Herman Wiersinga on the Atonement

By permission of both the author and The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, the following is reprinted from the recently published book, The New Hermeneutic by Dr. Cornelius Van Til (pp. 208–212). Often called “the heart of the Gospel,” the atonement as taught in Scripture must be clearly understood and all attacks upon it. like that of Wiersinga, must be vigorously opposed.

Of those who stand with Kuitcrt Dr. Herman Wiersinga occupies a place of special importance. He wrote a very thorough and comprehensive work on Reconciliation in Current Theological Discussion (De Verzoening in de Theologische Discussie). We indicate in very brief fashion the fact that Wiersinga, like Kuitert, rejects the traditional methodology of theology and substitutes for it an approach similar to that of the German hermeneutic.

Kuitert concerns himself primarily with the probIcm of hermeneutical interpretation. Wiersinga concerns himself primarily with the content of teaching that follows from the modern method of hermeneutics. Between the two of them they are out to demolish all that has been taught in the past at the Free University of Amsterdam and in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands with respect to the doctrine of Scripture and with respect to the doctrines taught in Scripture. Their works supplement one another neatly.

Wiersinga centers his attention on the need of making the biblical message of atonement or reconciliation intelligible to modern man. More particularly he deals with the problematics of Christ’s “satisfaction” to satisfy divine justice.2

Must we speak of the wrath of God and of the necessity of placating this wrath?

Luther thought that the wrath of God comes to its most patent expression in the cross of Christ. “Christ took the wrath of God upon himself personally. He places himself so to speak between this wrath (of God) and man. In this way he bears and quiets the ira Dei.” According to Calvin the statements of Scripture on the enmity of God are accommodated to our understanding, but this does not mean that they are inaccurate. According to Calvin as well as according to Luther the wrath of God must be quieted (placatio). Calvin does not hesitate to designate the ‘historcal’ turn from wrath to grace (with the word) placatio, quieting.3

Turning to the Heidelberg Confession, says Wiersinga, we see the same idea expressed in the answer to question fourteen. It says explicitly that Christ bore “the burden of the wrath of God against sin.” Christ has taken our curse upon him. He placed himself before the tribunal of God and took the entire curse away from me. “The same sentiment is present in the N.C.B. and in the canons of Dordt. Thus it appears that not only Calvin but also the Confessions constructed in terms of his thinking describe the death of Christ on the cross as a placatio of the wrath of God.”4

Turning now to recent theological discussion we discover that: according to it (1) God himself is the subject of wrath: (2) God’s wrath is motivated through the sin of man and (3) God’s wrath is correlative to his love.5

Just as in the case of Scripture modem theology seeks to do justice to the human factor in biblical teaching with respect to atonement. The N.T. regards the turn from God’s wrath to his grace as real. In the Son the triune God comes to us and turns his wrath away. Therewith he calls upon us to turn to him. God’s turn toward us completes itself in correlation with our turn. Thus our faith is determinative and indispensable in our reconciliation.

The question remains whether we must speak of an objective turn in that Christ bore the wrath of God and placated it. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks constantly ,of liberating liS from the wrath of God by bearing it for us. “But is this formulation based on proper Scripture exegesis?” What did Christ mean when he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” What does Paul mean in the famous Galatians 3:13 passage: “Christ has set us free from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us?” Did Christ give “satisfaction” to the wrath of God?6

Does God’s justice require satisfaction?7 What was the nature of the work of Christ? What does it mean that Christ offered himself?8 What is the significance of the blood of Christ?9 Wiersinga’s answer, to such questions, is that the satisfaction “theory” of atonement is not based on proper biblical exegesis.10

We need, he contends, to set forth an alternative view.11 We must begin with the factuality of the suffering of Christ on the cross.12 And then, of course, we must interpret this fact.

The Confession of 1967 may be thought of as a worthwhile effort to place our problems—interpersonal and international—into contact with the biblical history of reconciliation.13

Wiersinga says he seeks, for an alternative view along the lines of Reformational thinking and that means according to biblical patterns.14 These patterns must serve us as criteria.

The first criterion lies in the fact that the New Testament writers take history very seriously. Boman has spoken of lsraelitish thinking as dynamic. This over against the static thinking of the Greeks.15

We must not theologize in a scholastic-metaphysical or in an existentialistanthropological way. Apparently Wiersinga wants to follow the via media indicated by Kuitert. He refers at this point with approval to Kuitert‘s work on The Reality of Faith and to his discussion of the antimetaphysical tendency thinking of present day theological development.

Secondly, Wiersinga wants, with Kuitert, to think along covenantal lines. The deeds of God and of man are covenantally related to one another.

If we think covenantally, i.e., historically, then we can escape the scholastic notion of competition between the deeds of Cod and of man. On this point Wiersinga appeals for support to Berkouwer. Berkouwer, it will be remembered, refuses to follow the use . . .

Between the two of them [Kuitert and Wiersinga] they are out to demolish all that has been taught in the past at the Free University of Amsterdam and in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands with respect to the doctrine of Scripture and with respect to the doctrines taught in Scripture. Their works supplement one another neatly.

. . . of causal categories of the synod of Dordt lest we fall into dualism and contradiction. Thirdly, the New Testament regards the history of redemption as a “still continuing history” (nog-voortgaande geschiedenis); “the atonement too is a not yet completed event.”16

The event on Golgotha, and the event of the present when we are confronted with the word of the cross—as we ourselves ‘administer’ the atonement and God speaks through the mouth of his ‘messengers’ (II Cor. 5, 18, 20) are in the nature of the case not identical, but they do lie on the same line of history (maar liggen wel op de ene lijn van de geschiedenis). Then God did his work, unrepeatable, and men responded to that work with their deeds: together atonement was effected (samen kwam er verzoening tot stand). “Now God does his work—the cross is portrayed before our eyes’(Gal. 3:1), unrepealable, and men respond with their reactions: a new atonement is effected. Of course one can maintain that the redemptive history after the New Testament period is measured by the norm of salvation history ‘an Heilsgeschichte normiert,’ i.e., by the revealed salvation history of Jesus’ first appearance, but we are concerned in both cases with history on the same level.”17

If we do not have this consciousness of “one continuing history in which the past, the present and the future arc subject to the control of the living Lord the problem of the der garstige breite Graben . . . which Lessing saw between the past of Jesus and my present today looms up before us.” We cannot then have a truly biblical view of atonement unless we think of it as taking place in (inklusive Geschichte). Kuitert was right in taking over this point of view from Barth.18

With Kuitert Wiersinga asserts that reconciliation is “a process that proceeds in the history of the church, in however fragmentary fashion. It is Geschichte in every present.”19

With the idea of atonement as taking place in inclusive Geschichte we can at last present the gospel of the New Testament in a way that modern man can understand it and that, primarily, because we now understand it ourselves better than we ever did before.20

We now look at Golgotha not as the place where the judgment of God comes down upon Christ but as the place where we men manifest ourselves in our deepest intentions. “Jesus provoked our guilt and called it forth.” On the other side we must accept the cross, as the undeniable and unsurpassable proof of the love of Jesus for men, even of God’s love for the world. On the cross Jesus made “love unto the end” effective in the world.21

The first effect was repentance. The second effect is positive. We arise to newness of life. “Christ arises effectively: as the first of men, qua homo novus.” A revolution takes place. Atonement is administered.22

Here then. says Wiersinga, is a doctrine of atonement “which does not proceed from the satisfaction idea but docs seek to honor the biblical narrative of atonement.”23

This alternative view of atonement is intelligible to modern man as the traditional view was not. Wiersinga again appeals to Kuitert at this point.24 Modern man thinks in terms of the historicity of all reality. He can appreciate the presentation of the gospel “as a still proceeding act.” An “atonement-without-satisfaction” is clearly applicable, particularly “in the field of criminal law and that of the world of political relationships.”25

It is apparent from this brief survey of Wiersinga‘s book that he is in basic agreement with Kuitert. Wiersinga’s argument does not proceed with a fanfare of trumpets as does the argument of Kuitert but its basic supposedly anti-metaphysical assumption is the same as that of Kuitert, namely, that of process philosophy.

The thinking of both men is basically the same. Both men want to bring the gospel of Christ to modern man and both men, in seeking to do so reduce the gospel so that the natural man need see no scandal in it.

Where is the scandal for the natural man in a gospel that is based on human autonomy instead of upon the self-referential and self-attesting Christ of Scripture? Where is the scandal for the natural man in which Christ differs from other men on the one hand by being more basically contingent and on the other hand by being more basically identical with the idea of abstract rationality? And where is the intelligibility of a gospel in which the Christ, in terms of whom it is supposed to be made intelligible is nothing more than the intersectionpoint between the abstract principle of pure contingency and the abstract principle of fate?

Of course both men personally cling to the Christ of Luther and Calvin. but in speaking of this Christ to modern man both men use the categories of a Kantian philosophy and such a philosophy is destructive of the Christ of Scriptures.

Wiersinga and Kuitert believe, G. C. Berkouwer has shown us that the gospel of sovereign grace could not be expressed in the causal categories of Dordt. We must, with him, avail ourselves of the modern personal categories more recently discovered.26

2. Herman Wiersinga. De Verzoening in de Theologische Discussie (Kampen: J. H. Kok. 1971): p. 10. 3. Ibid., pp. 18–19. 4. Ibid., p. 20. 5. Ibid. 6. Ibid., pp. 33–37. 7. Ibid., p. 68. 8. Ibid., p. 129. 9. Ibid., p. 149. 10. Ibid., p. 165. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid., p. 170.

13. Ibid., p. 181.

14. Ibid., p. 103.

15. Ibid., p. 163.

16. Ibid., p. 184.

17. Ibid., pp. 164–185.

18. Ibid., p. 185.

19. Ibid. 20. Ibid., p. 188. 21. Ibid., p. 189. 22. Ibid., p. 190.

23. Ibid., p. 191.

24. Ibid., p. 199.

25. Ibid., p. 207.

26. The writer has written fully on the radical turn-about of Berkouwer‘s method of theology in The Sovereignty of Grace (Nutley, New Jersey; Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company. 1969).