Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 3

Read: Part 1, Part 2

2. The Cross. Mark Galli turns from the problem of universalism to the doctrine of atonement. This is a very complicated and important issue, and he is right to emphasize its importance. I cannot defend Bell here, but I can assess the arguments that Galli uses to criticize Bell’s understanding of the cross. The first two paragraphs read:
Bell asks questions of other doctrines that are even more problematic. Take his understanding of Jesus' death. Like many contemporaries, Bell notes the many biblical metaphors that describe what Christ's death accomplishes—a ransom, a reconciliation, an acquittal, a sacrifice, and so forth. He's most taken with the idea that in the resurrection, "the powers of death and destruction have been defeated" and that this "inaugurates a movement to … renew, restore, and reconcile all things." But he is vague about how this happens. While clearly favoring the one metaphor—defeat of death—he says the point is not to "narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. … The point, then as it is now, is Jesus." 
Yes, what happened on the cross is richer than any one metaphor can comprehend. Yes, the point is Jesus. But when Bell suggests that Jesus (and similarly, the whole New Testament) doesn't say "how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him"—well, it's hard to know what he's talking about. What is Romans 3-8 if not an explanation of such? Does the fact that there are a variety of ways of understanding that "mechanism" mean that some of the explanations aren't fuller and more inclusive? In fact, as we've argued in the pages of the magazine, there are strong reasons for substitutionary atonement being the controlling biblical metaphor, and the other metaphors only make sense in light of it.
Here we have an issue of the history of doctrine and biblical interpretation. Galli is perfectly within his rights to argue that Paul’s letters favor substitutionary atonement as the “controlling metaphor.” But it is quite problematic to suggest that Bell simply hasn’t been reading his Bible carefully enough. Just because one chooses to elevate certain passages in Paul does not mean it is self-evident that substitutionary atonement is the correct position. The ancient church was dominated by the view of Christ’s death as the “defeat of death,” as a cosmic victory over the powers of evil—the very view Galli cites Bell as advocating. Moreover, the Greek church has always been dominated by an emphasis on the incarnation as the atoning event, in which the assumption of flesh is already the act of deification that the cross and resurrection then complete. We see this especially in the writings of Cyril of Alexandria, for example. The Greek fathers made the Gospel of John their controlling text, where it is not the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross that is atoning, but rather the person of Christ himself as the Word made flesh. The cross is his glorification, not a debt-paying sacrifice. It is because of these conflicting metaphors about atonement that the church never gave a conciliar statement about the atoning work of Christ. There is no dogma of the atonement. Instead, as Robert Jenson puts it, we are left with “an inherited heap of proposals.”

My point here is that Galli is expecting Bell to provide something that the church has never felt capable of deciding one way or the other in the past: viz. an explanation of the “mechanism” by which atonement is achieved. Despite his conviction that Rom. 3-8 provides this mechanism, it is by no means self-evident to a large number—perhaps the majority—of Christians throughout history. Moreover, Bell’s emphasis on the “defeat of death,” if Galli has cited that accurately, is itself just such a mechanism! That is the classical theory of Christus Victor. Perhaps Bell is vague in his description of it, or perhaps he does not remain inconsistent with that insight. That may be the case, though we should remember that this is a pastoral text, not an academic monograph. Nevertheless, Christus Victor, whatever its problems, is a theory of the atonement. One gets the impression from Galli that only substitutionary atonement can lay claim to being a true theory of the atonement, while everything else serves as merely a multifaceted metaphorical buttress.

Galli cites Mark Dever to support his case. This is an interesting move. Dever isn’t exactly a scholar of the atonement, and it shows. The article contains no serious theological reflection on the atonement. Instead, it lists some of the main arguments against substitutionary atonement—to which, by the way, he never actually responds—then proceeds simply to cite a long list of passages from the NT that have substitutionary overtones or implications. He then notes a couple opposing arguments against the use of these texts and makes some brief replies. The article concludes by then arguing that substitution is “the center and focus of the Bible’s witness.” In other words, the “argument” that Galli claims has been provided in the pages of CT comes down to little more than a list of proof-texts that have substitution language in them. There is no serious reflection on hermeneutical presuppositions or on the actual dogmatic content of the atonement.

(As a side note, Dever doesn’t even defend substitution adequately when he attempts to do so. He mentions the case of the railroad tracks, in which the Father is portrayed as shifting the train to run over his son so as to spare the rest of humanity. It’s a compelling image that seeks to portray substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse. Dever’s response is that this image is “inadequate because it does not include the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean? How would the Spirit change the picture? No, the correct response is that the analogy presupposes a false view of the Trinity as three independent subjects. The atonement is always wrongly conceived where the Father and the Son are viewed as two subjects on analogy with two human beings. In such a view, the cross will always be abusive. Instead, we have to see that the Father and the Son are a single divine subject. It is one and the same God who sends and who suffers and dies. This was Thomas Aquinas’s correction to the Anselmian tradition, and it is the kind of dogmatic reflection on the cross that Dever conspicuously fails to provide. But without such reflection, we never get beyond who has the longer list of proof-texts.)

Finally, the term “substitutionary atonement” itself is remarkably ambiguous. One could quite justifiably respond to Galli with Galli’s own criticism of Bell: “he is vague about how this happens.” What kind of substitution? Is substitution being conflated here with satisfaction? Those two terms are not coextensive. Here is a bit from George Hunsinger on Anselm:
Anselm’s critics are incorrect if they associate the view of “penal substitution” with Anselm. While penal substitution became a predominant idea in post-Reformation Protestant theology, two things need to be remembered, namely, that penal views of the atonement are not necessarily substitutionary, while, in turn, substitutionary views are not necessarily penal. In one respect Anselm represents the first option; Athanasius represents the second. ... Anselm’s view of the atonement thus involved penal elements without being substitutionary. By contrast, for Athanasius, who was following a Greek patristic tradition, Christ’s death was substitutionary but not penal. (The Eucharist and Ecumenism, 295-97)
Dever is not sensitive to these concerns, and essentially lumps substitution, sacrifice, and satisfaction together. The lack of careful distinctions and the lack of attention to historical accuracy plague his essay, and so also Galli’s assessment of Bell.

But that’s not the only reason why substitution is ambiguous in this review. How exactly is Christ functioning as a substitute? Are we speaking about the humanity of Christ as ontologically united with all humanity? That is certainly a classical way of construing it. But then what is the basis for the ontological unity—is it some human essence shared by all, is it an ontological conception of divine imputation? Or is the substitutionary aspect achieved by the mediating power of the Spirit? Or is it some kind of cultic event, as in ancient Israel when the priest laid hands on the sacrifice and so identified the animal as the representative for the people? Substitution can itself be understood in a number of ways that conflict with each other. But let’s probe the matter even further. Is substitution effective apart from our response of faith? Does the atoning work on the cross achieve the actuality of reconciliation or merely its possibility?

See, the ironic thing is that substitutionary atonement actually provides the single best argument for universalism! If, as Paul says, all humanity stands under the wrath of God, and if Christ is our representative who takes on the sins of the world, then it follows that his substitutionary death is the liberation of all humanity from their sin and guilt. Galli cites Romans 3-8, which is doubly ironic because Rom. 5 is one of the most universalistic passages in all of Scripture and it operates on precisely the logic of substitution that Galli is commending (cf. my series on “Paul Among the Evangelicals”)! Christ stands in the place of Adam: “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). Traditionally, evangelicals (i.e., those who reject the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement) will back up and say that Jesus only makes reconciliation a possibility. But not only does this conflict with many of the NT statements, especially in Romans; it also weakens the logic of substitution. What kind of substitute is Jesus if we have to actually complete the substitutionary bond ourselves? Does Jesus completely stand in our place or does he not? Too often the evangelical position seems to say that Jesus is only potentially our substitute; to finish the job, we have to assist him, in which case we have to save ourselves. At the end of the day, there are only two (theo)logically satisfactory options: either limited atonement or universalism. And of those two, only one makes the best overall sense of the biblical witness. (And it’s not the first.)

I’m tempted to stop, but there’s still much more about Galli’s review that warrants our attention, especially since we haven’t quite reached the part that supports his identification of Bell as a liberal. Reading on, we discover that Bell describes Jesus as “the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.” Galli pounces on this. He calls it “the classic exemplar model of atonement,” which is “a standard of liberal Protestantism.” Here we have to stop and reflect for a moment. Why is Galli so quick to label this as a particular theory of the atonement, when he overlooked the fact that three paragraphs earlier he had cited a passage from Bell that describes the Christus Victor theory? Galli did not mention that Bell stands in a long and ancient line of biblical interpretation regarding the “defeat of death,” and yet he immediately lumps Bell in with Protestant liberalism the moment we encounter the notion of Jesus as exemplar. Even if that turns out to be an accurate description of Bell, it is not a charitable assessment. It comes across as if Galli means to suppress Bell’s connection with the ancient church in order to emphasize his liberal heritage. This becomes more apparent in the third section of the review, which I will address tomorrow.

As if recognizing that he might be reading too much into Bell, Galli steps back a bit: “Again, Bell says Christ's death and resurrection have cosmic, universal effects, but it was never clear to this reviewer how or why they have these effects. To be fair, he says he doesn't reject substitutionary atonement outright. But in this book, he apparently thinks it unimportant or uninteresting.” We encounter the same problems noted above. Why is Bell required to explain “how or why” Christ’s death has these effects? Simply mentioning substitution does not provide an explanation. The only way to really do so is to write a systematic theology, or at least a dogmatic inquiry into the atonement. But that isn’t the purpose of this book. If Galli wants a systematic treatment, he’ll have to look elsewhere (or wait for my book coming out in a few years from Wipf & Stock).

Would it be great if Bell could have provided such a text? Of course! But then we would be expecting him to act as an academic theologian, and not as the pastor that he is. I am uncomfortable with Galli’s review at this point because it seems that there is a double standard. Dever, and many others, are able to “pass the evangelical test” with hardly any theological reflection whatsoever, mostly just a list of verses. And yet when Bell proposes to look at things differently, he is asked to provide logical, systematic explanations—quite beyond what Dever or Galli offer regarding substitutionary atonement. Now, to be fair, many others have indeed provided systematic accounts of substitutionary atonement, but still others have provided systematic accounts of other theories and ways of interpreting the cross.

These factors lead me to the uneasy conclusion that there seems to be some kind of doctrinal legalism at work here. If a theologian espouses substitutionary atonement (even just using the term will suffice), then that person is evangelical. But if another person seems to make substitutionary atonement marginal (even by simply remaining silent or elevating other ideas), then that person has to be scrutinized and is quite probably outside the circle of evangelicalism. Am I off-base here? Is this an accurate reading of Galli? I’m quite willing to be proved wrong, because I think Galli has the very best of intentions. He’s certainly been the most reasonable voice amidst a cacophony of accusations against Bell. But I remain deeply unsettled by this review, precisely because it seems to make one’s explicit defense of substitutionary atonement (though how it is to be understood remains unclear) the mark of one’s evangelical identity. I realize there is anxiety today about just what “evangelical” even means, and perhaps this is an effort to provide some kind of definition. But there are numerous—one might even say, disastrous—problems that attend such a move. For the sake of the future of evangelicalism, I hope we do not feel the need to do what the early church never could, viz. declare one theory of the atonement to be the “orthodox” position.

Finally, this section of the review ends by transitioning to the problem of liberalism more fully. The real basis for Galli’s claim seems to be that Bell finds the sacrificial metaphor for the cross “culturally irrelevant.” We no longer live in a culture that practices animal sacrifice and blood offerings. To continue to think in such terms about the cross results in missing the point of the story altogether. As Galli cites him, Bell then interprets the death and resurrection of Christ in a more symbolic way: “For Bell, the Cross is ‘a symbol of an elemental reality, one we all experience,’ and the Resurrection is not a new concept, but ‘something that has always been true. It’s how the world works.’ He’s referring to that pattern of death and rebirth.” If this is really how Bell conceives of the cross, then I too would have some concerns, but my focus is just on the review itself. What I find interesting is that Dever’s article, the one cited above, also mentions the irrelevance argument. The source there is the book by Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (InterVarsity, 2000). Here are two professors from Fuller Seminary and Fresno Pacific Seminary—both evangelical institutions. Are they liberals for questioning the relevance of the sacrificial logic for theology and proclamation today? Even if sacrificial imagery is central to the NT, does that require us to keep that same imagery in our explanations of the cross for today? Is revelation being defined by and confined to a specific set of textual metaphors? What does this mean for our doctrine of revelation? What biblical hermeneutic are we operating with when we interpret these passages? And how might a doctrine of mission influence the way we look at this problem?

These are some of the questions to which I will return in tomorrow’s post, when I take up the liberal/evangelical divide directly.


Erin said...

Hi D.W.,
Thanks for these. They are a really helpful overview and I am suggesting your posts to folk asking me about the issue.

Joe said...


I appreciate your post today, as I did the previous one. Here's my larger concern. Given our evangelical heritage and its view of the Bible, the conversation is painfully constrained by our inability to forthrightly say something like the following.

"The Bible is a faithful witness to God's revelation in Christ. Yet, this witness contains mythic imagery, especially in its language about the beginning and end of time, from the raqia' ("dome") in Genesis 1, to the multi-headed Leviathan in Psalm 74, to Gehenna in the Gospels. Thus, we should catiously reassess our appropriation of this imagery. Just as many have realized that holding to a young earth is irresponsible, it may also be necesssary to question the affirmation of an eternal, oven-like dungeon beneath the earth."

Or something to this effect. In other words, we need to move past reinterpretations of "eternal" in Matthew 25, which I read at the blog Experimental Theology, following the link you gave in part 2. (I am sympathetic to that writer's larger goals.) I find such interpretations unpersuasive and unattractive to many readers. They seem similar to reinterpretations of "day" in Genesis 1. Instead, we need to find ways to say, "Yes, as an ancient 1st century Jew, Jesus probably believed in some type of everlasting punishment. Jesus also believed this world would transition to the eternal kingdom within a few decades of his life (Mark 13:30-31). But we must reintepret--'demythologize'!--that language to discern how it witnesses to reconciliation in Christ."

(On Jesus' view of hell from a literary-historical perspective, see Dale Allison's "The Problem of Gehenna," in his _Resurrecting Jesus_.)

I suspect you agree with much of this and you may be heading to some aspect of this in your next post. It seems we must find ways to argue this "demythologization" case more persuasively in order to present a faithful alternative to the prevailing paradigms. Given the presuppositions of our evangelical friends, this is a very difficult task, to be sure. Still, we must insist that this is a faithful a response to God's revelation in Christ and God's inspired witness in Scripture.


Michael said...


I've really appreciated this series. My friend Alex, who blogs at Is There a Meaning in this Blog?, has a phrase that fits the logic of evangelicalism you describe: "Mental Works." In other words, we're justified by the mental work of right belief. It's ludicrous, but you can find examples immediately by searching for #robbell on Twitter.

I look forward to the rest of your series!

Jon Coutts said...

I really appreciate your doing this David. Following with keen interest and much agreement.

One relatively minor thing: I think you are right to point out that Bell is a pastor writing a pastoral piece and so readers and critics should not look at it to give a totally systematic overhaul of the topic. But I still want to say that pastors, especially ones who are being published and read so widely, should be able to speak coherently about what they are presenting. In other words, I think we make allowances for this according to its pop-theology genre, but I also think evangelicals could start asking more (rather than less) of their pastors and their pop theology. (I'm not saying that in regard to Bell's book because I haven't read it. I'm just making the general point, which I think goes double to those over-reacting to Bell).

Anyway, thanks again for this series. said...

Thank you for this thorough review of Galli's article. I am not a student of theology but my sister-in-law is a PhD student at Fuller and had previously sent me the Joel Green book on the atonement (Joel is on of her professors at Fuller) and I reviewed it as part of an article on the atonement on my blog at

I actually didn't think the Rob Bell article was that bad but I wonder if you saw the follow up about Christus Victor ( This dealt specifically with arguments about the atonement and Galli seems to be digging himself deeper into the hole... I especially thought the attempted linkage between Christus Victor and a culture of victimhood was weak and I'm hoping you'll comment on this article as well...

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks Simeon. I hadn't seen that article, but now I'm sure I'll have to say something about it. It's definitely problematic. Galli should know better than to enter these deep theological waters without doing the necessary work beforehand. It doesn't seem like he's read even the most basic texts on the topic.