Recently, TGC Canada hosted an interview between Paul Carter and Bruxy Cavey. The former sought to understand Cavey given his influence in Ontario and beyond. One of the benefits of this conversation was to clarify what Cavey teaches and, secondarily, to help evangelicals understand why they believe what they do.
The reason why conversations like this one work is because of the nature of truth. God is true, his creation exhibits truth, and truth is therefore beautiful and attractive. Hence, whatever the ultimate result of the interview between Carter and Cavey is, we can be confident that the truth of God always finds its home in the hearts of his people.
Since this is so, consider the following three areas in which Cavey and evangelical Christians differ to understand the disagreements better so that we can search out the Scriptures for ourselves to find the truth.
Cavey affirms the authority of Scripture and the inerrancy of Jesus but not the inerrancy of Scripture
Cavey affirms that only in Scripture can you know Jesus: “All I have for knowing Jesus is Scripture.” He further confirms, “All Scripture points to Jesus and is useful in Christian discipleship.” In these areas, evangelicals can agree.
Yet Cavey sees the apostle Paul’s authority in a different category to Jesus’ authority: In answer to Carter’s question, “So you believe that the words of the Apostle Paul are authoritative and inspired?”, Cavey writes:
I tend to speak about the authority of Jesus more than the authority of the Bible. Jesus is the ultimate authority, and Scripture is his delegated, or penultimate authority. But I know what you’re getting at and, yes, I see Paul’s writings as authoritative in that normative Protestant sense. Paul might not be perfect – only Jesus is! – but God has inspired Scripture to perfectly communicate what God wants it to say.
According to Cavey, Jesus stands one step higher than scripture on the authority hierarchy. He also notes that Scripture communicates what God wants it to communicate while using fallible people like Paul.
It is here where evangelicals need to slow down and consider what this position means. For we confess that the words of God share in the Word of God. When God said, “Let there be light,” it happened (Gen 1:3). And so the Word of God who is with God creates the universe when God speaks. In Genesis 1 we are taught that God’s word does, and in John 1 we are taught that God’s Word incarnates and lives. God’s words share in the Word (John 1:1–5). So as the Word of God with God, the words of God appear everywhere in Scripture. And we let these words dwell in us richly through the Holy Spirit (cf. Col 3:16).
So evangelicals see no reason to see gradations of authority between the word of God and the Word who is Jesus. The words of the Word are the word of God, that is, the Bible.
A second area worth pausing to reflect upon is Cavey’s implicit notion of accommodation. He writes, “You would say ‘that was meandering discourse”, I would say: ‘Paul made a very human mistake, but then by the Spirit corrected the mistake and moved on. Praise God!'” (Cavey refers to 1 Corinthians 1:14–16 here). Given what I noted above, this statement cannot fit into an evangelical and, I should maintain, a biblical view of the Word of God.
It also lends itself to a kind of accommodation in which God communicates to us through correctable error (i.e., the Holy Spirit can correct Paul after he made a mistake while writing 1 Corinthians 1); in short, to say that Paul makes a mistake so that the Spirit had to correct him along the way seems to imply the partial errancy of Scripture from the perspective of evangelical theology.
The Bible records human sin often and even the mistakes of persons. Yet it does so to communicate a larger narratival point as when David sinned with Bathsheba and Nathan confronted him on that sin. For Paul, however, we confess that the Spirit bore him along in a such as to avoid any mistakes when it comes to God’s communicative intent.
So while Cavey’s meaning here is somewhat elusive, if he means that biblical texts can say things contrary to the Spirit’s communicative intent in Scripture as the words of the Word, then we must reject this notion.
Cavey affirms the substitutionary nature of the atonement but not Christ’s wrath bearing atonement
On the atonement, Cavey writes:
I affirm the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. In other words, I affirm the “SA” in “PSA.” I’m more aligned with people like C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright on this topic. My objection is with what we traditionally depict as the “P” in “PSA” because I can’t find it in Scripture, at least not the way it is traditionally described, and I think I’m part of a growing movement of Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist Christians who would make the same argument.
So Christ died in our place to atone for sins. To situate his position, Cavey cites Lewis and Wright. Wright holds to a form of penal substitutionary atonement. But Wright does not define these words as Reformed evangelicals do. For Wright, Jesus bears the history of Israel’s sin as the representative of Israel, and God destroys the power of sin in Christ at the cross. Christ, as the representative of Israel, dies to free the world from sin.
If Cavey maintains a similar view, Reformed evangelicals cannot in good conscience affirm Cavey’s definitions of the SA in PSA. I am sure Cavey would agree, since he recognizes that PSA had its clearest formulation during the reformation.
The reason why Cavey cites C.S. Lewis is likely because Lewis sees atonement theories as explanations but not the centre. What is central for Lewis appears is the fact that Christ’s death somehow took away our sins and put death to death. Lewis sounds similar to Michael Gorman, who also influences Cavey’s atonement theology. Cavey writes of
“the ushering in of “the New Covenant in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. And included in this New Covenant is cleansing from sin, the coming of God’s Kingdom, and the defeat of the Enemy (e.g., Christus Victor). It all works together under, I would argue, under a “New Covenant” banner.”
Gorman in his The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the Covenant makes the same or similar argument. If I understand Cavey correctly and have rightly discerned Gorman’s influence alongside of Wright and Lewis, then Cavey probably would agree with this statement:
“Christ’s new covenant ministry of killing sin and death forms the primary category, and the atonement models attempt to explain aspects of this. The theories themselves, therefore, are interesting but not necessary to believe in to understand the atonement.”
Evangelicals affirm that the various aspects of the atonement do contribute to the total understanding of Christ’s New Covenant ministry. Yet we also affirm that PSA is the best biblical explanation for how we move from a state of being “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3) to children of God. Without PSA, this aspect of the atonement remains unstated. But it ought not to be since Scripture itself provides the rationale and understanding for PSA (e.g., Rom 3:25–26).
Another area of disagreement involves the P in PSA. Cavey writes,
To say God was angry at Jesus or “poured out the cup of his wrath upon Jesus” (a popular image in Evangelical preaching) goes too far beyond what is written. That part is atonement theory, not atonement fact. Rather, the one who knew no sin became our sin – that is how the LORD crushed the Servant in Isaiah 53:10 – with our sin, not with his wrath. That much IS stated clearly in Scripture. I find this way of expressing the sacrifice of Christ – emphasizing the healing nature of his substitutionary sacrifice – more aligned with Scripture. The idea of God pouring out his wrath upon Christ on the cross is our language, our graphic image, not the Bible’s.
While the Reformers may not (often?) use the phrase “wrath upon Jesus” in their explanations of PSA, they affirm that Jesus bore our sin and that he received divine judgment or became the curse in our place.
Despite this, the biblical idiom of curse does not prevent but rather encourages us to associate God’s wrath with his curse or the divine judgment against sin.
- In the Old Testament, God’s wrath falls against Israel when they sin (Exod 32:11).
- In the Old Testament, God forgave sin by sacrificing an animal who would bear the sin of the people (Lev 16).
- All people are children of wrath since they deserve God’s wrath and punishment to fall upon them (Eph 2:3).
- Jesus stands in the gap as it were, becoming our curse (Gal 3:13) or the one who was “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5).
Given this biblical rationale, we do not need to say the phrase “God’s wrath fell on Christ” per se. But the same idea that these words communicate appear throughout Scripture. So the idea is true no matter the exact wording we use.
For my part, I say that Christ bore our sin and experienced divine judgment or became the curse for us (Gal 3:13). These words seem to match the biblical and evangelical idiom for penal substitution.
In my estimation, Cavey’s language misses the mark. For how can we deserve punishment for our sin and yet not receive it? A relational justice as in the new perspectives on Paul does not give us the answer. Only penal substitution provides a biblical and theological rationale for how God can forgive us and not punish us for our sins while remaining just.
Cavey affirms the importance of Scripture but does not participate within the mainstream of Christian theology, meaning that he is open to open theism and conditionalism
Since Cavey does not claim to be an evangelical but an Anabaptist, he does not have the theological boundaries that we do. He finds no reason to avoid the teaching of Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, and others who would transgress certain theological foundations that evangelicals have built to uphold the truth.
In contrast to Cavey’s theological grid, evangelicals find cause to disagree strongly with Boyd’s open theism or his view of the Old Testament—that God accommodated himself to Israel by allowing them to believe things about him that were not fully accurate since God is truly revealed only at the cross.
The doctrine of conditionalism too belies the evangelical and traditional notion that God has appointed a time to judge all people for all time. These disagreements are real. And they require top-notch arguments from Scripture to adjudicate. In the end, evangelicals cannot afford to be as comfortable as Cavey is here since we confess that the Bible speaks with authority on these issues. We affirm God’s total knowledge of the future and the eternal punishment of those who do not believe.
Cavey is not nor claims to be an evangelical. So evangelicals like myself should not assume that he is one. At the same time, Scripture stands as the final authority for all people. So we must all press on towards Scripture and let the truth lead us. If Cavey wrongly reads Scripture, then he must be wrong. If we do, then we must be wrong. It is Scripture by the Spirit that leads the church to the truth.
Personality-driven ministries don’t work. It’s not Cavey vs. Piper, nor our tribe vs. his tribe. In the end, it’s this: What does God say? As is obvious, I disagree with Cavey because of my convictions on Scripture, its meaning, and the theological realities that it points to. But I love Carter’s discussion with Cavey since it provided such a great opportunity to place such central issues before the eyes of many Christians. Now, let’s do the work of diving into Scripture and pulling out the richness of biblical truth.
God’s truth always finds its home the hearts of his people. And that’s something that we all can agree on.