Shedd on the atonement, part 3

Having completed his discussion of vicarious atonement Shedd turned to ask how Christ’s sufferings provided atonement. There are three kinds of suffering: calamity, chastisement and punishment. A distinction between believers and unbelievers becomes more prominent at this point. Chastisement is a form of suffering that believers, as special children of God, experience. All the sufferings of a believer ‘from any cause or source whatever’ are corrective. The due penalty for sins has already been endured by the Redeemer. Even death is not penal for a believer.

But there is a difficulty here in Shedd’s construction. If all suffering in the experience of the believer is chastisement then suffering for unbelievers is to some extent penal. There is no discussion of how the transition from unbelief to belief changes or effects the suffering in a person’s history. It certainly cannot be chastisement because, although Shedd describes a universal fatherhood of God, only believers experience this form of suffering. Chastisement ‘is the form which suffering assumes within the family.’ (Shedd 2003: 712) Shedd describes how physical death in the case of a wicked person is penal because it is designed as such, and it is felt to be such, by the person. But the very same suffering is chastisement not punishment for the believer.

Two implications can be drawn from this part of Shedd’s thought. First, Christ’s atoning work does not exhaust God’s wrath against sin. At least in the lives of unbelievers God still executes just punishment against sinners. Secondly, the relation of God’s justice to the suffering of believers prior to their believing is ambiguous. Does such suffering constitute punishment? Shedd’s logic seems to suggest that it does, so that even in the lives of elect sinners God’s wrath is not exhausted by Christ’s atoning work.

Shedd’s Reformed orthodox view of the atonement tends to a qualitative rather than a quantitative view of Christ’s suffering on the cross. His reason for distinguishing types of suffering is simply to identity the nature of Christ’s suffering. It is retributive. It is the suffering of punishment or penalty. However it is difficult not to critique the assumptions behind these definitions in a way which undermines Shedd’s whole understanding of atonement.

Shedd distinguishes two kinds of ‘penal and atoning sufferings’ in the life of Christ. Ordinary sufferings included all those things that Christ suffered as a human, including the violence of his death. Shedd agreed with Jonathan Edwards that ‘the blood of Christ’s circumcision was as really a part of his vicarious atonement as the blood that flowed from his pierced side.’ (Shedd 2003: 720) The extraordinary sufferings were inflictions on the part of God. These included the temptations in the desert and the suffering of his soul ‘in the garden and on the cross.’ (Shedd 2003: 717) Shedd stresses that these sufferings cannot be explained by the operation of natural laws and psychological principles.

Shedd’s understanding of Christ’s experience on the cross is grounded in his christology. Jesus did not despair of his relationship with the Father. His agonizing cry did not question either the covenant of grace between Father and Son, nor the union of divine and human natures in his own person. It reflected his view of the curse that was upon him and his experience of the temporary desertion of God’s presence. There was a moment on the cross when all the comforting influences of his divine human nature were restrained. Christ wondered in amazement at the agony he was experiencing. He was not ignorant of its cause or purpose. At this point Shedd described God’s work with respect to the suffering and death of Christ on the cross. It was not a selfish emotional act of anger but a selfless and righteous action of wrath which neither disturbed God’s blessedness, nor compassion towards sinners. God was never angry with Christ in a personal sense.

In his 1859 essay on the atonement, Shedd had already described the relationship between divine anger and human anger. (Shedd 1877: 265-317) Included in this extensive essay was the observation that the atonement was not ab extra, but wholly ab intra, an internal work of the divine being. God’s inherent forgiving nature found its expression in the work of atonement. Moreover, human nature recognized the logic of divine wrath, and could reflect God’s nature:

‘a careful examination of what we find in the workings of this part of the human conscience will compel us to transfer in the same species to God, what exists in man in only a finite degree. In other words, the emotion of the human conscience towards sin will be found to be the same in kind with the emotion of God towards sin… we need not shrink from asserting, that this righteous displacency of the moral sense, against the voluntary wickedness, is precisely the same emotion in specie with the wrath of God.’ (Shedd 1877: 276)

So, the experience of the Son on the cross included an understanding of the ‘judicial infliction’ he was suffering. He shared in the divine attributes of justice and love that made the cross necessary. Christ’s suffering was a voluntary suffering. Although atonement supposed divine benevolence it is primarily related to God’s justice. Atonement was necessary not because of God’s mercy but because of his justice. Personal or vicarious atonement cancelled the legal claims of God on sinners.

In a qualification to his argument Shedd admitted that his definition of the vicarious atonement of Christ for sinners was universal. But the work of Christ did not necessarily save all because there was a difference between the relation of Christ’s atonement to God’s justice, and the relation of particular people to Christ’s death: ‘There is an infinite satisfaction that naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims, but unbelief derives no benefit from the fact.’ (Shedd 2003: 724) It followed that the mediator could demand the release of any person from the penalty of sin. Refusal would be unjust. Shedd again refers to Edwards, who described salvation, based upon the work of Christ, as an absolute debt owed to the believer by God.

Shedd does not avoid the obvious implication of his statements at this point. The suffering of Christ is equivalent to the sum total of personal suffering deserved by all humans, but some are not saved: ‘The mere fact that Jesus Christ made satisfaction for human sin, alone and of itself, will save no soul.’ (Shedd 2003: 726) Only faith within the individual leads to the application of the atonement of Christ to that individual. Faith is the means of our claim on Christ.

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

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



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