Shedd on the atonement, part 2

The atonement is vicarious and this implies substitution. Shedd argued that New Testament texts need to be interpreted in their context, but that some texts do suggest that Christ died in the place of, and for the benefit of, sinners. Sin demanded penalty because of the justice of God. This justice could be satisfied by the eternal punishment of sinners, and if God was merely just that would have been the necessary course of action.

God’s compassionate provision of a substitute was an act of mercy: ‘the vicarious atonement of Christ is the sovereign and the judge putting himself in the place of the criminal.’ (Shedd 2003: 693) Personal atonement could only end in the loss of the sinner. Vicarious atonement meant that the believer could receive atonement rather than make it for herself. (Rom.5:11) The Socinian objection that vicarious atonement is unmerciful because it involves strict satisfaction of justice could only be answered from a trinitarian point of view, that is, by reference to the deity of Christ.

Shedd’s language stressed that the atonement was a work of God, so that the penalty for sin was not inflicted on a ‘mere’ creature. Though it was the Son and not the Father that became incarnate and suffered and died, the Father had to suffer the self-sacrifice of giving up the Son. Moreover the unity of being and nature between the Father and the Son meant that the experience was common to both. Shedd quotes Augustine, ‘the mediator was both the offerer and the offering; and he was also one with him to whom the offering was made.’ (Shedd 2003: 695)

Here Shedd claims that none of this contradicts divine impassibility. The divine suffering in the atonement was self-inflicted suffering. Nothing as such, not even anger against sin, could cause God pain or misery. But God could and did experience ‘inward suffering’ in the work of atonement. Shedd held to this while asserting the standard Reformed orthodox view that Christ suffered the pains of death in his human nature only. (Shedd 2003: 737) Shedd’s stinging review of Horace Bushnell’s moral influence theory of the atonement included criticism of Bushnell’s apparently ‘vicious annihilation of the difference between the Infinite and the Finite.’ (Dorrien 2001: 172)

In beginning to discuss the nature of Christ’s atonement Shedd refers to the atonement offerings in Leviticus. The bullock or ram had to suffer bleeding and death, and the person that offered the animal suffered the loss of something valuable. The loss was total because the whole sin offering had to be consumed by fire. (Lev.16:27) Christ described suffering as a part of his own atoning work, and he refused to ease his pain on the cross. (Matt.16:21; 27:34) Suffering is essential to atonement. The sinner’s forgiveness is founded on the suffering of the substitute. This suffering covers the guilt of the sinner so that it becomes ‘invisible to the eye of God the holy.’ (Shedd 2003: 697) Forgiveness becomes inseparably connected with atonement in the biblical representation. (Heb.9:22) This atoning work provided the opportunity for peace within the conscience of the sinner. It also ‘propitiated’ the Holy One, with a consequent release of the penalty of sin.

Divine mercy is more visible in the vicarious infliction of suffering on the sin offering than it is in the personal non-infliction of that suffering with respect to the sinner. Release of the penalty is easy when there is sufficient (just) reason. A vicarious atonement for human sin provides justification for that release. In this discussion, Shedd distinguishes and separates the act of Christ’s atoning work from the securing of the consequences of that work: ‘If God so loves the world as to atone vicariously for its sin, he certainly so loves it as to remit its sin.’ (Shedd 2003: 698) Here is another illustration of the Reformed orthodox tension between the work of atonement and the application of that work. Shedd stresses that the compassion of God is seen in the atonement rather than the subsequent transactions ‘in the depths of a believer’s soul in which God says, “Son, be of good cheer, your sin is forgiven you.”’ (Shedd 2003: 699)

Despite the close relation between atonement and application Shedd’s conclusion is that the atonement is essentially objective. The ‘primary impression’ is upon the party to whom atonement is made. Shedd suggests that the idea of subjective atonement is a contradiction. In a footnote he counters the objection that vicarious atonement involves such a contradiction. If God atones God how can the atonement be objective? Shedd’s answer is not surprising. Jesus Christ does not make satisfaction to himself but to the Trinity. His death has reference to the divine nature. (Shedd 2003: 699) Again, Shedd’s account of the Reformed orthodox doctrine of the atonement illustrates that christological questions form the foundation of soteriology.

The classic biblical figures for the work of atonement are all described as objective. The biblical ideas of ‘propitiation’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘ransom’ are discussed by Shedd with predictable conclusions in each case. Christ’s atonement ‘covers sin’ from God’s sight. It propitiates God’s wrath against sin. It reconciles God’s justice toward the sinner. It ‘pays a ransom’ to God, certainly not to Satan, for the sinner. None of these figures focus on the sinner. The effect of the death of Christ is upon the divine nature. Only ‘forced and violent’ exegesis can interpret Scripture as teaching a subjective atonement that places all the meaning and effect within the soul of humanity. (Shedd 2003: 702)

At the same time, Scripture teaches that God acts upon God in the work of atonement. In the vicarious atonement theory God is both subject and object, he is both passive and active. This implies that within God wrath and compassion exist simultaneously. Although both wrath and compassion are felt by God towards the sinner, only God’s anger against sin has to be made manifest: ‘Justice is necessary in its exercise, but mercy is optional.’ (Shedd 2003: 704) Whether or not God’s wrath is propitiated depends, ultimately, on the ‘sovereign pleasure’ of God. But the propitiation itself is wholly within God. It is ‘a self-oblation upon the part of the deity himself’ to satisfy ‘constitutional imperatives of the divine nature’. (Shedd 2003: 704) The only alternative to this self-oblation is the personal atonement or punishment of the sinner.

Shedd finds support for this simultaneous compassion and wrath of God in Augustine, Calvin, and Turretin. Shedd refers to Turretin’s distinction between ‘compassion’ and ‘reconciliation’ to explain how God’s compassion for all does not imply universal application of the atonement. God was already compassionate to sinners before the death of Christ. It was this compassion that moved God to provide atonement for sin. Reconciliation was a subsequent act of God based on the atonement. This act is optional and based upon God’s sovereign decision to save particular sinners.

While concentrating on the objective nature of the atonement Shedd did not ignore its relationship to human existence: ‘the objective atonement is intended to be subjectively appropriated by the act of faith in it.’ (Shedd 2003: 708) In an essay published early in his career, Shedd discussed in detail the atonement as a satisfaction for the ethical nature of both God and humans. Human moral sense was pacified in Christ’s atonement. The New Testament represents peace as one particular effect of faith in Christ’s blood. (e.g. Eph.2:13-14) There is a correlation between God’s justice and human conscience.

At this point in Shedd’s thinking there appears another illustration of the tension between the accomplishment and application of atonement. Shedd states that God’s justice is ‘completely satisfied for the sin of man by the death of Christ.’ (Shedd 2003: 709) This is a fact supported by such biblical texts as 1 John 2:2. Unbelief, or lack of appropriation through faith, do not change the fact that Christ’s death is ‘an ample oblation for the sin of the world.’ (Shedd 2003: 709) So, the priestly work of Christ has a similar effect on the believing human conscience as it has upon God’s just nature. This, perhaps perversely, becomes a test of true repentance and faith. One sign of a subjective appropriation of Christ’s atonement is the desire to make a personal atonement. In other words, God’s justice in demanding atonement is recognized and embraced by the believer.

Dorrien, G. 2001
The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900.
Louisville,Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

ed A.W.Gomes. Phillipsburg,NJ:P&RPublishing



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