Barth, Substitutionary atonement, Synoptics…and film


I would like to commend a fascinating essay by Neil B. MacDonald in Calvin, Barth, and Reformed Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2008). It is entitled, “Karl Barth’s Narrative Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement.” I won’t even bother trying to exposit the whole article here–you need to read it yourself. However, the central argument that MacDonald makes is that Barth upholds a doctrine of substitutionary atonement, founded upon the Scripture principle (and therefore truly Reformed), and based on a historical-critical narratival reading of the Synoptic Gospels. MacDonald argues that the basic threefold structure of the Synoptic Gospels provides a compelling doctrine of substitutionary atonement that is grounded fully in the Synoptic narrative itself, and not merely as a later Pauline (or even a late medieval/Reformational) forensic eisegesis upon the Gospels.

In short, MacDonald argues that the Synoptic Gospels can be coherently read in such a way as to discern that “YHWH, the God of Israel,…takes His own Judgment on Himself (in the Form of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth)” (93).

From a structural perspective, MacDonald argues that in the first part of each Synoptic, Jesus is shown to be one who pronounces God’s eschatological judgment upon Israel and the world. However in the second part of each Gospel (the “Passion” narratives), Jesus is portrayed as taking upon himself this self-same judgment. In this regard, MacDonald argues that Barth reads the Gospels themselves (especially in CD IV.1) as bearing, intrinsically, a “substitutionary doctrine of atonement.” Jesus announces the coming kingly judgment of YHWH, but then the Synoptics portray Jesus as becoming the recipient of this judgment–the substitute. However, it is in the third stage–the resurrection accounts–that completes the narrative. For “inside the context of the resurrection-appearances history, Jesus of Nazareth reveals Himself to be included within the identity of YHWH, the God of Israel” (103).  Observing how the NT confession of Jesus’ divinity is always coupled with reference to his exaltation in his resurrection from the dead, Barth says, “God has given him this name [of YHWH] by exalting him above all things (Phil 2:9) out of and after his death on the cross.” (CD III.2, 450, cited from MacDonald, 103). In other words, it is this “third stage” which completes the forensic account: 1) YHWH judges, but 2) receives that judgment in Jesus, i.e., “stands in as a substitute for us”; and 3) declares himself to be united fully to the risen Jesus Christ.

If that isn’t enough to get you reading this article, MacDonald throws in one more treat: At the end he applies this Barthian “doctrine of substitutionary atonement” through appeal to cinematic film. Throughout the article, he points to the action of Pilate of judging Jesus as being the “hidden judgment” of YHWH on Jesus, i.e., righteous YHWH accomplishes his judgment of Jesus through evil Pilate. However, our ability to “see” this hidden presence of YHWH in the narrative depends upon taking the “directorial eye” of the Synoptic authors. As MacDonald puts it,

The pertinent question here is not about the identity of Jesus [as in Jesus’ question to Peter, ‘Who do you say I am?’]. Rather: the question is about the identity of Pilate’s judgment on Jesus: precisely, ‘Who do you say Pilate’s judgement is?’ Is it merely his own so that Jesus’ death is a consequence of the power of the secular and religious authorities alone–or it is in reality and really–though physically embodied in individuals such as Pontius Pilate–really and ultimately–God acting in history and therefore God’s own judgment on Jesus?” (114).

Our ability to “see” this is the “faith-decision.” But such a decision requires us not simply to hear the right words, but to see it from the “directorial eye” of the Synoptists themselves. This is why, MacDonald argues, so many modern films about Jesus ultimately fail to portray the Gospel, despite even those that seek to stick closely to the events portrayed on the pages of the Gospels.

Well, I hope that’s enough to convince you to get your hands on this essay. I haven’t read any of the other essays yet, but this one alone was worth the price I paid!


15 thoughts on “Barth, Substitutionary atonement, Synoptics…and film

  1. Theodore A. Jones

    “It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 You are missing the fact that the law of God was changed after Jesus was crucified. So it really would not have made any difference for you even if Jesus had died in your place. You cannot escape from the penalty of eternal death unless you have the faith to obey God in a particular Way or you deliberately disobey a law of God for which there is no forgiveness.

  2. Theodore, the verse you cite makes no reference to a change of God’s law. You will have to show me from scripture where this “change” is spoken of. Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). There’s no sign of a change of law here, but only an indication that the Law, which up to Christ has been unfulfilled, was now being fulfilled by his mission.

  3. Theodore A. Jones

    Rom. 5:20 “the law was added” Heb. 7:12b “change also of the law.” “The perfect law of liberty” in James. Jesus fulfilled the law by making an addition to it AFTER his crucifixion. Therefore your salvation is fully interdependent upon your obedience of one particular command of God specific to the Way.

    • Rom 5:20 is not talking about a law added after Christ, but is talking about the original purpose of the law: It was given so trespass might increase. There is nothing here that suggests a post-crucifixion change to the Law.

      Heb 7:12 – The change here is speaking not of a change of the requirements of the law itself, but a change of the origin of the priesthood (v. 13). The author is showing that Christ fulfills the law, not under the obligations of the Levitical requirements, but in the order of Melchchizedek, “one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation [which has not changed] as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.” Again, this speaks nothing about a post-crucifixion change to the Law. It speaks of the qualitatively different priesthood of Jesus from the beginning, not just after the crucifixion. You should also look at Heb 7:28 which contrasts the Law and the oath. “For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.”

      James’ perfect law of liberty (e.g. James 1:25, 2:12) is not to be confused with simply the “Torah.” The perfect law (νομον τελειον, “law of perfection”) is referring the whole counsel of God’s word (cf. James 1:23 “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says…). I like the way Burdick puts it, “When James calls it the ‘perfect law,’ he has in mind the sum total of God’s revealed truth–not merely the preliminary portion found in the OT, but also the final revelation made through Christ and his apostles that was soon to be inscripturated in the NT. Thus it is complete, in contrast to that which is preliminary and preparatory.” (Burdick, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, comment on James 1:25)

      So if there is a change of God’s law, it is in the direction of the completion and consummation of the Law in Christ, not a paradigmatic shift to something entirely new. Just as God’s Word stands forever (Isa 40:8; Matt 24:35), so, too, the Law which That which was preparatory in the OT has now been “completed/perfected” in Christ. It is less “new” than it is “matured.”

  4. Theodore A. Jones

    Nada! If Jesus by his crucifixion has fulfilled/perfected the OT law then 1 Cor. 2:6-8 cannot be a true statement. For if the purpose of Jesus’ crucifixion was for perfecting the law of Moses that would have allowed the reason for his crucifixion to be determined before he was crucified. He would have NEVER been crucified if the true reason for his crucifixion could have been been predetermined. Further in order for a new covenant to be formed new law had to be in place for the foundation of the new covenant. Your statement “not a paradigmatic shift to something entirely new” is not congruent with “behold ALL things have become new” by the way. The logic of Heb.7:12 is the priesthood could only be changed because the law had already been changed. You need to go back to the drawing board, friend. Tell you what identify what the oath is, this oath is mentioned in Heb. 6:17-18, and what is the other immutable thing by the way?

  5. You need to read 1 Cor 2:6-8 more carefully. This is speaking of the hidden wisdom of God which is now revealed. (in fact, Paul doesn’t even use the concept of law here, but that is another matter). If we are talking about something entirely new, then the old is still hidden. The NT sense of apocalyptic is that something which was unknown is now made known–revealed. You are creating a break between the Old and New Covenants. While they are certainly Old and New, they are both from the same covenanting God. The New covenant does not abolish the old, but fulfills the old. You also are setting up a break between the doctrines of Creation and Redemption.

    You also didn’t respond to my responses about your other proof texts, which don’t support what you are saying. You are finding the word “change” in proximity with the word “law” but not reading what the context of those verses really say.

    In this regard, we clearly disagree and likely won’t agree here.

  6. Theodore A. Jones

    What are those two immutable things and how many actually find the small narrow gate into God’s kingdom?

  7. On the latter question, all I knew is that God is the only one who can answer “how many.”

    On the former question, it seems that the two immutable things in Heb 6 are: 1) It is impossible for God to lie (v. 18) and 2) His purposes do not change (v. 17).

    That, it seems to me, says that the Law of God is unchangeable. If his purpose and his law are at all related, how then can they change? What changes is not God’s law, but the means by which it is fulfilled.

  8. Theodore A. Jones

    “And for Your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from EACH man too I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” The oath.
    “The law was added so that the the trespass (of Jesus crucifixion) might/has increased.”
    It is only by Jesus’ crucifixion having an exponential factor of guilt by a law that salvation is a possibility by any human male having been sacrificed. The law has been changed by the addition of one word to make it a sin not to account directly to God regarding the crucifixion of his only begotten son. There cannot be a direct benefit to you by the sacrifice of any male human as your salvific proposes. The new wine if it is in the container of OT law burst that old wineskin. God’s set purpose for each man is for each man to give an account directly to God in regard to one man’s life having been taken by bloodshed. This is the small narrow gate sport. The question is do you have the faith to use it? Because if you don’t you deliberately disobey a law for which there is no forgiveness and it this law which was God’s secret. It does not matter to me whether you agree with me or not for I know that if you decide to wait you will not disagree with me on the other side of the grave. For isn’t EACH MAN TOO unilaterally inclusive and without exception and aren’t you a man too? Yes or No?

  9. I stop interacting, Jon, once someone resorts to using a label…though “Barthite” is definitely a new one…Btw, Jon, I think you’d really enjoy McDonald’s allusion to film theory in the essay mentioned…

  10. Theodore A. Jones

    David the Barthite is one of those fellows who tramples what is the truth about Jesus’ crucifixion under his feet. But David is using the excuse to not interact by crying the foul of lableing rather than admitting that he is also in the class of each man too. Whom is it that has labled him in this class; and David the Barthite has no better sense than to cry foul to whom has labled him? The potter does intentionally make some vessels for dishonor, doesn’t he, David the Barthite?

  11. This will be my last response to you, Theodore. I will not allow you to post anything further because you clearly have an axe to grind. I welcome challenges to my thought and posts. I do not claim infallibility. But I will not tolerate your false accusations. I deny your accusation and your ad hominem argument. You will be called to account for such an accusation, for you speak without knowledge of me. My conscience before God is clear.

    I confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, and the judge of all men, whether living and dead, the one mediator between God and man. All (and I certainly include myself in this “all”) will give an account to him and will have nothing to appeal to for their salvation, save Christ’s person and work in his life, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father.

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