By Molly T. Marshall
A rather heated exchange about the atonement theory of a hymn has ensued. Baptists and Presbyterians have weighed in on what the cross of Christ “satisfied,” the nature of divine wrath, and whether singing an objectionable phrase in a hymn constitutes doctrinal confession.
(I find it amusing that the Baptist supporters of “In Christ Alone” are demonstrating more Calvinism than the Presbyterians who excluded the hymn.)
It is as important to identify the God you do not believe in as it is to confess the One in whom you do believe. Walter Harrelson, the acclaimed Old Testament scholar, told of learning the Bible at his aunt’s knee — the first critical interpreter he knew.
When they encountered the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that instructed the people of God to decimate the Canaanites, this mountain woman from western North Carolina would gently say: “Now boys, that is not what God is like. Let’s look at some other passages that tell the larger story.”
Aunt Zora was teaching healthy disbelief in a God who purportedly inscribed violence.
Theologian Christopher Morse calls thoughtful Christians to “faithful disbelief,” which allows one to winnow truth from falsity. In Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief, he observes the struggle of the German church following 1933.
Co-opted by aspirations of national dominance and Aryan supremacy, most of the church abdicated its authentic role and became an instrument of oppression, subservient to the Nazi regime. Thus, Morse writes: “To believe in God is at once to disbelieve what is not of God. Faith in God … is not only believing; it is disbelieving as well.”
Over the years my mind has changed on matters of faith. Faithful disbelief has compelled me to challenge imbedded theology and move to a more deliberative theological construction.
For example, I no longer believe that God wills everything that occurs. To believe that every occurrence is somehow God’s intent creates insuperable obstacles — both for human free will and for a coherent vision of God. Freighted arguments to justify God in the face of evil cannot survive the burden of the tragic.
I do not believe that patriarchy is God’s intent for human relations or the spiritual leadership of God’s people. To maintain that God privileges men over women requires a hermeneutical bias that is not sustainable as we review the larger witness of the Bible. Further, a growing number of churches testify to the good pastoral work offered by women.
I do not believe that Western culture is the only apt vehicle for Christian identity. Exporting culture along with the gospel has affronted other contexts by presuming them to be inferior. In our school’s work in Myanmar, we quickly learn of the commendable aspects of ethnic culture and hear the lament of those who felt disregarded.
I do not believe that the Holy Spirit is the least member of the Trinity, nor do I believe that the Spirit is confined to Christian believers or church structures. Certainly followers of Jesus have more intimate relationship with the Spirit of the Risen Christ, but God’s Spirit is at work in creation as well as other ways of faith.
Returning to the reason for the kerfuffle over the hymnal, I do not believe that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement gives an adequate interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. The idea that forgiveness is only possible after divine wrath has been assuaged is contrary to Paul’s great declaration: “the proof of God’s love is that Christ died for us even while were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8).
One reason the church’s conversation about the atonement has continued is because the varied New Testament and historical images can only provisionally illuminate the great work of God through Christ for us. Yet, the church has perceived that some of the theories overly stress certain aspects of the divine character and, therefore, cannot be approved with good conscience.
Disbelieving false gods is a faithful practice. It also helps clarify the confession we hold fast.
This column originally was posted on Aug. 20, 2013.