There’s been a lot of recent discussion on the nature of Jesus’ atonement. All Christians universally affirm that Jesus’ death on the cross saved us from sin. But we debate exactly how his death brought about that salvation.
Western Christianity has long been dominated by penal views of the atonement, namely Calvin’s theory of penal substitutionary atonement. According to this view, God’s holiness demands that sin be punished; Christ bore that punishment in our place; God’s wrath was thus satisfied; and we can thus receive forgiveness. But this view is starting to lose its dominance. For reasons that I won’t get into now, I count myself among those who believe that it offers a distorted picture of God and that it undermines the nature of forgiveness.
Other views—such as recapitulation, ransom, Christus victor, moral influence, mimetic theory, and many others—are becoming more prominent. And so the debate rages. Those with opposing views lock themselves into their respective camps, and little progress is made.
But this book is not like the many others, seeking to push certain views in opposition to the rest. Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (which is based on the proceedings of the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference) mostly avoids the debate of one theory vs. another. Instead, it asks how the doctrine of atonement relates to other key theological concepts. So the atonement is discussed in relation to doctrines like trinity, creation, and ascension.
Contributors hold widely diverging views of the atonement themselves, and this comes across in their writing, more with some than others. But for the most part, the essays should be helpful for all views, even if some modifications may be needed. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of wisdom and atonement by Kyle Strobel and Adam J. Johnson, as well as the discussion of covenant and atonement by Jeremy R. Treat.
But one essay stood out above all the others. In fact, it was this essay that made me want to read the book in the first place. In some ways, it doesn’t even fit with the theme of the book as a whole, as it does promote one specific model of the atonement. But let’s be honest, Benjamin Myers’ essay on the patristic atonement model stole the show. Who cares that it deviates from the book’s focus? This sorely needed essay makes the whole thing worth the price of admission.
Myers’ essay brings new life to the recapitulation view of Irenaeus and Athanasius, along with a more-clearly articulated understanding of Christus victor. What Myers so skillfully does is elucidate the understanding of the atonement held by the very earliest church fathers (which has been consistently maintained by the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but has been all but forgotten in Western Christianity). And he does so in a way that makes it applicable for believers today. This is exactly what we’ve needed.
Here’s a little excerpt:
Human beings are the products of love. They are created in God’s image for the purpose of reciprocating divine love. Human nature, motivated by an internal principle of desire, tends naturally upward toward God. Since God is the source of all life, to be lovingly moving toward God is to be alive. But to turn away from God, even for one second, is to begin to die: to slide downward, away from life, love, and reality.
Since the beginning of history, the whole human race has been locked in a downward slide toward nothingness. But because of his great love for humanity, the Son of God leapt down from heaven and wrapped himself in our plummeting human nature. Because he was human, he participated fully in our perilous slide toward nothingness. But because he was divine, he was able to arrest our downward movement and to reverse it, initiating an upward movement toward the life, love, and reality of God. In the movement of that one human life, the life of Christ, the whole of human nature has undergone death and resurrection. (page 86)
I love almost everything about Myers’ essay. There’s just one clarification I’d like to bring up. He talks a lot about the impassibility of God. But it seems that impassibility means different things to different people. To many, impassibility means that God does not have emotions—he cannot suffer with us in any real sense. This is the definition of impassibility I have heard most often, and I absolutely reject it. Our God is a personal God with very real emotions, and he always suffers with us. However, it seems that Myers is using the concept of impassibility in a more specific sense to mean that God cannot suffer death; therefore, God had to assume a mortal human body first. On this we agree, and if that’s all he means by impassibility, then I don’t have a problem with it.
He delivered his essay at the conference, and they’ve graciously made the video of it available online (other videos available as well). So check it out!
But be sure to pick up the book for all the full details and citations. It also includes many essays for which no video is available online (such as the ones on wisdom and covenant that I enjoyed).
Disclosure: the publisher, Zondervan, sent me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.