The Death of Christ

by James Denney

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Denney's greatest contribution to theological literature is in his robust defence of the penal character of the atonement. First expressed in his Studies in Theology, it found its fullest expression in his 1902 work The Death of Christ (London, Hodder and Stoughton, often reprinted). The Atonement and the Modern Mind. Denney insists that the death of Christ cannot be understood unless it is seen as a death for sin, as Christ bearing the penalty in the place of those he came to save.

THE first edition of The Death of Christ appeared in 1902. It contained the first six of the nine chapters in this book, and its purpose was to explain, in the light of modern historical study, the place held by the death of Christ in the New Testament, and the interpretation put upon it by the apostolic writers. In its motive, the work was as much evangelical as theological. Assuming that the New Testament presents us with what must be in some sense the norm of Christianity, the writer was convinced that the death of Christ has not in the common Christian mind the place to which its centrality in the New Testament entitles it.

Two assumptions must be made by any one who writes on the death of Christ in the New Testament. The first is, that there is such a thing as a New Testament; and the second, that the death of Christ is a subject which has a real place and importance in it. The first may be said to be the more important of the two, for the denial of it carries with it the denial of the other.

At the present moment there is a strong tendency in certain quarters to depreciate the idea of a New Testament in the sense in which it has rightly or wrongly been established in the Church. It is pointed out that the books which compose our New Testament are in no real sense a unity. They were not written with a view to forming the volume in which we now find them, nor with any view of being related to each other at all. At first, indeed, they had no such relation. They are merely the chief fragments that have survived from a primitive Christian literature which must have been indefinitely larger, not to say richer. The unity which they now possess, and in virtue of which they constitute the New Testament, does not belong to them inherently; it is factitious; it is the artificial, and to a considerable extent the illusive result of the action of the Church in bestowing upon them canonical authority. The age to which they historically belong is an age at which the Church had no ‘New Testament, ’ and hence what is called New Testament theology is an exhibition of the manner in which Christians thought before a New Testament existed. As a self- contradictory thing, therefore, it ought to be abolished. The ‘dogma’ of the New Testament, and the factitious unity which it has created, ought to be superseded, and instead of New Testament theology we should aim at a history of primitive Christian thought and life. It would not be necessary for the purposes of such a history to make any assumptions as to the unity of the ‘New Testament’ books; but though they would not form a holy island in the sea of history, they would gain in life and reality in proportion as the dogmatic tie which binds them to each other was broken, and their living relations to the general phenomena of history revealed. 1

There is not only some plausibility in this but some truth: all I am concerned to point out here is that it is not the whole truth, and possibly not the main truth. The unity which belongs to the books of the New Testament, whatever be its value, is certainly not fortuitous. The books did not come together by chance. They are not held together simply by the art of the bookbinder. It would be truer to say that they gravitated toward each other in the course of the first century of the Church’s life, and imposed their unity on the Christian mind, than that the Church imposed on them by statute — for when ‘dogma’ is used in the abstract sense which contrasts it with fact or history, this is what it means — a unity to which they were inwardly strange. That they are at one in some essential respects is obvious. They have at least unity of subject, they are all concerned with Jesus Christ, and with the manifestation of God’s redeeming love to men in Him. There is even a sense in which we may say there is unity of authorship; for all the books of the New Testament are works of faith. Whether the unity goes further, and if so how far, are questions not to be settled beforehand. It may extend to modes of thought, to fundamental beliefs or convictions, in regard to Christ and the meaning of His presence and work in the world. It is not assumed here that it does, but neither is it assumed that it does not. It is not assumed, with regard to the particular subject before us, that in the different New Testament writings we shall find independent, divergent, or inconsistent interpretations of Christ’s death. The result of an unprejudiced investigation may be to show that on this subject the various writings which go to make up our New Testament are profoundly at one, and even that their oneness on this subject, a oneness not imposed nor artificial, but essential and inherent, justifies against the criticism referred to above the common Christian estimate of the New Testament as a whole.

Without entering on abstract or general grounds into a discussion in which no abstract or general conclusion can be reached, it may be permitted to say, in starting, that in the region with which the New Testament deals we should be on our guard against pressing too strongly some current distinctions which, within their limits, are real enough, but which, if carried beyond their limits, make everything in the New Testament unintelligible. The most important of these is the distinction of historical and dogmatic, or of historito- religious and dogmatico- religious. If the distinction between historical and dogmatic is pressed, it runs back into the distinction between thing and meaning, or between fact and theory; and this, as we shall have occasion to see, is a distinction which it is impossible to press. There is a point at which the two sides in such contrast pass into each other. He who does not see the meaning does not see the thing; or to use the more imposing words, he who refuses to take a ‘dogmatic’ view proves by doing so that he falls short of a completely ‘historical’ one. The same kind of consideration has sometimes to be applied to the distinction of Biblical, or ‘New Testament’ and ‘systematic’ theology. Biblical or New Testament theology deals with the thoughts, or the mode of thinking, of the various New Testament writers; systematic theology is the independent construction of Christianity as a whole in the mind of a later thinker. Here again there is a broad and valid distinction, but not an absolute one. It is the Christian thinking of the first century in the one case, and of the twentieth, let us say, in the other; but in both cases there is Christianity and there is thinking, and if there is truth in either there is bound to be a place at which the distinction disappears. It does not follow from the distinction, with the inevitable limitations, that nothing in the New Testament can be accepted by a modern mind simply as it stands. It does not follow that nothing in St. Paul or St. John — nothing in their interpretation of the death of Jesus, for example — has attained the character of finality. There may be something which has. The thing to be dealt with is one, and the mind, through the centuries, is one, and even in the first century it may have struck to a final truth which the twentieth will not transcend. Certainly we cannot deny this beforehand on the ground that Biblical theology is one thing and Systematic or Philosophical theology another. They may be taught in separate rooms in a theological school, but, except to the pedant or the dilettante, the distinction between them is a vanishing one. And the same may be said, finally, about the distinction of matter and form. There is such a distinction it is possible to put the same matter in different forms. But it does not follow that the form in which a truth or an experience is put by a New Testament writer is always unequal to the matter, or that the matter must always be fused again and cast into a new mold before it can be appropriated by us. The higher the reality with which we deal, the less the distinction of matter and form holds. If Christianity brings us into contact with the ultimate truth and reality, we may find that the ‘form’ into which it was cast at first is more essential to the matter than we had supposed. Just as it would be a rash act to venture to extract the matter of Lycidas, and to exhibit it in a more adequate form, it may be a rash act to venture to tell us what St. Paul or St. John meant in a form more equal to the meaning than the apostles themselves could supply. It is not necessary to say that it would be, but only that it may be. The mind seems to gain freedom and lucidity by working with such distinctions, but if we forget that they are our own distinctions, and that in the real world, in the very nature of things, a point is reached sooner or later at which they disappear, we are certain to be led astray. I do not argue against drawing them or using them, but against making them so absolute that in the long- run one of them must cease to be true, and forfeit all its rights in favor of the other. The chief use, for instance, to which many writers put them is to appeal to the historical against the dogmatic; the historical is employed to drive the dogmatic from the field. To do the reverse would of course be as bad, and my object in these introductory remarks is to deprecate both mistakes. It does not matter, outside the class- room, whether an interpretation is called historical or dogmatic, historico- religious or dogmatico- religious; it does not matter whether we put it under the head of Biblical or of philosophical theology; what we want to know is whether it is true. In the truth such distinctions are apt to disappear.

Without assuming, therefore, the dogmatic unity of the New Testament, either in its representation of Christianity as a whole, or of the death of Christ in particular, we need not feel precluded from approaching it with a presumption that it will exhibit some kind of coherence. Granting that the Church canonized the books, consciously or unconsciously, it did not canonize them for nothing. It must have felt that they really represented and therefore safeguarded the Christian faith, and as the Church of the early days was acutely conscious of the distinction between what did and what did not belong to Christianity, it must have had some sense at least of a consistency in its Christian Scriptures. 2 They did not represent for it two gospels or ten, but one. The view Christians took of the books they valued was instinctively dogmatic without ceasing to be historical; or perhaps we may say, with a lively sense of their historical relations the Church had an instinctive feeling of the dogmatic import of the books in its New Testament. It is in this attitude, which is not blind to either side of the distinction, yet does not let either annul the other, that we ought to approach the study of New Testament problems.

It is hardly necessary to prove that in the New Testament the death of Christ is a real subject. It is distinctly present to the mind of New Testament writers, and they have much to say upon it. It is treated by them as a subject of central and permanent importance to the Christian faith, and it is incredible that it should have filled the place it does fill in the New Testament had it ever been regarded as of trifling consequence for the understanding, the acceptance, or the preaching of the Gospel. As little is it necessary to say that in using the expression ‘the death of Christ, ’ we are not speaking of a thing, but of an experience. Whether we view it as action or as passion, whatever enters into personality has the significance and the worth of personality. The death of Christ in the New Testament is the death of one who is alive for evermore. To every New Testament writer Christ is the Lord, the living and exalted Lord, and it is impossible for them to think of His death except as an experience the result or virtue of which is perpetuated in His risen life. Nevertheless, Christ died. His death is in some sense the center and consummation of His work. It is because of it that His risen life is the hope which it is to sinful men; and it needs no apology, therefore, if one who thinks that it has less than its proper place in preaching and in theology endeavors to bring out as simply as possible its place and meaning in the New Testament. If our religion is to be Christian in any sense of the term which history will justify, it can never afford to ignore what, to say the least of it, is the primary confession of Christian faith.

The starting- point in our investigation must be the life and teaching of Jesus Himself. For this we shall depend in the first instance on the synoptic gospels. Next will come an examination of primitive Christian teaching as it bears on our subject. For this we can only make use of the early chapters in Acts, and with a reserve, which will be explained at the proper place, of the First Epistle of Peter. It will then be necessary to go into greater detail, in proportion as we have more material at command, in regard to the teaching of St. Paul. Of all New Testament writers he is the one who has most deliberately and continually reflected on Christ’s death; if there is a conscious theology of it anywhere it is with him. A study of the epistle to the Hebrews and of the Johannine writings — Apocalypse, Gospel, and Epistle — will bring the subject proper to a close; but I shall venture to add, in a concluding chapter, some reflections on the importance of the New Testament conception of Christ’s death alike to the evangelist and the theologian.

  1. As typical instances of this mode of thought, reference may be made to Wrede’s Ueber Aufgabe und Methode der sogenannten neutestamentlichen Theologie, and G. Kruger’s Das Dogma vom Neuen Testament.
  2. This, of course, does not exclude the idea that the native vigor of Christianity was shown in its power to assimilate as well as to reject extraneous matter.
Dr. Denney laid great stress upon Christ’s physical sufferings. He emphasized the substitutionary nature of His sacrifice and expounded its effects to the believer with evangelical zeal. Such was his aversion to the teachings of certain mystics on the subject of the Atonement that he avoided all identification with mystical belief. In spite of this, his work on the death of Christ remains one of the most definitive discussions produced to date.

—Cyril J. Barber, professor of biblical studies, Talbot Theological Seminary


Table of Contents

Detailed Contents - Outline Of Study
Chapter 1 : The Synoptic Gospels.
Chapter 2 : The Earliest Christian Preaching
Chapter 3: The Epistles Of St. Paul
Chapter 4 : The Epistle To The Hebrews.
Chapter 5 : The Johannine Writings.
Chapter 6 : The Importance of the Death of Christ in Preaching and in Theology
Chapter 7 : The Atonement And The Modern Mind.
Chapter 8 : Sin And The Divine Reaction Against It
Chapter 9 : Christ And Man In The Atonement

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