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Ross Hastings Tackles Your Big Questions about the Atonement

December 10, 2019
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I argue for one theory, participation, and multiple models, including penal substitution.

Last month, Ross Hastings, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, released Total Atonement: Trinitarian Participation in the Reconciliation of Humanity and Creation (Rowman and Littlefied 2019).

The book directly addresses some of the most urgent questions for contemporary Christians who want to arrive at a healthy, biblically sound understanding of the way in which Christ forgives and unifies himself to the believer. Those wishing to refine the way they preach on this topic will especially benefit from the teaching of one who was himself a preacher for over a decade.

In this interview, find out how Ross addresses the common criticism of the atonement as “Divine child abuse”; get a solid definition for what exactly “participation” means in a theological context; and hear Ross share the method behind his recent writing spree.

Can you describe what it was that drew you to the topic of atonement and participation?

RH: There's almost a lifelong piece in this. I was raised in the tradition of meditation on the sufferings of Christ every Sunday in the Plymouth Brethren movement. We would all sit around the Lord's Table for an hour before we actually took bread and wine. The meditation was specifically on the sufferings of Christ. You couldn't even speak of his resurrection until after the bread and wine. And people would stand up like in 1 Corinthians 14—somebody has a hymn, somebody has a word; it could be something you've been meditating on. But the primary focus was the death of Christ.

And although there were some legalistic rules about when you could say what, the actual practice was very formative for me. It's one aspect of that movement amongst others that I really treasure. We were eucharistically centred—they wouldn't use the word Eucharist—but they were eucharistically centred. And secondly, they encouraged meditation on the person and work of Christ in ways that were very formative for me. I actually remember—I began to be a serious Christian when I was 14—sitting in those kinds of meetings and having tears in my eyes as I sensed the presence of the nail-scarred Jesus. It was very powerful. So the atonement has always been a big deal for me.

But then in recent years I've been moved to write by concerns that have been expressed over penal substitution. Steve Chalke made a big impact in British theology by saying that this sounds like cosmic child abuse, the Father punishing the Son for our sins. Part of my agenda is to make sure we speak in a nuanced way about penal substitution—that it involves the triune God, each of the persons together. It's not the naked son and the naked Father. When preachers do use the term “the Father punished the Son for our sins,” I'm uncomfortable. That's unbiblical language.

What would be a biblical way of expressing this?

I think it would be to say that Jesus as the Son who is the God-man bears our sin and he is both God and man in that transaction. Karl Barth's got this lovely phrase, Jesus is the judge and the judged at the same time. So it’s the Son as a divine person, along with the Father and the Spirit: they are dealing with this issue of sin and the punishment of sin.

As a man, Jesus is the sin-bearer: The language of Scripture itself is "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" So as a man, Jesus can say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in the sense that he is bearing our sin. But we shouldn’t isolate Christ and say it's only him there. Paul talks about how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. To speak of the Father and the Son being separated breaks up the Trinity, which I think is an ontological impossibility.

Ultimately, I feel as though we ought to do our theology from the perspective of mystery, and then faith seeking understanding. We are trying to plumb a mystery we cannot fully fathom. What goes on in the dark hours of the cross we may never fully fathom. But we should beware of reductionistic statements like “the Father punished the Son for our sins.” The Son bears our sins; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together deal with our sins.

What does the penal substitution model provide that a ransom or satisfaction theory of atonement doesn’t?

Penal simply indicates a penalty or some judgment that is borne by the Son of God on the cross. I don't think it's possible to get away from it.

I think what is lost if we take it out is precisely the forensic piece, which we can't deny. It's not the primary piece; it's the secondary piece. But we can't deny it.

If you look at the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, the burnt offering features there—the idea of something fragrant being offered to God—but so does the sin offering in a very powerful way. The blood is sprinkled seven times before and once upon the mercy seat. I think there is an aspect of the holiness and justice of God that needs to be taken care of by Jesus. I come back to mystery and to the image of a multifaceted diamond. I think we’d be missing one of the facets of that diamond if we didn't actually hear the words “Your sins are forgiven and they have been judged justly.”

I think another thing that's lost is the plain sense of Scripture in a number of occasions in the NT: for example, where he who knew no sin was made a sin offering for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. It seems very transactional. That transactional stuff can only happen through participation, but it's transactional nevertheless, that he who knew no sin becomes sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. I'm sure Scottish minister and theologian John McLeod Campbell would probably interpret that as indicating that the sin nature that Jesus had taken upon himself is what's purified on the cross. But I think that interpretation is not quite right.

With that said, I always believe the filial comes before the forensic. God wants us to be his sons and daughters. Evangelicals are somewhat hung up on the forensic side of things. The first things you're asked when you hear a sermon is, "do you believe Jesus died on the cross for your sins? Do you believe you're a sinner? And if you're a sinner are you ready to repent and believe?” All of that's ok. But how about first hearing, “God loves you and he wants to make you in Christ his own son and daughter”? And there is a forensic dimension to that, but the primary dimension is the love of God.

The telos of God's salvation is not actually justification by faith; I think it is sonship, adoption. I'm not taking away justification; I'm just saying, as with Calvin, union with Christ leads to justification and sanctification. Calvin's primary category in soteriology is not justification; it's actually union with Christ.

Actually, what I argue in the book is that penal substitution is only valid and properly spoken of when it's spoken of in a Trinitarian way. I also argue it's only valid as one model among all the other models. And like all the models, it actually can't work unless participation undergirds it. In this book I argue for one theory, participation, and multiple models, including penal substitution.

So that must be what you mean by Total Atonement. Can you expand on that phrase and how participation plays in?

It's total in every way—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. Total atonement. Divinity and humanity of Christ together. It's in the person as well as the work of Christ, not separating those. It's all the models, and so it is satisfaction and penal substitution and exemplary model and all of those things. They only work if participation is their core.

I have used the five offerings of Leviticus 1–7 as a rubric to assess models. I think one of the blind spots in various models of the atonement is a failure to take in the totality of the atonement that's depicted by those five offerings: the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. Three of them are what I call “sweet savour offerings” and two of them are sin offerings.

So to Anselm of Canterbury—the medieval theologian who came up with the satisfaction theory of atonement— I would say, I love what you're presenting, and that is true. But that's the burnt offering. You've omitted the sin offering, which is clearly depicting a penalty, the alleviation of guilt. Atonement is total in that sense. Look at all the offerings.

Another example from that rubric: when you look at John McLeod Campbell, who’s famous for his vicarious humanity model, I think he goes astray because his primary focus is on the second offering. He doesn't say this, but I would say it—his focus is on the grain offering in which there is no blood, which seems to speak of the life of Christ offered for us. He's completely focused on one aspect of the atonement and negates penal substitution.

How do you define participation?

When I use the word participation, I'm using it in a completely relational sense. There are two aspects of participation. First there is the participation of the Son of God in our humanity by the incarnation. That's the foundation for atonement, I argue in the book. I argue that even the act of incarnation is already atoning, as well as being a preparation for the full atonement.

The second is the participation of humanity in God. In other words, it is the appropriation of the objective atonement accomplished by Christ in our lives by faith. Those two things are the two aspects of participation.

I think Hans Boersma is more comfortable speaking about a Neoplatonic sense of participation that is substantial. I restrict my understanding of participation to what is fellowship; it's really koinonia. It is the relationship between God and humanity in the incarnate Christ. It's the union of the saints with God.

Edwards said there were three unions in theology, and I think orthodox theologians think the same way: the union of the three persons of the Trinity, the union of the divine and human natures of Christ, and the union of the saints with God as they participate in what Christ has done. The saints enter subjectively into what objectively has been accomplished.

And would you add on the participation of creation in God?

Yes, I would. I do talk about totality of atonement in terms of the reconciliation of all creation, although that's the part where I struggle a bit in terms of using the word participation. If by that one means fellowship, yes. If by that we mean some kind of substantial participation in God, I worry about monism. I worry about the breakdown of the metaphysical distinction between God and his creation.

Some contemporary theologians question the actual mechanism of substitution, asking how (or whether) this process of Christ taking on our penalty really works. What do you say in response to this criticism?

Oliver Crisp has raised this question: Does it really work, this idea that your sins can be taken away by somebody else bearing them?

I think the answer to this criticism is precisely participation. Substitution is not exactly someone doing it on behalf of another. Substitution occurs with somebody who has become one with us and is acting on our behalf because he has become one with us. The ontological nature of the incarnation suggests that Jesus acts on behalf of all humanity. Humanity is a real metaphysical reality for him. And so my counter to Crisp’s critique is to say that you can't use the court of human law to justify your thinking about this. God transcends these human notions of justice.

Suppose you commit a murder. I can't go to prison for you. That's the kind of argument Crisp raises. And the reason that argument doesn’t work exactly with the atonement is this: I'm not you and you're not me; we have a sense of dependence but we're not mutually internal to one another, whereas God the Son becomes one with us so that divinity is coinherent or perichoretic. So you have this entity that has truly taken us into himself. I think participation or union is at least a partial answer to that.

I loved what you said about your childhood experiences of the Eucharist being a seed of this work. I wonder, having now done this theoretical work, how does that change your practice of the Eucharist?

I would probably say I would like it to change my practices. I hunger and thirst for Christ in that sense. I feel as though that experience I had—and probably I would have been about 24, 25, or 26 before I moved on from that tradition—since then I think I lost my way a little bit, to be honest. I was taken up with being a pastor and therefore with seeker friendliness and all those kinds of things. I do remember to my own shame that I often would think, “Oh—this is communion Sunday. Bummer. I can only preach 20 minutes.” You know, rather than saying, “Guess what? You're not the centre, Jesus is the centre.”

During my summer months when I write, we go to a lovely little church in Chemainus that's Anglican. It's borderline high Anglican. The Eucharist is done beautifully every week. And the chap’s an 80-year-old South African priest. He preaches the word well. But mostly I love the service because it's a prayer book service. The liturgy is rich. The hymns are rich. … During the summers, that's where I'm at. I just sit there and I drink it in. I believe the church is defined by the Eucharist.

I think that this topic will spark a lot of conversation among our students. What would you say to those who are interested in further pursuing this, maybe even working with you?

Go for it! I did a seminar last year on the atonement, and it was the best seminar I've experienced at Regent. We had great students, and they had great papers. Two of our students made a contribution to the book. I actually quote them and their papers. Jon Bryars is one. Dan Glover is the other one. I will do the seminar again in two years’ time.

There's so much still to be learnt of the atonement. I feel as though I've just begun to probe it.

On a slightly different topic, this is your third book in four years; is that right?

I don't keep count.

And those are fairly weighty tomes. What’s the secret? How do you keep up that level of work?

I like to think of it as God's gracious charism to me. I never thought I would write books. I wrote another one this last summer on theological ethics that just seemed to flow. I think this is my fifth book, and that will be my sixth book, and it's with Zondervan academic. But I just seem to be on a bit of a roll. I’m just enjoying the roll. And when it's over, that's fine.

Do you have a cabin or something like that where you can focus in?

My wife, you know it's my second marriage, she was married to a dentist and they acquired five properties before he passed away. So she has this beautiful house right on the ocean in Ladysmith, BC. I usually sit at the dining room table and work. I have a desk downstairs, and both have ocean views. When I'm sitting upstairs and the tide's in, I feel like I'm in a boat, because you can't see that there's any land between it and myself. So that's the hallowed spot for me.

Most days I'll work from 8 till 4 writing, and I can't do more than that. And then I'll go take a hike or go to Dairy Queen or something. We like to drive around a lot and see second hand stores and that kind of stuff. We try to use those times for renewal and refreshment. I don't work on Saturday; that's my sabbath. And I usually don't work on Sunday as well in the summer. But the rest of the time I do. It just seems as though the juices are there. I'm hungry to engage.

I've come at academia late. I didn't take my PhD in theology until my early 50s, and then I was a pastor for a long time, and then I came to Regent and I wrote a first book. I think it took me 3 or 4 years, and I lost my wife in the middle of that, and so I lost my hunger to write. And then after that book I think I took a couple years to write the Edwards one, which was my thesis book. But from then on it's been one after the other and I'm enjoying doing it.

I love to preach. Preaching is probably the first thing that I love to do in life. And right now I'm in academics so I teach mostly rather than preach. But writing seems to be the way perhaps that God may use me to just bring some good thoughts for the preachers of tomorrow and for the whole people of God.

This book feels so relevant for preachers who want to express the atonement with nuance. Congratulations on its release!


Ross's book, Total Atonement: Trinitarian Participation in the Reconciliation of Humanity and Creation, is available for purchase at the Regent Bookstore or online.

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