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In my first post about reformed theology, I took a look at three important reformed distinctives: 1) reformed theology begins with God, 2) reformed worship centers on Word and Sacrament, and 3) reformed Christianity is community-oriented.
In this post, I want to address two of the most common concerns I hear from others regarding reformed theology and practice, especially in light of the rapidly growing, neo-Calvinist movement: the role of women in the church, and the portrayal of God as angry and violent.
1. The Role of Women in the Church
When people find out that I’m an ordained minister in a reformed denomination, the conversation usually goes something like this:
Person: Wait. What? I didn’t think reformed churches ordained women!
Me: Actually, a lot of different reformed churches ordain women.
Person: Really? I always thought reformed meant “men in leadership only.”
There are many churches that identify themselves as reformed that do not ordain women to church offices. But, there are also many that do. The Reformed Church in America has ordained women to all offices of church leadership since 1979, but in 1958, the General Synod issued a statement that said: “Scripture nowhere excludes women from eligibility to the offices but always emphasizes their inclusion, prominence, and equal status with men in the Church of Jesus Christ.” [1] In fact, the Reformed Church in America finds the equality of men and women in service to be so important, that “the loss of this partnership to destructive patterns of domination obscures God’s will for women and men.” [2] The Christian Reformed Church in North America allows for the ordination of women to all offices, but has left the matter up to their regional governing bodies. [3] Other reformed denominations that ordain women include (but are not limited to): the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC).
2. The Portrayal of God as Angry and Violent
Long before I became a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, I could hardly stomach reformed theology. If you had asked me why, I would have told you that the God of reformed Christianity was too violent, too unfeeling, too robotic. Since becoming ordained as a minister in a reformed denomination, I’ve heard many others share those same concerns. The main two tripping points, it seems, for those looking at reformed theology from the “outside” are predestination and penal substitutionary atonement theory.
“So, you mean, before God created any people at all, God had already picked who would go to heaven and who would go to hell?”
The struggle with this doctrine is real. It was the hardest part of reformed theology for me to understand. Why would God create a life if God knew that life would be destined for destruction? Wouldn’t that be terribly cruel rather than infinitely loving?
When studying predestination, it is important to keep in mind two things: 1) Predestination is an attempt to understand how God can be both all-knowing and all-powerful while also creating human beings who do not believe, and 2) Predestination is supposed to be a comfort to the church, and not a diagnostic tool of salvation.
Predestination is a doctrine that intends to teach the radical love of God who would so desire to draw human beings into relationship that God would design it that way from the beginning. For a more thorough look at this teaching, take a look at When Reformed Theology Isn’t Calvinism – part 1, and read my take on Ephesians 1: “Gathering the World” sermon.
Penal substitution
Penal Substitution is an atonement theory that claims Jesus died on the cross as the legal substitute for the punishment we deserved because of our sins. In addition to this, some accounts of penal substitution (though, not all) focus on the violent nature of the crucifixion, as though the violence of it was, in some way, necessary in order for it to “work.”
The idea of penal substitution became more prominent after the time of the Protestant Reformation, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the theory was formalized in the writings of Charles Hodge. [4] Prior to this, many different atonement theories existed, such as satisfaction theory, ransom theory, moral influence, and Christus victor. This is not to suggest that some of the ideas of penal substitutionary theory were never mentioned prior to the Reformation, only that it was formalized as a theory much later.
One of many problems for many people with the theory of penal substitution is the emphasis on violence. If a violent death would be required, why would a loving God design it that way? Why would God insist on such a terrible punishment upon God’s own Son, the sinless One? This kind of God seems sadistic and like a violent voyeur.
Being reformed does not mean you have to subscribe to penal substitutionary theory, or to any one atonement theory in exclusion of all others. Many atonement theories have important elements to consider.
In my particular denomination, we believe that the Bible is the only rule for faith and life, and we also believe that our confessions and standards can help us understand the Bible, though they do not carry the same authority. [5] The creeds do not lay out a specific atonement theory, but they all acknowledge the importance of believing that the death and resurrection of Jesus were necessary for our salvation.
The closest any of the creeds comes to penal substitution is the Nicene Creed, though it’s important to note that this creed also says his coming into the world was for our sake:
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” (emphasis mine)
Article 21 of the Belgic Confession leans pretty heavily towards penal substitution, but also mentions satisfaction of wrath.
Beginning with Q&A 38 (and continuing through Q&A 44), the Heidelberg Catechism teaches the the legal aspect of penal substitution. Though, there is also emphasis on victory over death as well as the example Christ’s death sets for us to go forth and follow.
The Canons of Dort include the idea of substitution, with heavy emphasis on satisfaction of wrath.
The Belhar Confession includes this statement of belief that is more about victory and triumph, as well as moral influence, than substitution: “We believe…that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world.”
Scripture itself uses many metaphors and symbols to describe what happened on the cross. Some of these do use the language of substitution and legality (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18, and others).  The idea of ransom can be found in 1 Timothy 2:5-6, and Romans 5-8 (specifically 5:15ff; 6:23). Others hold a more covenantal view (see Romans 9-11). Still other passages speak to a profound mystery (1 Corinthians 2).
Personally, I find that Scripture uses many metaphors to describe the richness of atonement, and none of them are sufficient in and of themselves. We need all of them because all attempts to explain this mystery in human terms will fall short.
I love the humility with which T.F. Torrance approached atonement: “…the nature of his work was unutterable. That means that the innermost mystery of atonement and intercession remains mystery: it cannot be spelled out, and it cannot be spied out. That is the ultimate mystery of the blood of Christ, the blood of God incarnate, a holy and infinite mystery which is more to be adored than expressed.”
The largest challenge with penal substitution is the emphasis many place on the violence of Christ’s death. None of the confessions or creeds my denomination ascribes to emphasize the violence. In fact, over and over the emphasis is on the self-giving love of God rather than the cruel death Jesus died. In addition to this challenge, penal substitution seems to ignore the birth, life, resurrection, and ascension of Christ for us, somehow making death and suffering the focal point of salvation.
Penal substitution is also largely problematic in our 21st century world because of our obsession with and fixation on violence. Scripture largely avoids detailed descriptions of Jesus’ death. The focus was not on the inner workings of atonement as much as on the idea that salvation was a free gift from God. When Scripture speaks to Christ as substitution, it does so mostly in legal terms rather than graphically violent ones.
If you missed the first post in my series on reformed theology, check it out here:
When Reformed Theology Isn’t Calvinism – Part 1
Are you from a reformed background? I hope you’ll chime in with a comment. Have you struggled with reformed theology or avoided the reformed tradition? I’d love to hear from you, too.