John McLeod Campbell on the Atonement
We begin with the charges brought against McLeod Campbell by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1831: “the doctrine of universal atonement and pardon through the death of Christ, as also the doctrine that assurance is of the essence of faith and necessary for salvation are contrary to Holy Scripture and to the Confession of Faith … ” This does not provide us with the full content of the differences between McLeod Campbell and the Westminster Confession. It does provide us with a historical starting - point since it highlights the differences as they were defined by the General Assembly. To understand the full extent of the differences, we must set these charges within the broader context of McLeod Campbell’s thought.
A particular doctrine cannot be understood in isolation from the whole system of theology which lies behind it. After the 1831 trial, there were further developments in McLeod Campbell’s thought. There was an increasing emphasis on the nature of the atonement as “moral and spiritual” (The Nature of the Atonement, pp. 398-399). It would would be inappropriate to focus primarily on the differences as they were stated by the General Assembly in 1831. At that point, McLeod Campbell’s theory of the nature the atonement had not been fully developed. We must not limit ourselves to the 1831 charges. We must look at the bigger picture. We do this by looking closely at his book, The Nature of the Atonement.
In the history of the doctrine of the atonement, there has been a tendency to classify theories of the atonement as either subjective or objective. This kind of classification is rather crude. It is not particularly helpful. This approach tends to see McLeod Campbell’s theory as subjective and the Confession’s view as objective. This is an oversimplified misrepresentation of McLeod Campbell’s view. This becomes clear as we look closely at his theological method.
He does not begin with a rigorous distinction between the objective and the subjective.
He holds that Christian doctrine must be set within the context of a personal experience of faith.
- He often refers to “the conscience of an awakened sinner” (Chapter 1).
- Noting Luther’s emphasis on “our” in “Christ died for our sins”, he protests against this “our” being interpreted in terms of a limited atonement (Chapter 3).
- Noting that there is “a contradiction between “the faith of the head and the love of the heart”, he suggests that this “contradiction” might have led the “earlier Calvinists” to “rethink “the faith of the head” (p. 67).
- Discussing Christ’s use of the words of Psalm 22 - “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (v.1), he sets these words within the context of the struggle involved in the life of faith. He relates verse 1 to verse 24 - “For He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; He has not hidden His face from him but has listened to his cry for help”. He is emphasizing that the experience of struggle must be set within the context of the affirmation of faith. He suggests that there is here the possibility of a more dynamic interpretation, a view that is different from the one which simply sees Christ’s words as a straightforward statement that God, in pouring His wrath upon Christ, had forsaken Him.
He does not look for an illusory ‘objectivity’.
Protesting against a “legal fiction”, he emphasizes that the objective and the subjective are to be held together. He does not regard this as a retreat into subjectivism. He holds that his approach is implicit in the nature of faith as a personal relation in which faith receives from the Object of its faith, God. He is not suggesting that the believer’s faith becomes the ultimate authority. He insists that our participation in the atonement is not itself an atonement nor is our participation in the propitiation itself a propitiation (pp. 330-331). As we look closely at his understanding of faith, we will see that it leads to a view of the relation between grace and faith which is rather different from the view associated with Calvinism.
He emphasizes the personal nature of faith.
He emphasizes that the filial should be given priority over the legal. This is important for an understanding of the Christian life as well as the atonement.
He bases his theology upon divine revelation.
McLeod Campbell shares with his Calvinist critics a commitment to the authority of Scripture. Like them, he takes us to the Scriptures. He does, however, challenge their interpretation of Scripture. He does not view the Old Testament sacrificial system as our pattern for understanding the atonement. He emphasizes the discontinuity between that system and the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He considers Hebrews 10:7 - “Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God” as the key to the atonement (pp. 123-125). In these words, he sees more than a declaration of the intention of making atonement. He also sees the essential nature of the atonement as moral and spiritual. In offering an interpretation of Scripture which is rather different from the one offered by his Calvinist critics, McLeod Campbell encourages his readers to examine the Scriptures further as they consider his theory of the atonement.
He emphasizes the value of reason in the development of theological understanding.
He has a high estimation of the role of reason in his theological method (pp. 374-375). In his protest against a ‘legal fiction’, he refuses to hide behind “unconceived mysteries”. This, he says, encourages confusion of thought. He wonders whether the confusion of thought, which he sees in the ‘legal fiction’, might not have led his critics to rethink the conception of God which undergirds their doctrine of the atonement (pp. 312-313), thus paving the way for a clearer understanding of the Fatherly nature of God.
He begins with the conviction that “there is forgiveness with God”.
"There is forgiveness with God". McLeod Campbell holds that this is what moved God to provide atonement for man. He emphasizes ‘forgiveness therefore atonement’ rather than ‘atonement therefore forgiveness’. He sees atonement as a revelation of the forgiving love of God. He does not mean to exclude the divine condemnation of sin. This is implicit in the real meaning of forgiveness. It is because sin is taken seriously that there can be forgiveness. Sin requires to be condemned. If our sin is not worthy of His condemnation then we do not require His forgiveness. In Christ’s dealing with men on behalf of God, McLeod Campbell sees the divine condemnation of sin as well as the divine forgiveness of sin.
"There is forgiveness with God". The question has been asked of McLeod Campbell, “Can God not then forgive man freely without any need for the atonement?” He regards this as a hypothetical question. He says that it does not relate to the real situation. Man is estranged from God. Man needs to be reconciled to God. If, in this real situation of estrangement from God, man is to experience His forgiveness, there needs to be a revelation of the divine holiness which condemns sin and the divine love which forgives sin. Without this revelation of God’s holiness and God’s love, man could not be reconciled to God since he would be unaware of the mind of God concerning both his his sin and himself, the sinner. Emphasizing that God’s way of forgiveness take account of man’s real situation of estrangement from God, McLeod Campbell insists that there needs to be more than a bare word of forgiveness. Thus, he sees no conflict between the freedom of God’s forgiveness and His way of atonement through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.
How do the justice and wrath of God fit into McLeod Campbell’s theory of the atonement?
We should not be too quick to assume that he plays down the divine justice and the divine wrath. He insists on the necessity of absolute justice (see his discussion of the notion of “rectorial justice” associated with the modified Calvinism, The Nature of the Atonement, Chapter 4). He describes the wrath of God against sin as a reality with which Christ dealt on behalf of men, “according to it that which was due” (p. 135).
He does not set the love and justice of God over against each other. He does not think of Christ receiving the punishment due to man (or the equivalent referred to in the modified Calvinism). He contends that such an approach gives the legal priority over the filial.
Defenders of penal substitution might argue that McLeod Campbell’s account of their view is a caricature. They would maintain that the source of the atonement is the love of God. They would dissociate themselves from the idea of a loving Son wringing something out of a stern and unwilling Father. McLeod Campbell challenges the internal consistency of their view. He insists that there should be no suggestion that God is made to be forgiving by the atonement.
He maintains that the atonement must be made by God if it is to be adequate. He also insists that it must be made in humanity if it is to be adequate for man. This, he says, has been done in Jesus Christ, the God - Man. Christ has declared to man the perfect love and holiness of God. Christ has, in humanity, made the perfect response to the love and holiness of God.
McLeod Campbell holds that, as the God- Man, Christ dealt with the wrath of God. As God, in humanity, He feels all that the Father, in holiness and love, feels in relation to man’s sin and man, the sinner. As the Man, who is God, He responds perfectly to the love and holiness of God. In Christ’s perfect response to God’s holiness, there is a perfect response to the wrath of God against sin. In this perfect response, the wrath of God is fully apprehended and fully absorbed. Thus, McLeod Campbell maintains that the divine justice receives its due satisfaction (pp. 135-137).
There has been much criticism of his understanding of Christ’s perfect response to the wrath of God. It is important that we attempt to understand what he is saying and what he is not saying. In his idea of the vicarious repentance of Christ, he is not suggesting that the sinner does not need to repent. He says that the sinner will add the “excepted” element of a “personal consciousness of sin”. In the consciousness of the repentant sinner, all that is morally and spiritually true and acceptable to God in his repentance is an ‘Amen’ to Christ’s confession and intercession on man’s behalf. This ‘Amen’ does not involve resting on one’s own repentance. Rather, it involves resting on Christ’s righteousness. In making this point, he stresses that our repentance is not in itself an atonement.
McLeod Campbell insists that he has not replaced a legal fiction with a moral fiction. A moral fiction would involve the idea that Christ felt our sin as His own and the Father heard His confession as one of personal guilt. This view fails to recognize Christ’s personal separation from sin. In his use of the idea of vicarious repentance, McLeod Campbell does not wish to suggest any sense of personal guilt on the part of Christ (p. 400).
In presenting his view of vicarious repentance, McLeod Campbell quotes the words of Jonathan Edwards who said that, if atonement was to be made, there needed to be “either an equivalent punishment or an equivalent sorrow and repentance”. Edwards proceeded to say that “sin must be punished with an infinite punishment”. He assumed that the other alternative was not viable. McLeod Campbell explores this second possibility - “an equivalent sorrow or repentance”.
McLeod Campbell holds that, in relation to both God and man, Christ fulfilled the law of love, the law of God’s being. To man, Christ condemned sin on behalf of God. To God, Christ confessed sin on behalf of man. He describes suffering, in life as well as death, as “the perfect response of the divine holiness and love in humanity to the aspect of the divine mind in the Father towards the sins of men” (p. 141). He describes Christ’s suffering as “vicarious, expiatory, an atonement - an atonement for sin as distinguished from the punishment of sin” (p. 141). He emphasizes that God’s righteous condemnation of sin does not simply demand the suffering. It is expressed in the suffering. He maintains that God’s love does not merely submit to the suffering. It is expressed in the suffering. Atonement is not simply made possible by the incarnation. It is a development of the incarnation.
McLeod Campbell emphasizes the atoning significance of Christ’s entire life. Under the wrath of God yet loved by the Father - this was Christ’s experience throughout His life. Throughout His life, on behalf of sinful man, He bore the condemnation of the divine holiness. Throughout His life, as God’s beloved Son, He declared the divine love for sinners.