Your editor attended the annual national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, held (November, 2018) in Denver, Colorado. The theme was “The Holy Spirit,” and I presented a paper on that subject in a session with four others, including Angus Menuge and J. P. Moreland. As those two names suggest, the Evangelical Philosophical Society meets simultaneously with the E.T.S., and the featured E.P.S. speaker was William Lane Craig, presenting a defense of the vicarious atonement.
Many moons ago, I was Craig’s first apologetics professor at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In subsequent years, he has become one of the leading evangelical philosophers. In Scripture, we are given the Pauline model—that wherever Christ is preached, we are to rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18). And so I rejoice in Craig’s debates and publications; but I am uncomfortable with his style and approach. I was particularly bothered by his E.P.S. address, based on his little book, The Atonement (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Let me explain my misgivings.
The lecture, like most of Craig’s presentations, was dense to the extreme and reminded me of the scholastic arguments characteristic of medieval theology. I go with the Wittgensteinian adage that “anything that can be said can be said clearly.” To be sure, this is a problem with most professional philosophers, but if one is also doing apologetics (as is Craig), extreme care needs to be exercised so that the results are more like the writings of C. S. Lewis than those of Thomas Aquinas. (See the section titled, “Apologetics Philosophy” in my article, “Apologetics for the 21 st Century,” included in my Christ As Centre and Circumference.)
On one occasion years ago, I attended a Craig presentation focusing on metaphysical questions such as the relationship of time to creation. (Craig loves these issues, but I have never found a single non-Christian whose objections to the faith lie at that level.) To Craig’s irritation, I cited Saint Augustine, who, when dealing with the question as to what God was doing before he made heaven and earth, cited someone who responded facetiously, “Preparing hell for those who pry into mysteries” (Confessions, XI, 12). (Cf. James Fodor’s overstated critique, Unreasonable Faith: How William Lane Craig Overstates the Case for Christianity [Hypatia Press, 2018].)
Craig’s atonement paper focused particularly on legal analogies to vicarious punishment and substitution. Craig is not a lawyer or legally trained, and in his book he thanks an Edinburgh law professor for “directing him to legal literature on various subjects” and a legal practitioner “for help in obtaining court opinions.” The result, sad to say, is poor legal argumentation and reliance on a narrow range of cases, most of them not of a leading nature. I myself, though holding a certificate in medical librarianship, do not possess an M.D. degree, and would not presume to write on the theology of, say, medical aspects of Jesus’s crucifixion. Craig could have shown parallel humility.
One example: Craig’s lecture and book stress the concept of “legal fiction”—the occasional use in the Anglo-American common law of fictional categories (e.g., a corporation is regarded as having legal personhood). Craig does not seem to realize that this notion of legal fiction is not employed to any significant degree in the major Civil Law systems of continental Europe, and, more important, that such fictions do not constitute a source of law per se but derive their value solely from precedent and tradition. They must be used only to a limited degree and in strict accord with the established law. Thus in Sinclair v. Brougham, 1914 AC 378, the House ofLords refused to extend the fictional status of quasi-contract to a case of an ultra vires borrowing by a limited company, since to do so would have sanctioned the evasion of the rules of public policy forbidding a company to borrow ultra vires. “Piercing the corporate veil” is a common technique to bypass the legal fiction that a company is equivalent to an actual person.
Important secondary legal literature, deserving of careful treatment, includes, inter alia: Lon L. Fuller, Legal Fictions (Stanford University Press, 1967); Ch. Perelman and P. Foriers (eds.), Les Présumptions et les fictions en droit (Brussels: Ets Emile Bruylant, 1974); La Fiction (“Droits: Revue Française de Théorie Juridique,” 21 ; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995).
In Craig’s attempts to use vicarious liability, respondeat superior, and legal fictions to justify the biblical atonement, he does not seem to realize that, in law, all such instances require a real and substantive connection between the punisher (on earth, the State or Crown) and the person at fault who is therefore justly declared guilty and subject to punishment. The fact that one’s fine can be paid by another is irrelevant. There must be a punishable act or omission and the one punished for it must be responsible for that act or omission. This is the key issue in any attempt to analogize from what a human legal system does and what occurs in the divine economy of salvation. The best one can do is perhaps to theorize that placing the sins of the world on Christ’s shoulders might be justifiable because God-inChrist, though as to his human nature the Second Adam was indeed a sinless Lamb, as to his divine nature he created all things (John l : 1-3; Colossians 1:15-17) and, out of love, gave humanity freewill (which the human race misused)—thus making God-in-Christ, as to his divine nature, in a sense responsible for the sinful history of the race. Of course, this suggestion entails a cosmic mystery, hardly resolvable by any human system of jurisprudence.
Sadly, Craig passes rapidly and superficially over the great “Christus Victor” atonement motif, dominant in the Patristic age and revived during the Protestant Reformation—the theory that on the Cross our Lord conquered sin, death, and the devil—the powers of darkness arrayed against humanity. (See Gustaf Aulén’s classic, Christus Victor, and this author’s Chytraeus on Sacrifice, neither cited by Craig.)
Indeed, characteristic of the scholasticism of his presentation, Craig cites the Swiss Reformed theologian Turretinus (often called the “Thomas Aquinas of Calvinism”). How much better off Craig would have been to rely on Lutheran theologians, since they, unlike their Calvinist counterparts, are well aware that in the high matters of faith, mystery is unavoidable (as with the Holy Trinity, divine election, and the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist). Calvinistic double-predestination and Arminian/Molinist, semi-pelagian “middle knowledge” both suffer from a fallacious insistence that high matters of faith can
be rationally explained—if we just try hard enough. One of the glories of Lutheran theology is its willingness to accept whatever God reveals in Holy Scripture, even when we are incapable of explaining or justifying the teaching. And this is not irrationalism—for we can demonstrate factually the inerrant, revelational character of Scripture, thereby allowing facts to triumph (as in science) even when those facts do not yield to our best efforts at explanation (example: the wave-particle nature of light).
We end—inevitably—with Luther:
Could God, says Mr Wiseacre, find no other way to redeem the human race? Did His Son have to die a death so shameful? Why does God deliver His Son into the hands of His enemies? Surely, He might have sent an angel to overthrow the entire world, to say nothing of this band of Jews. No doubt God might easily have done this, for He is almighty. Besides, He is omniscient and also prudent, wise, and good enough not to require your wisdom in the least in order to determine what He wants to do. However, here the point is, not the ability but the will of God. [WA 37, 325]
If you begin your study of God by trying to determine how He rules the world, how He burned Sodom and Gomorrah with infernal fire, whether He has elected this person or that, and thus begin with the works of the High Majesty, then you will presently break your neck and be hurled from heaven, suffering a fall like Lucifer’s. For such procedure amounts to beginning on top and building the roof before you have laid the foundation. Therefore, letting God do whatever He is doing, you must begin at the bottom and say: I do not want to know God until I have first known this Man; for so read the passages of Scripture: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”; again: “No man cometh unto the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). And there are more passages to the same effect. [WA 36:61 ff. (sermon of 6 Jan. 1532, on Micah 5:1)]
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The Global Journal has been much concerned with the hermeneutics of a number of liberal and quasi-evangelical biblical scholars who avoid the factuality and propositional truth of Holy Scripture by arguing that biblical writers were in fact employing allegedly common “literary” styles of their time that did not mandate historical or factual accuracy (see, e.g., Vol. 15, No. 3). It should therefore not be surprising that the present issue of the Journal features a detailed analysis and critique of one such attempt, that of John Walton. Readers of Dr. Joseph Miller’s devastating study will certainly be able to generalize to similar efforts by other biblical de-historicizers. Vol. 17, No. 3 also contains a wonderful sermon on Psalm 46 preached on Reformation Day Sunday in 2018 by now-retired Pastor Ronald Hodel—a sermon that would not have been worth preaching if the biblical text were not de facto revelation from the Living God.
John Warwick Montgomery