Book Review: The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, ed. by James Beilby and Paul Eddy
Another in the “four-views” series of books, James Beilby and Paul Eddy’s The Nature of the Atonement brings together four authors to discuss the question, “What image or understanding of the atonement does Scripture present as primary?” Greg Boyd argues for the primacy of the Christus Victor theme. Tom Schreiner argues for penal substitution. Bruce Reichenbach focuses on medical (or healing) images. And Joel Green promotes a “kaleidoscope” understanding in which no one image takes precedence over the others.
WILL THE REAL DEBATE PLEASE STEP FORWARD?
Looking over this list, one of the first things that comes to mind is that the selection of perspectives seems a bit random. Why Bruce Reichenbach on healing? Medical imagery is used of the atonement in Scripture, but have many people argued that it is primary? Why not N.T. Wright explaining how atonement works in the New Perspective? That’s one of the more pressing outstanding questions in the New Perspective, and it would have been interesting to have included someone from that camp. Also, given Scripture’s many-colored presentation of the atonement, doesn’t Green’s “kaleidoscope” idea automatically take the pole position? Why would anyone argue with that?
Some of these tensions show up throughout the book. For example, Reichenbach himself doesn’t seem to argue for the primacy of his healing model, causing Schreiner to wonder if he somehow misunderstood the purpose of the book (149). Both Schreiner and Boyd argue forcefully for the primacy of their positions, but both repeatedly acknowledge that Scripture uses many images for the atonement, and that neglecting any of them creates a deficiency in a Christian’s understanding of Christ’s work.
At one level, then, the argument upon which this book is built isn’t all that it’s trumped up to be. Sure, they can debate which image ought to be primary, but everyone agrees that all of Scripture’s images are crucial. And so the energy in the fight fizzles. Sparks only fly, after all, when someone says someone else is “wrong.” No Christian is going to argue that healing as an image of atonement is wrong, or that Christ as victor over demonic powers is wrong, or that redemption from the slavery of sin is wrong, or that penal substitution is . . . Oh, wait. Yep, there’s the rub.
The real argument taking place in The Nature of the Atonement is whether Christ’s death should be understood as penal and substitutionary, and on that question there are not really four views. There are only two: yes it should, or no it should not. In other words, this book presents us with Tom Schreiner against everyone else.
Essentially, Schreiner’s essay is a clear and systematic presentation of the gospel. He begins by pointing out the inevitable clash between human sinfulness and God’s holiness, and then presents the Bible’s solution to that problem—propitiation, which is the turning away of God’s wrath by sacrifice. The strength of Schreiner’s essay over the others in the book is two-fold. First, Schreiner articulates a fully coherent picture of how God saves people from sin. He does not leave crucial questions unanswered as the others do. Second, Schreiner’s presentation is deeply rooted in the text of Scripture. His exegesis of both Old Testament and New Testament passages is detailed and strong. And at the end of the day, the other chapters in the book falter because they never adequately address the passages of Scripture which Schreiner so clearly lays out.
That is not to say there is nothing to be gained from those other chapters. If one reads them merely as explanations of various images of atonement found in Scripture, they provide for good, informative reading. Reichenbach’s is a useful compendium of the Bible’s healing imagery, and Boyd’s chapter offers a compelling story spanning the entire narrative of Scripture about how God accomplished victory through Christ. He also paints a wonderful picture of what Christ’s victory means for how Christians ought to live. Even Green’s chapter—though it is in my opinion the least helpful and most off-base—is a good reminder that Scripture’s portrayal of the atonement cannot be reduced to any one image or understanding.
That acknowledged, the chapters by Boyd, Reichenbach, and Green are troubled by serious deficiencies at the heart of their arguments. Take Boyd’s Christus Victor approach. For all the sweeping drama of his view, Boyd never answers the most central questions about the atonement: How exactly did Jesus save sinners? What did his death on the cross do? On those questions, Boyd leaves the reader wondering. Sure, he says that by his death Jesus won victory over demonic powers, but aside from an ambiguous discussion in which he only half-way distances himself from the ancient church’s “Jesus as bait for Satan,” he never tells us how Christ’s death achieves this victory, much less how it deals with sin and guilt (36-37). Indeed, Boyd’s final word on the subject of how the cross defeated the demonic powers is buried in a footnote: “at the end of the day we must humbly acknowledge that our understanding is severely limited” (37n). Reichenbach’s and Green’s chapters also suffer from the same lack of specificity. Because they reject (or at least severely minimize) the idea of penal substitution, they can finally offer no answer to the questions, “But why did Jesus have to die? What precisely did his death accomplish?” Only Schreiner answers that question satisfyingly.
One other deficiency that runs through the chapters by Boyd, Reichenbach, and Green is that they all shy away from the idea of God’s wrath. Boyd could not be more straightforward when he says, “The New Testament concept of salvation . . . does not first and foremost mean ‘salvation from God’s wrath’” (35). He also counts it one of “the more problematic aspects” of penal substitution that “Jesus literally experienced the Father’s wrath or that the Father needed to punish his Son in order to forgive us.” Instead, Boyd proposes that Christ’s death amounted to God surrendering his Son over to evil agents to have their way with him (43). Green similarly declares that the Old Testament sacrifices are not at all a matter of sacrifice or penalty, and finally concludes that when it comes to understanding the death of Jesus, “‘assuaging God’s wrath’ and ‘payment of the penalty of sin’ are wide of the mark” (175).
Reichenbach more subtly expresses his discomfort with the idea of God’s wrath. To his credit he says, “I will not argue that the penal substitution view is not an important scriptural motif.” And in his response to Green, he even gives a hearty defense of the coherence and scripturality of divine wrath (198-199). For all that, Reichenbach still demonstrates a palpable uneasiness with the idea that God punished Jesus for our sin. He says at one point, for example, that it was sin, not God, who killed Jesus (137). He also argues that God did not have to punish Jesus in order to save us, even though he finally chose to do it like that anyway. In the scriptures, he argues, forgiveness is always conditioned on faith, repentance, and the forgiveness of others, never on punishment. Frankly, it is not at all clear to me what Reichenbach gains with this argument, willing as he is to say (sometimes) that penal substitution is in fact how God chose to do things. If nothing else, I suppose he disassociates himself with the idea of a wrathful God punishing his innocent Son in order to save guilty sinners.
The real problem is that in making these arguments against the wrath of God in general, and penal substitution in particular, Boyd, Reichenbach, and Green have to ignore enormous sections of Scripture. Pages and pages of Schreiner’s scriptural exegesis go unanswered, and one’s left thinking that the other authors are bent on rejecting penal substitution on philosophical and emotional grounds no matter what Scripture says.
For example, what are we to say about Boyd’s statement that Jesus didn’t literally experience the Father’s wrath, or Reichenbach’s that it was sin and not God that killed Jesus (43, 137)? Isaiah 53:10 alone would seem to put the matter to rest: “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” And how do we answer Boyd’s assertion that it is Satan, not God, who “holds that no one can be forgiven truly for free: someone or other must pay!” (103)? Hebrews 9:22 and Leviticus 17:11 would seem to undercut completely that understanding. Or how do we answer when Green attacks penal substitution by asking on what basis it could possibly follow “that Jesus’ dying quenches the anger directed by God?” The answer: on the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 3:25-26 and John 3:16 and countless other individual verses, not to mention the whole storyline of Scripture. Green again: “Given the doctrine of [the Trinity] . . . how can one claim that the Son had to die on the cross in order to propitiate God’s anger?” Again, because Scripture says!
The bottom line here seems to be that Scripture says things that Boyd, Reichenbach, and Green simply don’t like. They like neither the idea of a God who has wrath against individual sin, nor the idea that he would pour his wrath out on a substitute in order to save us. But for evangelicals who understand the Bible to be God’s self-revelation, philosophical arguments and emotional reactions against those concepts aren’t going to have any traction. If the Bible says that God the Father crushed God the Son, then Joel Green throwing up his hands and saying he can’t accept that on philosophical and emotional grounds doesn’t tell us anything about reality. The most it tells us is how much authority Green is willing to give to his emotions relative to Scripture.
The Nature of the Atonement is worth a read, especially if you keep your eyes open to the real argument taking place. On the stated question of which image of the atonement is primary, I’m of the opinion that Schreiner is right. Given the storyline of Scripture and especially the OT sacrificial system, it’s hard to see how any theory other than penal substitution could be central. But the argument about centrality, it seems to me, is not the only one taking place here, nor even the most important. The more important discussion is whether the atonement should be understood in penal and substitutionary terms at all.
Come to think of it, when you consider how Boyd, Reichenbach, and Green argue against penal substitution, there is another, perhaps equally fundamental question at stake: How do we as Christians go about answering questions like this? Will Scripture finally be the deciding factor, or will that role be taken by our own philosophical, cultural, and emotional preferences? How we answer that question will have implications far beyond any one theological issue. It will mean the difference between acknowledging that truth is revealed to us by God, or claiming that it is something we may determine on our own.