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The Megashift Debate

Debate featuring Michael Horton and Clark Pinnock


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This discussion took place in September, 1990 on radio station KBRT in Los Angeles, and was moderated by host Greg Koukl.

Moderator: Mike, could you describe the theological shift that has taken place so that we all can have a clear idea of what we're talking about?

Horton: Sure. What we are basically talking about here is an answer to the questions, "What did Christ come to earth to do?", and that ancient question of Anselm, "Why did God become man?" Recently I have noticed quite a number differing answers among evangelicals. There used to be a consensus, more so than there is today, on what the atonement actually accomplished and what it was intended to accomplish. There are basically four views that have historically marked Protestants. The "moral influence theory" teaches that the cross of Christ's main purpose is to educate us in the love of God and to move us toward self sacrifice for others. The "governmental theory" of the atonement teaches that Christ serves primarily as a governor and sin has violated his government and so the cross is a demonstration, or a symbolic act, of how seriously God takes sin. There is also the "Christus Victor" view, which teaches that the purpose of the cross of Christ was to achieve victory over powers, over demons, over sickness and death. And finally, the "sacrifice/satisfaction" theory of the atonement has been at the heart of historic Protestantism, and that is the theory that teaches, more than anything, Christ came to earth in order to deal with the sin issue in terms of forgiveness. It's not primarily healing, it's not primarily a demonstration of love, it's not primarily a demonstration of justice, although all those things are accomplished by the cross, but only because the cross is effective primarily and first of all as a sacrifice for our sins.

Moderator: So this particular view or "model" really emphasizes the fact that every man has broken God's law and first and foremost we are liable to God to keep his law, and since we have broken his law we have incurred his wrath and therefore something must be done to deal with this judicial problem?

Horton: Yes, it is a courtroom model.

Moderator: So are you saying that the other theories of the atonement don't play a part at all, or that they don't adequately tell the whole story by themselves?

Horton: The latter. I would say that they are very important parts of any theory of the atonement, but unless the sacrificial, legal nature of the atonement is maintained, there is no ultimate triumph, there is no ultimate demonstration of love and justice in the universe.

Moderator: So what are we really talking about here. What, in laymen's terms, is really at stake here?

Horton: Well, what we're really talking about here, again, is what the atonement achieved. If you've wondered why you have heard less about sin, hell, judgment or condemnation from your local pulpit, but instead have heard more talk about God as a loving father without referring to justification and guilt and those types of concepts, it's probably because this shift has taken place. And so the teaching and preaching on a very practical level is informed and shaped by this sort of shift.

Moderator: So a hundred years ago or so, the emphasis might have been more on hell and wrath such as, "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God," whereas today the emphasis is on the relational aspect of God's love, God's role as a provider, that he cares for all his children and has provided a way for us to know him. Are you saying that in this shift we are losing something in the process that is vital to orthodox Christian understanding?

Horton: Yes. R.C. Sproul once said it used to be "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God" and now it's "God in the hands of angry sinners." We've seen a shift from a God-centered focus to a man-centered focus probably in part because of the tremendous influence of psychology replacing theology in many pulpits across the country.

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock, do you feel that there is a shift taking place away from the older model that Mike described, and if so, do you think it is an appropriate one?

Pinnock: Yes, but I think of the shift as being more broad than just focusing on the cross. It mainly has to do with how God relates to us. In the old model, God is a monarch whose will is always carried out. It is a harsh and negative model, you know, "Sinners in the hand's of an angry God." The newer model stresses more the love of God and his dynamic relationship with people which puts more significance on human action than the older view, which tends to be kind of fatalistic.

Moderator: Now Dr. Pinnock, is this shift just an attempt to contextualize the gospel to make it more palatable to people who cannot relate to the legal, judicial framework, but who might relate better to the proclamation of God's love? In other words, are we communicating the same message in different ways or would you say there are some fundamental differences in the way you perceive the message and the nature of the work of the cross than what Mike Horton has just described?

Pinnock: I think of it as contextualization, that is, what do we want to say first, how do we want to organize what we say, what do we want to say is the most important thing out of a number of things that the Bible says about the cross. I do want to say that the courtroom is part of the pattern of the cross in the New Testament, and this is not to be dropped, but it's just that today it might be wiser to start with another point of the cross than this and not make it so all-consuming.

Moderator: In what way, then, is the good news meaningful without the context of the bad news?

Pinnock: That's an interesting question. I think, however, that often people today come to the bad news later. First they are attracted to the gospel because God showed his love for them in Jesus and then they find out more of what that involves. And of course Jesus himself came with good news, not bad news. He preached the good news of the kingdom and then urged people to repent and believe, so I have no trouble with starting with the good news.

Moderator: What do you think about this Mike, did Jesus start with the good news in your view?

Horton: Well, it depended upon the audience. For instance, if he was talking to people who already knew that they were sinners, such as the prostitute, there wasn't a lot of bad news that needed to be told. But if he was talking to the Pharisees it was a quite different kind of presentation. I think, though, both with the prostitute and with the Pharisee, Jesus appealed to the courtroom model. Think, for example of John chapter 3 where Jesus not only says that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son," but in the very next verse he says "he who does not believe in him is condemned already." And if that's not enough courtroom language he gives us the term verdict, "This is the verdict." What we are saying is the only way for the cross to be a sign of God's love, which indeed it is, or a sign of God's justice, which it is, or Christ's victory over the powers of evil; in order for it to be that, the substitutionary, legal theory must predominate. In other words, it is not as though the substitutionary theory is equal to the other models and we can just pick and choose according to the mood of the day, but that the substitutionary/sacrificial model is the cause of which these other models are the effects.

Moderator: So when Dr. Pinnock says Jesus brought the good news first, you would say that doesn't tell the whole story, rather, it depended upon the particular situation. Do you think that is a fair analysis, Dr. Pinnock?

Pinnock: Yes, I suppose so. I guess the prodigal son parable would be the image the new model people would tend to think of, where God is not described as angry or judgmental, but a father who has been really hurt who wants his child to return.

Moderator: Is that model, the model described there in the parable of the prodigal son, a model that you would feel comfortable using? Is this the one that you gravitate to?

Pinnock: Yes, and that I think is what the megashift is all about, the family imagery rather than the court room imagery.

Moderator: The distinctions between the two positions are not as clear as I would like them to be. I suspect that is not the case, but that there are significant theological differences just under the surface and I would like to get at those. Michael can you clear things up for me?

Horton: Well I think, first of all, that ultimately the theory of the cross is informed by other convictions. This really is an age-old debate. It's a debate that Augustine had with Pelagius, it's a debate Anselm had with Abelard, it's a debate that the Reformers had with the Roman Catholic church, and the sort of debate that George Whitefield had with John Wesley. The emphasis is very important because we have to ask ourselves does God exist for our benefit or do we exist for his? In other words, does God have to meet our standards, and thus be primarily an education in love for us to accept him, or is the problem really that God cannot accept us? Do we have a problem with God, or does God has a problem with us?

Moderator: Why is this distinction so critical? After all, in both cases an appeal for faith is made.

Horton: I think the problem is that we disagree on the meaning of the cross because what is emphasized really makes a difference. For instance, we would say that the legal model has its origins in the Old Testament, not in Roman law, and legal justice is what God requires. The problem is reconciliation with God; God simply cannot tolerate sin, and he cannot tolerate sinners (Ps. 11:5), therefore they will either accept the means which he has provided for them, to be right with him legally, in a courtroom sense, or they will perish eternally.

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock, is it consistent with your understanding of this God of love and his graciousness, that he would send somebody to hell for all eternity?

Pinnock: Well, the new model thinking on that issue is that anyone who does go to hell goes there because they chose it, not because God chose it, whereas, in Mike's view probably, God predestines people to go there and we think that's unacceptable.

Horton: Yes, I would agree with that. Ultimately this whole debate depends upon our view of God. Is God finite, does he depend upon the will of the creature, or does he in fact determine every element in the universe. If there is anything left to chance or free will, then this world isn't run by God, it is run by chance or fate. But there is order in the universe because God has predestined everything that comes to pass. Paul said that God "works out everything in conformity with his own will," and that must comprehend the salvation of people because the context of that statement in Eph. 1 is the context ofsalvation. So yes, we believe that those who do go to hell are sent there by God on account of their sins, not just because they decided to go to hell, but because God decided that hell is the price one must pay for rebelling against him. In Adam, all men deserve God's wrath and condemnation, but rather than punishing us all, he determined to rescue and save a people for himself (Titus 2:14), and this is the amazing message of our salvation.

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock, how important to you is the distinction whether God sends us to hell or whether we send ourselves?

Pinnock: Very important, because the nature and character of God are at stake here. I just don't see how a person with Mike's view can honestly say that God loves the world. His God hates the world and Christ has to persuade him to love it.

Moderator: But isn't there somewhat of a judicial picture in Rev. 20 where God is judging men according to their works?

Pinnock: Yes, that's why the debate isn't clear cut. I'm not denying the judicial aspect, I'm just saying there's no reason that should be preferred over other things or mentioned first. The way Mike wants to make it prominent seems to drive a wedge between God and Jesus; God doesn't want to forgive us, but Jesus appeases him so he can. I argue that's not what Jesus said about God.

Horton: I would want to respond, first of all, that we would never want to say that God hates the world. Nevertheless we have to wrestle with texts such as Romans 9 where God loves Jacob but hates Esau, and this apart from any works forseen in either of them. Paul argues that this is the case "so that it will be not of him who works but of him who calls." It is precisely because God loved the world so much that he chose a great number of fallen men and women to be with him for all eternity. So some people get justice, and some people get mercy.

Moderator: How do you reconcile this concept, Mike, of God hating individuals with the concept of God's love.

Horton: Well, this is the point. This is why we need the cross. We don't need the cross to show everybody how much God loves him or her because ultimately it is something that God needs to do in order to love people. God, in order to be both "just and the justifier of the ungodly" (Rom. 3:26), has to go the route of the cross. He has to sacrifice someone who equals the injustice that has been done, something that can be done only by God himself. No one should do it but man, so God sends a God-man. It must be said however, for any of this to makes sense, that God hates not only sin, but sinners. But it is his love for those he has chosen to save, and chosen to redeem which initiated the whole plan of salvation. We read in Eph. 1, "In love he predestined us to the adoption of sons," so salvation is not based on God's hatred, although damnation is, but salvation is based on God's love. This really has a lot of tactical implications for our evangelistic presentations, because what's really important is to get the person to realize that he or she is at odds with God. Just after the statement in Jn. 3:16, Jesus said, "He who does not believe is judged already for the wrath of God remains on him." Now it doesn't say the wrath of God will come upon him but that it remains on him. We are born into this world with the wrath of God hanging over us, and unless Christ's righteousness covers us by faith alone, we will be condemned to suffer that wrath on that dreadful day.

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock at what point would you use the concept of the wrath of God in your evangelism? Would you ever use that as a main thrust in your evangelism?

Pinnock: Yes, people are in sin and under condemnation and God wants to forgive them, he wants them to receive his gifts; that would be another difference between Mike and I because Mike doesn't really think that receiving the gift of the cross is all that crucial because the cross makes that happen anyway, whereas I think the way the cross becomes effective is precisely by receiving it. Unfortunately for Mike, certain people can't receive it even if they wanted to because God doesn't want them to.

Horton: No, I wouldn't agree with that. The problem is not God picking and choosing who he will give the gift to, the problem is that nobody wants to receive the gift at all. And so God makes the decision that we would not be able to make. Every one of us would say no, everyone of us would reject the gift, that's why Jesus said, "No man can come to me unless he is enabled by the Father" (John 6). And so it is the prerogative of God to draw people who are alienated and dead in their trespasses and sins.

Moderator: It sounds as if this is becoming a classical Calvinist/Arminian discussion. Mike are you suggesting that no man autonomously seeks after God?

Horton: Yes, that is in fact what Paul teaches us in Romans 3 for it is recorded that, "There is no one righteous, no not even one; . . .there is no one who seeks God." I would argue that Dr. Pinnock denies original sin in the way that term has been understood historically. This doctrine maintains that the guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to the human race so that we are not only born sinners, but as David wrote in Ps. 51, we are sinners from the moment of conception on. A question I would like to ask Dr. Pinnock if he has a problem with this doctrine is how can Christ be guilty for our sins on the cross and we be considered innocent if this principle is unjust? In other words, if original sin is denied as the imputation of guilt, is it possible to hold that justification is the imputation of another man's righteousness?

Moderator: Dr Pinnock, do you hold that there is no imputation of guilt to the human race for Adam's sin?

Pinnock: Yes, I would certainly deny that doctrine. What Mike is saying is that people are damned for what someone else did, and not what they did. The Bible clearly teaches, "The soul that sinneth shall surely die." We are guilty because of our sins, not because of the sins of others. The only thing that Adam put into our condition is that we are corrupt on account of what he did. And what we do in that context is become sexual, guilt producing sinners. The idea of Adam's sin being imputed to us is very difficult to accept. I mean, my father being an alcoholic certainly affected me in my home and my life, but to think that I'm guilty as an alcoholic like he was is nonsense.

Moderator: Mike can you shed some light here. It almost sounds like we are getting punished for something we did not do, but that we are getting punished for something somebody else did.

Horton: Yes, that's exactly what we are saying. Just as we say that Christ was proclaimed guilty, and suffered the punishment, for sins he did not commit, and just as we are proclaimed righteous for his actions, we are saying that we are guilty for something that Adam did. It's not as if we just pulled these doctrines out of a hat. This is in fact what the Bible teaches. Paul in Rom. 5 clearly states that, "Sin entered the world through one man." He says furthermore that, "the judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many sins and brought justification." He continues, "just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience ofthe one man the many will be made righteous." There is a one to one correspondence here between the imputation of another man's sin, and the imputation of another man's righteousness.

Moderator: OK, Dr. Pinnock, then what about the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Is Christ's righteousness imputed to us in some kind of legal fashion to make us acceptable before God in your view?

Pinnock: I think that's part of the total picture, though as I say, to make that the central idea turns God into a reluctant judge and Christ as some kind of attorney, whereas Jesus' own picture is that God seeks sinners and loves them and wants to reconcile them and the cross enters into this. I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't lead with the foot that Mike is leading with.

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock, what from your perspective did Jesus accomplish on the cross, and what is my existential problem that requires this action of Christ?

Pinnock: I think on the cross Christ did several things in relation to different problems we all have. We are ignorant and need to have a disclosure about how God regards us, and in the cross, Jesus demonstrates God's love for us, correcting our ignorance and apathy. We also have a problem of guilt and sin, so Christ suffered in our place and restored a relationship with God that was broken. There is also a problem of sin's power; you don't just need to be delivered from sin's guilt but also it's power. And on the cross Christ triumphed over the powers of evil and delivered us.

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock, would you say that any of those problems that were dealt with on the cross are predominant? Are any of the problems particularly damning in nature to me as an individual that would make it the most critical issue of the cross?

Pinnock: What I am resisting is picking and choosing. They are all clearly separate dimensions of the cross that the New Testament presents. It doesn't say that one should be central, whereas Mike wants to make one of them more central than the others. I'm just saying that I don't want to do that, I want to accept them all and why don't we just leave it like that?

Moderator: OK, Mike, let me get your definition of what the cross is designed to save us from. That is, what is the human problem which necessitates some kind of action by God and in what way did God use Jesus to solve this problem?

Horton: I would say that the whole biblical record from the Old Testament to the New Testament is that God has a legal problem with us which affects a relational problem. God cannot relate to us as a father because of his justice, he can only relate to us as a judge until we are justified, until we are acceptable as children before him; and we are acceptable before him only by the righteousness of Christ. I'd want to turn to Col. 2:13-15 where I think we see all of the different models presented, but the substitutionary, sacrificial, legal model is at the heart and core of it all. Paul says, "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ." Now what is predominate here is the statement, "He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross." That's the chief thing that Paul wants to herald, and then he says, because of this God has "disarmed the powers and authorities"--the Christus Victor model--and "he made a public spectacle of them"--the governmental and moral theories--"triumphing over them by the cross."Let me give some examples. The moral influence theory says that the cross is the supreme manifestation of the love of God. But how could the cross be the supreme manifestation of the love of God if it does not actually take away the enmity God has with me. Leon Morris gives an illustration here. He says, suppose that I fall into a swift river and am floating downstream and someone sees my situation and jumps in the river to save me but dies in the process. Well that's a tremendously courageous and loving act, but what if I wasn't drowning and the same person just jumped in the river just to show me how much he loved me and then drowns in the process? The second situation is not a demonstration of love, but of stupidity. The ChristusVictor model has a similar problem. That is, how can Christ really be the conqueror over sin by his death on the cross if he doesn't get rid of the guilt of our sins in the courtroom of heaven? Satan's chief title is the adversary, or prosecuting attorney. This is essentially the argument of Rev. 12: 9-11, "For the accuser of our brothers...has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb."

Moderator: Dr. Pinnock could you give us some concluding remarks.

Pinnock: You can see that there is a pattern of issues, sort of a systematic overview that comes into focus. Mike has a beautifully systematic way of putting things together, and I don't think I have as good of one, but I have a system too. All these issues seem to bump into one another, so it isn't just the cross but it's related to who God is and how he works with us.

Moderator: Mike?

Horton: One final comment I want to make is that though many today, including Dr. Pinnock, want to view the substitutionary theory as being one model among many, we want to say it is the primary model, the lens if you will, through which we view the other achievements of the cross. Certainly ignorance is a great problem; not knowing that God loves us is a great problem, but it is not the chief problem. The chief problem is that God must see us as just before he can love us as a father.

An Additional Interview with Clark Pinnock

This interview took place a few months earlier than the "on air discussion" transcribed above, and was printed in the Nov/Dec. 1990 "newsletter" edition of Modern Reformation.

Horton: You wrote in your Christianity Today article that the "New Model" is nothing more than "old Arminianism."

Pinnock: I thought he [Brow, the feature's editor] was saying it's new, when actually it's not. For instance, he was suggesting that the "new model" argued that the reason why people will be in hell is their own choice rather than a legal judgment on God's part. That's "free will" thinking, of course. I thought the "New Model" really was a family model, which you picked up on in organizing the Megashift conference: the love versus justice type of thing. But that's what I meant by the new model being old Arminianism.

Horton: We keep using the terms "Augustinian" and "Non-Augustinian," but isn't "non-Augustinian" a fairly ambiguous, almost useless term? I mean, that would include anybody who was not an orthodox Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. What form of "non-Augustinianism" would you hold?

Pinnock: You're right. I mean, "atheism" could qualify as "non-Augustinianism," so that is a rather ambiguous term. I think the Greek Fathers are going to be high up on my list as "non-Augustinian." They, of course, emphasized the universal saving will of God and the freedom to accept or reject the gospel, and the possibility of God's working in non-Christians. Augustine was harsh and restrictive in his views and so a lenient form of semi-Augustinianism is the best way to put it, I think, without sounding pejorative.

Horton: Of course, evangelicalism is at least supposed to be heir to the Reformation, which was, after all, a recovery of an Augustinian redemptive scheme. To what extent, then, should evangelicalism accommodate non-Augustinian interpretations without losing its "evangelical" identity?

Pinnock: Well, of course, the word "evangelical" is available to anyone who wants to use it and Augustinians like Van Til and John Gerstner have defined evangelicalism as Calvinism. And Calvinism is Augustinianism. But if that definition has more to do with the people who line up under the banner "evangelical," especially with the Lausanne movement or the NAE [National Association of Evangelicals], then Augustinianism is clearly only one side of "evangelical," and not the majority. And even the people who call themselves "Augustinian" these days are not terribly Augustinian.

Horton: Let's move to the heart of the issue--the cross of Christ. What did our Lord actually accomplish?

Pinnock: Well, it deals with the problem of sin and the forgiveness of God. It's potentially effective for the world and not actually effective, and I think you have to say something like that because of the universal texts in the Bible. So it's not automatically effective for those for whom it is offered.

Horton: What theory of the atonement comes closest to your own?

Pinnock: Well, Anselm got in the quantitative way of looking at the atonement--the John Owen, J.I. Packer approach. [Hugo] Grotius [architect of the governmental theory of the atonement] then tried to deal with the subject and I find him helpful--more helpful that the idea of a strict substitutionary atonement. In other words, the atonement is more a gesture of God showing that his law is important. Thus, the cross is the only appropriate action.

Horton: So, you would have more of an affinity with the governmental theory?

Pinnock: Yes.

Horton: Where do you think the future lies with this debate? Where are evangelicals headed? More or less Augustinian?

Pinnock: Well, I assume you mean by "evangelicalism" the group of people that Christianity Today is trying to hold together or the Lausanne Covenant. Obviously, there are some groups like yourselves who are moving in a more Augustinian direction, but I think the majority of evangelicals are moving away from it. This, I think, is due to the extreme difficulties of thinking in a strict way, especially as it relates to God--his attitude toward sinners. Also, the predestination doctrine. These things are so disliked by people today that I see the evangelical movement going in a decidedly non-Augustinian direction. But, then, some will adopt Augustinianism. It has an appeal in other ways: for instance, a clear way of thinking about things.

Horton: We have followed your work and even though we don't agree with your recent conclusions on these points, we are impressed with the significance of your own trek. Do you think your journey from Reformed theology and ICBI [the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy] to non-Augustinianism is indicative of a general trend among evangelical thinkers?

Pinnock: Oh, yes, I do think it's fairly typical. My life and work in the early 50's--the post-War period, to the present, does reflect this change. Fuller Seminary, NAE, and these post-War evangelical enterprises have moved this way. I represent this section of the group which has moved away--a movement toward greater leniency in our view of salvation.

Horton: Lastly, what's your proximity to Process Theology?

Pinnock: Well, I think you could see a spectrum in which strict Augustinian theism would be on one side and process theism on the other and I guess my position would be somewhere in the middle. So, from the Augustinian point of view it might seem to be proximate. I guess I would hold a "dynamic theism." God is the Creator--and that is absolutely key and vital. I'm a theist, not a panentheist. I guess you could just say that the process theism people just take my view a little bit further, and that's correct. They do take it further--much further.





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Issue: "The Megashift" Jan./Feb. 1993 Vol. 2 No. 1 Page number(s):

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