Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Book Review: "The Truth of the Cross" by R. C. Sproul

A Book Review:
The Truth of the Cross
by R. C. Sproul
Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007

Through the generosity of Ligonier Ministries, I have been given permission to review this book by R. C. Sproul. Rev. Sproul is a Presbyterian minister who has had an active multimedia apostolate for over 30 years. I have listened to many teaching tapes from his oeuvre and have found them to be very educational and enlightening. His excellent series on historical apologetics covers the Church Fathers up through the modern day and has a fine exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas. He also has a short series on Roman Catholicism which I found to be most interesting and helpful for showing us Catholics how we are perceived by some of our separated brethren. Rev. Sproul is a great popularizer of the Christian faith who is able to take complex ideas and render them into understandable form for the masses.

Rev. Sproul is very much an ‘old fashioned’ five-point Calvinist and has not been much influenced by any of the major modern movements in Calvinist theology. This has both positive and negative connotations for Catholics who read or listen to his work. In many ways his approach to the Bible – especially the Old Testament – is quite traditional and helpful for Catholics. For example, I recommend his lectures on the Holiness of God most highly.

Sadly, when it comes to New Testament exposition, he has some very serious blind spots in which he allows the systematic speculations of conservative Calvinism to interfere with his explanation of the Biblical text. In particular, Rev. Sproul still holds to a very narrow, 16th Century understanding of the Protestant doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone” which ignores the more recent contributions of the New Perspective on St. Paul and the re-evaluation of the place of the Epistle of St. James in the wisdom tradition central to the ministry of Jesus.

The focus of his new book “The Truth of the Cross” is on the atonement that was wrought by Christ on the Cross. This is not intended to be a scholarly study, but a popular exposition aimed at informing the person in the pew what it was that Jesus accomplished for us by His death.

The first 4 chapters give a superb exposition of the Biblical background that led up to the need for atonement. They even gave a brief treatment of some of the Patristic and early Medieval developments in our understanding of the Atonement. It is important for Catholics to remember that we are thoroughly Augustinian in our soteriology. I think Christians of all stripes will find these chapters both useful and accessible. By the time you finish these chapters you will understand the several different theories of the atonement and how each scheme can play a part in God’s overall plan for salvation.

In Chapter 5, he began a discussion of substitutionary atonement which is again quite traditional and accessible. I particularly liked his treatment of propitiation and expiation in which he shows both their differences from each other and how they are complementary. This chapter is filled with excellent biblical exegesis and exposition.

After all the good exposition of the first 5 chapters, Chapter 6 was a major let down. It is the weakest chapter in the book and, coincidentally, the one with the least biblical exegesis. Rev. Sproul tries to make the case for a theology of imputation in which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer while at the same time the sinfulness of the believer is imputed to Christ. This is a traditional Calvinist theological speculation which in recent years has come under fire from among Calvin scholars.

John Calvin had a strong notion of ‘union with Christ’ which was distinctly his own and different from both the schema of Luther and of later Calvinist theologies. This can be seen in books such as “Union With Christ and the Extent of the Atonement in Calvin (Studies in Biblical Literature, Vol. 48)” by Kevin Dixon Kennedy, Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard” (Columbia Series in Reformed Theology) by Dennis E. Tamburello, and “Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ” (Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology) by J. Todd Billings.

I was very disappointed that Sproul did not interact positively with this cutting edge theme in Calvin scholarship.

Catholic and Arminian scholars have been pointing out for several centuries that there is not a single verse in the Bible which describes any imputative exchange of righteousness and sinfulness between Christ and the believer. What the Bible does say is this:

Romans 4:9 …We say that faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness.
Romans 4:20-25
20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,
21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
22 That is why his faith was "imputed to him as righteousness."
23 But the words, "it was imputed to him," were written not for his sake alone,
24 but for ours also. It will be imputed to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,
25 who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

In short, it is our faith in Jesus as our Savior that is imputed or reckoned to the Christian as righteousness, not any transferred ‘righteousness of Christ.’ By this faith we are united with Christ in Baptism and made into a new creation (Romans 6:4). We cease being “slaves of sin” and become “slaves of righteousness” which leads inexorably to sanctification and to the fruit of that sanctity, eternal life (Romans 6:22). This is not the language of a forensic exchange but of an ontological transformation in Christ.

The whole idea of a forensic exchange of moral attributes is based not biblical presuppositions, but rather on the late medieval philosophy of Nominalism. Nominalism denied that there were any universal essences. Alleged universal concepts were merely names that described particular objects. As such, the universal ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were arbitrary designations. God, as the most powerful entity, was permitted to name his creatures whatever he liked by an exercise of His Divine will. Since the titles ‘righteous’ and ‘sinner’ were nothing but arbitrary names, God was permitted to have the last word on which designations that describes his particular creatures.

In an Essentialist worldview such as we see in the Bible, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, it is not possible to treat ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as mere external labels. What is needed to change a bad person into a good person is a true ontological change in the essential nature of the being in question.

Failure to grasp these philosophical points leads Sproul to misrepresent Catholic teaching:
The Roman Catholic Church holds the position that man’s character is not completely tainted, but that he retains a little island of righteousness. (Page 85)

This is not correct. Catholicism insists that man possesses several natural goods to which his human nature tends without the necessity of grace. But these are not supernatural goods, do not lead to salvation, and garner no merit before God. But they are the very seeds upon which grace works in order to elevate the merely human good work to one that pleases God. We insist that grace builds upon nature. It does not supersede or destroy the good found inherently in the natural man. Instead, it elevates it to another level so that joined with Christ we are able to please the Father in our lives as He did in His own incarnate life.

The Protestant view of ‘total depravity’ is a rarefied form of Manichaeism in which the imputation of sin is placed below the level of moral agency – that is the mind and will – and fixed in the very members of the human person. Thus any inclination of the human being towards any appetite is inherently sinful in Protestant eyes because it does not lead inexorably in the natural man to acts which please God. The distinction Sproul makes between ‘total depravity’ and ‘utter depravity’ is moot. If everything human beings do is sinful, the degree of sinfulness is unimportant. The central problem is that in Sproul’s system, to take in a deep breath is sin in defiance of God. There is absolutely no biblical warrant for such a notion.

Catholicism counters that human inclinations are morally neutral until the mind and he will are engaged. The sinfulness of an act is determined by one’s understanding and intention in the act. Condemning every act of the human person as sinful as the Protestants do is ludicrous. It does not make the right moral distinctions and fails to locate the real source of human sinfulness. This is the consequence of a Nominalist view of morality in which sin is the result of a ‘name-game’, and not a ‘real’ problem. It creates a ‘legal fiction’ in which guilt and innocence are assigned arbitrarily by God without regard to who and what we are.

Sproul does not really appreciate the problems inherent in his thesis. Condemning every human act as sinful makes it seem that it is a sin just to be human. There can be no true examination of conscience or firm purpose of amendment because sin wells up in our members spontaneously and our wills merely rubber stamp our natural impulses. This type of anthropology is pastorally destructive of any true moral discipline.

In my opinion, Chapter 6 is a total wash and I advise Catholic readers to skip over it on a first reading. They may return to it later along with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to more properly critique Sproul’s views from a Catholic perspective.

Chapter 7 takes up the story of the “Suffering Servant” from the prophet Isaiah. This is a fine exposition and very helpful in showing that he suffering of Jesus was not a Christian innovation but had been foretold many centuries earlier. I will quibble with Sproul on his interpretation of Genesis 3:15 (Page 116). I believe that the three clauses in this verse are an example of synthetic (or synonymous) parallelism and that they all refer directly to the Woman, and only indirectly to her seed. This includes the final clause in which she is prophesied to “crush the head of the serpent.” Franciscan theologians have seen in this verse the predestination from all time of Jesus and Mary together as the New Adam and the New Eve who overthrow the curse of Original Sin and defeat Satan.

Chapter 8 continues to show the continuity between the Cross and Old Testament themes. The exposition is quite good. Sproul accepts St. Thomas Aquinas’ view that Jesus was truly forsaken by God the Father in his humanity while on the Cross as a way of Jesus fully experiencing the alienation of sin. St. Thomas believed that Jesus had the Beatific Vision in his Divine person from the moment of his conception and that during this time of abandonment Jesus did not allow his Divine personhood to confer consolations to the faculties of his human nature. From a Catholic viewpoint, this was a particularly good chapter.

Chapter 9 was a long defense of a particular understanding of the Calvinist idea of ‘Limited Atonement.’ Sproul breaks with Hyper-Calvinists by seeing the atonement wrought by Christ to be sufficient to save all men while not necessarily being effective to save all men. The distinction here is very helpful and is in fact part of Catholic orthodoxy. On the whole, Catholicism is willing to see a wider franchise than what Sproul favors in this chapter. He implies that an explicit faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. It has always been the Catholic position that an implicit faith could be accepted by God as worthy of the grace of salvation purely at the Lord’s good pleasure. There is no salvation by ignorance of the truth, but there can be salvation by God’s saving knowledge of us and the exercise of His graciousness towards sinners in circumstances which He deems fitting.

The 10th and final chapter consists of a series of questions and answers. It delves a little more deeply into theological issues and makes some comments on the signs of the times. I found all of the answers to be helpful and I think many Catholics will benefit from them.

In summary, I found this to be a very useful and inexpensive book for explaining the traditional understanding of the Cross and the Atonement from a conservative Protestant perspective. It also can be helpful to Catholics and makes fine Lenten reading. I have noted several caveats above primarily with regard to Chapter 6. I would hope that in future editions, Sproul will deal with other theories of the application of the benefits of Christ other than the double imputation schema. I would especially recommend that he deal with the “union with Christ” schema which is at the cutting edge of Calvin studies and can play a major role in increasing ecumenical understanding.

Arthur C. Sippo MD, MPH