T & T Clark Companion to Atonement (Review)

companion to atonement

It is something of a cliché to say that “no area is more contested in contemporary theology than” and then insert whatever subject you’re about to touch on. But when it comes to the doctrine of atonement, that may actually be the case. Indeed, the conversation has become wild and woolly for all sorts of reasons: recent winds in Old and New Testament scholarship, revisions in the traditional telling of dogmatic history, and shifting cultural challenges. For any student trying to get a handle on the situation, it’s hard to know where to turn for a reliable, up to date introduction to the wide variety of issues or figures worth addressing to understand them all.

And this is exactly what makes T&T Clark Companion to Atonement edited by Adam Johnson such a valuable resource. It is now the most comprehensive, up-to-date, multi-author volume on the matter. Johnson has really pulled out the stops, pulling together dozens of top-notch contributors to deliver 103 chapters (18 full papers, 85 short essays) covering a wide variety of subjects and important figures in relation to the atonement of Christ. This really is a must for any theological school library.*

I couldn’t possibly give you a comprehensive review of the whole, so I’ll limit myself to a few important features, flag a few favorites, and register a critical comment or two.

First, though there are some excellent essays addressing biblical material and subject matter, Johnson clearly and explicitly places an accent on doing theological retrieval. Close to half of the major papers and dozens of the smaller essays cover figures covering the full range of Church history, be it patristic (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory, the Apostolic Fathers, Augustine), Medieval (Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Hugh of St. Victor, Catherine of Sienna), Reformation and Post-Ref (Calvin, Luther, Cranmer, Grotius, Edwards, Owen) and modern (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Ritschl, Forsyth), and much more.

Besides offering sympathetic expositions and corrections of popular misconceptions, both the papers and the essays serve as excellent places to build your own bibliography for study of these key figures. The essays especially are not always meant to be comprehensive in themselves, but orientations and pointers to further research with suggested readings and volumes.

Relatedly, it should be clear after this volume that one can ever only use the Aulen three-fold typology of atonement models (Christus Victor, Moral, and Latin) as a very, quick and dirty heuristic tool (if at all). Essay after essay complicates that story for the historical figures usually pointed to as representatives (McGuckin on Gregory, Sonderegger on Anselm, and Johnson on Abelard), while other methodological chapters (esp. Oliver Crisp’s typically lucid discussion), draw out the conceptual problems with thinking in these terms. Stephen Holmes’s point that penal substitution fits best as one element among many works for the nugget of Scriptural insight found in most of the other “theories”, as well.

Another feature to note is that Johnson has tried to grab scholars from a wide variety of perspectives for their competence on the subject matter, not necessarily because they present a single, unified view. And so you’ll frequently have essays covering related subject matter contrasting one another in a helpful, corrective manner, displaying the nature of current debates within the volume itself.

For example, while you may find Adam Kotsko’s discussion of the Ransom theory of atonement stimulating theologically, McGuckin and Sonderegger would probably challenge his accounts of Gregory and Anselm historically. Or again, while Stephen Chapman’s essay on atonement in the Old Testament seems more focused on letting you know about all the ways it’s not simply penal substitution (or maybe not at all), T.D. Alexander’s essay on atonement in The Pentateuch seems more amenable to seeing a related theology of “ransom” at work as part of the larger whole, and cites a few different relevant works.

Now, a few favorites. First, Fred Sanders on Trinity and anything is always going to be a good time. Adam Johnson’s introductory essay should not be confused with a simple bit of scene-setting before real contributions start—it is a programmatic vision worth pondering. Sonderegger on Anselm was a stand-out, which I’ve already highlighted. I also deeply enjoyed Paul Dafydd Jones’ essay on “The Fury of Love” who draws out the multi-faceted character of Calvin’s biblically-driven atonement doctrine (though, I demur from his comments on Christology). Thomas Weinandy on Athanasius was fun as well, even if I don’t buy his fallen humanity reading. And Ivor Davidson on Incarnation and atonement reminded me I needed to add more of his work to my Amazon list. I enjoyed many others, but these stood out.

As for criticisms, they more have to do with material disagreements with particular authors than with the quality of work in any given essay. For instance, Joel Green’s essay on the New Testament continues his well-established anti-penal-substitutionary read of the material and I continue to find some of it wrong. But Green is a good scholar. Or again, as I already hinted at it, I find Kotkso’s portraits of both Gregory and Anselm to be misleading, but even more so, the general thrust of his argument—that if you downplay the role of the devil as Anselm does, eventually God must play his role in the new salvation schema—as confused and misleading as it was in The Politics of Redemption and for the same reasons: it depends on a sort of optical illusion by way of formal analysis which misconstrues the motivations and particularities of satisfaction and (later penal) accounts (let alone addressing their biblical logic). All the same, it’s an engaging essay. Much the same could be said of several other essays.

At the end of the day, though, Johnson has done everyone involved in the conversation around atonement a magnificent service. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this volume time and time again.

Soli Deo Gloria

*And I do mean library, since the price tag is quite prohibitive for the average student—at least until a paperback is released or something. (And yes, I got a review copy, though, without any expectation of positive review, etc.)

Johnson on the Proper Shape of Atonement Doctrine

companion to atonement

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

Summarizing, Simplifying, and Expanding on the Atonement by Adam Johnson (Guest Post)

atonementAdam Johnson is a professor of theology in the Torrey Honors program at Biola University and excellent chap. He’s just put out a very helpful book–one of my new favorites on the subject–Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I’ve already written about here. What follows is an excerpted  section of one of my favorite passages in the work, reprinted with his permission. I hope it encourages you to follow up and pick the book. 

A thorough appreciation of the complexity of the atonement funds our delight and worship, while equipping the church to relate Christ’s work meaningfully to a host of other areas. An equally strong grasp of the simplicity of the doctrine yields a sense of the overall shape and structure of the doctrine, offering meaning and direction to our inquiries within its many elements. Just as in the doctrines of the Trinity and divine attributes (in fact, precisely because of them), the interplay between unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity, plays a vital role here as well. For that reason we must constantly live in the tension between seeking an expansive understanding, and concise definition of the work of Christ.

Summary I: An Exercise in Simplicity

The best summary statements about Christ’s atoning work in Scripture are the following two (closely related) verses:

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

“In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Col. 1:19-20)

In short:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

The beauty of this short statement is four-fold. First, the emphasis is first and foremost upon God, which is absolutely vital for the doctrine. The atonement is the work of God bringing God’s creation back to God. God is the origin, means and end of this act, and the role of theology proper is singularly and absolutely determinative for the shape of the doctrine and the coherence of our account of the atonement. Second, this is the work of God as man, as Jesus. That is to say, it is a fully human work, the work of God as one of us, one of our kind living out his life under the same realities and circumstances as we do. It is a work from within our life and experience, in which God makes our situation his own, rather than a work from the outside. Third, this is a work of reconciliation. One could say that God was in Christ, atoning (at-one-ing) all things to himself in Christ, though this does not communicate as readily in contemporary English. In principle, one could substitute “reconciling” for any of a number of soteriological synonyms, including “saving,” “redeeming,” “ransoming” or “sanctifying.” “Reconciliation” is preferable, however, for its positive (indicating salvation for just as much or more than it does salvation from) and comprehensive nature. In other words, it isn’t as readily reducible to merely marshal, judicial or commercial concerns as some of its peers.

The final reason which makes this summary the best single statement in Scripture concerning the work of Christ is its comprehensive scope: all things! Of course this must be unpacked, but such a comprehensive and indeed cosmic affirmation runs no risk whatsoever of leaving anything out. All things are involved and bound up in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is no mere matter of meeting some particular need or void in our lives—the death and resurrection of Christ are of much bigger scope than that. They gather up the identity, condition and fate of all of God’s creation, for in Christ all things are taken up and reconciled to the Father. Regardless of whether we recognize this to be the case, there is nothing in life that is not reconciled to God through the work of Christ (Col. 1:20).

In short, for a single statement that grasps the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement in the being and act of God, the means of the atonement in the man Jesus Christ, the positive and life-giving nature of atonement as a work of reconciliation, a restoring of relationships, and the scope of the atonement, which brings all things into their proper relationship and fellowship with God, there is no better statement than Paul’s claim that God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself.

Summary II – A Fuller Account

But the purpose of a summary statement is to bring clarity by highlighting the basic elements or structure of that which it summarizes. Accordingly, summary always plays its role as one part of the task of understanding its object, which is to say, summaries play a role within the dynamic movement necessary for understanding a complex reality, moving between a vision of the overall structure and interacting with the smaller parts of which the whole is composed. To honor this dynamic movement, we will briefly unpack the above summary, offering a slightly more complex rendition of the same basic statement:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

To affirm that God was in Christ, that this was the work of God and his presence in this act is what makes it what it is, what gives it its defining features, characteristics and significance, is to affirm first and foremost that this is the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are what they are because they are events in the life of God, willed by the Father, executed by the Son, in the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. It is only because the atonement is the work of the triune God, bringing our humanity and sin into the relational dynamics of Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, that this work is what it is. And it is because God does this work through his own life, that it simultaneously involves the fullness of the divine character. In this event, God enacts his love, wisdom, mercy, righteousness, holiness and presence, the fullness of the divine attributes, in his overcoming of sin and evil, and restoration of all things according to his purposes for them.

To affirm that Jesus was a man is to embrace the fact that he was not any man, but an Israelite: born of the line of David, realizing in himself the covenants, prophecies and laws of the Old Testament as the Messiah, the prophet, priest and king, the one who in himself was the faithful Israelite. As such, he is, of course, a human being just as we are, but one with a specific history, and with that history a specific identity and role. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and more concretely, from the Jew, Jesus, the son of Mary. And his work was a work of reconciliation, of atonement—of making one through restored relation to God and through him to all things. Relationally, he made things one by bringing about reconciliation or the restoration of fellowship. Cosmically, he made creation one by removing evil, conflict and decay. Judicially, he made us one by doing away with the crime, guilt and punishment. His work was a work of creating and sharing one-ness according to the many forms it takes in different contexts and relationships, bearing in himself and thereby doing away with all sin, evil and discord.

And his work touches on all things: angels and demons, Jews and Gentiles, dogs and cats, mountains and graveyards. And because the center of God’s election in Christ was for a people, for a relationship with humankind, his work relates to middle management and racial relations, body and soul, emotions and habits, families and friendships. Extending far beyond the guilty conscience, God became man in Jesus Christ to bring every aspect of creation, and every aspect of our human existence, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, with all the flourishing and mutual-exaltation that this entails for every aspect of our being (physical, spiritual, social, sexual, economic and otherwise) and that of the creation of which we are a part.

Definition as Springboard to Exploration

But we must be clear about the fact that this more expansive summary is but a springboard to fuller reflection on each these areas. But as we engage in this pursuit, for the sake of clarity and definition, it is helpful that we be able to pull back from detailed exploration of the sub-points of the doctrine, and also be able to affirm with brevity and understanding that:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

Or even more briefly, that:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Questions To Ask Of Any Atonement Theory

atonementI’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

Mere Fidelity: Atonement

A few weeks ago Matt Anderson and I invited on Adam Johnson and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to talk about atonement. Our qualifications? Well, on our end, Anderson runs the Mere Orthodoxy site and I wrote this super-long post about penal substitutionary atonement. Adam Johnson has actually written a couple of books on the subject and teaches at Biola’s Torrey Honors program. So he’s kind of an expert. Now, Pascal, well, he’s my favorite French Catholic writer/twitter-fiend/troll on the internet right now. We debate stuff like this all the time, so we figured why not on the podcast?

So, here it is:

For more show links that I don’t feel like hassling with, go to MereOrthodoxy. They’re actually very helpful.

Soli Deo Gloria