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

Note 1 on Gerhard Forde’s 1984 “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ”

Published in Word and World 3:22-31. Reprinted in 2004 A More Radical Gospel. (85-97, quotations from this printing)

This article overlaps in theme and content with Forde’s “The Work of Christ” in Braaten and Jenson, Seventh Locus; particularly chapter 1, but also chapters 2 through 4.

Forde lays out his view on the work of Christ under four categories.

  • Theories Aside
  • The Brute Facts
  • Starting “From Below”
  • Why the Death of Christ.

Forde’s purpose in this article is to distance himself and his re-interpretation of the Atonement from the Biblical and historical confession of Scripture’s depiction of Christ’s death as substitutionary punishment for sin. He offers what he labels a new and better interpretation that is at once more brutal and more authentic.

Forde embraces, in part, Abelard’s criticism of Anselm. Though it seems neither Abelard nor Forde actually express an accurate understanding of Anselm’s point:

“Anselm, like subsequent thinkers, concentrated on the sin of Adam, arguing that it was so great an affront to the divine honor that only the voluntary sacrifice of the God-man could make satisfaction for it. But such thinking diverts attention from the brute reality at hand: Jesus, the innocent one, was murdered by us. The sin of adam, Abelard avers, was indeed bad enough, but surely it was small potatoes compared to the sin of murdering the Son of God. … Far from ‘satisfying’ God’s honor or wrath or justice or whatever, the murder of Jesus, Abelard thinks, would only make matters worse — much worse.”(p. 86f)

In the first part, Forde enlists Neo-orthodox theological categories and a version of the often repeated but always tailored evolutionary narrative from the history of religions school about the development of so-called atonement theories.

Readers should be aware that this is a re-framing of discussion of the doctrine of God’s word into pseudo-scientific and philosophical terms of a discussion about the theories men have about God. This terminology is deceptive and inappropriate. What is under discussion are the differences in confessions about what God actually teaches, His doctrine. What actually matters is how well the confessions of these teachers conform to the whole written Word of God. The term theory rejects the very notion of a definitive doctrine given by God in His written word. One cannot have a theory of the resurrection, a theory of sin, a theory of the virgin birth, a theory of the hypostatic union, or a theory of six-day creation without undermining the very idea that these things are God’s doctrine in Scripture, unchangeable. But I think that this very point of definite doctrine from Scripture is something Forde would describe as legalism. At least this is a strong implication on p 86 where he states:

 “Indeed, the fatal flaw in most thinking about the atoning work of Christ is the tendency to look away from the actual events, to translate them into ‘eternal truths’.

He states this while at the same time maintaining that anything he argues against is inadequate and (as he does in 1997) a false theology of glory.

The use of the word actual in this context is based on historical-critical theology. When Forde says “what actually happened” with reference to the cross of Christ, or “as it is disclosed in the actual events” (86) what Forde means is what he considers to be the actual historical part of the record of Christ stripped of the layers of interpretation placed on Christ by what historical critics consider to be the Gospel writers, the final editors of the Gospels, of Paul, or the editors of Paul’s letters, or of the Eschatological interpretations found in the New Testament. All of these are (in Forde’s view) of secondary origin and not the actual work and words of Christ. (see also Forde 1984 “The Shape of the Tradition”, 12-19 where he lays this out very clearly.)

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