Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My thoughts on John Vest's posting about the death of Jesus

In the gospel of Matthew we have the beautiful words given by Jesus at the Last Supper, the Passover, which he and his disciples ate together. “And when he had taken a cup and given thanks, he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it all of you for this is the blood of my covenant which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.’” One may not understand any of the theological theories of atonement and yet understand from the Scripture that Jesus died for the sins of others. John Vest in his posting “Ockham’s Atonement,” writes:
The crucifixion is a fact of history that was given a theological explanation by followers of Jesus who were so stunned by what happened to their master that they assumed it must have been part of a grand scheme. But what if we don’t make that assumption? What if we don’t need a theological explanation?

The cross is a human tragedy, like so many tragedies we encounter every day. ... But the really important part of the story is the resurrection. The resurrection gives us hope that nothing—no tragedy, no mistake, no sin—is beyond the redemptive power of God’s love. (Bold the authors)
I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have called that cheap grace. That is our receiving of such grace without acknowledging the death of Christ as the work of redemption cheapens the gift. If redemption is simply God’s love minus his gift of Christ we leave both Abelard and Anselm behind. There is no sacrifice and there is no model of redeeming love. And absurdly we leave a great deal of the New Testament out.

Yes, it is the power of the resurrection that completes and finishes that gift giving us eternal life in Christ. As Paul put it without the resurrection we would be of all people most miserable. But the great work of redemption is so much more than a theory. It is after all the great theme of all Scripture. The Seed whose heel is bruised while bruising the serpents head, the provision of the ram as a substitute for Isaac, the blood on the door post of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the sacrifice of animals on the temple altar, the suffering Servant of Isaiah who “was pierced through for our transgressions” and “was crushed for our iniquities.”

How do you throw out so much Scripture? Paul & Peter agree, “In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished on us.” Eph 1:7-8a) “…knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with the precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” (1 Peter 1: 18-19)

As for Ockham’s atonement, Vest points out that he didn’t have an atonement theory but a philosophical concept called Ockham’s razor which suggested the simplest answer is the best. In philosophical terms it is considered the most elegant answer. That is like the clearest answer or design. But consider, doing away with so much Scripture one has to come up with some very complex theories and strategies so Ockham’s razor does not really fit.

One should end with the new song of the Elders:

Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for you were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9)


dhollifield said...

We get it wrong when we say that the cross symbolizes defeat and resurrection symbolizes victory. Thinking that way strips cross-bearing of its love for others and reduces suffering to mere duty. Thanks for the reminder...

Jodie said...


But without the resurrection, the crucifixion is indeed just a hope dashing tragic murder, as testified by the disciples on the road to Emmaus:

"Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel."

Only when seen through the lens of the resurrection can we question the senseless nature of a death by torture on a cross and find the Grace in its outcome.

Cameron Smith, Salem, VA said...

Viola, thanks for making me aware of John's post. I have read his material before, and knew that he was pretty left in his thinking. However, as I read this recent post, it made me realize even more how core-less we are in the PC(USA). I am sure John is a fine and good man. However, I don't think we have much in common as colleagues. His robust denials make me shudder. They make me sad.

pastor thalos said...


Simply perusing Mr. Vest's blog, I also do not believe that he believes that "resurrection" means physical bodily resurrection. As an avowed "progressive" Christian, Mr. Vest seems to not only be denying the atonement, but also the physical resurrection.

Adel Thalos
Hixson, TN

John Vest said...

It probably sounds like a postmodern cop-out to you, but the historicity of the resurrection is pretty much a non-issue for me. There certainly are progressives that go out of their way to say that they don't think it happened, or that it was just symbolic or some kind of spiritual resurrection or something. Those are responses to questions that don't really concern me anymore. I don't think that the truth of Christianity hinges on whether or not the resurrection happened as a fact of history.

Resurrection is obviously beyond normal experience, but there is a lot of stuff that happens beyond "normal" experience, so I don't discount it.

For me, the resurrection is a powerful story of redemption that demonstrates the power of God's love. I hope that it did happen. But I don't think it's all that helpful to bend over backwards to argue for or against it.

And if it were somehow proven that it didn't happen (which I don't think is possible), I don't think it would be the end of Christianity. If Christianity is nothing more than Jesus' death and resurrection, then we really are to be pitied. But I think Christianity is much more than that.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the truth of Christianity hinges on whether or not the resurrection happened as a fact of history.

That Paul guy--the one who wrote 1 Corinthians 15--is so first century!

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Chris Enoch said...

"And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith...And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins...If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

Lord have mercy on us....

Viola Larson said...

Not a cop out John, not even disbelief since you said that such questions do not concern you. It almost sounds like your own ideas are all that hold you to your work. Of course also love of those you minister to, but if you do not have a real relationship with the risen Lord of the Church how will you minister the love of Christ to them in their greatest times of need, because only his help and love coming from us can be the final answer.

Calvin's and the other great reformers answer to our ministry was our union to the risen Lord-his life to us-our life to others.

pastor thalos said...

"If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)

Seems very straightforward to me...

The major problem with all of this...Mr. Vest is an ordained leader of youth.

Which reminds me of another biblical verse...James 3:1
"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."

Adel Thalos
Hixson, TN

Debbie said...

John Vest says, "If Christianity is nothing more than Jesus' death and resurrection, then we really are to be pitied." Christianity is nothing without those two things! We are to be pitied without them!

I have read Vest's "Ockham's atonement" post, and what strikes me about all the discussion of the various "theories" of atonement is the apparent disregard of Scripture. Yes, if Scripture is not given primary authority, I suppose people could debate various theories of atonement and try to decide which theories might be the strongest, and apply Ockham's Razor. But if Scripture is truly God's Word, then it has the primary authority, and Scripture states over and over that Christ died in order to take on himself the punishment for our sins--the substitutionary atonement that progressives despise.

I don't understand why they despise it--it's the most wonderful thing that God did for us! We have Easter coming this week when we can again remember it in a symbolic way. What a wonderful God!

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Al Sandalow said...

I'll say this: John is at least honest and un-afraid to voice his opinion. I’ve run into far too may clergy who believe the same things, but don’t have the personal integrity to state their beliefs in public.

I prefer honest disbelief to pretend orthodoxy.