The Nature of the Atonement

Four Views

Beilby, James and Paul R. E ddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 208 pp. $20.00.

Many churches are embracing the postmodern agenda of the ‘Emerging Church’ leaders, who slanderously consider the historic-evangelical doctrine of the atoning work of Christ to be teaching nothing more than divine child abuse. In order to protect the church from such cross-diminishing literature and erroneous exegesis, pastors and teachers should be well prepared to handle various views on the nature of the atonement. Editors James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy provide a helpful discussion concerning the nature of Christ’s atonement in their book entitled, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views.

Summary

Instead of a one-sided explanation of the issues of the atonement, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views provides readers with a forum, where four scholars submit conclusions from their own biblical and theological convictions, and then analyze each view the other holds. All of the writers use a basic systematic approach in unfolding their beliefs about the atoning work of Jesus, thus fulfilling the editors’ aim to be “concerned with the complexities of the Christian view of the atonement” (9).

In the introduction, the editors provide brief explanations of the contemporary issues and discussions to give ground for the book’s importance. Moreover, Beilby and Eddy explain the difference between an objective and a subjective theory of the atonement. The former is primarily “Godward” in its focus, and “understands the work of Christ as primarily addressing a necessary demand of God” (14). For example, the penal substitutionary view is Godward, because it upholds that God’s wrath against sinners demands appeasement before anyone receives forgiveness and justification. The latter is primarily “humanward” in its focus, that is, the work of Christ in the atonement “is designed first and foremost to effect a change in human beings” (18). In the subjective theory, Christ’s death is usually understood to be chiefly exemplary, rather than propitiatory or substitutionary. With this framework in mind, the reader is then prepared to glean from the essays of the four contributors.

Presenting the Christus Victor view of the atonement is Gregory A. Boyd. This view holds that the central achievement in the atoning work of Jesus Christ is God’s defeat of the devil and all other cosmic evil forces (24, 27). Christ came and died, not primarily to save individuals, but to set the world free from its captivity to Satan and people from the cosmic power of sin (29). Boyd states, “…the cosmic significance of Christ’s work is ontologically more fundamental than its soteriological significance” (33). In other words, the atonement is not primarily about salvation from God’s wrath (i.e. propitiatory; 43), but from the cosmic powers, only accomplished by the victorious reign of God (35).

In response to Boyd, the other authors raise several objections. Schreiner argues that Boyd merely makes human beings out to be mere victims of cosmic forces, rather than showing them to be actually sinners (51). He also objects that though a Christus Victor model highlights the victory Jesus gives sinners over the enemy, it does not actually explain “how Christ’s death led to triumph over demonic forces” (52). Boyd asserts that it is due to Christ’s “radical love,” however, Schreiner finds no exegetical support in his argument (52). Reichenbach is also aware of this. He adds that Boyd’s argument for Christ winning through radical love is inconsistent with the biblical testimony—especially in the Son of God returning again to wage war against the enemies (59). Green affirms and even provides arguments, which would buttress Boyd’s arguments; however, he objects that 1) from the Scriptures, the Christus Victor model finds no support as the central motif; and 2) the penal substitution that Boyd argues against is an atonement metaphor Christ’s church cannot afford to lose (63-65).

Thomas R. Schreiner argues for a Penal Substitution view of the atonement. Prior to his argument, he does two things. One, he explains how other views of the atonement fall short of explaining the objective work of Christ, and so, are man-centered (68-72). Two, he exposes the misunderstandings many have regarding the nature of the penal substitution (e.g. as encouragement for divine child abuse; 70-71). Both of these things help in his aim to argue for a “God-centered” view of the atonement (94-97). Schreiner then outlines his argument with three main points. First, disobedience proves that humans are sinners and do not measure up to God’s standard of righteousness (76). Second, since God is holy, his personal settled disposition towards those sinners is wrathful, so that if he is to forgive them, that wrath must be appeased (82). Third, in love, God sent his Son to die as a blood atonement that satisfies his own wrath and brings substitution for sinners, so that God vindicates his righteousness and justifies sinners (83-89). Thus, at the cross, both the holiness of God and the love of God are manifested (67). For Schreiner, this penal substitution view is at the heart of the atonement.

Boyd does not find Schreiner’s argument compelling enough for penal substitution to be the central focus of the atonement (99-100). Instead, Boyd finds the Christus Victor view far superior, since it “weaves” together all of the aspects of Jesus’ work (100). To support his own objection, Boyd then proceeds to exhaust an illustration from C. S. Lewis’ fictionally story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.[1] Against Schreiner, Reichenbach argues that death is not necessarily required for salvation to occur; that is, forgiveness is possible even without death (107). He also argues that divine justice should not be treated as a “primary characteristic” in God (109). In agreement to this last objection, Green adds in his objection that in no way does God need to be reconciled to man, but the opposite (113-115). In other words, God’s disposition towards man is not in need of change.

In the next essay, Bruce R. Reichenbach makes a case for the centrality of the healing view of the atonement. He argues that the world is helpless, unrepentant, and “sin-sick” because of the fall, and the entirety of the human condition is in need of healing (120). The world’s only hope is that they look to the divine Healer who has addressed both sin and sickness in the person and work of Jesus (126). Through Jesus’ cross-death, especially in light of the messianic promises of Isaiah 53, God has brought this healing (130). Due to the atoning work of Christ, people experience forgiveness of sins and a restored relationship with God in order to bring “holistic shalom” to the world—experienced partially now, but in full in the age to come (139, 141).

Boyd agrees with Reichenbach, that the world is in need of healing; however, he is not convinced that healing should be considered fundamental to Christ’s atoning work. At the heart of Boyd’s objection is that the metaphors found in Scripture emphasize the cosmic war, rather than a healing motif (143). Jesus brings healing insofar as he does so through victory over the devil (144). Schreiner agrees that people need to be healed, but he too does not find it at the heart of the atonement, especially because a therapeutic view is not God-centered (149). He also objects that Reichenbach’s presentation does not explain “why God required the death of his Son to cure us of our sins” (149). Any view that is to be fundamental should answer this question. Green observes that Reichenbach gives no account of historical theological perspective to support his interpretation (154). More importantly, Green argues that the healing view of the atonement does not explain how the cross actually “effects salvation” for anyone (155).

Joel B. Green presents the final essay affirming the kaleidoscopic view of the atonement. His two main points are that 1) Christ crucified is the “means for comprehending the purposes of God” (i.e. one cannot separate Jesus’ death from its own historical context); and 2) nobody should attempt to exhaust how this applies to humans (157; emphasis mine). The cross of Christ is the “consequence of a life in the service of God’s purpose,” and since this is the case, the meaning of the atonement cannot be reduced “to an individual’s relationship to God” (165). In other words, the atonement is about more than just someone getting right with God, and therefore one is to consider all of the metaphors used in Scripture (169). Only in this way, one will be able to see the magnitude of what the cross accomplished (184-185). Thus, there is no core view of the atonement, for Green, only a kaleidoscope of metaphors.

In response to this view, Boyd is first to say that it has a tendency to be relativistic, since the metaphors might effect different groups in different ways (187). Besides, Boyd objects that all views try to affirm the same things Green is. The aim of the essay is to find which one is primary in Jesus’ atoning work (188). On a similar note, Schreiner argues that “diversity” does not necessarily mean that none of metaphors is “foundational” in understanding the atonement (192). He also argues that the message of reconciliation must be mutual since God is personally wrathful against sinners (193-194). Green, however, downplays the wrath of God. In like fashion, Reichenbach brings forth the same objections Schreiner did. He argues that God is truly angry with sinners, and one must explain how God dealt with this anger (198-199). In addition, he affirms, multifaceted revelation through different metaphors in Scripture does not necessarily define the actual “meaning of the atonement” (200).

Critical Evaluation

By including these four essays and creating a forum for each of the scholars to respond to each other, Beilby and Eddy present several challenges to the field of study. First, pastors and theologians persuaded by one view of the atonement over the others are able to interact with contrary views, some of which may question previous conclusions. Though these arguments may not change one’s theological position, at least they will equip someone to deal appropriately with the other views. Second, reading what other scholars find the Bible teaches concerning other issues related to the atonement helps to prevent theological reductionism. Choosing one view of as fundamental to understanding the atonement does not necessarily mean that the authors have fallen into reductionism; however, their listening to what others have to say sheds light on areas unaddressed by their own view. Third, with the rising influence of a postmodern worldview, many people do not want to deal with hard questions, especially when the answers to such questions force one to make fundamental truth claims.[2] With the possible exception of Joel Green’s essay, this book cultivates an atmosphere that encourages people to search the Scriptures and make truth claims about what they believe God’s word to teach about the hard question of the nature of the atonement.

Although they have gathered the majority views, one of the downfalls to this book is that it does not present to its readers every view of the nature of the atonement. For example, the editors do not include essays on the governmental theory, the example theory, or the moral-influence theory.[3] This, however, is possibly due to a desire to publish a book that is accessible for laymen, and not just systematic theology professors.

A second downfall is that the editors take a bit of liberty in labeling all of these men as evangelicals (20-21). Evangelicals affirm that because sin is a personal offense against God’s holiness, he is just to be wrathful towards sinners and righteous to demand a sacrifice for sin. Boyd teaches that sin is merely something outside of a person and a result of the cosmic forces who rule over humans (29, 33). Boyd, along with Green, also reject the idea of Christ’s cross being a means of propitiation (35, 39, 43, 175). Reichenbach affirms the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atoning work, however, he does not affirm that it is in view of God’s just requirement for sin. In this book, Thomas Schreiner is the only scholar that presents a view (penal substitution) that is clearly evangelical.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the book is helpful. Placing four views in one book enables the reader to highlight the main differences in the debate, supplying them with material for further theological reflection and understanding. Beilby and Eddy have done well with their selection of scholars holding to each view, each of which are experienced and well published. It would do all pastor-theologians well to read The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. At least the content of the book will aid in informing the church about the various natures of Christ’s atoning work, and drive them to searching the Scriptures for themselves, so enabling them to glory in their Redeemer.
 


[1] Sadly, the majority of Boyd’s objection feeds off The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, rather than the Scriptures. In addition, it might help if Boyd considered the fact that C. S. Lewis never intended his story to be an exact illustration of what the Scriptures teach. This is obvious in Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds., C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 44-45, 92-93.

[2] D. A. Carson’s assessment of the dangers of current doctrinal considerations by the ‘Emerging Church’ leaders are discussed in his book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 87-156. What they are saying about the atonement of Christ is on pp. 166-168, 184-187.

[3] For an explanation of each of these views, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 798-817.

 

 

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