Approaching the Atonement, Oliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: A study of different models of the atonement, explaining and critiquing each model, focusing on the “mechanism” of atonement, the issue of violence, and the author’s own preferred approach.
The atonement. This is the idea that Christ’s died for our sin and thus made possible reconciliation with God. The question that has arisen throughout Christian history is how Christ’s death accomplishes that reconciling work. What is the “mechanism” of atonement? What are the different models that have been held through history and how do they differ? How to we reconcile the presence or even necessity of violence in these models with a loving God? Are there ways that the models compatible that might point to a greater whole?
This slim volume offers a survey of different models of the atonement formulated throughout history, clear explanations of each, critiques and possible responses of each, and how these models might be relate to each other. He begins with patristic accounts of the atonement, those of Irenaeus and Athanasius. He then turns to the ransom or Christus Victor accounts, Anselm’s satisfaction account, moral exemplarism proposed through history from Abelard to John Hick, versions of the penal substitutionary, governmental and vicarious penitence doctrines, approaches that may be described as “mash-ups” or “kaleidoscopic.” Amid the discussion, the author takes a chapter to discuss the problem of atoning violence implicit in several of these models. He concludes with a recent proposal, the union or participation proposal that he favors.
Several aspects of this book make it an ideal introduction to discussions on the atonement. One is the conciseness and clarity of Crisp’s explanation of each model, including distinguishing between variants on a model, like versions of penal substitution that focus alternatively on the substitute taking punishment in place of the guilty versus taking on the penal consequences of sin, but not the actual punishment. He also offers helpful discussions of atoning violence, including an emphasis that the atonement was accomplished by the Triune God, not setting Father against Son in ways that separate the unity of the three-personed God. He also explores the double effect response and the distinction between atonement proper, and crucifixion, which are often conflated.
He uses memorable images in his discussion, such as the idea of “one theory to rule them all,” most often in reference to penal substitution, referencing a classic article by recently deceased J.I. Packer that also serves as an example of a “mashup” approach that recognize various models as aspects or facets of the atonement. His discussion of moral exemplarism is an example, where in critique he observes the lack of a mechanism of atonement, raising the question of the necessity of Christ’s death, but also observes that exemplarism is an element, or implication of most models. Likewise, older models, such as the early models of Athanasius, and the satisfaction of approach of Anselm, are treated as far more formidable and important than often credited in modern treatments. His concluding treatment of union or participatory approaches most associated with Michael J. Gorman, suggest this may be a way forward, both drawing upon other models and drawing heavily on the biblical material of the corporate aspects of fallen and redeemed humanity as significant to the mechanism of atonement.
What marks this work is its even-handed discussion of the various models, focusing both on strengths and criticisms for each, understanding each in the context they were first framed. Contrary to the “rhetorical flourish” approach that many who respond to critiques of atoning violence, he shows how these are often question begging and tries to approach this in a way that takes the issue seriously. Each chapter provides a bibliography, and the book concludes with a more extensive bibliography of the literature. Crisp offers a scholarly introduction to contemporary discussions of the atonement that serves as a syllabus for more in depth study on this central doctrine of Christian faith.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.