Relevant Biblical Passages: Hebrews 9-10
Jesus Our Sacrifice and Salvation. For the author of the book of Hebrews, the sacrifice of Christ was of central importance. And while building his case for the importance of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice, he makes a statement which many Christians find troubling: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Heb. 9:22).
The emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ in the book of Hebrews suggests that the author assumed that the substitutionary (objective) atonement was the primary model for understanding the death of Christ. That emphasis on the “objective” atonement is one which the author of Hebrews shares with the apostle Paul. But it stands in creative tension with that view of the cross which sees its first reference point to be the needs of the human heart, not divine justice. That idea of a “subjective”atonement is rooted in the Gospel of John, especially John 14-17.
Key elements in the two sides of the “debate” were briefly outlined in last week’s Probe study guide, with the suggestion that the “objective” atonement (Hebrews, Romans, Galatians) be the primary focal point last week and the “subjective” atonement (John) be the primary focal point this week.
Crucial question: In what way is the blood of a sacrifice essential for forgiveness? In the “objective” atonement, the blood of the sacrifice is considered essential: the blood of animals in the Levitical system, the blood of Christ for Christians. But those who find the “subjective” atonement more meaningful than the “objective” atonement can point to a number of passages of Scripture which could suggest that a bloody sacrifice should not be seen as an absolute necessity. The following passages are worth noting:
|Genesis 4:2-7:||The sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Traditionally the story of Cain and Abel has been used to emphasize the importance of animal sacrifice. But interestingly enough the point is not explicit in the original context where the story is told. There, Cain’s attitude is condemned, not his sacrifice. The inadequacy of an animal sacrifice may be implied, but.is not explicit.|
|Leviticus 5:11-13||Offerings for sin. In describing the various kinds of sacrifice, Leviticus 5 indicates that for those who are very poor, a non-animal sin offering, an offering of meal, is acceptable to God.|
|Luke 15:11-32||Story of the prodigal son. In the story, the father accepts his lost boy back home, covers him with the robe (righteousness by faith), but does not insist on an “offering,” much less a bloody sacrifice, as the basis for acceptance. In short, the story is a powerful illustration of God’s grace, but without the requirement of a death.|
|John 14:8||Jesus reveals the father. Here Jesus clearly states the basis for the “subjective” atonement. The point of the incarnation is not to present us to God, but to present God to us: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”|
|John 15:15||Friends, not servants. In a setting where Jesus is the central figure in God’s endeavor to show humanity his love, the sinfulness of humanity is not stressed nearly so much as is the nobility of humanity: we are now God’s friends.|
|John 16:25-27||The Mediator no longer necessary. In the “objective” atonement, the Mediator is essential throughout as the One who presents sinful humanity to God. By contrast, in the “subjective” atonement, once God’s goal of teaching humanity his great love has been attained, the role of Mediator actually becomes redundant. “On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 14:26-27).|
Note: In Adventism, an oft-repeated quotation from the pen of Ellen White has been a troubling one for many: “Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above, are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (The Great Controversy, 425). The impression left by this quotation (and similar ones) is that absolute moral perfection must be attained by human beings if they are to stand in the presence of God. The intensity of the problem is increased if the believer has not accepted the full divinity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. The Father can easily be perceived as a reluctant Deity who has to be convinced by the Son that humans are worthy to be saved. But should the Son’s pleading cease, then humans must stand in the very presence of God “without a mediator.”
The significance of John 16:25-27 is that it enables the call to “stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” to be transformed from a threat into a promise. In other words, God’s children will come to understand their heavenly father so well (through the ministry of Christ), that they will one day be able to come directly into God’s presence without any kind of mediator at all.
What is even more intriguing, however, is the fact that this crucial verse for the Johannine “subjective” atonement, can be easily transformed into a crucial verse affirming the “objective” atonement, simply by the omission of the “not.” A Pacific Press paperback edition of The Great Controversy, published in 1971, actually omits the negative in its citation of John 16:26-27, thereby deftly turning Johannine theology into Pauline theology. Indeed one well-known Adventist evangelist exclaimed, upon hearing the real version of John 16 with the negative, exclaimed in a public meeting: “I am stunned. Throughout my entire ministry that verse without the negative has been the keystone to my theology and my evangelistic outreach.” Note the difference between the two verses when the negative is included and when it is omitted:
Johannine theology, with the negative: “I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you.” (GC, 1911, pp. 416-417).
Pauline theology, without the negative: “I say unto you, that I will pray the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you.” (GC, 1971, p. 368 = 416-417).
This discussion of the atonement, triggered by Hebrews 9:22, raises questions, not only of “diversity,” but also of “change.” The shift in Adventist theology from non-Trinitarian Christology to a full Trinitarian Christology is now fully documented and available in print. While Ellen White’s Desire of Ages is generally credited for moving the denomination to a full trinitarian position, her own transition to a trinitarian Christology is a more delicate matter. The following sources are relevant to the discussion:
George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000).
Rolf J. Pöhler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Thinking: A Case Study in Doctrinal Development (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000).
For a more personal narrative dealing with the development of Ellen White’s theology, see Alden Thompson’s multi-part series, “From Sinai to Golgotha,” Adventist Review, December 3, 10, 17, 24, 31; Westwind, Winter 1982; Adventist Review, July 1, 1982. Available on the web at aldenthompson.com.
For Discussion: The question of which view of the atonement a particular believer finds most helpful is a crucial one. Related to that question is the question of theodicy, i.e. the vindication or justification of God in the presence of evil. When viewed as theodicy, the fully-developed “Great Controversy” theology is a perspective which some find more appealing than others. The question to me (Alden Thompson) from a colleague quoted in my 1989 sermon (included in Lesson #9 above as a concluding excursus) is well worth discussing: “What do I say to a student who says that he has a hard time worshiping a God who insists that human beings must stand before the whole universe as a witness to God’s goodness? The student told me that he finds it much easier to worship a God who simply gives me salvation as a gift. What do I say to such a student?
Johannine theology with its subjective atonement lends itself much more readily to issues of theodicy. Pauline theology with its emphasis on the objective atonement is more protective of the divine prerogative and is less inclined to press issues related to theodicy. Both perspectives are present in Scripture. But it should also be clear that not every biblical writer, i.e. not every “inspired” writer, is equally interested in every aspect of theology. That diversity in Scripture should be helpful to the church in its efforts to develop an approach to church life which revels in diversity as God’s way of bringing us into unity.