In addition to the hermeneutic of Isaiah 52:13ff, the key New Testament verses used by Pentecostals and others to indicate that ‘healing is a right’ in the atonement are 1 Peter 2:24 and Matthew 8:17. The crucial thing for our discussion is that if healing can be so automatic a gift, then the responsibility for appropriating the gift lies completely with human beings. For those included in the atonement at least, healing is always in the will of God, as it has been pre-purchased by Christ.   Unsurprisingly there is a debate to be had here.

Two key arguments can be given in support of the ‘automatic right’ theory. The first rests on straight forward biblicism of these verses, which we will return to. The second is that as sickness is a consequence of sin and the fall, and Christ has removed all consequences by his death, then sickness is defeated by Christ’s death.[1] Two things can be said to this: firstly, death was a result of the fall too, and yet even post-Christ believers still physically die.[2] Secondly, it is evident that not all consequences of sin are defeated by Christ’s death. John Woolmer cites David as an example of someone completely forgiven by God (for his adultery) and yet who had to endure the consequences of that sin throughout his life, and his ancestors for generations to come.[3]

How to read the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13- 53:12, esp. v.4) and the supposed New Testament allusions to it is a bit more problematic.[4] Michael Green[5] maintains that it is Jesus’ healing ministry, not the atonement that is considered in Matthew 8:17. Donald Hagner concurs[6].

‘Isa 53:4 guarantees no one healing in the present age. What is guaranteed is that Christ’s atoning death will in the eschaton provide healing for all without exception. The healings through the ministry of Jesus and those experienced in our day are the first-fruits, the down payment, of the final experience of deliverance.’

Agreeing with this analysis, Woolmer then draws a distinction between 1 Peter 2:24 (which deals with the atonement), and Matthew 8:17 (which does not). This can be expressed pictorially below.[7]

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Thus Woolmer concludes that the New Testament never sees healing as a right afforded by the atonement. Healing is to be ‘a sign of God’s grace’[8]. It is not a right ‘bought at a price’ as in 1 Cor 6:20 which, he states, ‘again clearly refers to sin’.[9] This then sums up the simple dismissal of the idea most theologians have chosen to adopt.

However an interesting third way in the debate may have been unwittingly provided by Bruce Reichenbach. Reichenbach argues for another paradigm to interpret the atonement in addition to the traditional frameworks argued by the likes of Origen (ransom), Anselm (judicial proceedings), and Socinus (educational training by example).[10] He believes that in Isaiah you can find a further motif, of ‘healing by the suffering of another’. He then proceeds to explain how the Servant Song of Isa 53 may be deployed to show why the Physician had to die. Sin he sees as a sickness which ultimately kills the healer. God is therefore exonerate of culpability for killing his son, and the standard feminist critique that cautions against the glorification of suffering is answered.[11] Suffering is not affirmed but rather the Servant eliminates it by assimilation to himself at huge personal cost. For Reichenbach Isaiah 53 allows a metaphorical comprehension of atonement as healing from the sickness of sin.

Holding this metaphorical framework for envisaging healing within the atonement may be of help as we turn to John Wilkinson’s study of this subject.[12] He notes that the church has cared for the sick by provision of hospitals, dissemination of medical knowledge and by promoting the expectation, and at times the actual occurrence, of the miraculous.[13] He points to Wesley’s journals as some of the clearest modern time examples of this,[14] as well as to the Dorothea Trudel of Switzerland and the Blumhardts of Germany. Yet his study suggests the contemporary usage of the notion of the atonement as the root for physical healing seems to have originated relatively recently in the USA, partly due to the influence of Dorothea Trudel.[15]

The innovator in question is Charles Cullis (1833 – 1892), a clerk from Massachusetts, who went on to study medicine and practice homeopathy before becoming interested in faith healing. The theology that arose from his ministry, though, is the result of other people’s reflections on what was happening, notably the Baptist pastor Adoniram J. Gordon.[16] Both he and Reuben A Torrey made the tentative link between Matthew 8 and the healing ministry, but it was Albert Simpson whose 1884 book The Gospel of Healing paved the way for a more dogmatic assertion of the atonement allowing healing.[17] He spoke of a fourfold gospel of Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King, all of which were pictorially represented in the cross. As Christ fulfils each of these roles ‘we may be fully delivered from both sickness and pain’.[18]

Wilkinson then proceeds to rehearse the claims himself against the standards of Scripture, theology and experience. At each stage he sees validity in arguing that healing is available, but not that it is automatically available through the atonement. This is actually not unlike Wimber in his view that ‘physical healing is an outcome of the atonement rather than in the atonement’[19]. It also seems a much more theologically (and pastorally) responsible view. This perhaps is a stepping stone back to Charles Farah who moves from believing that healing was in the atonement and just had to be appropriated by faith, to seeing it as a sovereign act of God.[20] In this case faith is not a guarantee of being healed. Nevertheless Farah interestingly maintained that healing was in the atonement, but unlike salvation was not universally available in this age. Rather it is a sign of Christ and his kingdom which points us to the age when healing will be given to all.[21] If, on the above evidence, we then reject the idea of healing being a right through the atonement, Farah provides us with one confident and positive way through.

Yet at same time it is important not to miss a point Martyn Percy makes.[22] He argues for a central place for Moltmann’s theology of the crucified God in any theology of healing, ‘not because Jesus’ death somehow negates sickness, but because death itself is the ultimate fulfilment of those miracles’.[23] So he juxtaposes the portrayal of Christ of the healing movements with the suffering man on the cross, as the taunt goes ‘unable to save himself’. He sees this as subversive to the notion that ill people must divest themselves of ill health and come up here (a stark reversal of Philippians 2). Rather Christ expresses a solidarity with human suffering, by descending to humankind’s realm of suffering. This is ‘re-presented’, for Percy, in the celebration of the Eucharist.[24] Whatever power the atonement has then, it should not be the power to enslave ill people to the double bondage of feeling responsible for their lack of cure in addition to their present suffering.

[1] cf. 2 Cor 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18, 1 John 2.2.

[2] see Woolmer p. 294. This is helpfully summarised by the preacher who said, ‘Statistics prove: one out of one Christians die’.

[3] ibid. p.295.

[4] see Bellinger, W and Farmer, W ‘Jesus and the Suffering Servant’ for the best summary of current scholarship on the issue. The collected scholars’ represented have varying opinions about the nature of the vicarious suffering in this passage, and to what extent it should be used to interpret (or was used to define) Jesus’ mission.

[5] Green The Message of Matthew pp. 116-7.

[6] Hagner p. 211.

[7] See next page. Woolmer p. 292.

[8] Woolmer p.295.

[9] ibid.

[10] Reichenbach p. 551ff.

[11] see e.g. J.C. Brown and R.Parker “For God So Loved the World?” in J.C. Brown and C.R. Bohn Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (Cleveland, Pilgrim, 1989).

[12] Physical Healing and the Atonement in Evangelical Quarterly pp. 149-167.

[13] John Wilkinson Physical Healing and the Atonement in Evangelical Quarterly pp. 150

[14] cites Morton Kelsey Healing and Christianity (London 1973) p. 235 note 44 which has a categorised list of these.

[15] Wilkinson p. 150.

[16] ibid. p.151.

[17] ibid. p.152.

[18] Simpson p. 17 [reproduced here from Wilkinson]. Simpson’s teaching impacted America so rapidly that Princeton University held a popular lecture on the subject in 1887. These were given by Alexander Hodge, and then subsequently redeveloped 30 years later by BB Warfield at the same University. (see Wilkinson p. 153.)During that transition strong arguments for the thesis were made by F.F. Bosworth (Christ the Healer 1924.) and T.J. McCrossan (Bodily Healing and the Atonement 1930). Rowland Bingham argued aginst. In Wilkinson’s analysis few have added to these theses.

[19] Wimber Power Healing pp. 154-55; cf. Ken Blue Authority to Heal p.69

[20] see Knight p. 77. This transition was triggered by 1) a serious scalp condition that deteriorated, despite his faith until cured by medicine. 2) stories of people who suffered and died while claiming healing by faith. These raised questions for him concerning healing by way of a faith formula. At an earlier time he had experienced unexpected healing when he asked a healing evangelist to pray for his back. The evangelist prayed also for his eyes, which unlike his back were healed. This taught Farah not only that God could heal, but also that it ‘was not my faith but God’s sovereign love that healed me’. Knight p. 76.

[21] Farah, From the Pinnacle of the Temple pp. 10-11.

[22] Percy, Martyn The Gospel Miracles and Modern Healing Movements in Theology Jan/Feb 1997

[23] ibid. p. 15.

[24] Percy, Martyn Modern Healing Movements in Theology Jan/Feb 1997 p. 16.