When Orthodoxy Becomes Innovation

After linking my recent series of posts on the atonement to various Facebook groups, I have received, perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant amount of pushback. Some of the critiques have been thoughtful and engaging, while others have evinced an astonishing lack of a basic awareness of historic Christian orthodoxy. While I would claim to be a ‘Protestant of Protestants’ in my commitment to sola Scriptura, I would eschew any notion that this frees us from the responsibility of hearing Scripture, as John Webster said, in communion with the ‘church’s exegetical fellowship’. Reading Scripture and doing theology, not as private individuals, but in proper relationship to the church universal is essential, for not only does God address us in his Word bigstock-Old-Book-2207732primarily as a corporate people, but also because without accountability to the great cloud of witnesses that has preceded us, we become susceptible to any number of errors that we would otherwise know to avoid.

To illustrate this, I would like to reproduce here a specific example of the kind of pushback to which I am referring (the specific post in question can be found here) and the response that I offered in return. Although my interaction with this person ultimately proved unfruitful, I hope that it can serve here as a sobering reminder of what can happen when we lose touch with the church’s exegetical fellowship and start to think that orthodox Christian belief is theological innovation!

So here is the extended objection that I received:

In NO place does scripture set forth the Atonement of Jesus as accomplished “only IN Himself” – meaning in His two-natures, as the article states. This is a theological invention. The ONE God-Man Jesus accomplished redemption. I can’t speak to the sincerity of the author, and have no reason to doubt it. Only God can judge that. However, when it comes to the truth of a doctrine, that must be addressed.

The author says
“What I have been saying with regard to a Christ-limited atonement refers specifically to the de jure aspect of human salvation. That is to say, the redemption that Christ accomplished, he vicariously accomplished de jure FOR all, but he accomplished it de facto ONLY WITHIN himself. In other words, redemption has been utterly realized in Christ FOR every human being in principle, but only in one human being – Christ himself – in actual fact.”

Um, yeah, Jesus did NOT require redemption! He was the offerer and the offering FOR redemption. Nothing about this statement, that I can see, is in keeping with scripture or orthodox Reformed doctrine.
Jesus personally accomplished redemption.
Jesus accomplished redemption BY Himself.
Jesus accomplished redemption FOR a specific people. WHO?
– “Every…believing one” (Jn 3:16)
– “All…those the Father gives Him” (Jn 17:2)
– “The church” (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:25)
– “Men FROM every nation, tribe” (Rev 5:9)

Jesus said, “For THEIR sakes I sanctify Myself THAT THEY too may be sanctified” (Jn 17: 19). The “they” in context, is HARDLY all men, nor the whole world! Sorry, no “in principle atonement FOR the world here”. Jesus stated plainly, “I do NOT pray FOR the world” (Jn 17:9) – but presumably He “in principle” was about to die for every person? C’mon! 😉

A redemption that HAS BEEN “in principle” realized in Christ FOR every person without exception (Arminianism), is NOT consistent at all with sovereign-election in ANY regard. And in fact, as Arminianism insists, undermines EVERY aspect of sovereign-grace.

>> Jonathan Kleis argues that the author seeks to solve the dilemma by NOT postulating “two wills in God, one revealed, one secret”, yet, both end up doing just that!
Q. For WHY then would God who supposedly does NOT have a “secret will”, NOT elect every person FOR whom “in principle” His Son died?
The GLARING contradiction here is quite an elephant in the room.

As for there being “two wills” in God – a secondary, but as Mr. Kleis argued, a necessary corollary to the OP, the following two examples OUGHT to settle the question: I. The death of Jesus II. The selling of Joseph into Egypt.In both cases, the ultimate mover was said to be God. In both cases, the one to whom the act was ultimately attributed was, to God. In both cases, it was HIS will which was being fulfilled by the sinful acts of men.

So for example, while God revealed commanded “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, Jesus was BY GOD’s will, sentenced with the assistance of false witnesses. Etc. If GOD secret could NOT will a thing that God revealed commanded not to be done, THEN Christ would never be crucified by WICKED men. The paradox is true and clearly upheld by scripture. I am not denying that truly “wicked men” conspired, and killed Jesus. I only affirm what the Apostle’s did “THEY did what YOUR power and will decided beforehand should be done”. As Joseph categorically declared to his brothers, “It was NOT YOU, but God who sent me here”

After reading these comments, I wrote the following response (with minor edits):

[Name omitted to protect the not-so-innocent], based on the strident and triumphalistic tone of your comments, I have little hope of having any mutually beneficial dialogue with you as befits brothers in Christ, so I will probably just make some points in response and leave it at that, unless you are willing to tone down the condescension and follow James 1:19 by being “quick to listen” in order to really understand what I am trying to say rather than setting up straw men.

First, locating the atonement within the person of Christ is not a theological invention. Paul clearly states this in Romans 8:3 when he says that God sent Christ “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in order to “condemn sin in the flesh”. There it is: condemnation of sin IN the flesh of Christ. This is why great theologians like Calvin similarly locate the sum total of our salvation IN Christ rather than outside of him. Calvin specifically states at a certain point in the Institutes that our salvation is found “in the flesh” and “in the person” of Christ alone. So this is not at all a theological invention. In fact it was THE position of the orthodox church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, etc. Your comment seems to indicate that you may be unfamiliar with patristic theology, for if you were, then although you still might disagree, you certainly wouldn’t call this a theological invention because this, historically speaking, is simply untenable.

I would add that the council of Constantinople in 381 (responsible for the final form of the Nicene Creed as we know it today) and the theologians responsible for the defeat of Apollinarianism (such as Gregory of Nazianzus) ardently opposed Apollinarius’ teaching in order to defend precisely the understanding of redemption that you seem to reject. Apollinarianism defined the incarnation in such a way that it eliminated the possibility of our redemption taking place in the person of Christ himself. Therefore, I would say that any notion of atonement and redemption that views these things as having been accomplished outside of Christ represents, if not outright heresy in line with Apollinarianism, at least a ‘backdoor denial’ of the orthodox theology that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was designed to protect.

Second, I never stated that Jesus himself required redemption. I said that he vicariously accomplished it in himself. These are two vastly different things. By the way that you frame the discussion, it seems that you want to describe redemption as a ‘thing’ that in theory is distinct from Christ himself that can be ‘given’ to us. Again, this, I think, is both unbiblical and unorthodox. Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:30 that Christ doesn’t provide or offer or give us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; rather he says that Christ IS our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and that we partake of these benefits when we are, as Paul says, IN Christ. This was strongly emphasized, once again, by the orthodox church fathers, not to mention Calvin who hammered this point home repeatedly in the Institutes over against the Catholic Church that understood grace and salvation as ‘things’ that could be conceptually distinguished from the person of Christ himself. What I articulate in my post is simply the necessary corollary of holding together Christ’s person as the Word become flesh and his vicarious work on our behalf. Whenever we separate incarnation from atonement, we run into all kinds of trouble.

Third, your approach of simply citing verses from Scripture that seemingly prove that Christ died only for a limited group of humanity is unpersuasive, because it is precisely the interpretation of those texts that is in question. It is just as easy to cite a large number of texts that insist that Christ died for all, especially from the Gospel of John that has a decidedly universal bent. Moreover, just because certain texts speak specifically of the efficacy of Christ’s death for his people does not exclude the possibility of the same being said for all. Paul says in Galatians 2:20 that Christ gave himself “for me”. We do not conclude on this basis that Paul teaches that Christ therefore died only for him. Likewise, we should not automatically conclude from the texts that you cite that only a limited elect humanity falls within the scope of Christ’s atoning work.

Fourth, the fact that you seem to want to pigeonhole me into Arminian theology shows me that you haven’t really grasped what I am saying, which is nothing like Arminianism. Unfortunately, if you are operating with strict binary categories between Calvinism and Arminianism, then you may not be aware of this. Once again, this may be a symptom of a lack of knowledge of historical theology? Many of the early orthodox church fathers certainly were neither ‘Calvinist’ nor ‘Arminian’ classically defined. Furthermore, your assertion that what I am saying undermines sovereign grace as does Arminianism  is also completely misplaced. What I say may seem to undermine a Thomistic or voluntaristic view of grace, or an Aristotelian view of God (suggested by your designation of God as the ‘ultimate mover’ which is classic Aristotelianism), but it certainly doesn’t undermine what I believe is the biblical teaching on God’s grace and sovereignty. Your claim that my position evinces a glaring contradiction shows me that, once again, you haven’t really understood what I am saying. I would encourage you to click on the link provided in the post Reforming Calvinism and read previous entries in the series where I specifically address election. I don’t doubt that you will still disagree with me, but if you truly understand my position, then at least you wouldn’t write it off as glaringly contradictory, for what I say about the atonement coheres perfectly with what I believe about election, although in neither case does this mean that I am a universalist, because I am most certainly not.

Fifth, regarding the issue of the two wills of God: the notion of two wills in God is a contradiction, in my view, of the theology represented by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It introduces a rupture either between the revealed God and the hidden God or into the eternal life of God himself (depending on the way in which it is articulated). But this is precisely why the pro-Nicene theologians opposed Arianism. The Arian heresy did not involve simply a denial of Christ’s deity, but it also logically entailed a denial that who Christ reveals himself to be for us in time is somehow different or distinct from God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself. There’s a lot that goes into this of course, and I don’t have time to explain it here. But suffice it to say that if you do some research on Arianism vs. pro-Nicene theology, you will discover that the logical consequences of the ‘two wills of God’ notion comes dangerously close to what some of the Arian heretics said.

Just to be clear, I am by no means am calling you a heretic. I am saying that what you have articulated regarding the two wills of God, one revealed that is potentially or actually different from one that is secret, is eerily similar to one of the necessary corollaries of Arianism, and thus it was one of the major errors that the pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius opposed. The famous Nicene homoousion (consubstantial with) signified precisely this: that the being, will, and act of the Triune God revealed in the history of Jesus Christ is, without distortion, remainder, or differentiation, self-same with the being, will, and act of the Triune God in himself before creation and from all eternity. I would argue that the specific biblical examples you raised do not entail what you think they do, though I need to cut of my remarks at this point.

From this exchange, I hope that the importance of interpreting Scripture and doing theology in close communion with the church’s exegetical fellowship is absolutely indispensable. It is certainly frightening to think what might be the consequences for Protestant and evangelical churches if they begin to think that orthodoxy is innovation! May we continually labor to know our history so well that we are not tempted to repeat its mistakes.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring in part this post.)


6 thoughts on “When Orthodoxy Becomes Innovation

  1. Kenneth Macari 28 August 2016 / 03:10

    You are encountering not only the ignorance of those who have no idea about classic doctrine, but what I have encountered is similar ignorance among some of my PCUSA clergy. In fact, for some of them, there is NO one to read about or quote prior to the Twentieth Century. Too many of them are infatuated with Gandhi and the various liberationists. They quote from Bonhoeffer and yet, do NOT understand his dictum that American religion is “Protestantism WITHOUT Reformation” and certainly NOT Patristic perspectives. And too many of my pastor friends in the USA American denominations do not read anyone prior to Spurgeon and Moody—occasionally from Luther and Calvin. You, Bobby Grow and I are pretty lonely out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 28 August 2016 / 03:35

      Yes Kenneth, it is a sad state of affairs. I think that Bonhoeffer really nailed with his dictum. I’ve quoted him on that on numerous occasions. It is true that it can get pretty lonely sometimes, but I like to remind myself of another dictum: “Athanasius contra mundum” and I find encouragement in remembering that we are not alone in our loneliness!


  2. Mike 28 August 2016 / 04:04

    Jonathan, could you elaborate a little more what you mean by this:

    “[T]he notion of two wills in God . . . introduces a rupture either between the revealed God and the hidden God or into the eternal life of God himself (depending on the way in which it is articulated). But this is precisely why the pro-Nicene theologians opposed Arianism.”

    I can see the validity of your point here: “[Arianism] logically entails a denial that who Christ reveals himself to be for us in time is somehow different or distinct from God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself.”

    But I fail to see how that at all relates to what the Reformed scholastics articulated about the revealed and hidden wills of God.

    I’d also like to hear your thoughts on why you think a distinction in the wills of God ultimately leads to a rupture between the two.



    • Jonathan Kleis 28 August 2016 / 04:32

      Hi Mike, thanks for your question! I will get back with you tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 28 August 2016 / 21:38

      Mike, since my reply to you has gone a bit longer than I originally intended, I am going to put it here as my next blog post, so stay tuned!


Comments are closed.