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James Denney: Atonement and New Life

James Denney (1856-1917)

James Denney (1856-1917)

An interesting admission from a man who was a strong defender of the penal substitution theory of the atonement:

The demand that the Atonement shall be exhibited in vital relation to a new life in which sin is overcome… is entirely legitimate, and it touches a weak point in the traditional Protestant doctrine.  Dr. [Thomas] Chalmers tells us that he was brought up — such was the effect of the current orthodoxy upon him — in a certain distrust of good works.  Some were certainly wanted, but not as being themselves salvation, only, as he puts it, as tokens of justification.  It was a distinct stage in his religious progress when he realized that true justification sanctifies, and that the soul can and ought to abandon itself spontaneously and joyfully to do the good that it delights in…  An atonement that does not regenerate… is not an atonement in which men can be asked to believe.

James Denney (1856-1917), The Atonement and the Modern Mind [1903].

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  1. jwlung July 28, 2014 / 8:46 am

    Which is why penal substitution is only one aspect of the atoning work of Jesus. After my evangelical “conversion” (aldersgate experience, however one describes receiving the realization that Christ accepts me to come to Him), I was struck by liberal protestantism’s rejection of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for Sin. As one of my pastors (Duke, late ’50’s) put it to my Sunday School class on a Psalm Sunday: “We do not need a bleeding savior dying on a cross.”

    So, I studied theories of the Atonement at some length, and became very appreciative of John Stott’s THE CROSS OF CHRIST, an excellent treatment of the penal substitution view.

    The objective atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the key to Wesley’s aldersgate experience and the Weslyan revival. Read the exchange of letters between Wesley and Law, May 14, 1738 and then Wesley’s post-Aldersgate reply.

    But that’s not all there is to it. Phillip E. Hughes TRUE IMAGE: THE ORIGIN AND DESTINY OF MAN IN CHRIST while affirming a substitutionary atonement, makes the case that Christ restores the Image in which we were created. The Eastern Church calls it theosis. This is the Holiness that God works in us by faith, with our consent and cooperation.

    Denney is spot on.

    • Craig L. Adams July 29, 2014 / 5:42 pm

      I am less appreciative than you are of the penal substitution theory of the atonement, though I think it can be carefully formulated in a manner to which I would not object. The objections to penal substitution (a theory to which John Wesley subscribed, by the way) which arise among Wesleyan-Arminians are very old and (I think) worthy of consideration: Daniel Steele and John Miley (and many others) subscribed to a theory of atonement known as the governmental theory — a theory to which certain other objections can be raised. Nevertheless, it does seem to avoid some problems apparent in the penal substitution view — or at least in the more extreme statements of it.

      Some books I have found interesting and helpful: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts by Mark D. Baker & Joel B. Green ; A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight . I also appreciate that section on atonement in Nazarene theologian H. Ray Dunning’s systematic theology Grace, Faith, Holiness .

      Recently, New Testament scholar Michael J. Gorman has released a new book on atonement: The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement . I have not read this, but I am appreciative of Gorman’s work in general. The blurb:

      In this groundbreaking book, Michael Gorman asks why there is no theory or model of the atonement called the “new-covenant” model, since this understanding of the atonement is likely the earliest in the Christian tradition, going back to Jesus himself. Gorman argues that most models of the atonement over-emphasize the penultimate purposes of Jesus’ death and the “mechanics” of the atonement, rather than its ultimate purpose: to create a transformed, Spirit-filled people of God. The New Testament’s various atonement metaphors are part of a remarkably coherent picture of Jesus’ death as that which brings about the new covenant (and thus the new community) promised by the prophets, which is also the covenant of peace.

      Gorman therefore proposes a new model of the atonement that is really not new at all–the new-covenant model. He argues that this is not merely an ancient model in need of rediscovery, but also a more comprehensive, integrated, participatory, communal, and missional model than any of the major models in the tradition. Life in this new covenant, Gorman argues, is a life of communal and individual participation in Jesus’ faithful, loving, peacemaking death.

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