A critique of the book, "Recovering the Scandal of the Cross," which was required reading for pastors attending Fuller Seminary's "2004 President's Theological Conference for Pastors."

Recovering the Scandal of Liberalism:

Disdaining the Cross

 By Richard Nathan, M.A.*

“Since we have now been justified by his blood,

how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” Romans 5:9[1]



“We believe that the popular fascination with and commitment to penal substitutionary atonement has had ill effect in the life of the church in the United States and has little to offer the global church and mission by way of understanding or embodying the message of Jesus Christ.”

     Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts [2]

“Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion

and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach

a gospel other than the one we preached to you,

let him be eternally condemned!”

(Galatians 1:7-8)


The application of secular scholarship to try and debunk the Gospel isn’t new, but the fact that once highly respected Evangelical publishing houses and seminaries are now doing the same thing is a disturbing resurgence of a tragic pattern. And one Christians need to pay close attention to.

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts, a book that was published by InterVarsity Press and passed out at a recent pastors' conference at Fuller Seminary, launches a full-scale attack on the Gospel by Evangelical scholars. It appears that both InterVarsity and Fuller have decided that the historic Biblical concept of the substitutionary atonement is not sufficient for post-modern Christianity and culture.

But the book goes much farther than that: It is another attack in the long war on the authority of the Bible.


Author Joel B. Green is dean of the school of theology and professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Co-author Mark D. Baker is assistant professor of mission and theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California.


It is not an easy book to read for a number of reasons:


(1)   It is a sustained attempt to make sociology the touchstone of truth instead of the Word of God.

(2)   It is written in "academese," with a lot of assumptions of “Higher Critical Scholarship” underlying its arguments. (“Higher Critical Scholarship” approaches Scripture as if it is just historical writing full of errors and prejudice and not divinely inspired (God-breathed) writing. It arose mainly in Germany starting in the 1700s and was a process of cynicism that developed where atheistic scholars started studying the Bible. Most mainline seminaries today have adopted its methods.) 

(3)   It is written in accordance with liberal political correctness, including the viewpoint of “Christian” feminism.


There are many bad books on the Bible and theology out there. Why read this one? Because Evangelical pastors are reading it and may be persuaded by its arguments. Also, the subject of the book, which is basically why the blood atonement is wrong, is another step in the ongoing assault upon the Word of God and the Gospel—an assault now under the wrapper of an Evangelical seminary and published by an Evangelical publishing house.


The authors claim that their work is just analyzing the "images" of the atonement to help spread the "Gospel." But, instead, they are rejecting the Biblical teaching of the blood atonement by distorting Biblical exegesis and church history. (Exegesis is clarifying the meaning of the original intent of the Biblical author, e.g. what did Paul or Jeremiah mean when they wrote.)


Let’s take a look at their deceptive methods.



The Authors' Methods of Argument

1.   Elevate secular scholarship over Scripture. The authors analyze the Bible through sociological and economic (perhaps Marxist) eyes (p. 39). They see the Bible as historical literature without a common voice of the Holy Spirit behind the individual authors. On p. 99, they quote as positive Herman-Emiel Mertens’ comments on the Bible:

"’Images of Christ and conceptions of salvation bear the marks of the prevailing cultural consciousness and are only temporarily relevant. They do not remain always and everywhere equally useful. Some “age” quicker than others.'”[3] [bold added] 

2.    Divide Scripture. They divide Scripture in order to dismiss what does not agree with their thesis. For example, they play Luke's writing against Paul's because Luke does not have major portions that deal with the atonement. This is an old trick of liberal scholars. (The same argument is used by pro-homosexual "Bible scholars" to justify accepting homosexual acts as good e.g. "Jesus never mentions homosexuality. It’s just Paul, the uptight Pharisee who condemns it.”) 

3.    Dismiss New Testament authors. Though they don't say it obviously, the authors assume that some of the books of the New Testament were not written by the apostolic author claimed in each book but by a later imitator (on John, p. 77; on Paul, p. 101).


4.    Dismiss parts of the New Testament. When parts of the New Testament disagree with their thesis, they say that these are later additions.


5.   Attack the value of the blood atonement. Under the guise of objectivity, they claim that several views of the atonement have value. However, in contradiction, they especially attack the blood atonement, claiming that it is not biblical and is harmful and useless for the "modern world."


6.   Claim objectivity. They imply that their own method of sociological analysis is not culture bound and that it enables them to judge both the Bible and church history in some objective fashion. This ties in with the post-modernist ideology that is current within our ever-expanding New Age culture.

7.   They greatly downplay or dismiss the role of law in the Old and New Testaments. They claim that the “Biblical image” of God as judge is passé and irrelevant to modern culture or to the spread of the Gospel, and that the concept of God as judge only works in “guilt-based” cultures.[4](p. 32).

A bizarre example of the authors’ criticism of Evangelical theology is evident in the following quote:


Many of us have been to a carnival—either in reality or through the virtuality of television—and have experienced that clever act where a dressed-up wooden dummy is enabled to ‘speak’ by means of a ventriloquist’s talent. In recent decades among evangelicals, Christian reflection on the atonement has had a touch of the carnivalesque, with Luke or Peter or some other New Testament writer made up to speak in someone else’s voice. In this vaudevillian act Luke is the mannequin, and the levers of his mouth are controlled by the Pauline interpreter. Dressed up to resemble another New Testament writer like Paul or attached by puppet strings to a historical Christian figure like Anselm or Martin Luther, many New Testament writers lose their distinctive presence. They are not allowed to speak with their own voices.”[5]


This picture is so strange that it is both a wonder that they should use it and a revelation of the contempt they have for the truth of Scripture as a whole and for historical Evangelical theology.


Thus, they try to split Scripture from Scripture (the classic phrase for Evangelical Biblical interpretation is comparing Scripture with Scripture). Saying that the writings of Luke are manipulated by “the Pauline interpreter” is saying that if one believes Paul’s teaching and uses Paul’s doctrines to look at Luke, then this is a dishonest treatment of Luke because the doctrines of Paul are alien in Luke. Therefore, they say that it is worse than useless to compare Scripture with Scripture—it is manipulation.


The authors then deprecate theologians like Anselm and Luther, accusing them of manipulating the Scriptures, in order to dismiss their conclusions. To say such a thing about Luther is tantamount to attacking the foundations of Protestant-Evangelical theology and Biblical interpretation and accusing it as false. Of course, this implies that their interpretation is not a manipulation—something they can only argue for on the basis of their assumptions: that secular sociological methods uncover the real meaning of Scripture and make their interpretation “objective” and “non-manipulative.”


The accusation is that Evangelical teaching does this to Scripture: “They [Scriptures] are not allowed to speak with their own voices.” Their assumption is that their own method (splitting Scripture from Scripture) is superior to seeing a unified voice of the Holy Spirit working through different (but inspired) authors.



Paul and the Significance of Jesus’ Death


“Here, then, lies the crux of Paul’s interest in the cross: at the intersection of the objective reality of the cross as saving event and the subjective means by which he comprehends and communicates that reality. By ‘subjective’ we do not mean ‘impressionistic’ or ‘individualistic’; rather, we want to draw attention to the context-specific ways in which Paul has chosen to articulate the nature of his atonement theology. Taking seriously this subjective dimension of Paul’s message, we should not be tempted to confuse the various metaphors he uses for describing the death of Jesus and its effects—sacrifice, for example, or justification—with the actuality of the atonement.[6] [Italics added]


“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”

(Romans 3:25)

 To write as they do, especially in the last sentence, is to make key Biblical words, such as justification(!), into metaphors that are not descriptive of the atonement. This is an attempt to deconstruct the theology (the truth) of the Bible. They are denying again the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing of Scripture through Paul. They insist the form of the words is a product of Paul’s intention (and thus is driven by Paul’s desires).

“He wants through his preaching, whether oral or written, to decimate those ideals, norms, values and behaviors that stand in conflict with the community of God’s people oriented around the cross of Christ. . . . To put it differently, the battle in which Paul is engaged is in an important sense one of rhetoric.”[7]


The authors seek by their arguments to demean the Word of God by calling it occasional, not eternal. Their argument is that this is Paul’s strategy for evangelism and discipleship in a specific context—definitely not universal for all time—so that we can create our own metaphors for church growth through new change agents. Their bottom line is clear:


“We believe that the popular fascination with and commitment to penal substitutionary atonement has had ill effect in the life of the church in the United States and has little to offer the global church and mission by way of understanding or embodying the message of Jesus Christ.”[8]


Interestingly, the authors never deal with the concepts of heaven or hell, the devil, or the physical resurrection of Christ in relation to the atonement or the cross. It is an argument from silence, as if these aspects are of no importance to the preaching of the Gospel.



Sociological Scripture Twisting


In the development of modern Bible study, sociological or cultural analysis has had a place. In some instances, it provides positive results that clarify the Word. For example, studying the role of shepherds and their practices has made clearer such phrases as "I am the gate to the sheep pen" (John 10:7-10) because it was found that Near Eastern shepherds laid across the opening of the sheep pen and literally became the gate!


On the other hand, some of these sociological Bible scholars have used such studies to try to prove that the Word of God is culture bound; that is, rather than being a revelation of God for all times and cultures, the Scripture is limited by what they claim are Near Eastern culture and ways of communicating.


In addition, the authors of this particular book use a distorted picture of Biblical times to make their comparisons. For example, they start their analyses of the teachings of Jesus by putting them in the context of Roman culture and rule, which was a recent phenomenon in Palestine at the time Jesus lived. The authors assume that Roman influence was so strong in the life and thought of the Jewish people that Jesus shaped His teaching as a kind of social critic of what they called the "Roman patronal system.” This way of viewing the Scripture arises from a Marxist historical view of class struggle and rebellion against the propertied (in this case, the Roman ruling class). With such a basic presupposition, they go on to reduce the scope of Jesus’ teaching to merely that of a social and economic critic (pp. 39-40).


Their analyses leave out the long history of Jewish society and culture, the effect of the long rule of the Greeks, and the influence of Hellenistic culture and the cultures of the other Near Eastern nations that surrounded Judah.


So the authors not only misuse sociology, they use inaccurate sociology at that.


Armed with the above analytical methods, and the practice of using Scripture against Scripture, the authors proceed to read out the obvious New Testament teaching of the blood atonement. Although the teaching is crystal clear in the Bible, they say the images used (e.g. sacrifice, redemption, curse, debt, and so forth) just reflect local ways of looking at things by first century Jews and the early church. Their view is definitely not that the Word of God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8) or is a hammer that breaks the rock (Jeremiah 23:29).


But in regard to the place of guilt and punishment, Paul writes in Romans 2:5-6:

"But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath when his righteous judgment is revealed. God will give to each person according to what he has done."

In addition, although almost the whole of the Old Testament deals with guilt and judgment, they ignore those many examples. (See Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest of the Old Testament!)


In summation, their two chapters on Scripture, the cross, and the New Testament, which they have subtitled “A Mélange of Voices,” violently distort the Biblical teaching of the blood atonement. (A mélange is defined as a mixture of often incongruous elements according to Miriam Webster's College Dictionary, 10th Ed., 1994.)  


They judge the theories of the atonement using a wide variety of Scripture twisting to disestablish the Bible as God's revelation as given through the apostles and the prophets (see 2 Peter 1:20-21). In some places, they say with some validity that the blood atonement is one of many images, but, as we shall see, their real motive is to overturn the concept of the substitutionary atonement, which is one of the pillars of Evangelicalism.


The Feminist Critique


“The shadow of the punitive father must always lurk behind the atonement.

He haunts images of forgiving grace.”[9]


This statement, which is quoted by the authors as insightful, applauds feminist theologians who reject the concept of the substitutionary atonement as an aspect of “patriarchal” Christianity that is distorted and propagated by “patriarchal” Christians.


The authors sum up popular atonement theory as a simplistic distortion of Anselm of Canterbury’s concept, but they deny that Scripture directly teaches it. Anselm’s theory states:


“According to this theory, humanity has, in its sin, turned away from God and so merits divine punishment. Jesus in his death on the cross, died in the place of (as a substitution for) sinful humanity at God’s behest, and in doing so he took upon himself the punishment humanity ought to have suffered.”[10]


What do the authors offer in its place? Besides the Freudian analysis offered above about the “punitive father” lurking behind the atonement, another of their quotes goes so far as to equate the substitutionary atonement with sadomasochism:


“Pushing further, Beverly W. Harrison and Carter Heyward have insisted, ‘As the classical portrait of the punitive character of this divine-human transaction, Anselm of Canterbury’s doctrine of atonement . . . probably represents the sadomasochism of Christian teaching at its most transparent.’”[11]


Their final summary of the substitutionary atonement leaves us with emptiness:


“As such, when criticisms of this view are raised, we can do nothing less than admit straightforwardly that, on biblical and traditional grounds, this contemporary manifestation of atonement theology is both deficient and disturbing.”[12]



A Recurring Tragedy


How did today’s church come to such a sad state of affairs? Is what Green and Baker’s book doing new? How are we to respond? Being armed with Scripture and history can help us stand in the battle.


History reveals three major waves in the past two hundred years, all with basically the same shape: Evangelicals under the onslaught of worldly ideas became intimidated, and rather than holding to the historic faith compromised by downplaying the inerrancy and authority of the Bible.


When the foundation of Scriptural authority is lost, it becomes an inevitable process that basic doctrines become questionable. And when basic doctrines become questionable, the Church founders, and truth is up for grabs.


The Three Waves of Liberalism


I.     The Early 1800s: Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and The Romantic Movement         

II.    The Early 1900s: Liberalism's Triumph in America Among Evangelicals

III.   The Neo-Liberal (New Age) Revival Among Evangelicals in Our Time

I.   Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Romantic Movement.


The importance for our own times of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Romantic Movement cannot be overstated, for the same themes are being replayed today, and Recovering the Scandal of the Cross echoes them.


The Romantic Movement was a turning away from reason and the focus on the Word to an emphasis on imagination, emotion, and a focus on symbols. And as its primary promoter who led much of European Evangelism into the unfaithfulness of liberalism, Schleiermacher is considered “the Father of Liberalism.”


Friedrich Schleiermacher was a graduate of Halle University in Germany, which at that time (the early 1800s) represented a sophisticated Pietism. Pietism was a renewal movement in the Lutheran Church that was not Word centered; rather, it tended to look down on theology and emphasize and elevate spiritual experience and warmhearted faith. However, as time went by, this school, founded to produce missionaries, embraced a cynical approach to Scripture.


In the face of the contempt of Biblical critics who were trying to demean the historicity of the Scripture, and in order to preserve the Church in the face of the cultural divisions of that time, Schleiermacher taught that such mystical experience was the centerpiece of Christian faith. He said essentially: "What does it matter if some historical events weren't true? My faith is based in a mystical experience of the transcendent—the holy." This removed Christianity and Scripture from the sharp scalpel of the critics, but, sadly, it so reduced Biblical theology that it ended up moving away from the centrality of the Bible and the importance of sanctified reason.


II.   The Early 1900s: Liberalism's Triumph in America Among Evangelicals


In the early 1900s, a double tidal wave assailed believers. Both Darwinian evolutionary philosophy and German skeptical Biblical criticism (also known as “Higher Criticism”) inundated many mainline Evangelical churches in the United States (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and so forth). They became intimidated about the authority and infallibility of Scripture and the classic Evangelical doctrines that were derived from Scripture. This spawned a movement, especially among clergy and seminary professors, called Modernism (or Liberalism).


These people sought to rescue Evangelicalism from its attachment to what they viewed as "archaic" doctrines (such as the concept of a literal Adam and Eve and a literal resurrection). In the process, they changed fundamental doctrines to conform to liberal assumptions. The conservative sections of these denominations resisted with a series of books called The Fundamentals. Written by Evangelical scholars, these pillars of Evangelical Christianity represented the basic Protestant doctrines since the Reformation (from 1517 on): the Trinity, the incarnation, the two natures of Christ (man and God), the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the blood atonement, the infallibility of the Bible, and so forth.


III.   The New Liberal Revival Among Evangelicals in Our Time


The publication of The Fundamentals and the ensuring battles in the seminaries did not stem the tide of Modernism. On the contrary, the Evangelical movement fractured. Many mainline denominations had liberal leadership (even though the lay people did not necessarily share their views). New denominations were formed out of the conservative minority who were driven out or chose to leave.


Comparing recent events and trends in Evangelicalism with these movements of an earlier time shows some revealing commonalities.


1.      Evangelical seminaries are getting better-educated professors, many of whom are now trained at secular schools or liberal seminaries and adopting the methods of “Higher Criticism.”


2.      The popularity of psychotherapies based on Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and those who come after them have been more or less embraced by many mainstream Evangelical churches and seminaries. Such psychotherapies are permeated with pagan and occult concepts.


3.      There has been an acceptance of the tools of secular sociology in seminaries.


4.      With the advent of the Church Growth Movement, many churches have adopted modern business practices, with their accompanying pragmatic approach to doctrines.


As shown above, since the 1800s there has been a cyclical movement in which parts of the Evangelical churches have been yielding and conforming to the culture and compromising the faith in an attempt to appeal to the unsaved and becoming, in the process, a new branch of apostate religion.


The occult influx. And at the same time, another factor can be discerned. In the spiritual vacuum caused by compromised Christianity is the influx of occult (and in our time called New Age) teachings and practices. This flood is pouring not only into the culture but into the churches as well.


In the 1800s, the Romantic Movement emphasized mythology, dreams, visions, and witchcraft. In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung provided the deceptive emphasis on the supposedly hidden motivations of human life. (Occult means hidden.) This helped open the door in our times to the New Age Movement, neo-paganism, and the fascination with myth and magic, which the popularity of such blockbusters as the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and many others shows. However, this fascination is not reserved to the unsaved; many Christians are embracing mythology as well and celebrating it as a new way of wholeness and healing.


Thus, the undiscerning acceptance of and enthusiasm for this modern ungodly idolatry and mythology are a resurgence of those same seductive snares that led God’s people away from the Word and obedience to Him in times past. This is evident both in the Old and New Testaments and throughout the long history of the church.




In conclusion, throughout the book the authors try to sound fair while ultimately rejecting the commonly held Gospel that Christ died for sinners. Their logic can be summed up as follows:


1.     The Bible does not teach the substitutionary atonement; rather, Anselm came up with the theory.

2.     The theory has been distorted by modern conservative Evangelicals and is defunct and harmful.

3.     We need new images based on perceived needs to “spread the Gospel” [What Gospel?] to the modern multicultural world.

“How can we be sure that the results of our integrative and contextual work will be authentically Christian? . . . [T]he fundamentally historical character of our faith demands that a theology that is authentically Christian be shaped in particular historical exigencies. . . . In the short term there are no guarantees that the end result will be authentically Christian.”[13]

All they have to offer are uncertainty after uncertainty:


1.    Uncertainty about knowing God.


“First we see in Scripture and come to believe that God and his ways cannot be fully understood nor in any way circumscribed by the models, images and words we have chosen.”[14] [Italics in original]


2.   Uncertainty about the consistency of Scripture:


“Though behind the various books of the Bible we believe there stands the one voice and purpose of God, as we hear these individual books, we also hear a diversity of voices . . . In fact, in many cases, the words of Scripture stand in dynamic tension.”[15]


3.   Uncertainty about good and bad doctrines:


“[I]t would be unthinkable for Christians today or in any age to declare that those who do not hold to such-and-such a view of the atonement reside outside the boundaries of authentic Christian faith.”[16]


Contrary to their uncertainties, the truth is that God has given us certainty and clarity about salvation and sanctification.


“To him who loves us and has freed us

from our sins by his blood…”

(Rev. 1:5)


* Richard Nathan holds a Master of Arts in Religion in Church History and has been a Bible teacher for over twenty years. He wrote his thesis on the debate over the inerrancy of Scripture in a historical analysis. To contact Richard, email: Richard@logosword.com. View other articles at www.logosword.com.




1. Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 220.

2. Note: All Scripture references are NIV version.

3. Mertens, Herman-Emiel. "Not the Cross but the Crucified: An Essay in Soteriology," LTMP 1 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 63-64.

4. Scandal, 32.

5. Scandal, 68.

6. Scandal, 65.

7. Scandal, 66.

8. Scandal, 220.

9. Scandal, 91. Original all in italics.

10. Scandal, 90.

11. Scandal, 91-92.

12. Scandal, 92.

13. Scandal, 217-218.

14. Scandal, 218.

15. Scandal, 218-219.

16. Scandal, 219.