DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06

As I stated in my last post, D.A. Carson’s “most important” point that he wished to make was this: He said that much in the Emerging Movement fails to listen very intently to what Scripture says.

Carson sees this sloppy reading of Scripture “without much theological reflection” in many ways: He says that the Emerging Church tends towards Semi-Pelagianism, has an affinity for Open Theism, and emphasizes non-hierarchical ecclesiology.

Now this is a telling sign of Carson’s modus operandi. It is not so much that he is against just the Emerging Church; it is that he is against anyone who does not fully embrace his Reformed theology – including the Arminians, the Open Theists, and non-hierarchical churches like Church of the Brethren.

But the key theological rub for Carson in contemporary debate has to do with the Atonement. As a staunch defender of a Reformed theology, Carson’s main theological work recently has been in the area of Atonement studies. Whereas many are exploring the different nuances of the Atonement (including the various “atonement theories”) and embracing these, Carson (while affirming that there are several ways to see the Atonement) is advocating that the main idea of the Atonement is found in Penal Substitution. Thus, the main reason (besides the issue of epistemology) that Carson feels that the Emerging Church needs to be called out as “heterodox” is that it fails to see the Atonement as he sees it.

He said that there is such an emphasis in the Emerging Church on the love of God that it has become detached from other things, like sin and the wrath of God.

He then explained that the wrath of God is a major theme throughout Scripture. And what makes God so angry? The answer, according to Carson, is idolatry. Carson is very concerned that if we lose the idea that the main problem is our individual or corporate idolatry, then we will lose the gospel.

I found it interesting and telling that Carson demeaned the Emerging Church’s emphasis on justice issues. The Emerging Church says that the divide in the Church over "social gospel" versus "personal salvation" is a false dichotomy, and the two must be reunited into one holistic gospel. The Emerging Church has advocated that we must do God’s will in righting "injustice". Carson said that this is not Scriptural enough for him, explaining that God’s wrath is not "just about injustice" but rather "more about idolatry." He feels that if we define the problem as "injustice," we will miss the real meaning of the gospel.

The key issue, then, is the Atonement. He mentioned some of the varying views of the Atonement: the “exemplary model” (where Christ’s sacrifice is a model for us in how to give our lives for others), “Christus Victor” (where Christ’s death is victory over evil and sin, freeing humanity from their oppression), and “penal substitution” (where Christ died to pay God’s wrath against sin as our substitute).

He said that Brian McLaren and others dismiss “Penal Substitution” as “cosmic child abuse,” which got quite a few heads shaking in indignation.

Carson said that as soon as you choose to dismiss Penal Substitution like this, “you have left the Bible behind.” Instead of doing this, he pleaded that we study the Atonement theories to see "which have biblical warrant and sanction." We need to study how they relate to other themes throughout the Bible. He exhorted us not to "just pick and choose," but to think through the atonement theories as they relate to biblical theology as a whole.

Carson didn’t come right out and say it, but it was evident that he felt that those who would study the Atonement theories in such a way would arrive to the correct conclusion as he has, that Penal Substitution is the primary way to understand it. It is the only Atonement theory that deals with his definition of the real issue - idolatry. He sees it as his calling to warn us that we should be very suspicous of anyone in the Emerging Church that are raising up other articulations of the Atonement as preferable over Penal Substitution in reaching postmoderns, for these people, according to Carson, are not being biblical.

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06



Mike DeVries said...

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights, Bob.

I've had the same feeling about many of these kinds of critiques, which deem someone or something "unbiblical." What is being fought for is not what is apparently "biblical," but one's interpretation of the scriptural text. "If you don't see things as I do, or as this hermenuetical lens constructs it, then you do not believe the Bible to be 'true.'"

It is quite sad, and often quite arrogant in its position.

I have yet to hear someone in the EC say that "penal substitutionary atonement" is unbiblical. Rather, it is trying to recover the myriad of other orthodox viewpoints of the atonement in order to try and understand the wider mystery of the work of Jesus on the cross.

As for Carson's displeasure with idolatry, I wonder. Would not Carson's usage of the Scriptures border on bibliolatry itself? And if idolatry is limiting the fullness of God [or making God into our own image, something less than fully God], is lifting one vision of the atonement [no matter how correct it may be] over other visions, thereby constitute idolatry as well?

Perhaps I am off in this, but I just feel that thid kind of critique is self-defeating.

Anonymous said...

Mike- How is Don's usage of the Scripture close to bibliolatry? And why should thinking one view of the atonement is the best one be more idolatrous than thinking one view of the Trinity is the correct one?
Tim Keller

Bob Robinson said...


I'm honored that you've joined in the discussion a couple times here on the blog. Thanks for doing so.

I'm curious what you think of these thoughts of mine:

(1) When we evangelicals criticize others (or each other!), should we not define what the others are thinking and doing by what they are actually thinking and doing?

(2) Why is it that we have a tendency (I'm lumping myself into these questions!) to make those we disagree with such enemies that we end up creating heresy trials instead of legitimate dialogue, understanding, and progress?

Mike DeVries said...

Tim - Thanks for the great questions [and sorry for my knee-jerk reaction/post]. As soon as I hit post, I had one of those "poster's remorse" moments...

My concern is not in the embracing of one truth over another, but in the embracing of one truth to the exclusion of another. In reading Bob's last paragraph, I was left with the sinking feeling that this is what could be going on with this kind of critique. There is a fine line between saying this is how I read the text [and see the atonement] and this is the way to see text [and see the atonement. Is penal substitionary atonement a way of seeing the atonement? Absolutely! Is it the primary way? Quite possibly. Yet, I struggle with saying it is the way of seeing it, and dismissing all other visions as unorthodoxical? In other words, is the atonement an "either/or," or a beautiful "both/and" kind of proposition.

Is this what Carson is doing? I don't know. Bob's last paragraph seemed to me to at least be possibly heading in that direction, but it sure could not be as well.

My knee-jerk reaction comes from a personal place [which is always quite dangerous], due to the fact that I was labeled "heretical" by a well-meaning faith community because I raised the possibility that there were other visions of the atonement that have also been set forth from a biblical foundation. If I have let my personal experience cloud my "reading" of DA, I am way open to that and apologize in advance.

joeldaniel said...

as someone else who was present in this lecture, i read Bob's posting and was on the verge of posting something quite similar to what Mike ended up contributing before even reading his response. i remember being struck while Carson was speaking with the idea that it seemed somewhat "hypocritical" (a stronger word than perhaps what i'm searching for) to say that idolatry is so desperately sinful while clinging so tightly to one's own set of dogmatic rules and systemetized theology.

i say this realizing the danger of tossing everything out just because a "new generation" or "new era" or "new" whatever has purportedly come along. and yet, when one grasps so desperately to their own understanding without a willingness to at least consider a differing viewpoint, that perhaps some idolatry has entered the picture.

at times it felt as if Carson was trying to prove that
A) the "modern" church can still be relevant and effective and
B) the emerging church has flaws
i would hope that no one would have an issue with these two suppositions, and yet his whole presentation was couched with this sort of impending doom if we didn't realize his personal parenthetical addendums which tinted these as
A) therefore we should not adjust. we've figured out the answers already.
B) these flaws prove the entirety of the emerging conversation inneffective.

surely we would be foolish to think that the church that brought us to today lacks all (or even much)merit or wisdom. but to be so unwilling to accept the possibility of change does seem somewhat idolatrous of the model that Carson has become entrenched in.

i would imagine these thoughts suffer from my youthfulness, but they're all i've got at the moment...

ScottB said...

My impression of Carson, particularly in his book, was that he is unable to give a nuanced critique. He strikes me exactly as you said - any deviation from his version of Reformed theology will be met with his scholarly wrath. I say this because, while I've heard the claims that there are those in the ec who describe substitution as "cosmic child abuse", I think they're often insufficiently nuanced.

1 - Is it fair to say that he gives the impression that this is the majority view in the ec? I haven't found this to be the case.
2 - Are people reacting against penal substitution, or against a sloppy version of penal substitution? To be honest, I've heard it articulated in such a way that it invites such criticism.
3 - I've never heard Brian McL make this particular statement. Did he provide a source?

Bob Robinson said...

Mike DeVries,

Let me say this: I know that Carson lines right up with Mark Dever on the Atonement. Dever wrote the cover story for Christianity Today (May 2006) that read, "No Substitute for the Substitute," defending Penal Substitution as the main way to understand the Atonement.

When that issue of CT hit the stands, I offered my analysis of it. I used the analogy of a bouquet of roses - that to understand the Atonement, we need to enjoy the entire bouquet; while Dever (and Carson) seek to single out one rose (Penal Substitution) as the main thing.

Mike DeVries said...

I'm not surprised. I read the Dever article in CT and had the same feeling as I did reading your post here.

It appears that "penal substitutionary atonement" has been turned into the litmus test for orthodoxy lately. And therein lies my concern. This one viewpoint is being held up as the [only?] way to read the significance of the atonement. If you were to share with someone that while you appreciate "penal substitutionary atonement" you've enjoyed exploring ___________ way of reading the atonement - sadly, the response often given is that communicates you've abandoned orthodoxy and "done damage" to the text.

By the way, I loved your bouquet metaphor. I've refered to it often. Do I owe you some kind of Starbucks-related royalty?

The other metaphor I've been exploring lately is that of a multi-paned window. "Penal substitutionary" is one of the panes by which we gaze upon the beauty of the atonement. To limit our vision to one pane of the window is to miss the fullness of the panoramic view that lies before us.

Eric Steen said...

Hello Bob,

Your view of the atonement differs not only from Dever and Carson, but the Apostle Paul. You hold that penal substitution is but one way to embrace the Savior. You testify that one may lay hold of the glorious Savior via numerous atonement theories, without embracing PS. Ostensibly, one could be reconciled to God by merely by following Christ's example.

I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume your motivation is to exalt God by not constrainging the scope of Christ's sacrifice. Even so, Bob, by seeking to expand the atonement you undermine it. To be blunt, your understanding of the atonement is seriously flawed for it diminishes our Savior's sacrifice. (2 Cor 5:21, Gal 3:3, Is 53, Heb 2:17, Rom 8:1-4)

While I am at it... If justice issues are on par with idolatry, why does Paul in the epistle to the Colossians (Col 3:5-6) equate "immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed" to idolatry? why does't Paul say that these things are equal to "social injustice"? What's more, Paul says that it is because of these idolatries that "the wrath of God will come".

Eric Steen

Graeme said...

Great discussions. Thanks for the posts.

Maybe I am just too sucked into the emerging church movement to even notice heresy, but can someone please let me know where Brian McLaren has, in any of his writings, ever questioned penal substitutionary atonement.

I know that one of Carson's major targets is McLaren, but reading through McLaren's works, I fail to see what he sees. Am I just blind, or did I miss the subtext, or something?

I know McLaren has a wider view of atonement (I like the bouquet analogy in this regard), but to my understanding he has not removed penal substitutionary atonement - he has added to it.

Carson seems to take an either/or, all-or-nothing type approach. Which, to my mind, is exactly the critique postmodernism has of modernism, and emerging church has of traditional church...

Graeme Codrington

Anonymous said...

Bob--You very kindly and respectfully asked me a question and I don't want to be churlish and stay totally silent. But over the last few years I've come to doubt the value of the average blog format for working out disagreements over more comprehensive views. Anything I could say here would be too short (to do the questions justice) and too long (for the format of a blog) at the same time. Blogs are excellent for sharing news among the like-minded but not good at all for conversing over differences. So I want to just as respectfully decline to go in to this. Sorry and thanks. Tim Keller

samlcarr said...

While many modern evangelical scholars are up in arms against the ECs PoMo leanings, I have heard and read very little to rigorously justify the idea that modernism is more biblical or closer to biblical thinking. There is much to be said in support of the EC being philosophically closer to some strands of Reformation or even Augustinian thought than is today's modern evangelicalism.

Bob Robinson said...

Eric Steen,

I really appreciate your comment. I think that the reason we believe in substitutionary atonement is that the Apostle Paul teaches it. Amen.

Contrary to what Carson is saying the Emerging Church is doing, we do not, “pick and choose our favorite Atonement Theory and ditch the rest.” What we are saying is that the entire rose bouquet is there for us in order to understand the full depth of the Atonement. When we pull out one rose and say that it is the sum total of the Atonement, we do damage to the whole of the gospel.

If I were to say that “one could be reconciled to God by merely following Christ's example,” I would be doing that same sort of damage (so, if it seemed that I said this, let me put the record straight!!).

We can, however, pull out a single rose in order to introduce people to one aspect of the Atonement, with the intention of bringing them over to the entire bouquet so that they can understand it all. I think it is highly appropriate, in an evangelistic discussion with a person whose worldview is primarily one of law and judgment, to pull out the one rose about “penal substitution” in order to introduce that person to the work of Christ. I also think it is highly appropriate, in an evangelistic discussion with a person whose worldview is primarily one of pain and the struggle against evil, to pull out the rose of “Christus Victor” in order to introduce that person to the work of Christ. I can do this, as long as I realize that these are all parts of a larger bouquet.

In other words, this is not just a matter of theology; it is a matter of missiology.

For a more thorough explanation of my views of the atonement please (please!) see my post, The Kingdom of God and the Atonement.

Bob Robinson said...


You're raising some other great questions concerning the Bible's teaching on injustice.

I am currently working on this subject and will be presenting a series of blog posts about this topic in the near future.

postmodernegro said...


Thanks for this. This is great commentary. Several months ago I wrote a book review of Carson's "Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church." I decided to title it "Becoming Conversant with Carson's Conversation." What I thought interesting is to interrogate his own 'situatedness' as an white male theological voice within in a 'particular' stream of the Reformed tradition. The challenge for me, in reading folks like him, is the presumption of divine favor over other theological voices. Also his African reference in the book...smelled a little racist. But that usually comes with the epistemological method he employs in his reading of scripture and everyone else.

It would be interesting if there could be a treatment of the 'context' of Carson's own theology and his critique of the EC. Your comment that he emphasized the ec's lack of concern for 'wrath' was very telling for me. What is it about his theologizing and critique that makes him seem a bit rabid about these issues...especially as it relates to social justice?

I cannot help but hear a little power interest in his critique. He seems to want to shut the clapping down earlier...provide us with the ultimate argument stoppers. He leaves me with the impression that he isn't much into discussing these matters. He seems to know...as God knows. How can you talk to someone like that?

Eric Steen said...


Thank you for your thoughtful response.

I want to be fair here. As far as I know you have never denied the merit of PS. Your concern, I believe, is that men like Dever and Carson focus too much on PS at the expense of other atonement theories. In a previous post you clearly stated that a sinner may be reconciled to God by embracing PS, but that he may also be reconciled to God without embracing Penal Substitution if he accepts some other atonement theory. (See quiz).

Certainly there is unsearchable joy and great benefit to growing in the knowledge of our Savior and comprehending the extent of Christ's glorious work. Mark Dever, in the article that rekindled this debate said as much. (CT Article) Anticipating the question, Dever asks, "Rather than pitting these [atonement] theories against one another, couldn't they be evaluated together? A Christ who wins victory over the powers of evil, whose death changes us, and whose death propitiates God is not only conceivable, he seems to be the Bible's composite presentation."

Then Dever explains, "When we give attention and authority to all parts of the New Testament canon, substitution becomes the center and focus of the Bible's witness to the meaning of Christ's death, and the measure of God's redeeming love."

In the proper context theories other than PS have merit. Yet in and of themselves they are not sufficient to reconcile fallen man to a holy God. They lack salvific power. How can one lay hold of the Savior without understanding from what (or whom) one is saved? Must not one understand that his personal sin has offended a righteous and loving God, and he can in now way make himself acceptable to God? Must not one understand that Christ endured the punishment due him, that Christ's vicarious work is the only thing that reconciles the sinner to God?



Bob Robinson said...


You’ve got me right. I don’t think it is absolutely necessary for a person to understand penal substitutionary atonement to be reconciled to God.

And I know that this seems contrary to the Reformation (since wasn’t the Reformation all about the rediscovery that the gospel is penal substitution? At least that’s what we’ve been told). I don't think you have to understand a certain propositional theological construct in order to be saved; I think that you need to meet the Savior.

What I am doing is affirming the first quote you offer from Dever: “A Christ who wins victory over the powers of evil, whose death changes us, and whose death propitiates God is not only conceivable, he seems to be the Bible's composite presentation.”

However, I am disagreeing with the second Dever quote. Why can’t we just as easily say this: "When we give attention and authority to all parts of the biblical canon, exodus and freedom from exile is the center and focus of it’s witness to the meaning of Christ's death, and the measure of God's redeeming love."

That statement has just as much legitimacy as Dever’s statement. Neither statement is absolutely correct, but both have legitimate claims to biblical revelation.

Thanks for the interaction. You and I have been through this for a while. We had better agree to disagree. I invite anyone who is interested in tracing this discussion to follow this link.

Bob Robinson said...


I agree with you that the EC is philosophically closer to true Reformational and Augustinian thought than is today's modern evangelicalism.

I wrote about this specifically here.

a quote:
"...a postmodern apologetic will harken back to Augustine's 'I believe in order to understand.' In other words, a postmodern apologetic affirms that there is no certainty apart from faith, and the only kind of understanding possible for us humans grows in the environment of faith. It will also harken back to a Reformational Epistemology, one that reflects Ecclesiastes 3:11, 'God has set eternity in the hearts of men.'"

Bob Robinson said...


I think you're working through this issue with determinism and humility.

Bob Robinson said...

Graeme and ScottB,

I think that McLaren can, at times, seem to be antogonistic towards Penal Substitution, but I think that it may be more about being antogonistic toward the poor articulation of penal substitution that sounds like cosmic child abuse.

In other words, we should ALL be antoginistic toward an articulation of penal substitution that makes it sound that way. No thinking theologian should articulate their view of penal substitution in a way that it sounds like God sent his son against the son's will to suffer the father's wrath (as if God the Father and God the Son are two entities at odds with each other). But in popular-level parlance, we may hear something to this effect.

ScottB said...

bob - I'm in complete agreement. I think that what tends to happen by both the defenders and detractors of substitution is that the trinitarian nature of the atonement is not made the central motif. As a result, both sides tend to emphasize the Father as over against the Son, instead of seeing the perichoretic unity of both Father and Son (and Spirit as well) working in concert to accomplish redemption.

In short - we need to vigorously critique any model, or articulation thereof, that doesn't begin with a robust trinitarian view of the cross.

ScottB said...

To be clear - I'm not saying that substitution is anti-trinitarian. To the contrary, when it is explicitly trinitarian, then it is actually a quite powerful image. However, it's often framed in a sloppy way that doesn't emphasize the trinity, and as such becomes a caricature that needs correcting.

samlcarr said...

I know where I stand on theology and I know why I moved away from what Carson thinks is 'proper theology'. The short and long of it is that while there are great followers of Jesus in that tradition that is in spite of and not because of the 'theology'.

To be true to the scriptures and most particularly to be true to my Lord as He is revealed in the gospel means leaving the leaven of pharisaically propositional thinking behind and getting back into life, ministry and discipleship with Jesus as Lord.

What I'm getting at I guess, is that let's share the gospel with our brothers and let's not be defensive about it either!

Phil Miller said...

Hey Bob,
I've read all your postings on this topic, and have enjoyed them. I found your blog kind of by accident I suppose. Actually I think I saw a link on Tony Jones blog.

Anyway, I tried reading DA Carson's book, but gave up about halfway through. I generally got the same feeling you have expressed here. I really was surprised by at the amount of strawmen, and I wondered if he had actually read everything he was criticizing. I have read pretty much all of McClaren's books, and though I can't say I agree with all of his conclusions, I don't see how people come away saying he is heretical. I suppose it comes down to, as others have mentioned, that once you start straying from a strict Reformed theology, you are considered lost.

I was actually thinking about this today because I am a campus pastor, and I downloaded one of John Piper's sermons from Passion 07 (I didn't get to go this year). I was really kind of taken aback at what he said in this sermon. He basically said that Penal Substitution is the only correct way to look at the death of Christ. He didn't say it was one of the ways, but the only way. Now I will say, I do believe in Atonement as a major part of the Cross and Resurrection, but to present that as the only point is leaving a lot out. Piper actually was kind of taking a stand against the Emerging/Emergent movement here in my mind, with saying so much. I know this is a little off the topic, but I was just surprised because I really do respect him. I just think to present the death and resurrection in this way only starts giving the conflicting message that God hates you/wants to kill you and loves you. I know that's not what he is saying, but to someone not paying close attention it sure could come off that.

It just seems to me that there is a group of Christian leaders who are sure they are 100% correct and are above question. It is really sad because I believe these men truly are a blessing to the Church, but I believe they have unwittingly shut themselves off to a huge number of people. I'm trying to say this humbly, and I realize that there is always the chance that I might be wrong.

Matt said...

Try to see this from Carson's point of view.

If you earnestly believe that "Christ and Him crucified," "the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God," substitutionary penal sacrifice is the heart/center/quintessential flower in the bouquet of atonement stories as Carson does (and count me in with him on this), what else could you do but champion it everywhere you see it attacked or wobbled off balance?

Carson believes that the Cross is multivalent. Read his "Cross and Christian Ministry" for plenty of different takes on the Cross in one book (including exemplary!)--but at the same time--he believes that the Bible teaches substitution at the heart of the gospel.

You may disagree with Carson's take on the center (if there is one) of the gospel, but Carson has made his conclusion about what he thinks it is and is warning people from shaking lose from it. Carson is a teacher. And he's passionately teaching what he's learned.

That seems fair to me.

If he's wrong, then he's tilted toward a windmill.

But if he's right (as I judge him to be on this point), then he should be listened to.


P.S. By the way, missiologically speaking, I can see how we might want to begin with something other than substitutionary penal atonement as the starting point in gospel presentation. I agree that there are lots of ways to move towards Christ in our encounters with postmodern people. But I do think (contra Bob here) that eventually, for people to be truly savingly converted, we have to go through a sin-bearing sacrificial savior.

Thanks for listening to my thoughts.

Bob Robinson said...


I really appreciate your comment.

What you say at the end I fully affirm: “for people to be truly savingly converted, we have to go through a sin-bearing sacrificial savior.” I sincerely believe that. One (HUGE!) aspect of “salvation” is our being “saved” from the wrath of God for our rebellion against him. We are being “saved” from our rightful punishment, Hell. This is the wonderful story of Penal Substitution. I am one who is not willing to give that up, ever. Why? Because it is true, it is biblical, it is beautiful.

I think that many, many people can relate to this story. I think that many, many people must own up to the fact that they are sinners in need of forgiveness and in need of salvation from God’s wrath.

Bob Robinson said...

That being said (which I give its own stand-alone comment because it deserves it), I have this little beef with those who say that “substitutionary penal sacrifice is the heart/ center/ quintessential flower in the bouquet of atonement stories.”

It has to do with our understanding of “salvation.”

When we think of “salvation” biblically, is the primary image that of propitiation? What is the prominent image of “salvation” that we find in the Bible?

I submit what the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis says concerning the Hebrew word for salvation, yasa: “the root’s specifically theological usage concerns the acts of God’s salvation in Israel’s history (65x)…Not surprisingly, forms of yasa bracket the report of the OT’s paradigmatic salvation-event, the Exodus (Exod 14). Moses invokes nom. to predict the imminent “deliverance of the LORD will bring” (v. 13), and the vb. is used to indicate that Yahweh “saved” Israel from Egypt (v. 30). The Song of the Sea invokes the same nom. to praise Yahweh as Israel’s “salvation” (15:2). Here emerges a pattern prominent later: divine deliverance follows Israel’s cry for help (14:10-12).”

So, I think that to say that “substitutionary penal sacrifice is the heart/ center/ quintessential flower in the bouquet of atonement stories” (as Carson does) is to deny that the paradigmatic salvation-event of the Old Testament, the Exodus, should shape our understanding of the salvation event of Jesus Christ (remember, Jesus died during the celebration of Passover, the commemoration of this paradigmatic salvation-event. I think that we forget that and presume he died on Yom Kippur).

I don’t deny that this is paradigm-shifting! I don’t deny that to say that penal substitution is not the main way to understand the cross-event can shake up our evangelical sensibilities. But I also think that those who insist that the “Christus Victor” theory of Atonement is of some lower-tier significance in relation to the “Penal Substitution” theory are not correct in that assertion. “Christus Victor” is the Atonement theory that springs out of an understanding that the Exodus should shape our understanding of salvation.

Scot McKnight said...


Thanks for this discussion. It has been reasonable, though I don't like that Tim Keller begged out -- I think he would have been good for this discussion since no one was throwing bombs at one another. It seems safe enough; I don't agree with him one bit that blogs are only for those who agree. There are kinds of disagreements -- and he is right in this -- that are not conducive to blogging, but if we're grownup enough, we can sit with one another and air clear differences. This blog is a safe one for such conversations. Bob has been gracious and reasonable at every turn.

I'm with those who think we need to exploit the variety of images that seek to articulate -- none of them exhaustively or completely --what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; and not to forget the new life in the Spirit. I have great doubt that we can find the "central" image; I see the same with christological titles. It depends on context. There is no need to find the "central". (It's an assumption we have; it is not a biblical one.) Nor do the NT writers constantly show that each redemptive term has to be connected to wrath or even death (which is the punishment for sin, not wrath -- wrath mediates death).

Here's what has happened to me: I do think folks like Dever and Carson seek to use all the images. What I think is the tell-tale revealing point is how the gospel is preached for each one. Does one gravitate each time to sin/wrath or does one also sometimes find the place to begin in sin/captivity, sin/alienation, sin/moral failure, etc? In other words, the problem (how we define sin and the problem) is the problem. We have to let sin be as big as it is if we want the atonement and the gospel to be as big as it is. And "propitiation" (the term penal substitutionists favor) speaks to one constellation of defining the sin problem and its manifesting problem. Namely, it speaks to sin as offense against the holy God and the wrath that such rebellion generates in the all-holy God. I for one do not deny this rhetoric; I say it is only one rhetoric in the Bible. There are others; they don't bring up death and they don't bring up wrath. They bring up captivity -- wrath has to be imported.

And, to clarify: I do think some in the emerging movement deny penal substitution; and in my assessment Brian is Girardian. The Secret Message has a section on the death of Jesus and it sure sounds Girardian to me.

joeldaniel said...

excuse my ignorance, but could someone enlighten me on the idea of Girardianism? i assume it flows from Rene Girard, but what exactly does it entail?

Scot said...

Girard taught there was mimetic rivalry in culture that occasionally broke out into a potent act of violence against a victim (the scapegoat) and this brought the mimetic rivalry and violence to a hault for awhile.

Jesus is the victim of mimetic rival violence. However, God identifies with the Victim and ends the legitimacy of scapegoating. By taking the side of the victim, violence comes to an end.

So the cross becomes the creation of a non-violent society.

RonMcK said...

I have really enjoyed this series. Very helpful.

I would have to agree with Carson on one point that you mention. The EC probably is too loose in the way it defines injustice. It often just takes on board a perspective rooted in Marx, rather than really digging into the scriptures.

Glad to see that you are firing well again.


Bob Robinson said...


You say, "The EC probably is too loose in the way it defines injustice. It often just takes on board a perspective rooted in Marx, rather than really digging into the scriptures."

I'll definitely look forward to interacting with you as I do my next series, "Toward an Emerging Understanding of Justice." Your insights will be welcome.

Matt said...


I agree with Scot McKnight that your blog is a safe and reasonable place to discuss these things (though Tim Keller may not be familiar enough yet with the doings here to know that, so I don't fault him for bowing out--you have been taking his good friend to task for the last week!).

And I thank you for listening to my perspective and giving a whole separate comment to register agreement with me. I don't think that you and I are all that very far apart on this (though I'm not sure about the EC on the whole).

Your post and Scot McKnights' have given me some good things to think about (and been fun discussion fodder for my wife and me!).

I need to think more about how I see the atonement stories working. I was especially helped by Scot's talking about how really big sin is(in multiple ways) and how big a gospel we need to be saved from it.


P.S. At the same time, I'm not yet convinced of your suggested paradigm shift. I think I might say that in my reading of Scripture, Christus Victor may be an even bigger story than propitiation (more cosmic in its dimensions), but that it is intrinsically and inextricably linked to a propitiatory center (I'm thinking of Revelation 5, for example).

If I get a chance to formulate my thoughts more coherantly, I'll probably chime in again.