Why I Must Respectfully Disagree With My Anabaptist Friends

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Baptists and Anabaptists are often confused with one another. Despite having many similar beliefs and several common and sequential letters in their names, Baptists and Anabaptists are not organically related. As Dr. Michael Haykin explains here, the similarities are due mostly to common sources and commitments. We are reading the same book and breathing the same air so it’s not surprising to discover that we hold a variety of similar convictions.

That is why I refer to Anabaptists as friends.

I have a great deal of respect for the primary values and themes within this largely parallel tradition.

Nevertheless I hold to a few, rather significant differences.

The first difference relates to precisely how we are reading the same Bible. To be clear, Anabaptists read and love the Bible but they read it and love it in slightly different ways than do most of their other Protestant cousins. Bruxy Cavey, the most well known spokesperson for the Anabaptist cause in Canada likes to say: “We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.”[1]

Bruxy himself explains the difference by saying: “Many Protestant Christians say things like “We follow the Bible”, or will talk about the “authority of the Bible”, or say that Scripture is “inerrant”. As a Radical Christian, these are things I would tend to say about Jesus first and foremost. I follow Jesus. Jesus holds all authority.”[2]

It’s not so much that I disagree with Cavey here as that I find his argument incomprehensible. I don’t understand why he separates and goes so far even as to rank the authority of Jesus relative to and distinct from the authority of Scripture. To be clear I understand that Jesus and the Bible are not the same thing, but it seems equally clear to me that while distinct they are not separable in the way that Cavey presents them as being. The very fact that the Scriptures speak of Jesus as “the Word of God” suggests that our understanding of the incarnated Christ can never be detached from the anticipations and explications of the Bible.

To say: “I follow Jesus not the Bible” is to say other than the Scriptures themselves.

It is to say other than the vast majority of Christians across the ages.

The historic, orthodox and Scriptural statement would be to say: “I follow the Jesus of the Bible”.

As soon as we begin to speak of a Jesus distinct from the pages of Holy Scripture we enter the realm of Christian mysticism. Which Jesus are we talking about here? The Jesus of your imagination? The Jesus of your dream last night? The Jesus of popular culture?

Which Jesus?

It is this half lean into mysticism that has always made me nervous around my Anabaptist friends.

I don’t trust myself with the task of defining and delineating Jesus. I’m quite sure that I would remake him into an exaggerated and sanctified version of myself. I’m certain I would shave off certain traits or characteristics that annoy and antagonize my friends. I know I would make him accepting of my secret sins and struggles.

I know I would.

And rightly or wrongly, I suspect that my Anabaptist friends have done the same.

And that makes me nervous.

The Bible says that the church is built:

on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20 ESV)

I agree wholeheartedly with Bruxy Cavey and all my Anabaptist friends that Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the church.

Yes!

Yes!

A thousand times yes!

But I feel safer when my Jesus is defined and delineated by the apostles and prophets of the Bible.

A Jesus extracted from the Bible quickly loses all shape and fixity and immediately conforms to the pressure of the cultural environment and the preference of the charismatic preacher. I don’t see how the Anabaptist movement can protect itself from this proclivity.

If the doctrine of Scripture represents my most foundational disagreement with the Anabaptist position, the doctrine of the atonement represents the most urgent and immediate.

What Bruxy Cavey is at the popular level, Greg Boyd is at the academic level. In this clip Boyd rightly explains that there is no such thing as “the Anabaptist doctrine of the atonement”. Anabaptists in the 16th and 17th centuries held to a variety of positions – including penal substitutionary atonement. However, he goes on to state that over the last 100 years the majority of Anabaptists have come to hold the Christus Victor view of the atonement. The reason he gives for this development is remarkably telling:

The problem that most Anabaptist have with the penal substitution view; and I think that the majority of Anabaptists would agree with this, maybe all of them, it’s the idea that the Father was mad at Jesus and had to vent his wrath violently on the Son in order to not vent his wrath violently on us, well it gives a picture of God that is not quite consistent with the God who is completely non-violent and it puts at the centre of redemption a violent act; its called the myth of redemptive violence: that violence solves problems. Here you have at the centre of history the supreme act of violence. If the Father kills the Son to solve the problem that reinforces the idea that violence is a solution; and one of the things that Anabaptists have been passion about is that the problem with us is that we think that violence solves things… so the majority would be against penal substitution.[3]

Here Boyd appears to reveal that his doctrine of the atonement is subsidiary to his commitment to pacifism. Boyd maintains an a priori commitment to a picture of God as entirely non-violent and therefore must reject a wide swath of Biblical testimony to the contrary. To state the obvious, this view of the atonement appears to be more the product of modern western sensibilities than the pages of Holy Scripture.

While this is not the place for a full scale refutation of Boyd’s view, a few citations from the Bible ought to be enough to demonstrate grounds for legitimate concern.

To refute Boyd’s contention that God is completely non-violent a multitude of passages could be consulted. Prominent among them would be passages such as Genesis 38:7:

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. (Genesis 38:7 ESV)

This is the first judicial execution recorded in the pages of Scripture but it is not the last. 3 verses later the focus shifts to Onan, the brother of Er about whom we are told:

what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. (Genesis 38:10 ESV)

To state the obvious, these verses seem to give a picture that is “not quite consistent with the God who is completely non-violent”.

That the violent death of Jesus on the cross was in fact God’s idea also seems hard to deny. Isaiah the prophet says: “it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10 ESV).

Peter in his sermon on Pentecost says that Jesus was: “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23 ESV).

The testimony of Scripture, Old Testament and New seems to suggest that the cross was indeed violent and it was in fact God’s definite will and plan. These few citations alone provide reason enough to be dissatisfied with the Anabaptist view of the atonement.

To be clear, to say that the cross was violent and that it was God’s will (not to mention the fact that it solved a very important problem) is not to say that God delights in violence, nor is it even to say that violence is essential to his character. In the Bible wrath and judgment are described as “the strange work of God”. In Isaiah 28:21 we read:

For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work! (Isaiah 28:21 ESV)

The Old Testament prophets – as also the New Testament apostles – understood that God’s essential character is love. Nevertheless, the nature of his love demands strange and even alien acts of judgment. Leon Morris is helpful again here. He says:

God loves the right and therefore he is in vigorous opposition to every evil. But because God loves he provides the way whereby his beloved are delivered from the wrath that would otherwise engulf them.[4]

Therefore I feel a deep sense of kinship with anyone who feels drawn to the love and mercy of God but I must part company with Boyd and Cavey when they turn away from an honest recognition of his strange and alien work in judgment. Their a priori commitment to pacifism appears to have blinded them to the fullness of God’s glory and self-disclosure in the death and crucifixion of the Christ.

The Christus Victor model of the atonement is not wrong – it is simply incomplete. Later in the clip referenced above Boyd describes the work of Christ as being like “a bomb that went off in the kingdom of darkness that sets men and women free”.

That is absolutely correct.

The Bible says that one of the reasons Jesus died on the cross was so that:

through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15 ESV)

The Christus Victor model of the atonement correctly identifies and celebrates this aspect of Christ’s atoning work.

But.

No one model can sufficiently describe the totality of what Jesus accomplished through his life, death, resurrection and ascension on our behalf.

The Bible uses a variety of metaphors and images to communicate the fullness and glory of his work.

John the Baptist referred to him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV); a clear reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system. The Apostle Paul referred to him as “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7 ESV); an obvious reference to the story of the Exodus. The Apostle John referred to him as “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2 ESV); the word propitiation speaks to the means by which wrath is averted[5]. In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of Jesus as our substitute saying: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

All of these images – and many more – are necessary to capture and communicate the breadth, width and depth of the love of God in Christ. In fairness to the best representatives of the Anabaptist cause, most spokespersons will admit that there are other necessary ways of speaking about the work of Christ on the cross beyond their preferred model of Christus Victor. However to avoid any one of those other necessary ways because they conflict with an a priori commitment to pacifism seems almost an act of idolatry.

God is who he says that he is and he is as he has revealed himself to be through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is to that revelation that every other concept and commitment must bow.

No a priori commitment – even one so admirable as Anabaptist pacifism – must be allowed to edit, obscure, or undermine the self revelation of God in the Christ of Holy Scripture.

Here I stand and I can do no other.

Thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

 


To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.


[1] http://www.bruxy.com/theology/the-word-of-god-part-1-authority/

[2] http://www.bruxy.com/theology/the-word-of-god-part-1-authority/

[3] Representing the dialogue from the 1 minute 9 second mark to the 2 minute 16 second mark of the clip that can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KidAUaVrQhY

[4] Leon Morris, The Atonement, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1983), 163.

[5] As per The New Bible Dictionary: “Propitiation properly signifies the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift.”

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