that Christ died in the place of sinners — is enough to communicate the full meaning of atonement.

In a departure from previous Greer-Heard forums, this year’s event featured conservative Christian speakers who agree on the doctrines that all Christians, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox affirm.

Wright, former Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and a leading New Testament theologian, cautioned against reducing the atonement to a single summary statement such as Christ’s death means believers “can go to heaven.”

Wright called for seeing the atonement as “shorthand” for the full biblical story of redemption history and new creation. Wright noted the Gospels are primary witnesses to the meaning of Jesus’ death; any model of atonement that stands alone becomes “wooden and disjointed;” Jesus’ death during Passover is key and showed that the Last Supper replaced the temple sacrificial system and was Jesus’ final interpretation of his death; and that understanding these points should change how atonement is depicted.

Affirming that Jesus’ death broke sin’s power, defeated the powers of darkness and reconciled the world to God, Wright cautioned that reducing the atonement to “God needed to kill someone and it happened to be his own son” is a pagan idea imported into today’s thinking.

“When we look back at the long history of atonement theology, especially in the west, we find three things: we have Platonized our eschatology; moralized our anthropology; and therefore we have paganized our soteriology,” Wright said.

Paul’s argument is instead about how God rescues and renews His creation, Wright said, adding that “the ‘getting to heaven’ narrative, which is still massively popular and influential, is the teaching of middle Platonism, not the Bible; you’ll find it in Plutarch, not in Paul.”

Wright warned that today’s culture thinks Christianity teaches that an angry God had to be assuaged, a teaching Wright called “a lurch toward … pagan narratives in which an angry God demands an innocent victim.”

Instead, a “robust Trinitarian theology” is needed to show that Jesus’ death radically changed the world and restored the vocation assigned to humans in Genesis 1, 2 and 3, Wright explained.

Disavowing any theology that teaches only “what people would like to hear,” Wright concluded, “The scandal of the cross remains a scandal, but at least let’s get the scandal right.”

Wright is author of the recent work on the atonement, “The Day the Revolution Began.”

A defense of substitution

Substitution is integral to the Gospel, Gathercole contended in his response.

Gathercole, Cambridge University New Testament scholar and author of “Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul,” drew first from Ezekiel chapters 33 and 34 as examples of Scripture’s consistent witness regarding God’s saving activity — “liberation and on the other side, forgiveness of sins.”

The two themes cannot be separated, Gathercole said.

Gathercole pointed to the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, then returned to the Old Testament to show that Scripture also links disobedience and death.

Drawing from 1 Kings 16:8-19, Gathercole noted that the “formula” describing King Zimri’s sin in the Greek Septuagint is similar to the formula Paul used in writing to the Corinthians. In the passage, King Zimri usurps Israel’s King Asa’s throne.

“King Zimri died for his owns sins,” Gathercole noted. “That’s the link between sin and death. The miracle of the Gospel is that this link between sin and death has been broken. Christ died for our sins.

Substitution is at the heart of the Gospel. Christ died so that we don’t have to.”

Paul tapped into the substitutionary language of Isaiah 53 in his Corinthians letter and provided a link between substitution and forgiveness, Gathercole said. He explained that the Suffering Servant died both “in consequence of [others’] sins and in order to deal with them,” adding “The Corinthians don’t have to die because Jesus did.”

Gathercole noted the stark contrast between examples of substitutionary death for “worthy” persons in pagan literature and Paul’s emphasis in Romans 5 of Christ dying for the “unworthy.”

Paul touches on a “life for life exchange,” Gathercole said, adding that Romans 5 points to the main tenets of the Gospel: “justification through Christ’s blood, salvation and reconciliation.”

In the concluding exchange, Gathercole praised Wright for providing a comprehensive framework for the atonement, but questioned whether Wright gave a restored “vocation” for humans and a “restoration of the cosmos” too central a focus.

Wright answered by appealing to Revelation 5 to where the redeemed are made “kings and priests” and to Romans 8 to show that now that the power of sin is broken, humans are free to be as God’s image-bearers, as God intended.

“The doctrine of the atonement stands at the center of Christianity,” said Robert Stewart, Greer-Heard Forum director. “N. T. Wright’s expansive book on the doctrine says that we have made too little of this doctrine. Not everyone will agree with him but everyone must take him seriously. He affirms a substitutionary atonement but not necessarily in the traditional way, and brings to our attention other things to see in the death of Christ. In short, Wright declares that this world really is a different sort of place, a better place, because Christ died for sinners.”

Second-day forum speakers included Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary; Douglas Moo of Wheaton College; Edith Humphrey of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; and Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Event material is available at www.greerheard.com.
Marilyn Stewart is assistant public relations director at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


Mohler at NOBTS: ‘God’s Word prevails mightily’
By Gary D. Myers

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Extraordinary things happen when God’s Word is preached in places like Ephesus and New Orleans, said Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler.

Mohler’s comments came during an Oct. 26 chapel service at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Speaking during the seminary’s year-long centennial celebration, Mohler offered words of blessing and encouragement.

“In 1917, there was established a school in New Orleans, La., a school by Baptists, intentionally by Baptists, strategically and missiologically established by Baptists and thus the 100th anniversary of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary,” Mohler said. “What a joy and honor it is for me to be here in this place this year as you are celebrating.”

Mohler called the establishment of a seminary in New Orleans a “bold and ambitious move” that helped with the Southern Baptist Convention’s expansion to the West.

“I’m thankful for 100 years of faithfulness. One hundred years of standing by the Gospel,” Mohler said. “One hundred years of teaching the Bible. One hundred years of representing Southern Baptists and Christ in this amazing city. I am just so thankful that you are here.”

Turning his attention to the text of Acts 19:11-20, Mohler shared how the word of the Lord “prevailed mightily” in Ephesus. Through God’s power, the apostle Paul had been performing miracles in the city. People were being healed by simply touching garments Paul had touched. Evil spirits were being cast out.

A group of itinerate Jewish exorcists, the seven sons of Sceva, saw the miracles and attempted to cast out an evil spirit by evoking the “name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches.” The spirit answered the exorcists by acknowledging that it knew of Jesus and Paul. However, the spirit did not know the sons of Sceva. It rejected their authority and gave the exorcists a severe beating.

As news of the event spread, the Gospel spread as well. The Bible states that many Jews and Greeks came to faith in Christ and “the word of the Lord prevailed mightily.”

Mohler advised vigilant attention to detail and context when reading passages like Acts. 19.

“We understand that in the flow of biblical history, in that apostolic age, God was verifying the message of the apostles through certain signs and wonders that were normative then that are not normative now,” Mohler said.

Even though ministers today should not expect the same type of extraordinary signs, Mohler cautioned against viewing the task for the modern church as less extraordinary. Today, ministers of the Gospel are tasked with preaching God’s Word. God uses this preaching of the Word to do amazing things, Mohler said.

“Your responsibility is to get the Word from your mouth to their ears and you can go no further,” Mohler said. “The Holy Spirit will take the Word from their ears to their hearts and do what you can’t do. We get to preach the Word of God and see the miraculous happen.”

In the text, the evil spirit knew about Paul, but did not know the sons of Sceva. Mohler suggested that one goal of the Christian disciple is to be known by the demons. Those believers who are authentic in their commitment to Christ will cause the demons to shutter, he said.

“May we all do everything possible in order to make certain that the demons know us by name,” Mohler said.

Just like in Acts 19, God continues to prevail through His Word in places that look much like ancient Ephesus — places like New Orleans, Mohler said.

“Who in their right mind would put an evangelical theological seminary here?” Mohler said. “Only people who are absolutely confident that the Word of the Lord will increase and prevail mightily.”

Every city bears some resemblance to Ephesus, Mohler said, and every city needs witnesses who will boldly preach the Word of God.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Marilyn Stewart