John McLeod Campbell on the Atonement (2)

This post is not about McLeod Campbell and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Whatever else we may say about the Westminster Confession of Faith, we must say this: it is our subordinate standard. I stress the word “subordinate”. Neither the Westminster Confession of faith nor McLeod Campbell should be set on the same level as Scripture. We come to both,and we ask, “Is this a helpful way of understanding the Scriptures?” We are not to come with the question, “Which one is right – the Westminster Confession or McLeod Campbell?” I would suggest that we should be asking, “What can we learn from both the Westminster Confession and McLeod Campbell?”

What are we to make of McLeod Campbell’s book, The Nature of the Atonement? Is this a replacement theology – ‘Forget everything that’s gone before. McLeod Campbell has come along, and he’s put everyone else right. He’s the first and last word on the doctrine of the atonement.’ Should we not have a more modest opinion of McLeod Campbell’s importance? – He’s said some important things, things that other people weren’t saying, things that needed to be heard.

McLeod Campbell spoke about the priority of the filial. He set this over against the priority of the legal. Priority? – What does this mean? Does it mean that the filial replaces the legal? Or, does it mean getting a better balance between the two?

In his book, So Rich a Soil: John McLeod Campbell on Christian Atonement, George M Tuttle summarizes McLeod Campbell’s approach – ” … though recognizing a sense in which God’s righteousness is a barrier to forgiveness, Campbell claims that in a more fundamental sense the righteousness of God belongs to the divine love which provides a pardoning atonement … Just as justice is brought within the concept of God as love, so the validity of a legal standing is brought within that of a loving relationship” (pages 80 & 82).

In this account of McLeod Campbell’s theology, there is a way of rising above ‘black and white’ thinking – one is right, the other is wrong. McLeod \Campbell’s theology is not seen as the be-all and end-all. It’s viewed as an important part of the bigger picture. We learn from McLeod Campbell – but we do not set him on a pedestal, saying, “No man ever spoke like this man.’ We should hold McLeod Campbell in high regard – but not at the expense of throwing out everything that came before him.

What did McLeod Campbell mean when he spoke about the priority of the filial over the legal? – He said that we must take care that we do not speak, almost exclusively, of the physical side of Christ’s suffering. We should emphasize that His suffering must be seen in the context of His prayer to His Father: “Not My will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

In McLeod Campbell’s doctrine of the atonement, we have the ideas of vicarious repentance, vicarious confession and vicarious intercession. In his book, Vicarious Humanity and the Reality of Salvation, C D Kettler emphasizes that we must look behind vicarious repentance, vicarious confession and vicarious intercession. WE must look back to vicarious humanity.

The word, “vicarious” means “for us”. The whole life of Jesus is “for us”. We are not to content ourselves with saying, “He came to us. He lived among us. He died for us.” At every point, we are to say, “for us”.

For us – We see this in Jesus’ baptism. In the context of preaching, which calls for confession of sin and repentance – turning from sin and turning to God, Jesus came forward to be baptized. He did not need to receive baptism for the forgiveness of sins – but He did this “to fulfil all righteousness”. Jesus’ baptism fitted into God’s plan for the salvation of sinners.

For us – When Jesus was accused by Pilate, He remained silent. He did not protest His own innocence. He stood where we stand – in the place of guilt. In this, He honoured God’s holiness, and He showed God’s love.

For us – At the Cross, we hear Jesus praying for His enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Earlier on,in John 17, Jesus prayed for His friends: “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world, but for those You have given Me, for they are Yours … I o not pray for these alone, but also for those who believe in Me through their Word” (John 17:9,20). What are we to say about this – praying for His friends and praying for his enemies? – “He died for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

When, following McLeod Campbell, we emphasize the “for us” element in Christ’s whole life, we should, also, emphasize that Scripture places special emphasis on His death for us. It is His death that we remember when we gather at the Lord’s Table. “Christ crucified” is to be the central theme of our preaching. When we say, “Jesus died for us”, we are saying something more than “Jesus prays for us”. When we view Jesus’ whole life as the offering up of a prayer to God, we must lay special emphasis on His death. It is here that Scripture lays its greatest emphasis, when it speaks of our Saviour and His salvation.

Whenever we think about Christ’s death for us, we must ask about the relationship between God’s love and God’s holiness.

Here, we must defend McLeod Campbell against the criticism that his view is no more than a moral influence theory – “At the Cross, we learn that God loves us, and this inspires us to love Him more”. Whatever else we may say about McLeod Campbell – how his view compares with the teaching of Anselm or Calvin, we must say this: his view of the atonement has a much deeper understanding of God’s love than we will ever find in a shallow moral influence theory, which speaks of the love of God, and nothing else.

When we think about the meaning of Christ’s death for us,we must think about the relationship between forgiveness and atonement, and we must think, also, of the relationship between God’s love for us and our faith in Christ.

In his book, So Rich a Soil: John McLeod Campbell on Christian Atonement, George M Tuttle favours the view that is summed up in the sentence: “forgiveness … precedes the atonement” (p. 79). What does this mean? Is there a sense in which “forgiveness precedes the atonement”, and another sense in which “the atonement precedes forgiveness”?

In 1988, I reviewed Tuttle’s book on McLeod Campbell. Commenting on the sentence, “Forgiveness precedes the atonement”, I suggested that the relationship between forgiveness and atonement should be described in this way: “Prior to the atonement, God wills forgiveness. Through the atonement, God offers forgiveness. Through faith, sinners receive forgiveness.” In this review, I, also, emphasized the importance of distinguishing between God’s love for us and our receiving forgiveness from Him. This is what I said, “To all, the Gospel says,’You are loved.’ To the believer, the Gospel says, ‘You are forgiven.’

When we distinguish between God’s love for us and our receiving forgiveness from him, we are emphasizing two things: The Gospel comes to us from there-and-then, from the Cross, from many centuries ago. The Gospel comes to us,here-and-now, in our personal experience, in today’s world.

The Gospel comes to us from there-and-then. This is what Peter says to us – “You have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

The Gospel comes to us here-and-now. This is what Peter says to us: “You have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit … The Word of the Lord endures forever. Now this is the Word which by the Gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22,24-25).

Here,Peter emphasizes the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Spirit. This is the context out of which McLeod Campbell spoke to the people of his generation. He preached the Word of God. He led people in the worship of God – worshipping in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). McLeod Campbell was no ivory tower academic.He was deeply involved with God’s people. He was their pastor. He cared for them. He longed to impart to them a deeper understanding of God’s love and a greater enjoyment of His salvation. Whatever we may think about the precise details of his theology of the atonement, surely we can say this: Here is a man from whom we can learn much.

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