In my last post, I teed up this series by sharing an observation made by my colleague Alastair Roberts: that the famous “Bebbington quadrilateral” can help to explain why the current theological retrieval movement unnerves many evangelicals. The emphases of theological retrieval seem to be in direct tension with Bebbington’s four defining marks of evangelicalism: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. By apparent contrast, theological retrieval has emphasised tradition, the doctrine of God, spiritual depth, and contemplation.
Let’s consider the second of those apparent tensions: crucicentrism vs. the doctrine of God.
Nothing But Christ, and Him Crucified
On one level, there is nothing distinctively evangelical about an emphasis on the cross. The cross is the distinctive symbol of Christianity of all stripes, the world over. The distinctively evangelical emphasis is specifically on the atoning work of Christ on the cross. “Penal substitutionary atonement” is given special prominence in evangelicalism–both at the level of high-flying doctrine, and in our preaching and lay level devotion. Our hymnody perhaps particularly evidences this: “When I survey the wondrous cross”, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling”, “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross”.
In the evangelical mind, this is simply biblical. We take our cue from Paul: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2); “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). And, indeed, to the extent that evangelicals view themselves as the heirs of the Reformers, we see this as simply part of being Protestant. We remember (in some fashion) that Martin Luther was all about the “theology of the cross” rather than the “theology of glory”.
The theological retrieval movement, however, has, in various ways, claimed that our focus on what God shows us about himself at the cross has resulted in a neglect of who God shows himself to be in himself, aside from and prior to the work of salvation. Indeed, the claim of the retrievalists is often that we have made the cross work “backwards”, as it were, into God’s being, reshaping our view of him in ways that are unbiblical and unhistorical. In response to this error, theological retrieval has stressed the need to retrieve the “classical doctrine of God” or “classical theism”, which hold strongly to ideas of God’s immutability, simplicity, and other such things. Notable books promoting this would include All That Is In God (James Dolezal), Simply God (Peter Sanlon), Contemplating God with the Great Tradition (Craig Carter), Jesus and the God of Classical Theism (Steven Duby), and Davenant’s own works such as The Lord is One and God of our Fathers.
This error plays out in various ways, but they can all broadly be put under the umbrella of what James Dolezal calls “theistic mutualism”. This is the idea that “God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures” which entails that, in some way and at some point, God can really be said to undergo change and suffering. With regard to the cross, this usually manifests in the idea that, as part of the atonement, Christ temporarily lost the eternal relationship which he, as the Son of God, has had with the Father for all eternity. A preacher, elaborating on Jesus crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” might say something along the lines of “consider the kind of relationship that Jesus has with his Father. They’ve known and loved each other for all eternity in a way we cannot even imagine. That is the relationship that Jesus is losing at the cross–but he does so willingly because of his great love for us, and to bring us back into relationship with God.”
Theological retrieval, however, has pointed out that this is actually quite an unorthodox way of talking about the atonement. To suffer is necessarily to undergo change, being acted upon by something external. God, however, cannot change–something attested to scripturally (e.g. Mal. 3:6) and historically (e.g. both the Westminster Confession and the Thirty-Nine Articles state that God is with “without body, parts, or passions”–“passions” meaning a response elicited in us by something else, with us being “passive” and the outer force being “active”). Rather, Christ suffered in his human nature, which is subject to change–and indeed, is the nature which he shares with us, and so is the nature in which we need him to suffer if we are to be saved. Only one person suffered on the cross–the eternal son of God. We crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). But that one person has two natures, one divine and one human, and it was in his body (which we can take to also mean his human soul) that he bore our sins, not in his divinity (1 Pt. 2:24).
Why This Bothers Evangelicals
Pointing this out, however, jars many evangelicals–indeed, it can be quite painful. It may call into question how we understood the Gospel when we were first converted, or undermine the messages that we preach each week. The atoning work of the cross has become central to evangelical identity and, over time, that has become synonymous with a belief in the Son’s loss of his eternal relationship with the Father.
I recall one discussion a few years ago in a reading group, in which we were discussing the atonement. One friend chimed in with this: “I don’t know exactly what it was, but I reckon some big stuff was going on in the Trinity at the cross”. I tried to tease out exactly what he meant, and suggested that, in fact, the idea of “divine suffering” is an impossibility, and so nothing happened on the cross to “disrupt” the eternal relationships within the Godhead–and such suffering would be of no use to us mortals anyway. Rather, the Son’s suffering was in his human nature, which is precisely part of why it can be beneficial to us. Unfortunately, I have to say, my friend appeared somewhat deflated.
Theological retrieval’s focus on the doctrine of God, then, unnerves many evangelicals because it seems to diminish the significance of the cross. To say Christ only suffered in his human nature seems lesser than if he had suffered in his divine nature. We wonder “well what did the cross even cost God then?” It seems to make a mockery of Romans 8:32, which tells us that God “did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us all”. In all honesty, when the historic doctrine of God makes it way back into atonement theology, it feels like God did sort of spare his Son on the cross, and didn’t entirely “give him up” for us.
A Deeper Crucicentrism
Is there, then, a way to reconcile evangelical crucicentrism and the recent renaissance of the doctrine of God? Can we retain our sense of the scandal and costliness of the cross without trying to introduce change into God’s being?
I think there is. There are plenty of angles from which we could consider such a reconciliation, but let us seize on just one: only a classical doctrine of God makes it possible to retain the scandal and costliness of the cross.
A fantastic recent book unpacking this idea at an accessible level (and in an evangelical key) is Nick Tucker’s 12 Things God Can’t Do. A provocative title, but it gets at something central to classical theism: it often involves negations. Tucker’s twelve things are:
- God can’t learn
- God can’t be surprised
- God can’t change his mind
- God can’t be seen
- God can’t bear to look
- God can’t change
- God can’t be lonely
- God can’t suffer
- God can’t die
- God can’t be tempted
- God can’t lie
- God can’t change
These have been uncontroversial statements throughout church history, until very recently. Yet Tucker intersperses these chapters with five “interludes” which confess other statements Christians make about God which seem to contradict these twelve negations:
- God slept
- God went to school
- God appeared
- God suffered and died alone
- Jesus was tempted
This gives us a paradox: God can’t suffer or die… and yet, on the cross, he suffered and died alone. The scandal of the cross is not that the changeless God ceased to be changeless and began to be changeable in suffering and death. Rather, the scandal is that the changeless God remained changeless and yet became changeable in suffering and death as a man. This is what Charles Wesley, the great evangelical hymnodist, was getting at in “And Can It Be”: “‘Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”
Consider this imperfect illustration: the late Queen Elizabeth II devoted herself to a life of service which struck the world as paradoxically humble. Her life was remarkable because she served in humility yet remained Queen. Had she abdicated in her youth and become a private citizen, but carried out the exact same acts of service, her life would be viewed entirely differently. We would struggle to describe it as “humble” or “costly”–rather, it would have been fitting to her nature as a mere subject. It is precisely because she remained what she was that her decision to become what she did is so remarkable–and indeed scandalous compared to other rulers.
This is what makes the cross so remarkable, and why we can say with confidence that God truly did not spare his Son but gave him up for us all. Christ remained truly God’s Son all throughout the crucifixion, never losing that which he eternally received from his Father. If he had lost that, he would quite simply have ceased to be the Son–and so God could not be said to have given his Son up. Yet it was precisely because he was God’s Son that the cross was a “giving up”. There is nothing more scandalous than the eternal Son of God experiencing the wrath of God in his humanity whilst retaining everything that makes him the Son of God. For him to have lost his eternal relationship with the Father, and in so doing lost his sonship, would have been akin to the abdication of the young Queen Elizabeth II. It would utterly change and diminish the act.
The classical theism currently being reclaimed by theological retrievalists, then, should not be seen as a threat to evangelical crucicentrism. Rather, we must recognise it as the only way of truly safeguarding our crucicentrism. As evangelicals, we want nothing more than to remain Pauline here–boasting in the cross of Christ, knowing nothing except Christ and him crucified. It is only by retaining a classical (which is to say, biblical) doctrine of God that we can do so, ensuring that the word of the cross remains a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
This is Part 2 of a four part series on evangelicalism and theological retrieval.
Stretching the Quadrilteral, Pt. 1: Biblicism v. Tradition