Shedd on the atonement, part 1

This series of posts presents a survey of W.G.T. Shedd’s doctrine of atonement, principally as found in his Dogmatic Theology, which was first published in 1888. It will describe Shedd’s doctrine of atonement within its distinct tradition, noting common criticisms that Shedd recognised, and others that he was unaware of given his context. The conclusion will suggest that aspects of Shedd’s theology provide possible areas for theological reflection that could renew and revive a Reformed orthodox doctrine of the atonement.

Shedd’s theology can be described as 19th century Reformed orthodoxy in the tradition of the post Reformation dogmatic project of the late 16th and 17th century Reformed church. Shedd ended his career as a Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York, in 1890/1. In the 1860s Shedd had joined the Presbyterian church from his Congregational church background because of his concern about the latitudinarian shift within Congregationalism.

Although Shedd had some peculiar views compared to the dominant Princeton tradition, as a churchman and theologian he fitted into the Old School Presbyterian group as opposed to the mediating New School tradition. Given the leading role of Union in the development of New School theology, Shedd’s place in that institution’s history seems curious. By internal appointment, Shedd had succeeded Henry Boynton Smith, a leading New School theologian, as Union’s professor of systematic theology in 1874. Shedd’s successor, William Adams Brown, was perhaps the leading liberal theologian in America between 1890 and 1920. Brown taught a theology which undermined Shedd’s work on many themes, not least the atonement.

Shedd’s dogmatic account of soteriology begins by discussing the mediatorial offices of Christ. Christ is represented in Scripture as a mediator, and Shedd claims that 1 Tim.2:15 designates the ‘entire theanthropic person Jesus Christ’ as the one mediator between God and humans. Throughout Shedd’s doctrine of atonement the requirement of a God-man to accomplish atonement is stressed. Referring to Gal.3:20, Shedd wrote that the eternal Word had to ‘take man’s nature into union with himself, if he would be a mediator between God and man.’ (Shedd 2003: 675)

His christology may have contained interesting and subtle aspects but it retained the classic two natures distinction, and it applied this distinction in attributing Christ’s suffering to his human nature. Yet, at the same time, Shedd emphasized the active role of God in the work of atonement. The mediator had to be God-man, and the work of atonement was therefore a divine work. Every aspect of the atonement, including the mediator’s obedience to the moral law, was not merely human it was theanthropic. As such the mediator’s work was divine and infinite. (Shedd 2003: 739)

Christ’s role as mediator was marked by condescension and humiliation. ‘Incarnate deity was a step down from unincarnate deity.’ (Shedd 2003: 676) Here Shedd cannot help but communicate in terms that presuppose a distinction between the pre-incarnate Logos and the incarnate Logos. Becoming a mediator between God and humans implies an element of dependence on the part of the mediator. Christ’s active obedience to the law was part of this humiliation, so that in Shedd’s definition the sum total of Christ’s atoning work included his active and passive obedience, even if the principal reference of the active obedience was to law as precept rather than law as penalty. (Shedd 2003: 721)

Although Jesus spoke in history as the mediator he sometimes referred to his preexistent identity. Shedd interprets seemingly contradictory Johannine texts in this way, notably John 10:30, ‘I and my Father are one’, and 14:28, ‘My Father is greater than I.’ However Shedd was clear that the office of mediator was temporary. It began in time, and it would come to an end. Shedd does not discuss the relation between time and eternity at this point. But he does state that the mediatorial work will cease to continue even though there will always be a God-man. (Shedd 2003: 676)

Shedd’s point is that the mediatorial work implied condescension and humility simply because it was temporal. In contrast to his role as creator the mediatorial role is taken on by the Son apart from, or beside, his essential God-ness. The second person of the Trinity ‘might be God the Son without being the mediator; but he could not be God the Son without being God the Creator.’ (Shedd 2003: 677) The reward given to the mediator also implied humility and condescension. It was the Son as God-man who received reward for completion of his work. This reward was the fulfillment of the covenant of mercy between the Father and the Son. Shedd recognised the idea of two covenants of salvation, a covenant between Father and Son, and a covenant of grace between the Father and those that would be saved (the elect). But he described the distinction as secondary, preferring the notion of ‘one evangelical covenant of mercy.’ (Shedd 2003: 679)

When Shedd begins to describe the three offices of Christ as mediator some inconsistencies become apparent. Making reference to the Westminster Confession (7:5; 8:6), Shedd writes that the offices were executed by Christ before, as well as after, his first advent. In particular, Christ executed the office of prophet through the Holy Spirit prior to his incarnation. Shedd admits this himself when he writes that the Logos was not actually the mediator until he assumed human nature, and then immediately discusses the work of the mediator in the Old Testament church. If ‘there was once a time when there was no mediatorial work of salvation going on,’ this period can only exist in Shedd’s construction before the fall of Adam and Eve, if at all. (Shedd 2003: 677)

It could be that the inconsistency was not Shedd’s alone, but one weakness of orthodox christology in general. Nevertheless, perhaps Shedd himself was too conscious of the language of the Westminster Confession to explore the relationship between time, eternity, and Christ’s office as mediator. Throughout his discussion he alludes or refers to confessional language. The first two editions of Dogmatic Theology were published around the same time that revision of the confession was a serious possibility in the Northern Presbyterian church in America.

The priestly office of Christ primarily rests in his atoning death, and in his intercession. These two are connected because intercession is essentially the application of the benefits of Christ’s death. Unlike his prophetic office this role is administered directly by Christ himself. Previous earthly priests were types not delegates of Christ. On his formal assumption of the priestly office, presumably at some point in his earthly ministry, Christ effectively abolished earthly priests and their sacrifices. (Shedd 2003: 687)

Shedd’s discussion of the offices of Christ ends at this point, with no discussion at all of Christ’s kingly role. Originally, Dogmatic Theology was published in three volumes. The third volume was supplemental, listing extended references to other dogmatic works, with occasional comments by Shedd. In the relevant supplemental section, Shedd quotes from Witsius’s work on the Apostles’ Creed. This quote illustrates the common Reformed idea that the mediatorial kingdom exists in history as Christ’s formation of the church. It will end when Christ delivers the kingdom, that is, the church, in its perfect state, to God the Father. (Shedd 2003: 689)

Presbyterian confessional standards described Christ’s kingship with peculiar reference to the church:

"The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25:2)

While it can be assumed that Shedd understood Christ’s role as king in line with this, the lack of an account of this kingship is a surprising omission in his dogmatic theology. There is no discussion dedicated to ecclesiology in Dogmatic Theology, and the development of ecclesiology does not appear in his History of Christian Doctrine. As such, Shedd’s chapter on the offices of the mediator is merely a prelude to his extensive discussion of the atonement itself.

Shedd, W.G.T. 1877
Theological Essays. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Company

Shedd, W.G.T. 1887
A History of Christian Doctrine. Vol. 2. 9th ed. New York: Scribner’s

DogmaticTheology.edA.W.Gomes. Phillipsburg,NJ:P&RPublishing



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