The Character of God and the Work of Christ in John McLeod Campbell’s “The Nature of the Atonement”

When we consider the connection between the character of God and the work of Christ in the theology of McLeod Campbell, we must ask the question, “What are we to make of his repudiation of the notion of ‘punishment’?

He distinguishes between pain “as a penal infliction” and pain “as a condition and form of holiness and love under the pressure of our sin and its consequent misery.” He insists that we will only understand “the essence of the sacrifice and its atoning virtue” when we think in terms of “holiness and love” rather than “a penal infliction” (p. 118).

Are we really compelled to choose between the holy love of God and the punishment of sin?

We may appreciate McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on Christ “seeing sin and sinners with God’s eyes” without accepting his radical rejection of any penal element in the atonement.

The atonement concerns how Christ viewed sin and sinners. It also concerns how God viewed the crucified Christ. He looks upon His beloved Son and He sees sin laid upon Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We may learn from McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on Christ’s pain as “holiness and love under the pressure of our sin”. We also observe that part of Christ’s pain was the God-forsakenness expressed in the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? (Matthew 27:46).

Was Christ mistaken in feeling He had been forsaken by God? Or, was He really forsaken by God as He took our sin upon Himself?

If we conclude that He really was forsaken by God, we must question the adequacy of McLeod Campbell’s view.

Can the God – forsakenness – if it is real – be understood simply as “the pressure of our sin and its consequent misery”? Is it not also a pressure laid upon Christ from above?

How are we to interpret the ideas of wrath and satisfaction?

McLeod Campbell does not reject the ideas of “the wrath of God against sin” and “satisfaction … due to divine justice”. He interprets these ideas in a way that excludes “the idea of the Son of God … enduring a penal infliction in the very act of honouring the Father”. He stresses that “Christ in dealing with God on behalf of men, must be conceived of as dealing with the righteous wrath of God against sin, and as according to it that which was due.” Christ’s “dealing with the Father in relation to our sins” – “a perfect confession of our sins” – is understood in connection with His holy “condemnation of sin”. He describes Christ’s confession as “a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man” (pp. 134-136).

It would be quite inappropriate to dismiss McLeod Campbell’s view as a ‘moral influence theory’. Though appreciative of certain aspects of the ‘moral influence theory’, he does emphasize the Godward aspects of the atonement. His view differs from Anselm’s view. Nevertheless, he does interpret Anselmic concepts rather than dispensing with them in favour of a ‘moral influence theory’.

Anselm’s view has been described as “the commercial theory of sin.”

We need not react to Anselm’s one-sidedness by formulating another one-sided theory. Scripture does use ‘commercial’ language: “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Christ has received “the wages of sin … death” on our behalf so that we, through Him, might receive “the gift of God … eternal life”. It is questionable whether this understanding of the atonement can be maintained where the idea of punishment is completely abandoned

The revelation of ‘holiness’ and ‘love’

Concerning Christ’s suffering, McLeod Campbell writes, “God is revealed in it and not merely in connection with it; God’s righteousness and condemnation of sin, being in the suffering, and not merely what demands it – God’s love also being in the suffering, and not merely what submits to it.” He speaks thus of the need for atonement: “The entrance of sin has been the entrance of sorrow, – not to the sinful only, and as the punishment of sin, but also to the holy and the loving, and as what holiness and love must feel in the presence of sin” (p. 141).

McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on God being revealed in Christ’s suffering is to be welcomed. It does, however, appear that he is guilty of caricature here. The suffering of Christ reveals the character of God – His holiness and His love: He is “just and the justifier of Him who believes in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). This revelation of God’s character in Christ’s suffering is not bound up with McLeod Campbell’s rejection of the concept of punishment. We need not imagine that there is a loss of perspective concerning God’s character the moment we admit to a penal element in the atonement.

McLeod Campbell’s statement concerning “sorrow, – not to the sinful only … but also to the holy and loving” is to be welcomed for its Godward aspect. Nevertheless, the contrast between “what holiness and love must feel in the presence of sin” and “the punishment of sin” is rather one-sided. In Genesis 2:17, we read, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” We do not hear only of God’s feelings about sin and sinners. We also hear about the punishment of sin. When, in Romans 5, we read of Christ as “the second Adam”, the question arises whether Christ’s work can be understood in its true relation to God’s declaration – “Thou shalt surely die” – if the concept of punishment is abandoned.

Comparison of McLeod Campbell and Calvin (Institutes, Two, XVI, 5)

McLeod Campbell takes care to set Christ’s sufferings within the context of His whole life. He regards ‘as included in the expression, “a sacrifice for sin,” what Christ endured in this witnessing for God”. He sees the death of Christ as being “necessary to the perfection of His witness-bearing for the Father”. He carefully distinguishes this view of Christ’s sufferings from the view which gives “these sufferings… a place in the atonement … on the entirely different ground that they were a part of what our Lord endured in bearing the punishment of our sins” (p. 132).

Here, we find McLeod Campbell echoing Calvin’s teaching regarding “the whole course of obedience”: “When it is asked then how Christ, by abolishing sin, removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made Him favourable and kind to us, it may be answered generally, that He accomplished this by the whole course of His obedience.”

Calvin expands on this – ” … at His baptism He declared that a part of righteousness was fulfilled by His yielding obedience … from the moment when He assumed the form of a servant, He began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”

Calvin lays special emphasis on the death of Christ – “Scripture, however, the more certainly to define the mode of salvation, ascribes it peculiarly and specially to the death of Christ.”

On the “mode of death”, we may ask whether McLeod Campbell’s view is as adequate as Calvin’s. Calvin writes, “Had he been cut off by assassins, or slain in a seditious tumult, there could have been no kind of satisfaction in such a death. But when He is placed as a criminal at the bar, where witnesses are brought to give evidence against Him, and the mouth of the judge condemns Him to die, we see Him sustaining the character of an offender and evil-doer … Why was it so? That He might bear the character of a sinner.”

Calvin stresses that He was acquitted by the same lips that condemned Him … we perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner, while, at the same time, His innocence shines forth, and it becomes manifest that He suffers for another’s and not for His own crime.”

How does McLeod Campbell’s view of Christ’s death compare with Calvin’s?

We may welcome McLeod Campbell’s teaching that Christ’s death is “a manifestation by the Son of what our sins are to the Father’s heart” (p. 133). Nevertheless, we must ask whether his theology would have been more Biblical if he had maintained the conception of punishment expressed by Calvin – “Our acquittal is in this – that the guilt which makes us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God (Is, 53:12).”

Christ’s obedience

McLeod Campbell describes Christ’s obedience as “the essence and substance of the atonement.” He refers to the words of Hebrews 10:9 – “Lo, I have come to do Thy will, O God” – as “the great key-word on the subject of the atonement” (p. 124).

By emphasizing Christ’s obedience, McLeod Campbell makes the important point that Christ’s death should not be isolated from the whole of His life. His death for us is the outcome of His life of perfect holiness and perfect love, His life offered to God in perfect obedience. He was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

When we compare McLeod Campbell’s understanding of Christ’s obedience with the traditional theological distinction between His active obedience and His passive obedience, we must question the adequacy of his teaching. Has he not overemphasized Christ’s active obedience?

In Isaiah 53:6 – “the Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” – , we read about Christ’s ‘passive’ obedience, his willingness to have our iniquity laid upon Him. It would seem that there is here a dimension to Christ’s obedience which is hardly captured in McLeod Campbell’s understanding of Christ’s doing the will of God by seeing sin and the sinner with God’s eyes.

There are other “great key-word(s)” of the atonement besides Hebrews 10:9. To those other great key-words, McLeod Campbell might have paid closer attention.

McLeod Campbell’s teaching concerning Christ’s “repentance” and Christ’ “confession”

McLeod Campbell describes Christ’s confession as “a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man” (p. 136) .

He describes this confession as a “response (that) has all the elements of a perfect repentance in humanity for all the sin of man excepting the personal consciousness of sin”. He contrasts two alternatives: “either to endure for sinners an equivalent punishment, or to experience in reference to their sin, and present to God on their behalf, an adequate sorrow and repentance.” He contends that “the latter equivalent … is surely the higher and more excellent, being a moral and spiritual satisfaction” (p. 137).

Here, McLeod Campbell does not actually call Christ’s confession “repentance”. What he does say is this: Christ’s confession “has all the elements of a perfect repentance in humanity for all the sin of man … excepting the personal consciousness of sin”.

The absence of guilt from Christ’s confession highlights the difficulty in describing it as “repentance.” When McLeod Campbell speaks of “an adequate sorrow and repentance”, he is bringing together two rather different things. It is one thing for Christ, in sorrow, to grieve over our sin. It is another thing for Him to repent of our sins. McLeod Campbell presents the two together – “an adequate repentance and sorrow for sin”. He maintains their atoning significance – “How far more truly than any penal infliction such repentance and confession must satisfy divine justice” (p. 145).

The distinction between Christ’s confession and His repentance may be observed in H R Mackintosh’s response to McLeod Campbell’s theology. Mackintosh appreciates his teaching that Christ “make(s) in our name a worthy acknowledgment both of our sin and of the holiness of God”. Concerning the idea of Christ repenting on our behalf, Mackintosh describes this as “inadmissible, not having ‘even a faint allusion’ in the New Testament” (cited in George M Tuttle, John McLeod Campbell on Christian Atonement: So Rich a Soil, p. 129).

However we may evaluate McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on Christ’s repentance, we must first ask, “How are we to understand his teaching?” Is it appropriate to describe his view as ‘vicarious repentance’? Tuttle suggests that “Campbell would not entertain the use of the designation ‘vicarious repentance’ if it appeared to bear the substitutionary ideas which had been affixed to the word vicarious.. Tuttle prefers the expression, “representative repentance”: “The idea of Christ’s representative repentance … is conceived to be exercised entirely with the prospective purpose that they shall themselves be brought to repentance” (So Rich a Soil, p. 129).

Whatever debate there may be concerning the word ‘vicarious’. we must ask, “Can we offer a constructive interpretation of Campbell’s teaching concerning Christ’s repentance?” To understand him sympathetically, we require to emphasize his view of the atonement as “a development of the incarnation” (p. 142).

Laying great emphasis on this idea that “the atonement” is “a development of the incarnation”, C D Kettler insists that McLeod Campbell’s “teaching on vicarious repentance” should be understood in relation to “his emphasis upon the vicarious humanity of Christ” (The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation, p. 190).

Kettler seeks to defend the idea of vicarious repentance. He cites some objections – “A common opinion is that Campbell’s doctrine of vicarious repentance only increases the old problem of vicarious punishment: How can one person repent / substitute himself for many?; “Repentance is not simply a sorrow for sin, … but “a change of heart and mind with respect to sin” … Can we transfer this to Jesus?” (pp. 195-196).

While acknowledging that “vicarious repentance is not taught explicitly in the New Testament”, Kettler argues that it is “a legitimate theological deduction based upon the importance of the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ” (p. 197).

Highlighting McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on the importance of “viewing the results of salvation as a key to understanding salvation”, Kettler draws an analogy between repentance and other aspects of our experience of salvation: “the basis for our wisdom, our righteousness, and our sanctification is in Jesus Christ. So it is also true with repentance” (pp. 199, 197).

According to Kettler, “Vicarious repentance finds its origin in the same reality of Christ’s vicarious humanity as expressed in His worship, trust, communion, prayer and obedience to the Father … Vicarious repentance enables one to see the depth of the vicarious humanity of Christ as an indication that salvation is completely the work of God, sola gratia. yet it leaves a place for a genuine human response, based upon the response freely given in the obedient sonship of Christ” (pp. 197, 203).

What are we to make of Kettler’s attempt to provide “a constructive understanding of ‘vicarious repentance’”?

We may appreciate his stress on the sola gratia character of salvation in each of its aspects, including repentance – “God … granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). We may welcome his concern to emphasize that vicarious repentance does not preclude the need for “a genuine human response”.

There are, however, difficulties in applying the idea of repentance to Jesus Christ. Repentance is rather different from “worship, trust, communion, prayer and obedience to the Father”.

We should, however, note that Jesus was “baptized … to fulfil all righteousness”. This took place within the context of John’s ministry of “baptiz(ing) … unto repentance” those who came to him, “confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:11-16). How much weight can we place on this passage is unclear.

Kettler holds that “it is hard to understand the baptism of Jesus … apart from an idea of vicarious repentance”.

Whatever our reaction to the idea of vicarious repentance, the fact remains that Jesus’ baptism – “to fulfill all righteosness” – did take place within the context of a preaching ministry which called for both confession of sin and repentance from sin.

In developing the notion of vicarious repentance, McLeod Campbell draws upon insights from Martin Luther (p. 146) and George Whitefield (p. 144). Drawing upon Luther, he writes, “Christ, the holy one of God, bearing the sins of all men on His spirit – in Luther’s words, ‘the one sinner – and meeting the cry of these sins for judgment, and the wrath due to them, absorbing and exhausting that divine wrath in that adequate confession and perfect response on the part of man which was possible only to the infinite and eternal righteousness in humanity”. This perfect response “is in contrast to man’s inability to respond adequately to God or, to quote Whitefield, ‘our repentance needeth to be repented of, and our very tears to be washed in the blood of Christ”.

Kettler offers a constructive exposition of McLeod Campbell’s use of Luther and Whitefield. He discusses Luther’s phrase – “the one sinner” – with reference to Karl Barth’s use of the idea of “the one great sinner”: “in Christ(’s) … becoming ‘the one great sinner’ … Barth sees the true meaning of the sinlessness of Christ. The sinlessness of Jesus is based on the obedience of Jesus, who did not refuse to take the place of sinners”.

Kettler cites Barth: “Our sin is no longer our own. It is His sin, the sin of Jesus Christ”. Kettler comments, “”The implication of this rather startling statement is similar to the doctrine of ‘vicarious repentance’ in John McLeod Campbell … In taking away the sin from humanity, Christ has become ‘the one great sinner’. Barth is able to say this because he has already qualified it in the light of his definition of the sinlessness of Christ. The sinlessness of Christ is the action of the obedient Son of God in taking the place of sinners and, therefore, becoming ‘the one great sinner’. In a remarkable way, Barth uses the very argument usually held against ‘vicarious repentance’, the sinlessness of Christ, as foundation for the doctrine” (pp. 246-247).

Picking up on McLeod Campbell’s citation of Whitefield – “our repentance needeth to be repented of” – , Kettler writes, “Only in the context of such perfect holiness can the depth and horribleness of sin be truly known, and thus, can repentance truly take place”.

Concerning Christ’s vicarious repentance, Kettler comments, “the Son is able to provide the repentance which becomes the basis for the repentance of others … this is absolutely needed because of the inability of humanity to provide a perfect repentance” (pp. 198, 202).

As noted at the beginning of this post, McLeod Campbell’s teaching concerning Christ’s repentance is closely connected to his teaching concerning Christ’s confession. We return now to his teaching concerning Christ’ s confession, considering how this relates to what he has written about Christ’s repentance.

McLeod Campbell describes Christ’s confession thus: “Without the assumption of an imputation of guilt, and in perfect harmony with the unbroken consciousness of personal separation from our sins, the Son of God, bearing us and our sins on His heart before the Father, must needs respond to the Father’s judgment on our sins, with that confession of their evil and of the righteousness of the wrath of God against them, and holy sorrow because of them … ” (p. 139).

We may welcome McLeod Campbell’s emphases on both Christ’s “personal separation from our sins” and His “bearing us and our sins on His heart before the Father. Nevertheless, there are questions which need to be asked. As well as Christ’s “personal separation from our sins”, does not Scripture speak also of another separation – Christ’s separation from the Father, as our sin was laid upon Him? Does not the Biblical declaration – “He bore the sin of many” – involve more than what McLeod Campbell describes when he speaks of “the Son of God bearing us and our sins on His heart before the Father”?

We may, with J Orr, suspect that McLeod Campbell has “overstated his case in opposition to penal conceptions”. With Orr, we may appreciate his attempt to give to the atonement “a spiritual interpretation”. Also, with Orr, we may emphasize the importance of maintaining “its judicial aspect” while “remov(ing) from it the hard legal aspect it is apt to assume when treated as a purely external fact” (cited in Tuttle, So Rich a Soil, p. 114).

Whatever comment we may make regarding the limitations of McLeod Campbell’s theory of the atonement, we must seek to find a constructive interpretation of his emphasis on Christ’s confession.

It could be argued that Christ’s confession is less problematic than the idea of Christ’s repentance. When we read the words of 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” – , we become conscious of our own inability to confess our sins perfectly. It is a great comfort to know that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from every sin” (1 John 1:7). Can we think in terms of Christ’s confession when we consider how this blessing reaches us?

While the idea of Christ’s confession might appear to be less problematic than the idea of His repentance, it is not entirely problem-free. This becomes clear when we compare Christ’s confession with the confession of sin made on behalf of the people by godly leaders in the Old Testament. Christ was “without sin”, while even the most godly leaders were themselves sinners.

Rather than making comparisons between Christ and the godly leaders of the Old Testament, it may be more helpful to think of Christ’s whole life as a confession. The idea of Christ’s confession would, then, be a way of viewing His whole life, a way of understanding its significance, and not simply a description of a particular episode in His life.

Kettler comments helpfully on the way in which Christ’s confession can throw light on His vicarious repentance: “The vicarious repentance of Christ is, in a wider sense, the confession of Christ, the ‘confession’ which ‘confesses’ both the heart of God and the response of humanity, … not merely a confession of sin, but also of the ”most inestimable preciousness’ of humanity to the Father” (p. 191).

Christ’s intercession

Citing Isaiah 53:12 – “He bare the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” – , McLeod Campbell emphasizes the place of Christ’s intercession in the atonement. He speaks of “the intercession by which that confession was followed up, must be taken into account as a part of the full response of the mind of the Son to the mind of the Father” (p. 147).

The idea of Christ’s intercession is clearly connected to the idea of Christ’s confession. This is most clearly seen in Christ’s prayer from the Cross. He prayed for those who crucified Him – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. In this intercessory prayer, there seems to be an element of confession on our behalf – Christ lifting up our sins to the Father, understanding our sins better than we understand them ourselves – , coupled with a prayer for our forgiveness.

Like His confession, Christ’s intercession can be interpreted in the broader context of His whole life.

McLeod Campbell describes Christ’s intercession as “the perfected expression of that forgiveness which He cherished towards those who were returning hatred for His love … the form His love must take if He would obtain redemption for us”.

There is a sense in which we consider Christ’s whole life as a prayer offered up to the Father on our behalf. In Christ’s response to the Father, we have both the “Amen to the divine condemnation of sin” and “the response … to the divine love in its yearnings over us sinners” (p. 148).

According to McLeod Campbell, this response can be described as Christ’s “atoning confession of sin and (His) intercession for sinners”. This response, which may be viewed as descriptive of the offering up of Christ’s whole life to the Father, is related by McLeod Campbell to our inability “to confess our own sins”. He writes, “if another could … act for us … an intercessor, – one at once sufficiently one with us, and yet sufficiently separated from our sin to feel in sinless  humanity what our sinful humanity, could it in sinlessness look back on its sins, would feel of godly condemnation of them and sorrow for them, so confessing them before God, – one coming sufficiently near to our need of mercy to be able to plead for mercy for us according to that need, and at the same time, so abiding in the bosom of the Father, as in light of His love and secret of His heart, as in interceding for us to take full and perfect advantage of all that is there that is on our side, and wills our salvation” (p. 149).

This idea of Christ’s intercession carries us beyond His earthly life. We read, in Hebrews 7:25, of Christ, our great high priestly Intercessor: “He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing that He ever liveth to make intercession for them”.

This aspect of Christ’s intercession may be viewed as the continuation of the intercession which was characteristic of His earthly life: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word”(John 17:20).

While there may be other ways of understanding the atonement, we must not fail to recognize Christ’s intercession as one part of what it means for Him to be our Saviour. This emphasis on Christ’s intercession is a great comfort to us in our ongoing experience of salvation.

Concluding Comments

McLeod Campbell has said much from which we can learn, even if we feel unable to accompany him in his radical rejection of the idea of penal substitution.

We may not agree with some of the things he has written. We may feel that there is more to be said about the atonement than McLeod Campbell has said. Nevertheless, we may, through constructive interpretation of his writings, deepen our appreciation of the many-sidedness of the atonement without making his chief emphases the most central aspects of the atonement.

We may welcome his emphasis on the filial aspects of the atonement – “the divine purpose was that we should receive the adoption of sons” (p. 183) – without abandoning entirely a legal framework.

McLeod Campbell’s consistency in following a filial framework has produced significant insights. It could, however, be argued that his concern for consistency has blinkered him to other aspects of the atonement which did not appear to him to be within his own point of view.

The many-sidedness of the atonement teaches us that we must be neither too quick to abandon the idea of penal substitution nor too slow to learn from McLeod Campbell.

Perhaps, the feature of McLeod Campbell’s theology we should highlight most is its “devotional quality”: “No one who reads The Nature of the Atonement can fail to recognize its quality of worshipful witness to the reconciling and liberating power of Christ as experienced by himself and perceived in others” (Tuttle, So Rich a Soil, pp. 141-142).

Whatever our evaluation of the precise details of McLeod Campbell’s theology, we can surely learn, from him, this lesson – theology is to be done in a spirit of worship.

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