Bible Scholars Discuss Atonement Theories at ATS Symposium in Loma Linda
by Larry Christoffel
The Adventist Theological Society (ATS) conducted a symposium on “The Atonement” last weekend (April 18-20) in Loma Linda, California. The event was located in the Campus Hill Church and drew significant attention. Personally, as a pastor at the church, I was a bit fearful that some on the Loma Linda campus would not appreciate ATS coming to town, given their “centrist” position, when Loma Linda University (LLU) might have a broader perspective. Our decision to approve the event was based on our history of allowing a wide spectrum of programs in the past, including Adventist Today’s hosting of Desmond Ford several years ago. It is my personal conviction that ATS is correct in its central emphasis on the Cross and the substitutionary death of Jesus, though I am not personally a member of the Society.
ATS clearly states its position in a brochure, quoting from its constitution: The group “accepts the Bible as the foundational authority in matters of faith and life and upholds Christ as the only Savior of the world. It affirms the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as its theological position and adheres to the Methods of Bible Study document as voted by the General Conference Executive Committee at the Annual Council Session in 1986 as its hermeneutical position. The centrist focus of the Society places it against all forms of theological extremism, avoiding theological liberalism and legalistic or literalistic interpretations of the Scriptures.”
A history of ATS on its web site, written by Richard Davidson, one of the speakers at the symposium and an Old Testament scholar at Andrews University, recalls “the first informal meeting of … Seminary professors in Boston in the fall of 1987” resolving “to seek a venue through which scholars sharing the hermeneutical presuppositions of Bible-believing Adventism could gather for spiritual fellowship, constructive theological discussion, and presentation of papers.” They would pursue a “scope” which “should include centrist Adventists beyond the confines of academic specialists in biblical scholarship.”
They consulted with colleagues at Southern Adventist University the following year, discovering a similar interest on the part of “their religion department faculty,” and the AU group was invited to “an organizational meeting at Southern College.” At the meeting, there was recognition of “the need to focus upon key biblical doctrines under attack within Adventism and the Christian church at large,” including these “into the preamble at the ATS Constitution and the criteria for ATS membership as well.” These included: “Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice; the authority of Scripture; rejection of all hermeneutical methods – including the historical-critical method – that undermined Sola Scriptura; the role and authority of the Spirit of Prophecy; the literal reading of Genesis 1-ll; the biblical teaching on the heavenly sanctuary and the pre-advent investigative judgment beginning in 1844; identification of the SDA Church as the remnant movement called to proclaim the three angels’ messages to prepare the world for the soon and literal return of Christ; and faithfulness to the SDA Church, by supporting it through personal effort and influence, as well as tithes and offerings.”
The Methods of Bible Study document noted above, includes the statement that, “Adventists believe that God inspired Ellen G. White. Therefore, her expositions on any given Bible passage offer an inspired guide to the meaning of texts without exhausting their meaning or preempting the task of exegesis (for example, see Evangelism, 256; The Great Controversy, 193,595; Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 665, 682, 707-708; Counsels to Writers and Editors, 33-35).”
ATS’s opposition to the “historical-critical” method, and its commitment to what it calls a “centrist” position, the “Fundamental Beliefs” of the Church, and to Mrs. White as providing “an inspired guide” places them at odds with other Adventist scholars and laity who see the “Fundamental Beliefs” as a consensus statement, evolving as Bible study yields better understanding (See the Preamble to the Fundamental Beliefs.), and who insist that Mrs. White’s understanding and interpretation should not limit Bible study.
In the ATS constitution eight “doctrinal points of the Seventh-day Adventist Church which have been challenged in recent discussions” are listed. The first of these, presumable chief among the concerns of the group, is: “The Society affirms that Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross was both the supreme revelation of God’s love for humankind and an atoning sacrifice for sin and that His life provided a perfect example for His people to imitate. His substitutionary death pays the penalty for sin, provides forgiveness, and creates gratitude and saving faith in all who receive him. The cross is central to every aspect of life and work, of witness and outreach, of research and doctrine.”
With this background, it is not surprising that ATS would organize the Atonement Symposium.
In the opening session on Thursday evening Dr. Jiri Moskala, the Old Testament scholar at AU who will become seminary dean this summer, addressed “The Death of Christ and Theodicy: Main Theories of Atonement.” This was an excellent overview of the various approaches; Ransom, Satisfaction, Moral Influence, Socinian, Govermental, Christus Victor, Penal Substitution and Non-violent. He also reviewed the Adventist contributions, mentioning Graham Maxwell, Jack Provonsha, George Knight, Dan Smith, Norman Gully and his own proposal. The lecture reminded me of the type I had heard when I was taking a basic course at the seminary and I believe he did an excellent job of providing an overview.
Moskala was careful to point out the positive contributions of each of the theories. He stated that Christ took the penalty of sin upon himself, citing 2 Corinthians 5:21. “When we come to Jesus, He took our sin and gives us His righteousness.” Jesus became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). The presenter cited Romans 1:16-18 and mentioned that both the Righteousness of God and the Wrath are revealed. “God’s truth is paradoxical. God’s love and justice need to be related.” He mentioned the Biblical Flood as an example of God’s grace and justice. He also stated that “Substitution should be taken seriously,” and that the death of Jesus was a punishment for sin. Jesus experienced God’s wrath. Isaiah 53:4-6 presents Calvary as a punishment—Jesus was “pierced for our transgressions. … Here is the plain image of the Substitution. God’s character is revealed, with both love and justice included in the law. The God of the Bible is a God of love, truth, justice, freedom and order.”
Moskala said that the “Atonement is complete, but not completed. It is not until the end of the Millennium that sin, evil, sinners, evil angels and Satan will be no more. At the end of the Millennium the cosmic controversy is completed. Life, love, peace and joy begins and never ceases throughout eternity.” We preach Christ as a skandalon (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). He closed with the Latin expression, Soli Deo Gloria.
In the question and answer period, I asked whether systems were correct in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny? I asked what would be his response to an atonement theory which denies the Substitutionary model? He acknowledged that he had stressed the positives of each system.
Dr. David Larson, an ethicist in the School of Religion at LLU, raised the question of the priority of the Cosmic or the Substitutionary dimensions of the Atonement. Moskala placed priority on the Substitutionary view, one which must be taken seriously. Educator Martha Ruggles asked whether the Substitutionary view was a corporate one, asking how Christ as the Second Adam was related. I’m not sure Moskala understood or addressed her question. He mentioned that God’s atonement restored all aspects involving sin, including the social spheres of life, even ecological dimensions.
All in all, I believe that this was an excellent launching point for the Symposium and with it was an attempt to present a comprehensive range of thought concerning the Atonement. Later, John J. Markovic would go even further to discuss the “emergence narrative of the Atonement.”
Friday morning, Ed Zinke, a staff member at the Adventist Review, spoke on “Methodological Questions and the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement.” He started out mentioning contemporary theologians who deny foreknowledge. I couldn’t help but wondering if he was referring to Dr. Rick Rice as one of them! Zinke made the point that often our discussion begins at the wrong place; based on philosophy and phenomenology. He used the illustration of Mark 8:31-33, portraying Peter’s world view as Jesus tried to explain His impending death and resurrection. Jesus had to rebuke Peter for not minding the things of God, but of man. James and John were plotting who would be first in the kingdom, Judas was trying to force Jesus to reveal Himself.
Zinke soon came to the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement. It is too much for advanced intellectualism—the scandal of the Cross, of God’s dying in my place, of being washed in the blood of the Lamb. “No God would send His Son to die!” according to human thinking. “We fit Him into our mold. We tell Messiah what He must do.” Socrates, Plato, Aristotle are the philosophers respected and consulted. These systems are not based on the Word of God, essentially denying the clear word of God. It is the philosophy of Phariseeism, of humanity, of contemporary world view, of pride over the Word of God, over God’s self-representation. By human means we bring God under our control through philosophical and sociological applications. We must ask, “What does the Bible have to say?” Only there is God’s self-revelation in Christ. This is “unsearchable” and the other systems are “searchable.” God’s ways are not our ways. His ways are higher.
The truth of the Moral Influence Theory denies the Substitutionary Atonement theory, being critical of it. Many other doctrines are impacted—preparation for Second Coming, the typological meaning of the Sanctuary, the Last Judgment, the blood of Christ, the cosmic dimension, Righteousness by Faith apart from works. Theistic evolution may be accepted. Whatever parts of Scripture we disagree with we spiritualize. The mystery of the Atonement should be maintained. It is something we will study throughout eternity. I respond with gratitude and praise as God provides a way to be reconciled to Him.
Dr. John Paulien, dean of the School of Religion at LLU, asked whether there are no examples of atonement in the Old Testament without the shedding of blood. Zinke’s response was that we must look at the whole plan and substitution is part and parcel of the plan at Eden and in the Sanctuary.
Lee Greer II, father of the former biology professor at La Sierra University, posed the question, Where there is a connection between the bloodless sacrifice of the mass and the Moral Influence Theory? Are there methodological parallels?
The question was raised whether there is a Substitutionary Atonement in Mark’s Gospel; some say it is not there. Mark 10:45 and the Lord’s supper were mentioned as places where it might be seen. My own reflection is that Jesus did not explain the meaning of His coming death and that this is something that the Apostle Paul did later, after Jesus’ death and Paul claimed Jesus had instructed him personally and directly in the Book of Galatians.
Paulien stated that at the age of 25 the Substitutionary Atonement was especially meaningful to him, but now that he is at Loma Linda he notices that 100 yards from where we are meeting, people are suffering and dying and it is his experience to share with them. He asked, “How do you share at a bedside?” Zinke said he wasn’t sure this was a bedside topic. Theologians study the Atonement, discovering what the Bible says about it. If there are apparent contradictions, we do what is desirable and don’t apply it. We’ve all been taught to study and think humanistically. He studied at Capital University and was told he was a good scholastic theologian.
A question was asked about the Cross and the Second Coming; “Is there a difference in how we proclaim the Cross in the view of this or is it timeless?” Zinke said that the answer is that we relate the Cross to Judgment.
Larson noted the difference between the tone of this meeting and the one the previous evening “when all was affirming and happy.” All views were presented and considered. Here, however, there is sarcasm and denigration of reason. Why, he asked, is this so negative? “You’re just wrong on some things. No philosopher has said that they understand God. I’m familiar with Whitehead who says the universe is vast and that we know so little. You have maligned good people. It’s OK to disagree with them, but don’t attribute to them views they do not hold.”
Zinke in response referred to men who were using non-biblical or synthetic systems. God will be the judge. The methods we use are important. Do we use philosophy? 1 Corinthians lays out the methodological issue. The Moral Influence Theory is a system used by contemporaries to explain truth. “I was trained under this kind of thinking—the whole methods of Scholastics.” Jesus was God, and takes on Himself our sins. He is the only One worthy to be our Substitute. “Jesus drank of the depths, yet was victorious. Through His power, we will be able to take part in the same.”
Larry Christoffel is associate pastor of the Campus Hill Church in Loma Linda, California.
Another writer was also present at the event and is preparing a report from his perspective on this event. We will publish that story later today.
Adventist Today asked ATS president Thomas Shepard, a New Testament scholar at AU, why ATS held this symposium in Loma Linda since eight of the fourteen presenters were from AU and, with one exception (a faculty member from Pacific Union College), there were no theologians from West Coast Adventist campuses included. He said that ATS holds symposiums every year at various Adventist colleges and universities and it just happened that this year it was at LLU.
During the panel discussion at the end of the symposium, a question was asked as to why ATS has included in its Core Values statement only one of the eight theories of the atonement presented in the Bible. Davidson responded that the reason is that this is one of the doctrines of the Adventist Church which has been challenged in recent discussion. Roy Gane, another Old Testament scholar at AU, responded by reading the ATS statement and insisted that the wording could be understood as not excluding the moral influence theory.