Dr. Cha Wrestles with Calvin’s 500-Year-Old Ideas of the Cross
February 1, 2013
Theology is not a closed book-it is constantly evolving, as theologians pose questions, discuss criticisms and propose new ideas and interpretations. One place in the Reformed tradition where theological thought develops is the International Reformed Theological Institute or IRTI, an international center for practicing reformed theology.
Our own Dr. Allan Janssen and Dr. Jaeseung Cha are members, as seen in this photo with Dr. John Hesselink of Western Theological Seminary, snapped during the last IRTI Conference in South Africa, 2011. Since Dr. Janssen is a member of the advisory committee of IRTI, he wants everyone to know, “We are very excited to host the upcoming 2015 IRTI Conference here at New Brunswick Theological Seminary!”
Restoration through Redemption: John Calvin Revised is published as Volume 23 of the series of Studies in Reformed Theology that mostly result from the bi-annual conferences. This volume focuses on Calvin as the conference was held in France in 2009 and hosted by the Free Faculty of Reformed Theology, now called Faculté Jean Calvin, in Aix-en-Provence, to celebrate and commemorate Calvin’s 500th anniversary.
Dr. Cha contributed Chapter 7, entitled “Calvin’s Concept of Penal Substitution: Acknowledgement and Challenge.” In this article Dr. Cha wrestles with Calvin’s atonement thought, specifically Calvin’s “penal substitutionary perspective”-the idea that Jesus was punished in our place. “There are two aspects of this idea that need to be addressed,” according to Dr. Cha. The first is the traditional acceptance of this idea as one of the most compelling views of atonement. The second is the variety of contemporary criticisms surrounding this idea. Dr. Cha’s approach is that it is possible and ultimately most fruitful to acknowledge how faithful Calvin’s account is to the harsh, costly reality of Christ’s death, while correcting both some misconceptions of Calvin’s critics and actual weak points in Calvin’s account itself.
Dr. Cha warns of dangers posed by both misunderstanding and too-narrow criticism. The first danger he characterizes as modern sentimentalism, “It is wrong to distort Christ’s death caused by human sins and guilt is into fears of weakening morality,” writes Cha. “And much worse, to use it to justify human violence in God’s cause.”
Dr. Cha’s article proposes three suggestions for embracing Calvin’s concept of atonement:
1.The idea of punishment must be narrowed down to the reality of humanity and sins rather than the attribute of God, according to Cha, “Calvin’s perspective is often conveyed along with statements about God, which creates the misconception that punishment is what happened between God and the Innocent.”
2.Calvin’s own idea of substitution needs to be revised, based on Scripture, as Jesus’ inclusion of humanity rather than as an exchange between Jesus and humanity, as Cha writes, “Justice can be harmed if the Innocent only is punished and we are excluded from Christ’s crucifixion.” When Christ died on the cross, we were crucified in Christ (Gal 2:19; Rom. 6:6-8; Col. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:14).
3.Divine reality on the cross should be viewed holistically, namely, both in light of punishment and forgiveness, as Cha says, “Although Calvin’s point of view clearly includes the idea of God’s love and mercy, he seems to fail in linking Christ’s death to the forgiveness that is one of God’s ways to sins and sinners.”
In the end, Dr. Cha’s article reaffirms the importance of wrestling with Calvin’s atonement concept and not allowing it to be dismissed because of modern criticisms, as he concludes, “Calvin’s concept of penal substitution will continue to refresh and challenge us as long as we are enslaved by our sinful humanity.” Want to know more? You can talk to Dr. Cha who will also provide a copy of the journal to the Gardner A. Sage Library.