Did Charles not know his Wesleyan theology?

Would we argue that Charles Wesley had bad atonement theology?

I take it that many contemporary Christians and theologians resist the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied or turned back the wrath of God. It is not uncommon for this to be represented as something that neo-Calvinists or Baptists might say, but not we grace-oriented Methodists.

If so, have we written Charles Wesley out of our camp? I guess in one sense we have. Here are a couple verses from two of his hymns that are not in our hymnal.

A verse from “And Can It Be” that we don’t sing:

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

A verse from “Depth of Mercy” not in our Hymnal:

Jesus speaks, and pleads His blood!
He disarms the wrath of God;
Now my Father’s mercies move,
Justice lingers into love.

I’ve not done a systematic study of Charles Wesley hymns. These were the first two I looked at when doing something else, and I was struck by the selection, which in both cases, dropped this kind of language. Could it be that Methodists think we reject a satisfaction model of atonement because we have purposely edited out such views from our own sung theology? I understand that there are various ways of comprehending the atonement. When, though, did we decide that Charles Wesley did not understand Wesleyan theology?

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Why did Jesus die?

And this question, both infidels are accustomed to bring up against us, ridiculing Christian simplicity as absurd; and many believers ponder it in their hearts; for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will.

— Anselm, Cur Deus Homo

The United Methodist News Service asks the question “Why did Jesus have to die?

For the most part, the story is a typical United Methodist one. The gist of it is that there are lots of ways to think about the atonement. The article does briefly describe Anselm’s theory of atonement for the purpose of explaining why so many people disagree with it.

In the comments, the UMNS editor suggests that Jesus did not have to die.

The story ends by offering up an Abelardian subjective explanation of the atonement.

Perhaps the greatest comfort the cross offers is the knowledge that there is no sorrow, pain or despair humans can undergo that God does not know and walk through with us. And because of the Resurrection, we know that sorrow and death do not have the last word.

For those who are interested, Article VIII of the Confession of Faith has this to say.

We believe God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required.

Turning the question around

Marcus Borg asks a question about God and the cross as understood in satisfaction theories of atonement:

Thus the payment understanding sees the death of Jesus as ultimately God’s will. But one must ask: really? Was it God’s will that this remarkably good person, centered in God to an extraordinary degree, be killed? If so, what does that say about what God is like?

After reading this, my first thought went something like this: Is he not aware that Jesus is God?

But then my second thought went like this: You are asking the wrong question. The death of Jesus does not indict God. It indicts us.

The question raised here is “What could have been so wrong with us that only the death of Jesus could fix it?” What does it say about us that this remarkably good person — even more than that, the Son of God — had to die that we might live? Am I so far gone, that nothing else would have worked?

It was God’s will that we be freed. It was God’s will that we be let loose from death. It was God’s will that we be born from above. To do this, he lived among us and went to the cross.

That is how I understand satisfaction theories of atonement. I don’t think it is the only theory that makes sense, but I do not find it the horror that Borg and many others do. Indeed, I find it quite a powerful testament to God’s love.