Ernest Brady to Dr. H. G. Wood

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Ernest Brady
Dr. H. G. Wood

Letter dated 31st March 1956

Dear Dr. H.G.Wood,

I have recently read with great appreciation your book "Belief and Unbelief Since 1850," and I am taking the liberty of sending you a few comments on your references to the doctrine of the Atonement, in which I am particularly interested.

On page 37 you say,

"The substitutionary view of the Atonement not only freed men from the burden of their sins, but also filled them with love for the Christ who gave Himself for them. Moreover, the doctrine lent itself to simple statement in effective preaching."

I think this is quite true; one must admit that this was the theme of apostolic and early church preaching. Also, I think, that the principal reason for the decline in effective faith in recent times is the failure of Christian leaders to meet the objections to this view which you have just put forward.

You say

"On the other hand it raised disquieting issues in morality and theology. Why should penal satisfaction of God's justice be necessary to enable God to forgive sin?"

I think that the "disquieting issues" of the first of these sentences arise because of the confusing of two different and distinct factors in the second. God can, and does, forgive sin without penal satisfaction of His Justice, but He will only do so in the case of those who stand towards Him in the relationship of children. I am writing this, of course, as one who accepts the teaching of Christ as authoritative, to you who, I believe, do also; I should not expect the average irreligious person to accept the idea that some people can be the children of God and some not, but I assume that you and I will agree that it is so.

You ask your reader if the satisfaction of God's justice is anywhere insisted upon as the prerequisite of forgiveness in the sayings or parables of Jesus; the answer is no: but this is because in His teachings Jesus always assumed that those who needed forgiveness were repentant suppliant children. But He frequently made the distinction I have suggested, between the children of God and the children of this world, and it was largely the work of the apostles, reasoning from the Old Testament Scriptures, to show how this relationship could be acquired. Although, as you say. in such parables as the Prodigal Son and the Two Debtors, there is no suggestion that God's anger must be appeased before He freely forgives, parables like the Wheat and Tares, the Net of Fish, the Husbandman and the Marriage of the King's Son, all clearly teach that before God all men are divided into two classes and not primarily by their personal goodness or badness.

I believe that the explanation of the Atonement is that it,

1) Upholds the justice of God in condemning sin, and
2) Provides a basis upon which He can forgive sinners.

But while these are both phases of the same sacrifice they are not synonymous and must not be treated as if they mean the same thing.

You appear to recognize this when you say

"Christ died... to deliver men from a predominantly legal relation to God... and bring them into a personal relation to God as Father."

In your suggestion as to how this is brought about - by the cleansing of the guilty conscience - I feel you are not loyal to your own reasoning. For is it not true, that the cleansing of the guilty conscience is the result of, not the cause of, the changed relationship?

You write that the anger of God, as Paul conceived it is a process of intellectual and moral disintegration which is the consequence of sin. I cannot feel that this does Justice to his words, e.g.,

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. We are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things. And thinkest thou this O man, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?... But unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness; indignation, wrath, tribulation and anguish... in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ."

Perhaps I have misunderstood you; but it seems clear to me that the apostle is establishing that God has a very real and deep anger against sinners (which means everybody), which will only be turned away by individual faith in the Atonement made by Christ.

You mention

"insuperable difficulties in the way of accepting the traditional substitutionary view"

put forward by Hort, but undoubtedly there is, as he suggests, truth underlying it which needs to be restated. Present day Christianity has thrown the baby away with the bath-water.

You put your finger on the source of the difficulties when you refer, on page 28, to the substitutionary penal view of the Atonement. If this phrase fairly describes the traditional view, and I think it does, the objection ought not to be to the idea of substitution but to the idea of penal substitution. One might legitimately object to the punishment of the innocent instead of the guilty; but in a given situation, if a strong man took the place of a weak one, to bear with his strength a burden which would have broken his weaker brother, he would be a substitute, but no one surely could say that there was anything immoral or unjust in such substitution. Or, in another figure, if someone by a brave act forfeited his life in order to save another, no one would complain of injustice but would applaud the heroism and self-sacrifice of the doer. I do not see that the fact that God, in His foreknowledge, has arranged that the salvation of man should be accomplished by the suffering of Christ alters or modifies the fact that His obedience unto death was a voluntary act of self-sacrifice.

I was surprised to notice that although you pay tribute to the splendid work of Dr. Dale on the subject, his book was not in your Bibliography. Although it is true, and he admits, that he was unable to finally explain the Atonement, as I believe because he failed to go back to Moses and the prophets, no unbiased student could deny that he routed the "subjectivists."

I think you recognize this in your conclusion that

"in dying, Jesus has done for us something which we could never do for ourselves; has done all that is needed to reconcile us to God,"

but you suggest that we may never be able to state this in terms which satisfy intellectually.

I wondered if you had ever encountered that view of the Atonement which explains it on the Federal Principle and supplies the vital factor which escaped Dr. Dale - that that which was lost by sin in the beginning was the legal right to life? This seems to me to be the theme of Paul's reasoning in the 5th to the 8th Romans, which was lost sight of in the 2nd and 3rd centuries because of the development of the apostate doctrine of Original Sin. It was restated, although very imperfectly, by Pelagius and reappears as the teaching of heretical minorities at various times ever since. It appears to me to meet the need you see for an intellectually satisfying explanation of the Atonement, even in the light (?) of present day scholarship.

Briefly it runs as follows:-

1) In the beginning man (Adam), a naturally corruptible creature, was put under a law requiring obedience to a simple command. The penalty attaching to disobedience was death - instant judicial death, which would have cut short his life and returned him to the state of non-existence from which he had come.

2) By disobedience he incurred the penalty: had it been inflicted he would have perished and all his unborn progeny with him. Instead, the principle of sacrifice was introduced; an innocent animal was put to death as a sin-bearer, a life for a life. This ceremonial demanded the recognition of God's justice in appointing death as the punishment for sin and of His mercy in making a way of escape.

3) For the purpose of salvation, Adam is the Federal Head of the human race. His life was the life of the race and when he sinned he forfeited it for himself and all his descendants, who are consequently regarded by God as in a state of bondage to sin, or alienation from Him, irrespective of their personal character. There is thus an indebtedness hanging over the race - its life is in pledge.

4) Jesus was a man identical in nature with other men. Begotten by a miracle, His life came direct from God and He was not, therefore, under the condemnation which passed upon all whose life derived from the life created in the beginning and which was forfeited by sin. He was thus in a position to pay the debt of mankind by the surrender of His own life. This is how He gave His life a ransom for many.

I have made this outline very brief and not troubled you with supporting references to Scripture. Whether you agree with it or not, you will readily recognize that it answers to the many different figures under which the lost condition of man is shown to be remedied by the sacrifice of Christ. The vital point is that what was lost in the beginning by sin was not some superior kind of nature, but the very right to life at all. God is seen to be just in that He has paid this debt by the gift of the life of His own Son - there has been no fiddling - the law has been paid its utter farthing. He is the justifier of those that believe because, recognizing that they have been purchased back to God with blood of His own, they accept Christ as their new Federal Head and cease to be under the federal condemnation in Adam.

Thus it appears to me there is this much truth underlying the traditional doctrine, that Jesus' death was substitutionary in that His life was the equivalent price (the ransom) of the life of the race, but His death was not the infliction of punishment by God upon the innocent in order that the guilty might go free. It was the voluntary surrender of His own life to buy back (redeem) the life of the race lost by sin. It was the price God paid of a life belonging to Him and given to make expiation for the sin of the world. Jesus was under no condemnation nor any obligation to submit. That He chose to follow the path which led to Calvary and thus to carry out His Father's purpose, that mercy might rejoice against judgment, is His eternal glory and His reward will be to see innumerable multitudes of His ransomed people in the Kingdom of God.

There are, of course, several aspects of the subject I have not referred to, e.g., the Law of Moses as it lays down the principles and ceremonial which are worked out in the Atonement, natural death, resurrection and the life of the Spirit and Jesus' relation to them all; but whether you accept the theory I have outlined or not, I think you may agree that an approach on these lines may supply that reformulation of the nature of the Atonement for which you suggest the time is ripe.

Yours sincerely, E. Brady.

Dr. Wood's reply, dated 9th April 1956:-

Dear Mr Brady,

It is high time I acknowledged your very interesting letter on the subject of the Atonement.

I shall have to study it very carefully before forming a judgment on the view you outline, particularly on page 5. I am glad you think that the word "penal" is the source of the difficulties in the traditional view and I am sure that there is something helpful in what you call the Federal Principle.

But I am not sure that I follow you in all the steps of your argument. As I say, I shall have to consider it in detail later. I wonder if you have seen my little book "Why Did Christ Die?" If you did see it, you will understand that I am reluctant to tie Scripture down to one explanation of the Atonement.

But let me thank you again for your letter

Yours Sincerely, Herbert G. Wood.

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