By Dr. Riley B. Case
The feature article in the February 10 issue of The Christian Century is titled “God Does Not Require Blood.” As the title suggests, the author, Daniel M. Bell, Jr., is opposed to the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement, or any doctrine of the atonement, for that matter, in which blood is a key element. Reacting to the most crass and extreme expressions of suffering and substitution, Bell links the blood stuff with violence, primitive (and therefore inadequate) views of justice, war, spousal abuse, and all sorts of bad things.
The author grants that the easiest way to circumvent the argument for any sort of blood atonement is simply to reject the cross but there are some problems with that (not the least being that we would have to do something with all those crosses on our churches).
Bell thinks he has a better way than simply to reject the cross and so posits a rather convoluted theory of atonement which features among other things the assertion that “Christ’s work on the cross is..about showing us that God does not demand blood” (substitution upside down). Ultimately, Bell ends up with another variation on the moral influence theory of the atonement in which Jesus is “faithful to the embodiment of God’s faithfulness to the divine desire for communion.”
If Bell is right then the Wesleys (to say nothing of the Biblical writers) and evangelical Methodism (the only kind of Methodism there was until, say, the 1920s) have it all wrong. If Bell is right, then over 35 Scriptural passages are wrong, like the following: Matthew 26:28, John 1:29, I John 2:2, and Hebrews 9 and 10. Moral theories of atonement that “show” us something are quite different from understandings that “affect” something. If atonement is really atonement, then something is “affected” that changes the relationship between God and humanity. That something, from the Methodist perspective (as expressed in the Articles of Religion), is that Christ ..”truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.”
From time to time it is good to be reminded that Wesleyan theology is primarily a theology of soteriology (salvation), which has a main focus the cross, and in the cross the sacrifice, and in the sacrifice, the blood. One of the best places to appreciate this is in the hymns. In Wesley hymns the blood “pleads,” “avails,” “washes,” “purifies,” “saves,” “cleanses,” and is “applied.” In the 80, Wesley hymns originally considered for inclusion in the 1989 hymnal the word “blood” appears 31 times. Twenty-five of the hymns have a clear reference to the atonement:
“His blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.” (#57)
“..can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” (#363)
“There for me the Savior stands, shows his wounds and spreads his hands..” (#355)
“See him set forth before your eyes; behold the bleeding sacrifice..” (#616)
“‘Tis finished!.. Accomplished is the sacrifice, the great redeeming work is done.” (#282)
“Come feel with me his blood applied..” (#287)
When Wesleyan theology was refitted for the American frontier, most notably in the revivalists (and their hymns), the references to blood and atonement multiplied. Blood as an expression for the extravagance of grace, “flowed,” was “poured,” “sprinkled” and was found in fountains, rivers, and streams. “There Is a Fountain filled with Blood” became hymn #1 in the camp meeting spirituals.
Methodists, along with Baptists, were responsible for redefining the word “evangelical” in the “American context. As explained in older dictionaries, evangelical is the form of Protestantism, which emphasizes the sinfulness of humanity, the atonement of Christ, and salvation by faith, as practiced by Methodists and Baptists. We should not blame Baptists but Methodists (at least originally) if there was an overemphasis on blood in American religion. Thus there are more Methodist writers of hymns in the Southern Baptist hymnal than there are Baptists (there are also more Anglican hymn writers than Methodists in the UM hymnal).
While the Baptists (and much of the rest of the world) sing Methodist atonement hymns, “mainline” denominations do not. A survey of Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal, Disciples, United Church of Canada, and United Church of Christ hymnals reveals that the Methodist emphases on the atonement have been excised. These hymnals are willing to sing about Wesley’s thousand tongues to sing, but every single one of them leaves out the verse about Jesus breaking the power of cancelled sin and blood making the foulest clean. Nor do they want anything to do with hymns like “Blow Ye the Trumpet Blow” (#379-the second most of all the Wesley hymns to be included in American hymnals-Wonderful Words of Life, Mouw and Noll, p. 253), “And Can It Be,” or “O Love Divine What Hast Thou Done.”
It is to the credit of The Christian Century that they consider the subject of blood atonement to be worthy of an article. After all some think it a dead issue. We have now had one hundred years of the modernist-liberal-progressive deconstruction of Christianity in which blood atonement is at the top of the list of what needs to be discarded for a Christianity facing a new age. Again, the hymnal is revealing. Of 109 hymns that appeared in the 1935 and 1966 Methodist hymnals that were “social gospel” hymns written to be contemporary and relevant for the new age but which were deleted in the 1989 hymnal (nobody sang them) there was not a single reference to blood or the atonement. When the apostle Paul reminded the church at Corinth that of first importance in the preaching of the gospel was that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…” (I Cor. 15:3), he also commented that the preaching of Christ crucified was “folly to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:23). It seems that today folly still abounds.
As for the United Methodists, whether or not blood atonement is taught in the seminaries or preached in the pulpit, it is still sung in the pews:
“Look, there is flowing a crimson tide, brighter than snow you may be today.” (#365)
“For you the purple current flowed in pardon from his wounded side…” (#342)
“For Jesus shed his precious blood…” (#337)
“Every sin may be forgiven through the virtue of thy blood…” (#325)
“Lord, by the stripes which wounded thee, from death’s dread sting thy servants free…” (#306)
“The Lamb that was slain, yet lives again to intercede for me!” (#300)
“…that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul…” (#292)
“‘Tis done! The precious ransom’s paid!” (#293)
“What can wash away my sin? Northing but the blood of Jesus.” (#362)
“Alas, and did my Savior bleed…” (#359)
“,,,without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me.” #357)
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…” (#368)
“…born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.” (#369)
“I heard about his groaning, of his precious blood’s atoning…” (#370)
“…that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate and hath shed his own blood for my soul.” (#377)
“…redemption in his blood throughout the world proclaim…” (#379)
“Happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away!…” #391)
“With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.” (#545)
“There is a fountain filled with blood…” (#622)
Who are United Methodists today, at least as revealed by the hymns they like to sing? Some find meaning in songs like “God of the sparrow, God of the whale” (#122). But many more are singing, “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” (#362).
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