Two New(er) Atonement Books You Should Read

Atonement theology is one of my passions. The cross of Jesus Christ is at the heart of our faith and the task explaining and displaying it’s ironic beauty the glorious means of our salvation is an unavoidable call for any preacher of the gospel. For that reason, atonement is one of the subjects I spent a good amount of time (and money) reading about in seminary. While I thought I had most of my ducks in a row, I’ve recently dipped back into exploring some recent work in atonement theology that’s been very helpful in sharpening up my thinking in these areas. I wanted to briefly commend two excellent works to you, my readers, for your attention and edification. Hopefully, you read this in time to update your Christmas list!

crucified kingFirst, is Jeremy Treat’s offering The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Systematic Theology. In one sense, I found it to be a gravely disappointing book. It’s disappointing because Treat has written the book I wanted to write on the subject. Giving equal attention to biblical theology and systematic categories, Treat reunites what never should have been divorced in much modern theology: kingdom and cross as well as Christus Victor and penal substitution accounts of the atonement.

One of the key strengths of his biblical theology section is his ability to go beyond key proof-texts to showing the broader, redemptive-historical framework in which the kingdom and cross fit beginning with Genesis through Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, and into Revelation. From there he examines the important concept of the threefold office of Christ, and argues that for too long we have failed to recognize the way Christ’s kingly work is central to his cross-work and vice versa. Christ brings the kingdom through the cross; Christ conquers his enemies and saves his people by dying a penal death in their place. Beyond that there are some excellent sections engaging Wright’s conception of the ministry of Jesus, Moltmann’s account of the kingdom, and challenging reflections on the cross-shaped kingdom Christ invites us into.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this is the work future theologians and biblical scholars will need to reckon with when writing on the relationship between kingdom and cross. In my opinion, it also definitively puts a nail in the coffin of any attempt to bifurcate or oppose Christus Victor accounts and penal substitution. This can only be done by ignoring both the broader sweep of the biblical narrative, and key texts linking the two firmly together.

For a good preview of what this all looks like, check out this short article by Treat over at the Gospel Coalition. If all this isn’t enough to persuade you, just know two things: this is basically Treat’s dissertation written under Kevin Vanhoozer’s direction. Also, I met him at ETS and he’s a smashing chap.

viduSecond, in a very different register, Adonis Vidu has delivered an important contribution in the ongoing conversation about cross in his sophisticated Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural ContextsTheology happens in complex social, intellectual, and philosophical contexts. Oftentimes we fail to appreciate the thrust and shape of historical theological positions because we do not attend the way dominant intellectual frameworks shape the language used and intellectual and moral concerns of the time. This is eminently true of historic and contemporary atonement theology.

Vidu aims to provide an account of the history of atonement theology down into the present that presents theologians against the background of the various legal and political theories dominant at the time. In this way, we can begin to appreciate better the way these theological concepts shaped and were shaped by their native settings. Five judicious, careful, and lucid chapters are devoted to the descriptive task, focusing on Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, modern, and contemporary periods. (All of the chapters are well worth the time, but he chapter on contemporary atonement theologies is very helpful for navigating the complicated and less accessible literature.) What’s more, along the way, he corrects a number of common misunderstandings and caricatures of historic positions.

For instance, in the first chapter, Vidu corrects the oft asserted charge that the newness Christian theology was its assertion of the gratuity of forgiveness as the mere release of debt without the need for repayment. On the contrary, given Hellenic conceptions of justice as order, positive law, and the maintenance of relations, there was no “cold legality” being overturned here. Indeed, he shows the way these ideas influence patristic accounts for understanding the nature of God’s law and their tendency to attribute the retributive function of the law to the accuser, instead of considering it a necessary expression of his just will. In this, then, certain Christus Victor accounts rest on common, Hellenic intuitions about justice.

At the heart of the book lies the contention that all the shifting paradigms for relating law, justice, and atonement are, at bottom, debates about God’s nature and agency in the death of Jesus. For this reason, Vidu’s last chapter argues for the importance of not neglecting the doctrine of God’s simplicity in our account of God’s atoning action in Christ. Though there are currently some heavy objections being lodged against it, Vidu forcefully makes the case that abandoning simplicity will have serious, deleterious effects for our ability to understand the unified, non-conflicted, saving activity of God through Christ’s cross. Instead, he delivers a nuanced, modified account that is able to preserve penal atonement accounts from the sort of mistakes and caricatures it is often saddled with by both detractors and proponents. While I’m reticent about a couple of the moves Vidu makes with respect to relating the agency of Father and Son on the cross, this is an overall salutary contribution on the subject.

I have not even begun to do either of these works any justice. I do hope that some of this whets your appetite and inspires you to check out either one or both of these timely and edifying works. For more, you can check out my larger post on 19 Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, in which I tackle related issues and point you to more resources.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If you’re interested in atonement, check out the line-up for the January 2015 LA Theology Conference all about atonement: Ben Myers, Elenore Stumpe, Michael Horton,  Bruce McCormack, and a whole lot more. Sign-ups are still going here.

Mere Fidelity: Theosis and the Warning Passages

On this episode of Mere Fidelity we take up two subjects.

1. The warning passages in Hebrews and elsewhere. Andrew and Alastair have some excellent insights. Actually, Alastair gave the best read of the warning passages in Hebrews, I’ve heard.

2. How about that Eastern Orthodoxy theosis? Is it kosher for Evangelicals? Can Reformed types make any sense of it? Well, maybe. You’ll just have to listen in.

Also, I explain why I sound dumber than everyone else on the podcast.

There you go.

Also, we have links to books and articles over at Mere Orthodoxy for this subject.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christ the King: Kingdom of Power, Kingdom of Grace

christ pantokratorIn a section on church government, Herman Bavinck begins to elaborate the Reformed view in contrast to a number of others by reflecting on the nature of Christ’s kingship and kingdom. Simply put, this is one of the most majestic passages I’ve ever read on the subject.

The Reformed, thanks to their deep sense of the sovereignty of God, understood this. Those who proceed unilaterally from the goodness or the love or the fatherhood of God do not come to this understanding. But those who do not just highlight one of God’s attributes but bring all his attributes to the fore and proceed from God as [the living] God have no choice but to subordinate all creatures to him, in dependence and humility. God is sovereign always and everywhere, in nature and grace, in creation and re-creation, in the world and in the church. His statutes and laws are the rule of our lives, for humans are his creatures, subject to him, and obligated to respond in total obedience.

In the church this view naturally led to the confession of the kingship of Christ. For just as in civil life God instituted the government on account of sin, so he anointed his Son to be king of Zion, the mountain of his holiness, and appointed him to be head over all things for the church (Ps. 2:6; Eph. 1:20; Phil. 2:9–11). Christ is not only a prophet who teaches by his word and example, not only a priest who atones by his sacrifice, but also the king who preserves and protects his own and to that end has been clothed with power in heaven and earth. He is king in a much more authentic sense than any secular ruler. He is that not only according to his divine nature but also according to his human nature. The human Christ Jesus has been exalted to sit at his Father’s right hand. He was all this not just from eternity and in the days of the Old Testament and during his sojourn on earth, but is still all this today and will be to the end of the ages. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Indeed, he is this now in the state of exaltation in a much richer sense than he was in the state of humiliation and in the time that preceded it. Granted, he had from eternity been anointed king and exercised this office, along with that of prophet and priest, immediately after the fall and up until his death on the cross; but on account of his humiliation God highly exalted him and gave him a name above every name. By his resurrection he was declared with power to be the Son of God, became Lord, received all power in heaven and on earth, and now reigns until he has completed the kingdom and put all his enemies under his feet.

This kingship of Christ is twofold. On the one hand, it is a kingship of power (Pss. 2:8–9; 72:8; 110:1–3; Matt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:21–22; Phil. 2:9–11; Heb. 1:6; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 17:14). In order that Christ may truly be king over his people, the king who redeems, protects, and preserves them, he must have power in heaven and on earth, over Satan and the world. It is a kingship of power, subordinate to, and a means for, his kingship of grace. It does not mean that the Father has ceased to govern the world and that now all authority in the creation comes down from Christ and is exercised in his name. But, based on Christ’s perfect obedience, God has granted the Mediator the right and the power to gather his people together out of the world, to protect them against all their enemies, and to completely subdue those enemies themselves. God so rules the world that Christ may ask for the Gentile nations as his inheritance and the ends of the earth as his possession [Ps. 2:8]. In the event of Christ’s exaltation, the Father recognized his Son and appointed him as the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2).

On the other hand, the kingship of Christ is a kingship of grace (Ps. 2:6; Isa. 9:5–6; Jer. 30:9; Ezek. 37:24; Luke 1:33; John 18:33ff.; Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19). Inasmuch as this kingship is totally different from that of the kings of the earth, the New Testament much more frequently calls Christ “the head” than the king of the church. For it is a kingdom of grace in which Christ rules by his word and Spirit. His word comes to us from the past, binds us to the historical person of Christ and to the work he accomplished in time, and asks of us faith in the sense of assent and acknowledgment. But he who descended is the same as he who also ascended far above all the heavens [Eph. 4:10], is seated at God’s right hand, and dwells in us “with his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit and never again departs from us” [Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 47]. It is the living Christ exalted to sit at the right hand of God who consciously and endowed with all power gathers his church, defeats his enemies, and guides the history of the world to the day of his parousia. As our Mediator, he is still always active in heaven and present by his Spirit on earth in church and in the offices, in Word and sacrament.

-Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. pp. 370-372

Three points I want to highlight:

  • Christ is king according to both his divine and his human nature. Jesus is the resurrected and ascended human Lord of all things who fulfills God’s intention for Adam’s race.
  • Christ is a king with power who subdues his enemies for the sake of his people.
  • Christ is a king with grace who rules by word and Spirit. It is a gospel-kingship.

May these truths fill you with love and adoration for our glorious king. Marvel before him and offer up your lives as a faithful service to the King who served us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (TGC Review)

Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014. 298 pp. $22.42.

“The drama is in the dogma,” Dorothy Sayers once said. It seems no evangelical theologian has more enthusiastically taken to heart her statement than Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago.

Building on the foundation laid by H. U. Von Balthasar in his multi-volume series Theodrama, over the past 12 years Vanhoozer has put forward and developed his own “theatrical” approach to doctrine and theology.

Project Continues

Beginning with The Drama of Doctrine (Christianity Today’s 2006 book of the year in theology), Vanhoozer argued that the category of “drama” is well suited to conceptualizing a theology that takes its cues from the gospel. Doctrine, on this model, is the stage direction that enables disciples to participate rightly in the drama of the gospel. Doctrine does this by rightly identifying the dramatis personae (God, Christ, Israel, and so on), the shape of God’s (theos) actions (drao = to act, drama) that come before (creation, election, Jesus, church, consummation), and in that light, our role in local community performances as the company of the church on the stage of the world.

Vanhoozer followed that up a few years later in his groundbreaking Remythologizing Theology (2010), putting his theory into practice by engaging in some 500 pages of theology proper. Essentially it was a call for theology to reorient itself to speaking of God’s being on the basis of his dramatic doings revealed in Scripture.

Despite their wide acclaim, however, the size, complexity, and price tag of these works has prevented many pastors outside the academy from been exposed to Vanhoozer’s work. This is a shame because—and I know this is a bold statement—these are two of the most important works of evangelical theology written over the past 15 years. The Drama of Doctrine saved my theology of revelation and Scripture in the emergent years, and Remythologizing Theology did the same for my doctrine of God. If I could force every seminary student to closely read and digest those two books, the church would be saved a lot of theological grief.

Enter Vanhoozer’s newest work, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Let me put it this way: if Drama of Doctrine and Remythologizing Theology had a child, it would be Faith Speaking Understanding. Though intended as briefer, less intimidating introduction to and practical application of his theodramatic theology for pastors and serious students, it isn’t a mere rehash of the last two works. As Vanhoozer explains, Faith Speaking Understanding is “an upstart sibling with a swagger of its own, namely a full-fledged proposal for the role of theology in the church’s task of making disciples” (xv)

Please go read the rest of my review over at TGC and then go buy the book. It’s that good. 

Soli Deo Gloria

How (American) Christians Ought to Respond to the Midterm Elections

flagMany wouldn’t guess this by my writings here, but I am a recovering political junkie. From childhood on, I used to be frenetically concerned with all things politics. Reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page by junior high, my dad kept me informed by printing out reams of political analysis every week for me to take to school and read in boring classes. It was fun. I like the horserace elements, the ideological battles, the speculation, and everything that went with it. It was like sports for me, only with old white dudes not doing anything. Kind of like golf, I guess.

These days, I’ve cooled off a bit. Not because politics aren’t important, mind you–they are. I’ve simply had a shift in intellectual priorities. Most of the time, the day to day quirks of my job don’t require a detailed knowledge of which piece of legislation got passed today. Still, right around now, midterms and the presidential elections, some of the old fire comes back and I care again.

Now, I’m still not going to say much about the meaning of what happened on Tuesday. The internet is full of political speculation about whether or not these elections favored conservatives or only disfavored Democrats, what implications this holds for the next two years, or whether Kim Kardashian will make a run in 2016. (Though, I do think I have some solid thoughts on that last one.)

What I will do is ask all of my politically-concerned brothers and sisters one question: Are you praying now?

I don’t mean to be a self-righteous pontificator, Jesus-juking everybody who’s more tightly caught up in this, but I really want us to honestly ask that question. When I was a political junkie, even though I was a Christian who read, prayed, and cared, I didn’t really think to obey one of the only truly clear commands in Scripture about Christians and the political process:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Republican or Democrat, whoever did or didn’t win  in your district, whatever idiotic ballot proposals did or didn’t pass, you as a Christian have at least one clear command about how to respond to the midterm elections: pray for whoever’s coming in.

Pray for wisdom to conquer folly.

Pray for righteousness to trump pragmatism.

Pray for bravery to overwhelm cowardice.

Pray for a vision of the common good to overcome personal greed.

Pray for the shalom of the city to bury its violence.

Pray for the salvation of whoever has come to power so that they may know the joy of Jesus Christ and then be guided by God’s Spirit to govern in ways that reflect the goodness of God’s kingdom for the sake of all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Deep Church Rising by Andrew Walker and Robin Parry (Christianity Today Review)

deep church risingHistorically, schisms have been rather public, bloody things. This was clearly the case when the church split between East and West. Even though some hope of reconciliation was on the table at various points, excommunications had been traded, Crusades had happened, and everybody knew the two or three theological disputes that needed settling. Roughly the same thing could be said of the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Following a number of bloody wars, mutual persecutions, and martyrdoms, the results were different communions, confessional documents, and other marks of separation.

In their recent book Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy, Andrew Walker and Robin Parry argue that, unbeknownst to many, the Western church is in the midst of a third great schism. Unlike the last two, though, the split hasn’t resulted in a clear line between new denominations and old ones, but runs right through the various churches of the West. On one side stand those who affirm a broadly supernaturalist Christian orthodoxy embodied in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. And on the other, you find those who can at best recite the creeds with their fingers crossed. Having embraced the various presuppositions of Enlightenment and postmodern thinking, they are skeptical of supernatural claims and often doubt the very idea of objective truth.

Set against the backdrop of Western consumerism, our “secular age,” and evangelical tendencies toward thinner understandings of the church, Walker and Parry are worried about a widespread loss of the gospel within the Christian community. Taking a cue from C. S. Lewis, the authors propose a vision for recovering what they call “Deep Church,” meaning a thick orthodoxy of belief and practice woven together from the wisdom of our past. They want to help us recuperate from a bad case of “gospel amnesia” by renewing interest in the church’s historical journey.

You can read the rest of my review at Christianity Today.

Soli Deo Gloria