I’m something of a student of atonement theology. The funny thing about atonement theology is that, no matter how many books you read on the subject, there’s always one more angle (or multiple) to consider when trying to understand and explicate the saving significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Which is why I was delighted to get my hands on an advanced copy of Biola Professor and atonement expert Adam Johnson’s elegant little work Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed last week. There are a number of features that separate this work from a number of the recent entries into the field, but the biggest that comes to mind is that it’s not just a book on atonement theology, but a book about how to do atonement theology. It’s a “guide for the perplexed” not only as to the content of the atonement, but how to approach the problem of atonement theology in general.
All too often theology finds itself falling into familiar grooves because classic dichotomies are set up somewhere along the line, battle lines are drawn, and doing theology becomes a matter of picking between better and worse options without questioning whether they should accept the given categories in the first place. Johnson aims to shift up the conversation in atonement theology by pushing past the familiar terms of the debate between penal substitution, moral exemplar, and Christus Victor “theories” of atonement by encouraging us to turn and mine the many-splendored riches of Scripture and history for describing the unfathomable fullness of Christ’s work on our behalf. Why settle for one when you can have all and more? Notions of victory, sacrifice, recapitulation, penalty, theosis, governmental, and so on down the line have a role to play here.
Johnson plays the role of guide in a number of ways. He clears the ground by critiquing some of the earlier conversations on the topic, less by way of negative polemic, and more by way of a dazzling invitation into a theological world unencumbered by the narrower discussions of the last century and half. He also tries to help us think through the trinitarian grounding of all atonement accounts, as well draw our attention to the importance to of attending the role the various attributes of God play a role in all of our theologizing about atonement. In these, and various other ways, Johnson aims to help us understand just how important it is for us to avoid doing our atonement theology without paying attention to the various other doctrines (God, Christology, anthropology, etc.) it depends, or impinges on.
Beyond that, Johnson actually does a ton of helpful constructive work to display to us the various facets or aspects of Christ’s reconciling life, death, and resurrection, drawing on Scripture as well as such diverse figure as Irenaeus, Von Balthasar, Calvin, Edwards, Aquinas, and, of course, Barth. While there’s plenty in Johnson’s that even the enthusiastic reader will be left chewing on (the nature of God’s suffering, the nature of atonement for the angels, the non-priority of penal substitution), the good thing is that it’s not intended to be the final word on the subject. It’s constructive as well as being suggestive for further work down the line.
Five Key Questions
While there are a number of fascinating and helpful sections in the work, one section that is particularly helpful is Johnson’s outline of five questions we should ask of any theory, dimension, or model of the atonement (pp. 47-50).
1. What is the key cast assembled in this work on the atonement? Every atonement account has a cast of players. God, humanity, demons, or angels, and so forth. Asking the question about the cast helps us understand, not only who is involved, but also what role the characters play and what emphasis a theory places on the players. Is it mostly about God? Or the human problem? Or are the demons center stage? Does it exclude those it should include, or focus too tightly on one to the exclusion of others.
2. What divine attribute, or set thereof, does this particular theory of the atonement emphasize? One of Johnson’s main theses is that every account depends on a focus on one or a couple of key attributes of God. Penal accounts might emphasize the need to satisfy justice as well as the apparent tension it causes with his love. Others such as victory accounts might focus on God’s faithfulness to his creation or his sovereignty. We need to be able to identify these, and even more, we need to ask careful questions about the way they are emphasized. Are attributes pitted against each other? Are some sidelined in favor of others? Are the ones highlighted treated according to the full witness of Scripture or is a muted picture presented?
3. What aspect of our sin does this particular theory focus on? Atonement deals with sin and different atonement accounts deal with different dimensions of sin. We need to ask which dimension this particular theory tackles. Is it focused on sin’s essence, or its effects? Is it personal, social, political, or cosmic? Is sin treated as sickness, rebellion, or bondage? Is the main problem guilt, or shame or even death? More importantly, are these set up in a way that only one is treated as the “real” problem? This is where I’ve seen problems show up in the various, reductive accounts on offer. Yes, shame needs answer, but so does bondage. Yes, we need new life, but does God grant that to those still bearing their guilt?
4. How does this particular theory develop Christ saving us from our sin? Obviously, this one follows off of the last. If atonement deals with different dimensions of sin, then there are correspondingly different methods. Does Christ pay a penalty and do away with our guilt? Unmask the powers of evil? Conquer the power of death? Heal the corrupting effects of sin in our souls and our bodies? Liberate the oppressed from unjust political systems? Hopefully, you answered yes to all of them. Still, each theory tends to focus on one or a couple of these. Asking these questions helps us identify areas of critique or needed expansion and addition to fill out our view of Christ’s full work. If your theory doesn’t admit of that, if it rules out further dimensions, then that might be a problem.
5. How does this theory develop Christ saving us for life with God and others? Finally, we need to remember that atonement is aimed, not only at saving us from sin, but for life with God. Every theory or aspect under consideration should point forward towards the resurrected life, just as atonement does not stop with the cross but continues on through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. How is that result described? Is it union with God? Is it a new life of righteousness? Is it warm, reconciled family relations? Is it physical wholeness in the New Creation? Does it have implications for our life now, between the comings of Christ? Each aspect or theory of atonement ought to have something to say here. Now, note, not each dimension has to say everything–I’ve seen criticism of penal substitution that fault it for dealing with problems that other complementary dimensions deal with well (social, political, etc) and simply written off because people are under the impression you can’t have more than one aspect doing work at a time. That’s akin to faulting a hammer for not being wrench because you’re too silly to realize you can use both.
In any case, these five questions (and I’ve only scratched the surface of Johnson’s development of them) are a good place to start considering the various proposals, historic and contemporary, for understanding the grand, comprehensive work of Christ’s atonement. I know the book doesn’t release for a couple of months, but for serious students looking to dig deep into the manifold wisdom of God’s saving work in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I highly commend preordering or wish-listing this book.
Soli Deo Gloria