Saturday, January 5, 2008

Understanding Atonement

Two books on the doctrine of atonement have been part of my summer 'catch up' reading. One is by three authors writing as one: Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: rediscovering the glory of penal substitution, Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2007. The other is a Festschrift to Roger Nicole which has two editors and many contributors: Charles E. Hill, Frank A. James III (eds.) The Glory of the Atonement: biblical, theological, and practical perspectives, Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2004. Here I will not attempt a full-blown review, suffice to say that each book is worth a place in the library of anyone concerned to understand the doctrine of atonement. The former is particularly useful for the coverage it gives to atonement in the Bible, in the history of theology, and to objections to the doctrine. The latter offers a range of essays, but is worth buying for two essays in particular, which between them (I humbly suggest) overcome all substantive objections to the doctrine of atonement: Bruce L. McCormack, "The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth's Doctrine of Atonement" and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats, and Gifts".

That God in Christ made atonement for our sins on the cross is (I suggest) a clear teaching of the Bible. Also clear is the fact that this atonement is made through Christ being a substitute for us: something is accomplished on the cross which takes the place of something we are not able to achieve. Christ died 'for us' and 'for our sins'. Less clear, if only because much dispute arises, indeed Pierced for our Transgressions is a reactive book evidencing this dispute, is the specific doctrine that the atonement involves a 'penal substitution': Christ bore the punishment for our sins in our place. My question about Pierced for our Transgressions - shared with some reviewers I have read - is whether this book has made anything clearer about the penal substitutionary theory or explanation of atonement.

Kevin Vanhoozer has a memorable sentence which is worth bringing into every attempt to explain the atonement. Noting that postmodern understandings of atonement prefer explanation in terms of 'excess' rather than 'exchange', Vanhoozer writes, 'The death of Jesus exceeds our attempts to explain it' (p. 396). That is worth pondering!

A final note about both books. Each offers assistance to preachers as they set about the task of preaching the atonement.

No comments: