The Nature of the Atonement

Mark Johnston Articles

There's nothing like a good debate to stir the juices and make you think! To listen to a bunch of intellectual heavyweights slugging it out verbally is more than just spectator sport, it's a healthy exercise in personal mind-expansion. The Four Views series published by IVP taps into this discipline of orderly debate as a time-honoured means of presenting an argument and sharpening thought to address some of the big issues that the church has wrestled with over the years. This particular volume takes us into the realm of the Atonement.

Four contributors - Gregory Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach and Thomas Schreiner - lock horns on paper within the constraints of the rules of engagement. Each in turn presents his case and his colleagues each have an opportunity to offer a concise critical response. It proves to be a healthy way of testing each argument and, as we listen to the critiques, have a further chance to test the strength of the views that differ.

Although historically the views, or 'theories' of the atonement (it always sounds more than a little arrogant to hear the doctrine of the atonement described in terms of a 'theory'), have been many and varied, these contributors home in on four. Boyd presents the argument for the Christus Victor interpretation, Green a kaleidoscope view, Reichenbach the Healing paradigm and Schreiner the belief that Penal Substitution is the key to understanding Atonement. Together they cover most of the topography of theological debate on this issue through church history.

Boyd kicks off with the first presentation on Christus Victor, arguing for this view not merely because it was the dominant interpretation of Atonement theology for the first millennium of the church's history, but because he believes it to be the most comprehensive approach in terms of doing justice to the biblical data on this theme. His co-contributors rightly and graciously acknowledge that there is much to commend in his argument; but Schreiner incisively points out that he manages to overlook the weight that Scripture gives to the seriousness of personal sin and the need for a particular solution to it in the scheme of divine justice.

The contribution from Schreiner on Penal Substitution is both classic and yet fresh as he addresses this issue in the context of the intensified criticism of this view in recent scholarship. He argues cogently, pointing - as already hinted - to the axiomatic significance of human sin in the face of divine holiness as necessitating a view of the atonement that puts penal substitution at its centre. The three responses to his argument reveal just a little bit more of where his friends are coming from give us a foretaste of what is yet to come from Reichenbach and Green.

Mr. Reichenbach delivers his understanding of atonement in terms of its healing efficacy being the key element to it. As his respondents indicate in their comments, healing (in an eschatological sense) is indeed a key element in what Calvary achieved, but rightly question its being the key element.

Joel Green's contention in his kaleidoscope approach is that all the many perspectives on atonement in Scripture carry equal weight. Strange, therefore, that elsewhere in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross he seems to have a major problem with the substitutionary view. To put a twist on Orwell's comment: 'All pigs are equal, but some are less equal than others.' That aside, for Green, 'the cross became the chief icon by which to rally a robust Christian identity and to ground a Christian ethic.'

There is no doubting the importance of this debate within the evangelical family; but there are some pretty major questions which emerge, not merely from within that debate, but also from the way it is approached.

There is just a sneaking suspicion that the gentlemanly approach in a 'Four Views...' line (or however many you care to sandwich between two covers) smacks just a little of the smorgasbord approach to life in general and theology in particular that is so popular today. Some of the most vigorous debates in the New Testament Church took place between brothers within the church family and they were over much less central issues than the cross and what it accomplished. In our desire to be nice to each other we can perhaps shy away from the 'withstanding to the face' approach favoured by Paul when he challenged his dear brother Peter.

There is also a real concern over the way the church so often seems to eschew a systematic approach to doctrine these days. Biblical Studies guys are good at offering surveys of what the Bible teaches; but they're not always good at gauging the weight of particular doctrines. Paul could tick most of the boxes on what these authors say is covered in the biblical corpus on atonement teaching; but he would very quickly argue to three of these contributors, 'But you've missed the "of first importance" strand that runs through them!'

Given the climate change that's taking place in evangelical theology today with a whole new view on justification, it's inevitable that there needs to be a major reworking of the historic view of atonement that has occupied the centre-ground of Reformed and Evangelical theology: namely penal substitution. The fact that imputation doesn't fit with new-look justification means that substitution must be at least relegated, if not obliterated, in our view of Calvary. One can't help but wonder how much of that is coming out in these pages consciously or otherwise.

A good debate is not merely about making a case; it's about marshalling the evidence and winning the argument. If that is so, then Thomas Schreiner wins hands down in this one.

James K. Beilby & Paul R. Eddy
Review by
Mark Johnston, Minister of Grove Chapel, London, England