John Wesley & ‘non-Imputation’ Revisited


Over the last couple of months I’ve posted a few times on imputation and non-imputation in relationship to the doctrine of justification. As part of that I was trying to understand how Wesley’s theology of non-imputation influenced his view of the atonement.

Just to recap, instead of adopting the language of imputation, where Jesus becomes legally culpable for our sin without being inherently sinful (see Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21), Wesley opted for the language of non-imputation. In other words our sins are no longer held against us on the basis of Christ’s work of atonement. Justification is proclaimed on the basis of pardon alone.

I postulated that since Wesley preferred to understand justification in terms of non-imputation then he would have to reject a theory of penal substitution. How could it be just for God to punish someone who wasn’t legally culpable for sins (which can only take place through imputation)? I took this to mean that Wesley would adopt an Anselmian satisfaction theory of atonement whereby Jesus life of righteousness and obedient death acted to propitiate God’s wrath and satisfy the demands of divine justice.

But this isn’t entirely accurate. Neither is it entirely accurate to say that Wesley adopted a theory of non-penal substitution. It isn’t totally false, but it’s not totally true either. Wesley agrees that sin demands punishment, but this punishment isn’t wholly averted on the basis of Christ’s righteous life, or life of merit (a la Anselm). Instead, Wesley would seem to say that God’s justice is satisfied, not by punishing Christ in our place, but by Christ suffering the penalty that we deserved. There is a distinction to be made between punishment and penalty. For example, someone deserves to be punished for stealing, perhaps the penalty is that they have to pay a fine. Someone who didn’t steal offers to pay the penalty in the thief’s place. That doesn’t mean that they are punished for stealing, rather they pay the penalty that is the thief’s punishment.

In this way, Wesley’s account of atonement wouldn’t be totally non-penal, in contrast to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Rather, we deserve punishment and that punishment is averted justly by Jesus’ payment of the penalty that we would have had to pay. In this way Wesley can retain a form of penal substitution while using the language of non-imputation.

It also wasn’t entirely accurate to say that Wesley rejects the language of imputation or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In actual fact, on a number of occasions Wesley refers positively to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, but with some subtle caveats. Collins in Justification: What’s at Stake in Current Debates writes,

“…in his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” produced in 1765, Wesley contends that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers in the sense that they are now accepted by God not for the sake of anything that they have done, whether it be works of charity, mercy or the like, but solely because of what Christ has accomplished through his life and death on their behalf.” (187).

Collins sums up Wesley’s view of positive imputation in the following,

“2. Justification includes the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to sinners with the result that they are declared righteous. Imputation, however, must never be viewed as a “cloak” for ongoing unrighteousness.” (194-195).

Clearly Wesley was critical of the traditional understanding of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, fearing that this doctrine would lead to antinomianism. But he still retained the ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ language while changing its definition. Instead of the phrase referring to a positive righteousness in addition to pardon, the ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ simply indicates the fact that we are justified on the basis of a work external to us. We are justified by Christ alone.

In sum then, Wesley seems to hold to a view of the atonement that falls in between a traditional account of penal substitution and an Anselmian satisfaction theory while rejecting the traditional understanding of double imputation.



The Fall as Scrumping

ApplesIn one of my recent posts I spoke briefly about John Wesley’s use of forensic language in his sermon Justification by Faith. While noting the motivations and subtlety of the language of ‘non-imputation’ I also said that I disagreed with Wesley on this fundamental point. Our justification is the result, not simply of the non-imputation of our sins to us, but the imputation of our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us. There is a kind of exchange that takes place.

Recently the language of double imputation has been criticized by a variety of writers, perhaps the most prominent being N. T. Wright. Usually the objections are stated in such a way as to say that someone is counted righteous simply in virtue of non-imputation. Since someone is forgiven their sins, they can therefore be pronounced ‘justified’.

However, the persuasiveness of such a statement is largely dependent on some underlying assumptions regarding the nature of sin. If sin consists in the failure to pay a debt and we are then released from that debt by the work of Christ in forgiveness then any positive attribution of Christ’s righteousness to us seems superfluous. But what if sin isn’t like this? What if sin is less about human incapability and more about human rebellion. Or as C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

We might think of sin in these terms. Imagine you steal a ticket to some event in order to procure the benefit of the ticket but are caught in the act. The person who catches you, and who, coincidentally was the one supposed to be selling the tickets forgives you. But notice, simply being forgiven for stealing the ticket doesn’t give you the right to using the ticket or its benefits. If anything you’ll have to give the ticket back. You still need a means of rightfully procuring what you sought to steal.

If sin is more similar to this situation, and I think C. S. Lewis’s statement is instructive on this point, then our justification and all the benefits that are inherent to that will involve both forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. By that righteousness (the ticket) we have the benefit of being justified in God’s sight. Essentially, then, the Fall doesn’t simply involve an inability to act righteously, but involves the conscious decision to try and procure something by illegitimate means. Our first parents’ sin was a kind of stealing, and since it was an apple, it was, in essence, a type of scrumping.

There are other problems with the language of non-imputation, namely its tendency to undermine theories of penal substitutionary atonement (though perhaps many would see this as a positive). For example, Wesley seems to think that God’s wrath is propitiated by Jesus’ death. However, since our justification is by non-imputation and not the imputation of our sins to Christ it seems very difficult to say that Jesus was punished for our sins when he wasn’t being held legally culpable. It is more likely that Wesley has a kind of Anselmian satisfaction theory in mind. The kind of satisfaction that provides satisfaction for sin in a propitiatory way without any element of punishment being involved. A kind of non-penal substitution. However, I haven’t read extensively enough to know how accurate a reading of Wesley this is. Despite this, the contours of a theology of non-imputation seem to lead to these conclusions.


A Review of Christopher Holmes’s ‘The Holy Spirit’

Dove depicting Holy Spirit pictured in stained-glass window in Georgia church

One of the more interesting theological series that is currently in development is New Studies in Dogmatics, following the tradition of G. C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics published in the mid twentieth century. The series provides “thoughtful, concise, and constructive treatments of major theological topics” and does so in the context of a thoroughly Reformed theological vision. One of the ways in which the series seeks to achieve this end is through a theology of retrieval, mining the riches of historical and classical Christian doctrine in order to make them available to a contemporary evangelical audience. The volumes in the series seek to find a middle ground “between introductory theology textbooks and advanced theological monographs.” (Series Preface)

That said, in this book (which is one of the first in the series), Christopher Holmes develops a theology of the Holy Spirit rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity which leans more towards the advanced theological monograph. The basic thesis of the book is to demonstrate how the role of the Spirit in the economy of salvation is rooted in the Spirit’s role in the Godhead as the one who ‘proceeds’ from the Father, through the Son. In the process of saving human beings God not only saves people but reveals who he is eternally. As Holmes puts it “It is the task of a theology of the Spirit to articulate, however haltingly, where this mission comes from. The question of the Spirit’s origin is indeed a matter of material consequence.” (212). Holmes develops his thesis in dialogue with Augustine, Aquinas, and Karl Barth, in reflection on passages of John’s Gospel, such as Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus on being born of the Spirit, and the promise of the Spirit of truth in John 14.

The major strength of the book is Holmes’s demonstration of how talk of the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father and the Son best explains the language of the New Testament, and how such a ‘relation of origin’ helps us to understand the working of the Spirit in salvation history. Having been rather suspicious of ‘relations of origin’ to begin with, I can now see how helpful such an understanding of the Trinity can be as a framework for understanding the work of God in the New Testament as well as in the world today. The implications of this trinitarian framework are drawn out more thoroughly in one of the final chapters of the book on ‘church and tradition’. In this chapter Holmes makes it clear that Pentecost was something permanent, that the church continues to live in the power of the Spirit, and that as such church tradition (the Rule of Faith) is Spirit led and is therefore a fantastic tool for pointing beyond itself to Jesus Christ, since the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son.

However, despite being a fairly slim volume, I found it rather ‘stodgy’. I think this was the result of three factors. Firstly, I found the language to be rather dense. Often it felt theological for the sake of being theological, rather than theological for the sake of clarification. And more often than not certain terms or phrases would be employed without immediate clarification or definition, which I found frustrating. For example, questions about the Holy Spirit existing as the relation of love between the Father and the Son preceded a clarification of what it meant for the Holy Spirit to be a ‘subsistent relation’ by 20 pages. And even when an explanation of subsistent relations was provided I still felt like it hadn’t been shown how a person could be identical with a relation. Holmes seemed to make a nod in this direction, but didn’t pursue it. “The Spirit is, put simply, equivalent to an originating relation. The person of the Spirit, if you want to use the language of person, is nothing but the being breathed by Father and Son. How does the Spirit originate? By the breathing of the Father and Son. “There is nothing here but relatings, no somewhats doing the relating. The language strains.”” (141).

Secondly, I think the density or stodginess of the work wasn’t helped by the choice of dialogue partners. No doubt each had something relevant to add to the development of Holmes’s thesis, and the development of a Reformed perspective on anything has to at least mention Karl Barth in passing. But I think that dialoguing with theologians like Barth often means that a theologian slips into using a kind of Barthianese. That isn’t to say that Barth doesn’t have helpful things to say. It’s just that his theology often assumes a language and framework rather alien to contemporary evangelicals which make understanding what he has to say rather difficult. I would have liked to see Holmes’s dialogue with Barth supplemented by the work of other Reformed theologians who are perhaps not as immediately inaccessible. For example, John Calvin, who has been described as a ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit’ only gets mentioned on three pages. I’m not a Calvinist, and I know that Reformed theology is much broader than ‘Calvinism’ as such, but I would have expected a greater engagement with such figures. On the other hand, you can’t dialogue with everyone, and as it stands Holmes’s choice of dialogue partners gets him where he wants to go. Nevertheless, in the development of his argument I think it would have been helpful to engage B. B. Warfield critically in his criticisms of ‘relations of origin’, or Jurgen Moltmann on ‘trinitarian hermeneutics’ and the reversibility of divine relating.

One final thing that I think contributed to the stodge is Holmes’s lack of reference to the practical reality of the Spirit in the life of the church. I’m thinking specifically of how the doctrine of the Holy Spirit relates to a church that exists in the wake of charismatic renewal. In seeking to provide a theology of the Spirit for a contemporary evangelical audience I was hoping for a constructive application of Holmes’s thesis to the fruits and gifts of the Spirit. However, not a single mention of charismatic renewal was made. On reflection a reader could make these applications in his own time, but I would have liked Holmes to address charisms specifically.

In conclusion, despite being rather stodgy, Holmes provides a theological vision of the Holy Spirit which seeks to explain the mission of the Spirit in relation to the Spirit’s origin in the Godhead. Doxologically, this leads to a worship of God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. Anyone seeking to reflect theologically or write academically on the Holy Spirit will need to engage with this volume.Book Cover

You can purchase The Holy Spirit here:


How to use 2 Timothy 3:16

What is Scripture? The typical answer is that Scripture is the inspired Word of God. It is theopneustos, God-breathed. This is generally taken to mean that Scripture is the normative criterion for theology. When we think theologically we measure our theological judgments and have those judgments guided and rooted in Scripture. The word theopneustos is derived from 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17,

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

But more often than not, when this passage is taken to support the authority or normativity of Scripture, it will be replied that Paul only had the Old Testament Scriptures in mind, if that.  As such we can’t take it as a proof text for Scriptural inspiration.

In response to this objection I think it important to make a distinction which will help us to parse how this passage can be used. If the passage is taken to be a way of establishing what should be included in the canon, then this is clearly a mistake. If, as seems obvious, Paul was referring to the OT Scriptures then at most this passage will only serve to establish the canonicity of certain OT texts. However, when one talks about the inspiration or normativity of Scripture one isn’t making claims about the texts that should be included in the canon, but what kind of texts canonical texts are. In other words, whether Paul was referring to OT texts, NT texts, or whatever, his key point is to establish the authority of Scripture, whatever that Scripture contains.

To put it another way, the statement that Paul makes concerning Scripture is a ‘universally quantified statement’. William Lane Craig writes that ‘universally quantified statements’, “are true with respect to all the members of the domain of quantification7, existentially quantified statements are true with respect to some of the members of the domain of quantification.” (48, God Over All). When Paul writes that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ this is a universally quantified rather than an existentially quantified statement. Paul is referring to all the members of the class ‘Scripture’ whatever that class contains.

For example, if we ask the question ‘Is the gospel of John Scripture?’ And we reply in the affirmative, then the universally quantified statement, ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ will apply to the gospel of John whether or not Paul had the gospel of John in mind. In which case I think that we can be confident that 2 Timothy 3:16 gives us ample warrant for believing in the authority of Scripture whether or not it tells us what can be included in the canon. For more on how to deduce what should be included in the canon B. B. Warfield has written helpfully and extensively. You can find one of his articles here:


Finding a Successful Theological Methodology.

You would have thought that a Christ centered theological methodology would guarantee a commitment to Christian orthodoxy; wouldn’t you? When a theologian like Karl Barth or Kathryn Tanner proclaims the centrality of the person of Christ it’s easy to shout a loud “Amen!” in response. But a Christ centered theology won’t always guarantee orthodoxy. The orthodoxy of a Christ centered theology will ultimately depend on the orthodoxy of the Christology, or the way in which an orthodox Christology is applied. The peculiar danger of a Christ centered methodology is with the application of that Christology without that application being itself informed by God’s revelation in his word.

The idea is, that the Logos became incarnate within salvation history, and that it isn’t up to us to apply that event theologically independent of that salvation history. Henri Blocher (below) writes in his book Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle,

“If one starts with the cross, the character of Christ’s work as a remedy for sin, as redemption, is obscured; simply to read the meaning of original sin off the Christ-event is to act as if we were masters of revelation. Far from it!” (17)

And again,

“Sound theological method requires that we listen to Scripture as a whole, according to the analogy of faith, and only then perceive how precisely the doctrine is proclaimed and, so to speak, reinforced in the Christ-event.” (17).

We are led to Christ by Scripture, and so should apply Christology within a canonical framework. If we seek to be christological without the Scriptures moderating and leading us, then the result will be a theology which is informed by a christology of our own construction. Instead, the scriptures are the normative authority by which we are led to Christ. Only after having come to the scriptures and being led to Christ, will we then be able to reflect christologically in an appropriate way. This creates a hermeneutical circle in which scriptural exegesis leads us to christology, then that enables appropriate christological reflection on exegesis.

When faced with a theological problem we go first to scripture, trusting that it will eventually lead us to a Christologically informed solution. In this way we’ll have a christologically focused theological methodology tempered by the Scriptures.


Henri Blocher


John Wesley, Justification and the non-Imputation of Sin

I’m currently doing research in preparation for my MA dissertation on defenses of justification by faith; both it’s forensic basis and its appropriation by faith. As a result, while reading I’ve been particularly attentive to justification language and the use of ‘imputation’ as it relates to the doctrine of justification by faith. Having been brought up within the Wesleyan tradition I was interested to see what John Wesley had to say on justification as well as its relation to imputation, so yesterday I read his sermon Justification by Faith. In this sermon Wesley endeavors to show,

“1. What is the general ground of this whole doctrine of justification;

2. What justification is;

3. Who they are that are justified; and,

4. On what terms they are justified.”

Interestingly, when speaking of imputation, Wesley is careful to avoid saying that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. Imputation might be understood as the legal category whereby Christ becomes legally culpable (though not actually sinful) for our sin, and whereby Christ becomes our legal representative so that his righteousness is reckoned to us. Wesley is reluctant to accept this double imputation, or exchange that takes place, where our sin is reckoned to Christ and his righteousness reckoned to us. In his sermon he writes,

“Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom He justifies; that He thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that He accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that He esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous.” (53).

This short passage indicates that Wesley is dissatisfied with the idea that God might view us as righteous on the basis of the righteousness of another. It would seem to imply, for Wesley, that God is somehow duped or made blind to the truth of what we are in and of ourselves. One recalls the language of being ‘hid’ in Christ, or the pithy statements of popular theology where someone might say that, “God doesn’t see us when he looks upon us, instead, he sees Jesus”.

So instead of opting for a kind of double imputation, Wesley opts for single imputation. The logical alternative is to say that we are proclaimed righteous, not in virtue of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us, but by our sinfulness being imputed to him. By Christ’s death on the cross, he bears the judgement for sin, and since our sin is put to death on the cross we can be proclaimed forgiven, or justified, by God.

But this isn’t entirely sufficient. In fact, it suffers from the same difficulties as double-imputation. Christ pays the penalty for sins which he hasn’t actually committed. Jesus is seen as though he has in fact committed sin when he has not.

Notably, Wesley seems to have recognized this and instead of getting rid of the category of imputation altogether he tweaks the way in which it is used. Wesley writes,

“‘Blessed are they,’ saith he, ‘whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered: blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’; To him that is justified or forgiven, God ‘will not impute sin‘ to his condemnation.” (53).

Rather than speaking of our sins being imputed to Christ, or his righteousness being imputed to us, we are justified because our sins are not imputed to us. God is aware of our sinfulness, but no longer holds that sin against us in virtue of Jesus’ work on the cross.

This raises a number of interesting questions surrounding the impact of this tweak on Wesley’s broader soteriology. If Jesus isn’t punished for our sin, does that entail an account of non-penal substitution? And, can Wesley still believe Christ’s sacrifice to be propitiatory as well as expiatory? I get the impression that the answer to both questions is “yes” for Wesley. If one holds that God’s wrath at sin is satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross then whether that’s the result of penal or non-penal substitution Jesus’ sacrifice will remain propitiatory. Wesley writes,

“…for the sake of His well-beloved Son, of what He hath done and suffered for us, God now vouchsafes, on one only condition (which Himself also enables us to perform), both to remit the punishment due to our sins, to reinstate us in His favour, and to restore our dead souls to spiritual life, as the earnest of eternal life.” (52).

Interestingly, it is only now, having spent some time studying the doctrine of justification by faith that I’ve noticed Wesley’s careful use of theological terms in this regard. While I disagree with Wesley’s argument against double-imputation, it’s fun to be able to recognize some of Wesley’s subtle theological moves that I hadn’t seen before.


Tolkien Maps

20180213_171014Recently I saw that there was an artist producing maps of national parks in the style of Christopher Tolkien’s maps in Lord of the Rings. I was inspired and decided to create my own! There were a number of dissimilarities between his map and Tolkien’s. I’ve mapped the peak district with closer attention to accuracy, a mix of red and black ink, and mountains and trees that bear greater resemblance to the ones found in both the Silmarillion map and Middle Earth map. One of the difficulties in choosing how to illustrate a map of the peak district in Tolkien’s style is that Middle Earth and Belariand have been mapped a number of different times by different artists. Additionally, Christopher Tolkien went on to produce multiple editions of those maps. Originally drawn up by Christopher Tolkien, a number of the maps were adapted by the illustrator Pauline Baines, then the maps were redrawn by an artist and calligrapher in the mid nineties, and then redrawn again for the release of the films in the early 2000’s. My map is based predominantly on Tolkien’s original maps of both Beleriand and Middle Earth. You can see photos of the map below (sorry about the quality, I took them on my phone).



“The word is prejudicial, ambiguous, explosive and in every way unhelpful to discussion. It does not clarify; it merely confuses. It is only in use today because critics of Evangelicalism have dragged it up. For the rest of our argument we shall abandon it, and speak of Evangelicalism simply. We would plead that in future others will do the same.” (40)

So hoped J. I. Packer in Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958). And yet, it would appear that Packer’s hopes have yet to be fulfilled. All too often the words ‘Fundamentalist’ and ‘Fundamentalism’ continue to be bandied about in Christian and theological discourse without any kind of care or precision. The word is, in a word, clumsy. And in an age of growing biblical and theological illiteracy we would be better off without using such ambiguous terms. The gospel needs to be clarified not obscured and we should reflect this in our theological discourse.

Alvin Plantinga highlights problems with the word ‘Fundamentalism’ in his book Warranted Christian Belief and deserves to be quoted at length.

“But isn’t all this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind [Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse and disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because of its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.”

I think Plantinga has captured the meaning of the term as its often used rather well.  And it serves to emphasize what J. I. Packer said over half a century ago. The word is imprecise. To some extent we are all fundamentalists in that we hold to what we believe to be fundamental. So either as a term of derision, or as a term that seeks to capture the nature of certain beliefs, the word seems entirely unhelpful.

(Below: Alvin Plantinga)

Alvin Plantinga

Initial thoughts on ‘Christ the Key’

I’ve recently finished reading Kathryn Tanner’s book Christ the Key. Tanner puts forward an original systematic theology of participation rooted, as the title suggests, in Christology, most notably the doctrine of the Incarnation.  At numerous points I found myself nodding and “hmming” in agreement, but then at other times I found myself singing Tim Vine’s song ‘Alarm Bells’ (

I think Tanner’s emphasis on union with God through union with Christ is, to some extent, correct. To fully enjoy everything that God has created us for we not only need transformation but union with God. But the alarm bells went off when it became clear that Tanner took this intuition in a rather unusual direction.

For example, in her chapter on ‘Death and Sacrifice’ she writes,

“Rejection and death stand in the way of the mission and must be overcome in a resurrected life that moves through and beyond death.” (251)


“It is true that obedience unto death is a proof of supreme dedication, but death, in and of itself, is an impediment to the mission and not in any positive way its positive culmination.” (251)

Tanner’s aim is to place the mission of Jesus in less of a cross-centered framework and within a system defined and developed incarnationally. The motivation for this re-framing of Jesus’ mission becomes readily apparent in the following quote.

“Incarnation becomes the primary mechanism of atonement. Such a mechanism replaces altogether vicarious satisfaction and penal substitution, with their obvious problems from both feminist and non-feminist points of view; and provides a different underpinning than usual for the Christus Victor and happy exchange models.” (252)

While it might be true that Tanner’s system offers a quick fix for the problems facing substitutionary models of atonement, I doubt that her emphasis on the incarnation as the mechanism of atonement is an entirely accurate representation of the biblical data. The NT consistently affirms that the cross was the goal of Jesus’ mission. While the incarnation is an essential part of that saving event, it is on the cross that Jesus definitively resolves the sin problem (cf. 1 Jn. 4:10; Heb. 10:14, Rom. 3, 4, 5 and 8; Col. 2:15, etc.). The new covenant is in his blood (Mt 26:28). Jesus continuously refers to his ‘hour’, that hour referring to his passion and death (Mt 26:45). It is for good reason that the Gospels have been labelled “Passion Narratives with extended introductions” (McCall, Forsaken, 94, quoting Martin Kahler). It seems pretty clear then, that the mission of Jesus is particularly focused on the cross.

How is it then, that Tanner has strayed so far from what appears to be an NT given, i.e. that the Logos became incarnate so as to save us by his death and resurrection? It seems to me like Tanner’s view of atonement is the result of the way in which she characterizes the problem of the human condition. As with all doctors, the medicine is offered in response to a particular diagnosis of a problem. It seems to me that the reason Tanner seems to go so far wrong in her understanding of atonement and Jesus’ mission is the result of a misdiagnosis.

Rather than locating the primary problem of the human condition in human sinfulness, she instead views the problem as inherent in the creator/creature distinction. The problem with human beings isn’t primarily sinfulness, but, as with all creatures, the problem is their inability to properly image God, their creator. In which case, the solution to the problem must be understood in terms of God’s giving creatures his own life. God needs to unify himself with creation in such a way as to enable perfect human imaging.

Tanner writes, “Nature, rather than sin, is the primary reference point for understanding grace and in that respect, it is true, the position is not especially Protestant. Human beings need grace to become images of God, not because they are sunk in sin but because they cannot be images of any strong sort simply in virtue of what they are.” (58-59)

And this, it seems to me, is a perfect summary of the misdiagnosis. While Tanner offers a system of incredible depth, breadth and complexity it misses the mark because of this initial understanding of the human problem. While there isn’t time to unpack this problem here, I think it clear that this doesn’t entirely reflect the problem as outlined in Genesis and elsewhere, i.e. that separation from God isn’t rooted in the nature of what it means to be a creature, but is a result of human sinfulness. Further, it seems to me that the system is overly indebted to a Platonist metaphysics as well as implying that God’s creation has an inherent flaw. This only scratches the surface of Tanner’s theological contribution in Christ the Key but I think it should be apparent that there are some interesting problems here.

Christ the Key

A Review of ‘Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians’ by Oliver Crisp

There is a YouTube channel popular among board gamers called Shut Up and Sit Down. Invariably, in each review, they will produce what they have aptly called Reference Pear. The Reference Pear is, well, a pear, used for reference. It helps the viewer view things in perspective, it gives the viewer an idea of the size and shape of game components, as well as a better understanding of Reference Pear itself (and it’s never ending quest to take over the world).

Oliver Crisp opts for a similar approach to his discussion of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is brought into dialogue with a number of theological reference pears. Among them are notable figures from the broad swathe of Christian tradition including: Anselm of Canterbury, Jacob Arminius, John Girardeau (who I’ve only just heard of), and Joseph Bellamy, amongst others mentioned in passing. It is because of this emphasis on dialogue and comparison that I’ve found this volume one of the better introductions to Edwards’s thought. Crisp gives us a well-rounded evaluation of Edwards’ theology by contextualizing his thought in relation to theologians past and present. By doing this, Crisp not only helps us to understand Edwards better, he also helps us to better understand his interlocutors. One of the most interesting chapters in this regard is the one on creation comparing the thought of Arminius and Edwards. In contrast to the popular claims of Reformed theologians, Arminius turns out to be the more orthodox of the two. Additionally, Crisp’s chapter on Edwards’s defence of the traditional Reformed understanding of original sin is equally enlightening. This chapter demonstrates Edwards’s philosophical theology at its best. By making some interesting metaphysical tweaks to his doctrine of humanity and creation Edwards manages to retain a highly contested doctrine. Other interesting chapters include a comparison between Edwardsian determinism and the libertarian Calvinism of John Girardeau. There is an additional chapter explicating Edwards’s development of a philosophical category of excellence. The category of excellence that Edwards develops is conceived as a kind of relational property. God, being perfectly excellent, must therefore be essentially relational. In this way Edwards provides a metaphysically imaginative argument for the doctrine of the Trinity.

The more eccentric features of Edwardsian theology, having been treated in the main section of the book, are brought out and summarized in the last chapter. Here Crisp notes some of the major difficulties relating to Edwards’s combination of Absolute Simplicity, an Occasionalist doctrine of creation and panentheistic idealism. In this chapter, On the Orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards, Crisp doesn’t opt to bring Edwards into dialogue with anyone in particular and this feels jarring after the predominantly dialogical format of the previous chapters, but the chapter does helpfully sum up Edwards theology. Further, the other chapters that don’t treat Edwards dialogically, (namely the one on Edwards’s preaching) while initially feeling out of place, serve to contextualize, humanize and summarize Edwards thought in a helpful way.

Jonathan Edwards

Overall then, I think this book is a great help for understanding Edwardsian theology. At the same time it also serves as an excellent model for dialogical and constructive systematic theology. The great strength of this book, as has already been said, is its dialogical approach. At the same time it recommends Edwards’s theology in a way that is helpful for contemporary systematics. Wholly apart from Edwards’s interesting theological system (despite its flaws), Edwards demonstrates the great constructive power (as well as some of the pitfalls) of bringing the tools of philosophical analysis into dialogue with a theology committed to reformed orthodoxy. Unlike his contemporary, John Locke, Edwards is able to bring to traditional Reformed Orthodoxy considerable theological depth and clarity by developing that orthodoxy in tandem with Enlightenment philosophy. The value of such depth and clarity is made clear when one places that project within Edwards’s preaching in the midst of New England revival. Doctrine is affective. One of the best evangelistic tools is a clear proclamation of the truth.


You can find Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians here: