With his various works on the subject, especially his Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Adam Johnson has become something of a go-to guru on the subject matter. Editing the recent T&T Clark Companion to Atonement cements the deal. While I plan on reviewing it more fully later on, I wanted to briefly draw attention to his valuable programmatic comments on the nature of atonement doctrine in his introductory essay in the volume:
The goal of this doctrine is to understand and expound: the sanctified intellect’s joyful act of worship, as the church and its members seek to understand the God who revealed himself in his saving act, by means of God’s chosen witness to that act, Holy Scripture. Developing this doctrine is thus first and foremost an act of submission, of learning, recognizing, and understanding the witness we have received, for its origin lies in the decision and act of God, who does not merely seek to save his creatures, but to be known and worshipped by them as he is, as the Savior.
Only in a secondary and derivative way does the doctrine of the atonement dwell upon and respond to the challenges and heresies of its day. Biblical, theological, philosophical, religious, ethical, and other critiques have their vital role to play in the development and formation of doctrine (not least holding it accountable to its true vocation). But as the church’s calling and freedom to develop doctrine stems from the being and act of God, such critiques and questions play at most a significant ministerial role in holding the church accountable to its primary calling: joyful and rigorous reflection upon and development of the scriptural testimony to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. This is all the more true, given that the church’s primary end endures beyond all conflict and error, joining the angels in their never-ending privilege of worship, singing “blessed is the lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12) in ever new stanzas and choruses (Ps. 96:11).
–“Atonement: The Shape and State of the Doctrine”, 1-2
If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I have spent a fair amount of time (more than I like really) engaged in theological polemic surrounding the atonement. Indeed, polemic writing seems to be the most common mode of discourse on the matter both online and in academic circles. And there’s really nothing surprising about that. The cross of Christ has always presented itself as a stone of stumbling offense to the heart and mind (1 Cor. 1-2). And we should always be prepared to grapple at that level.
Still, Johnson rightly reminds us that polemical engagement is not the point of reflection on Christ’s work. The point is proclamation leading to doxological expression; preaching that produces praise. Forgetting this can lead to important distortions in both our spirituality and in the doctrine itself.
When it comes to the doctrine, preoccupation with polemics can lead you to get a misshapen sense of the whole. For instance, being entirely fixated on rightly defending penal substitution (which I do frequently), can tend to push you to ignore the many other facets of Christ’s work which the New Testament expounds. Or, flipping it around, a desire to recover neglected aspects can lead you to unnecessarily downplay those you think get too much attention.
This is where Johnson’s emphasis on rigorous reflection and attention to the witness of Scripture is vital. When we’re attending to the text carefully, we allow the Word to exert a pressure on our sense of the whole in proportion to its own testimony. We learn to emphasize what God emphasizes through his prophets and apostles, and how to relate the parts to the whole in the way he has inspired them.
And this must be true in our preaching as well. Preaching must include apologetics and polemics at times. If you’re going to reach the world, you must be dealing with the world’s arguments. All the same, the priority must be to preach the truth of Christ’s work in the text and order our polemics and apologetics to that end.
Soli Deo Gloria