Assessing Bruxy on the Atonement

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I heard a pastor say that we need to work at giving and receiving godly criticism (Proverbs 27:6, Ephesians 4:15, Matthew 7:3-5, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 1:9,13; 2:15).  A weakness in Canada is that we try to either paper over our differences with smiles and sunny ways or we act like we are in two solitudes with unmovably prejudiced suspicions.

How different is it to give and receive godly criticism. In Paul Carter’s dialogue with Bruxy Cavey, I’ve seen this manner of critique modelled. Now part of the response by observers will be to assess the dialogue and give our own godly critique of the discussion and the positions taken by each participant.

For my part, I have significant disagreements with Bruxy Cavey’s views, as I think they don’t line up with Scripture and the best reflections on Scripture in the history of the Church.

A pastoral concern

As a pastor, I have a vested interest in getting atonement right. It is a key teaching that not only explains our salvation but also provides assurance of salvation. So while I may have concerns about other aspects of Bruxy’s teaching, I want to focus on the issue of atonement.

As I reflected upon the interchange between Paul and Bruxy, I saw two unanswered questions in Bruxy’s theology of the atonement. First, I saw no answer to the question of how our sin connects with Jesus Christ and how the righteousness of Jesus Christ becomes ours. Second, I saw no answer to the question of what happens to the wrath of God against sin in order to secure a pardon.

On the basis of these conversations, Bruxy offers a Jesus protected from wrath and an unexplained atonement that has no explicit recognition of a sacrifice for sin before a good and holy God.

My concern with Bruxy’s theology of the atonement is that it offers no assurance of pardon for lost sinners. Out of my genuine pastoral concern for truth, I offer this evaluation.

Christ became the curse

Bruxy did not define the curse. In his view, Jesus bears the curse and so absorbs into himself a poison or a disease at the cross.  This view of the curse is an abstract one because there is no ‘Curser’. Instead, Jesus’s comes from people, not God.  

Yet this does not line up with the biblical teaching about the curse. In Galatians 3:13, Paul states that Jesus has become the curse.  While Bruxy agrees with this statement, he sees that it is the sinners who are doing the cursing toward Jesus.

Elsewhere, Bruxy writes, “Yes, there is wrath displayed in the crucifying of Christ, but it is ours, not God’s.” Jesus is alienated from others by their cursing or as he says, “our wrathful rejection of God.” But the alienation of humanity by God is not addressed in Bruxy’s scheme except the unexplained notion that the cross shows “his unhindered love for us.

Bruxy does not specify any sort of federal relationship between humanity and Jesus Christ. So he has no place for concepts like imputation or the ‘reckoning’ of sin to Jesus and righteousness to the redeemed. From what I can see, such status or positional language appears nowhere in Bruxy’s explanation of the atonement

On his view, the only curse that Jesus becomes is the active curses of swear words, abuse, and possibly Israel’s failed mission. But because Bruxy does not confess to a federal relationship, where Jesus is the last Adam (Romans 5:14, 1 Corinthians 15:45), there is no connection between the curse of God upon the sons and daughters of Adam nor Jesus becoming the curse for us.

So what about God’s wrath?

The apostle Paul affirms that wrath falls on humanity (Rom 1:18ff) and that God “desired to show his wrath and to make it known his people” (Rom 9:22). And while wrath presently comes from heaven, it also stands as a future reality (Rom 6:23; Gen 2:17) because we will all face judgment (Rev 21–22).

Wrath does not only belong to the domain of creatures and their judgment. Christ himself possesses the “wrath of the lamb” (Rev 6:16) because he has been slain (Rev 5:6).

So we cannot protect the incarnate Son from association with wrath. It belongs to him along with the right to judge the quick and the dead. And his wrath must exist because sin does. Sin demands the confrontation of justice. God doesn’t acquit the guilty (Exodus 34:7, Nahum 1:3). Only as Jesus is put forward as a hilasterion (Romans 3:25) can God be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v.26).

During the discussion, Bruxy conceded that propitiation meant a wrath-related atonement. But he claimed that the Greek word hilasterion didn’t mean propitiation. Yet in a clear allusion to the Passover (Exodus 12), Paul says in Romans 3 that God, “put forward [Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood” and, “had passed over former sins”(Romans 3:25).

This Passover allusion highlights God’s judgement and the escape from judgement, not by running away or holding the household lamb in a close hug, but by the death of the lamb. The wrath-shielding blood was applied to the doorposts, behind which the worshippers dwelt secure.

Paul elsewhere confidently states, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Where is this confidence? It is in Christ having received wrath according to his human nature, not for his sin (2 Cor 5:21) but for the sins of others.

In Bruxy’s view, Jesus soaks up the sin of sinners rather than the wrath of God. One implication of his view is that Jesus can’t be the unblemished Lamb slain (1 Peter 1:9). He might start out that way, but he can never remain innocent in nature. Rather in that view, Jesus must be corrupted in nature, absorbing sin into himself because Christ as the federal head cannot have sin imputed to himself.

Also if Bruxy doesn’t think that wrath comes upon Jesus as a substitute for the sin of sinners, then where does the wrath or punishment go? Bruxy doesn’t say. He writes,Where did that punishment go? That’s the thing about forgiveness – the punishment just goes. It is dropped, forgotten, laid aside. If I told you I forgave you for the debt you owe me, and I can do this because I already got my son to pay that debt on your behalf, well, that isn’t true forgiveness, but just a different route to payment.

Yet something must happen for people to be saved from this wrath.  Bruxy’s view of the atonement doesn’t answer this question and seems to make the wrath simply disappear without explanation. If God’s nature is fluid, then I can see that an unexplained disappearance of wrath is not a problem. But God being fluid in nature is an even bigger problem than supposedly dropping the “p” from the acronym PSA (penal substitutionary atonement).

Another case of disappearing wrath is in Bruxy’s handling of Isaiah 53:10. Normally it’s understood as referring to God’s wrath on the suffering servant. Bruxy suggests Jesus absorbs sinfulness experientially and ends up being ‘crushed’ not by the wrath of God but by human sin/infirmity.  

For example, in a stunning statement, Bruxy says this: “God’s propitiation is achieved through our expiation.”

The sick lamb and the healer

So as I’ve tried to understand Bruxy’s views, which are presented with sophistication and conviction, I’ve come away with a few different pictures.

First, Jesus’ sin-absorption (non-imputation) makes the wrath vanish without explanation. For Bruxy, the wrath of God is a passing emotion that can come or go without explanation. Such fluidity is not a problem for him.

But this unexplained disappearance of wrath offers no assurance to the believer. Though Bruxy is vigorous in his identifications with Anabaptists, he may wish to consider that the Reformation addressed this very pastoral question, how can a person have assurance that they are saved and going to heaven?

Another way to think of it is that Bruxy seems to make his Jesus a healer who draws maladies out of the one who touches him. This is a classical expiation view of the way sacrifices may work in non-christian religions, but it is not the view of the Scriptures.

We can agree that Jesus can heal physical infirmities such as the woman with the flow of blood (see Luke 8:43-48). But such healing is not an absorption of infirmity, but rather his healing power extending from him (8:46). And this is not the limit of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. His was not a mere healing of the physical sickness of humans, but something more fundamental.

Jesus atoned for sin, the offensiveness of moral pollution against the purity of God’s moral character. When God’s purity confronts impurity, he cannot look upon it (Hab 1:18), so his settled disposition is against it eternally. So even when cleansing language is used, we can’t escape from the concept of wrath. In God’s omnipresence, the confrontation of his holiness with impurity necessitates just, potent and pure wrath.

A final picture of Bruxy’s view is of an unassured atonement.  I would start by asking how can the believer with confidence agree with the Apostle Paul when he said, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)? They have assured confidence because Jesus was judicially condemned by God as a substitute for sinners.

If we reduce Romans 8:1 to the logic of Bruxy’s wrath-less view of the atonement, then the only condemnation that we are delivered from is the world’s wrath. This unassured atonement is not good news, and it presents a false utopian view of the suffering Christian in the world today.

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