Reviewing Forde – “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ” Part 2

Note 2 on Gerhard Forde’s 1984 “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ”

Forde rejects the vicarious atonement. He does not describe the doctrine of vicarious atonement accurately, rather, he frames it as a human notion trying to appease an angry God. But, for Forde, God is not angry with sin. Nor, for Forde, is God concerned with justice nor with being just.

“In the so-called ‘objective’ theory it is maintained that God needed the death of Jesus in order to be merciful to us. God is the object of the atoning act. The demands of his law, or wrath, or justice had to be ‘satisfied.’ So we are exonerated because the cross was necessary to God. But the inevitable consequence of such thinking is that it doesn’t finally reconcile us to God. If the cross is necessary to pay God, God will be pictured as at worst a rather vindictive tyrant demanding his pound of flesh or at best an inept subordinate caught in the same inexorable net of law and justice as we are.”(86-7)

This is followed by an appeal to “the biblical witness” but not to a passage or context of Scripture. Forde wants to have the appearance of abiding by the word of God without actually having to do so:

“The persistent criticism of doctrines of vicarious satisfaction and substitutionary atonement since the Enlightenment has the same root. The picture painted of God is too black, too contrary to the biblical witness.”(87)

Then Forde presents his mischaracterization of mercy in the vicarious atonement:

“If the death [of Christ] was payment, how could reconciliation be an act of mercy? Mercy is mercy, not the result of payment.” (87, italics original)

Forde misrepresents the vicarious substitution without any reference to what God says about His motivation for sending His Son to the Cross or of the Son’s motivation for going to the cross. For Forde the vicarious atonement is merely a matter of an angry god being offered a payment to keep him happy. This is a pagan misreading of the Biblical teaching. The mercy of God in the vicarious atonement is Christ’s willingness to pay on behalf of his enemies. This merciful willingness and love are what makes the crucifixion an act of mercy done by Christ. Christ’s submission to death on the cross. Paul wrote in Romans 5:7-9

7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.

But for Forde this quote from Paul is not really relevant because in Forde’s historical-critical view Romans 5 is a later re-interpretation of the crucifixion and does not refer to the actual story of the crucifixion (see Note 1 on this article).

Likewise, the simple and direct statement of John 3:16 explains the nature of the mercy of God. His love for the sinners of the world is what motivated Him to send His only-begotten Son into this world to pay the debt the sinners owed.  It is the same gospel that records John the Baptizer’s explanation that Jesus is “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”(1:29) And the same gospel writer states that the whole of the suffering servant passages in Isaiah 32-53 directly speak of Jesus. This would include in context: “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”(53:6) “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin,”(53:10).

It is also helpful to remember the Apostle Peter’s words about Christ as our substitution according to Isaiah 52-53:

 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. (1 Peter 1)

For Forde Christ’s predictive statements about His death and the purpose of his death (as in John 12) do not belong to the actual story of Christ.  Nor do Christ’s explanatory statements after His resurrection (as in Luke 24:44-46). (see especially his 1984 “The Shape of the Tradition” p. 12-19 )  In Forde’s writings, these predictive statements and explanatory statements were the theologizing rationalizations of the Evangelists and later editors of the Gospels trying to wrestle with the meaning of the brutal and otherwise inexplicable killing of Christ.

Thus Forde writes:

“If we are to get anywhere with these questions [about the necessity of Christ’s death] today, we shall have to begin by paying closer attention to the ‘brute facts’ of the case, looking at the actual events as they have been mediated to usin the narrative itself to see what we can make of them.” (p. 90, italics mine)

Forde’s ‘brute facts’ rest in his anthropology. He considers the why of Christ’s death not from ‘above,’ as he says with respect to a divine plan, but from ‘below’ with the human condition.  From this framework he states:

“Why could not God just up and forgive? Let us start there If we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual events themselves, the ‘brute facts’ as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his ‘Father.’”(p. 90f)

The quotation marks Forde places around Father are meant to be significant. But in this context, it is hard to understand why Forde would use them this way unless he is implying that this relationship of God to Jesus is metaphorical or irreal or metaphysically existential in some way.  But, that aside, Forde’s claim is that Christ’s death was not necessary for us to be forgiven, we already were. Forde continues immediately after the above quote:

“The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. … He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that.”

Forde’s interpretation differs from the explanatory words of Christ in the Gospels:

44 Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” 45 And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

46 Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 And you are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24)

And from Paul:

5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,  (I Timothy 2)

For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (I Corinthians 5:7)

And Peter:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, (I Peter 3:18)

And the writer to the Hebrews

 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (Hebrew 9)

These are but a few of the many contexts in Scripture which speak directly to the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. It can be helpful to preach about the brutality of His death and our shame for it. But Forde does this to the exclusion of God’s explicitly stated purpose by a selective rejection of Scripture. And in doing so denies Christ’s mercy in His willingness to pay the debt of sin we owed, as God’s written word clearly teaches.

Forde’s anthropology views humanity as sinful, and the measure of that sinfulness is in the killing of Christ. But the nature of that sinfulness, in Forde’s view, is not a debt of justice that needed payment.

So, Forde denies not only that sin needs atonement, but also he denies the explicitly declared nature of God being not only mercy but also justice:

No one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified (I Thessalonians 4:6)

Indeed, if Forde’s argument is, as it seems, that we are enemies of God to the point that we kill him, then one cannot escape the judgment of God in Deuteronomy 32:

39 ‘Now see that I, even I, am He, And there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand. 40 For I raise My hand to heaven, And say, “As I live forever, 41 If I whet My glittering sword, And My hand takes hold on judgment, I will render vengeance to My enemies, And repay those who hate Me. 42 I will make My arrows drunk with blood, And My sword shall devour flesh, With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the heads of the leaders of the enemy.” ’

It is difficult on the basis of this particular Forde article to see if he is either 1) re-defining God by rejecting these passages as well as the stated purpose of the Old Covenant sacrificial system, or 2) if he is somehow distinguishing between a New Testament version of God (as in all mercy and no justice) v. and Old Testament version of God (who emphasizes justice). I am not sure yet which of these he is doing, or something else. But he is certainly defining God and His attributes differently than the Scripture does.

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