A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverThis review was originally written for Books and Culture before its unfortunate closing. Thanks to John Wilson for encouraging me to write it. 

One mark of a constructive theologian is to ask the perennial questions of Christian theology in a contemporary key. In Peter Leithart’s new work Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, and Mission, he reframes St. Anselm’s famous question, “Why did God become man?” as,

“How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and cross-roads for everything?”

To answer that question, Leithart believes we must reconstrue atonement theology as “as social theory”, making social and political questions and consequences central to our understanding of Christ’s work. In that sense, it must be a “theory of everything”, if it is to be a successful rendering of the events that changed everything.

Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.”

Cur Deus Homo?

The work defies simple description and summary. In brief, though, Leithart offers a “Pauline” reading of Scripture that takes its cues from the notion of the “elements of the world” or stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians 4:1-7. Across cultures in time and space, the world has ordered itself according to the “elements”, the basic “socio-religious principles” and categories such as clean/unclean, sacred/profane, life/death, and so forth. These principles give rise to orders of ritual, sacrifice, and social stratification which, though they can be arranged in a bewildering variety of ways, are the same basic “physics” composing the old creation.

These elemental principles order life in the “flesh.” For Leithart, “flesh” is a master metaphor comprising everything from basic, human frailty all the way to the post-Fall, libido dominandi of phallic warfare, which mortal flesh uses to cover over the fear of death. Fleshly life under the elements is Adamic humanity’s lot: cast out of God’s Garden-house, flesh is divided from Spirit, living under the restrictive regimes of “taste not, touch not” aimed at (yet failing in) overcoming death and restoring communion with God.

On this scheme, Torah is God’s own redemptive set of rearranged “elements” (sacrifice, ritual, holiness codes) which God uses in his history-long war of justice to destroy flesh without destroying humanity. With Torah, God separates a new Adamic people, Israel, out of the rest of the divided world, and with a new set of pedagogical elements, taught them to enter into his presence through sacrifice and purity, though under the condition of flesh.

Of course, the Torah cannot work life, or overcome flesh. Indeed, under the condition of flesh, Torah became an instrument of injustice within and by Israel and worked the curse of death against Israel.

For that reason, the Son came in the flesh to be a new Israel—one who enacted all that Torah aimed at, living out the life of the Spirit. This life and ministry inevitably brought him into conflict with the fleshly authorities, both Jewish and Roman, leading to his crucifixion—a sacrificial (and penal) death on behalf of (substitutionary) Israel and the World in which the flesh was condemned. It also led to his subsequent vindication and justification by resurrection (a “deliverdict”), in which the flesh is raised to life in presence of God by the Spirit. (A similar construction is given by Fleming Rutledge in her notion of “rectification”, which makes sense, since they both draw on themes from the Union school of apocalyptic interpretation).

Baptism, faith, and union with Christ’s justifying life, death, and resurrection leads to the justification and deliverance of the individual (his “deliverdict”), as well as the formation of a new, “post-stoicheic” community animated by Jesus and the Spirit.  As one new man, a just community is made from Jew and Gentile, both now free from Torah and the “elements” of the world. As the of this new community around a new, ritual, and moral order eventually begins dismantling of the old socio-religious hierarchies that surround it, we can begin to grasp how Jesus’ atonement leads to the transformation of social life and human history as a whole.

Promise and Perils of Systematics

One can begin to see, then, that Leithart’s answer to the question is innovative, elegant, multi-faceted, and holistic. I have never read something quite like this.

For instance, in setting the stage for his nuanced, biblical account of Levitical sacrifice and Torah (a brilliant distillation of the complex, often-impenetrable specialist literature on the subject), Leithart offers a literary interlude, consisting of a first-person dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the priests of Egypt, Babylon, and Ancient Greece. It’s something of a crash course in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman comparative studies that manages to set Israel’s religious life firmly in the religious world, without falling into either parallelomania, nor forcing it into some Procrustean bed of a pre-existing theory of sacrifice or religion as so many recent accounts (such as those following Rene Girard) have done. What’s more, it has a literary flair, proving again that theology need not be aesthetically anodyne.

At this point, though, I’m reminded of a story Graham Cole tells about the plight of the systematic theologian. When reading the systematician’s work, a NT scholar will come along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did with the Old Testament, but a few of those bits on the New Testament weren’t so hot.” And the OT scholar comes along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did in the New Testament, but some of those bits from the Old Testament weren’t so hot.” And the historiand comes along and says, “Loved what he did with the Bible, but his historical work could use a tune-up.” The comprehensive holism which systematics demands often leaves exegetical or historical specialists a bit cold (or hot and bothered, depending on temperaments).

Speaking broadly, I’d say that in his attempt to make up for gaps often left unplugged in other accounts, Leithart leaves open a few of his own. For now, I leave it to others to deal with his rough handling of Reformation history, or the idiosyncrasies of his hybridized New Perspective, Apocalyptic, & typological reading of Paul and justification, or even the fuzzy metaphysical status of “nature” in his schema. Brad Littlejohn has explored some of those in his lengthy review, and in the future I may take up his critique of Reformation theology along the lines of the natural/supernatural distinction. For now, I’ll just comment on the pay-out and loss of having opted for his particular reading of Christ’s victory over the elements.

Stoicheia Without Satan 

Reading the stoicheia tou kosmou as the “elements of the world” and the “socio-religious principles” of clean and unclean, etc. has significant payouts in Leithart’s system. As we’ve seen, it allows him to connect Israel’s history to world religious history in its original setting, as well as ecclesiology and the social dimension of atonement. It also allows him to forward a current reading of the scene in which Christian mission happens; the way societies, ideologies, and even other religions like modern Hinduism and Buddhism which have been transformed in their encounter with the continuing impact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

They also allow him to venture into the contested waters of secularization theory, contending that “we have never been secular.” Rather, modernity is a post-Christian, rationalized reordering of the categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, with its own priesthood, and social categories of “other.” It is not the same stoicheic order as the old, but it is a stoicheic order, nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is one of the most interesting parts of the work).

With all these benefits accrued, however, there is one conspicuous absence in Leithart’s story of atonement and his “theory of everything”: there is no Serpent in Leithart’s Garden. (Quite literally, there is no mention of him in the account of Adam and Eve’s Fall.)

In one way this is unsurprising. The other, recent popular interpretation for the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is to see it as a reference to malevolent, spiritual forces. Opting for the reading “socio-religious principles”, Leithart seems to shelve the alternative almost entirely. With the exception of a few approving references to N.T. Wright’s suggestion that demonic powers or “tutelary deities” stand behind the “powers and principalities”, or a paragraph about Jesus’ exorcisms, the Tempter, the Accuser of the saints, the Dragon, the great opponent of YHWH and his people has gone missing from Leithart’s landscape. Interestingly, the Christus Victor theme is still there, but sublimated—YHWH is still at war, but not so much with demonic powers, but with flesh.

While seemingly unintentional, and while one cannot deal with everything in a single book, this transposition threatens to throw off not only our account of atonement, but our account of churchly mission as well. With respect to the atonement, John tells us that Christ came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Paul says one of the great blessings of Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, is disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). In so doing, Christ liberates us from the fleshy fear of death (Hebrews 2:14), at least in part, by freeing us from Satan’s accusation (Revelation 12:10-12).

Turning to mission, the sidelining of the demonic distorts our understanding of spiritual power at work, lurking behind the “socio-religious principles”, rendering their opposition so potent.  Ignoring this leaves us liable to forget that our struggle is against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), not only a recalcitrant sociology.

I don’t think the narrative he presents can’t be modified to include this line of Biblical theology, but as it stands, the modification is necessary all the same.

At the end of the day, though, even the gaps in Leithart’s exceptional work press us to continually expand the scope of our reflections upon Christ’s atonement to social, political, and cosmic proportions.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

  1. As to Leithart’s literary interlude (the travels to Egypt, Babylon, and Greece) you should offer a spoiler alert.

    As reader doesn’t find out it is the Apostle P___ until the end.

    Other than that, good review

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