Review: Approaching the Atonement

Approaching the Atonement

Approaching the AtonementOliver 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.


Review: The Crucifixion

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The CrucifixionFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: A study of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus including the biblical motifs that have been used to express that meaning.

It is striking to consider how relatively few books in recent Christian publishing deeply explore the meaning of the death of Christ by crucifixion, particularly considering that the death and the resurrection are central to Christian proclamation. Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion goes a long way to remedying this deficit.

This is a large book, but I would encourage the prospective reader not to be daunted by the size. While rich in insight, it is also a model of clarity, among the very best theological books I have read, both worthy of the academy, and written for the people of God.

The book consists of two parts. The first considers the crucifixion, particularly the godless character of this brutal execution, and the critical importance of this horrible execution as primary to the Christian faith. Rutledge also deals in this part with the biblical understanding of justice as the setting right, or rectifying, of something that is radically wrong, and that this something is the radical power of Sin over humanity. She makes a case that Anselm’s version of “satisfaction” is actually closer to her idea of rectification than he is credited for.

The second part of the book (about 400 pages) explores eight biblical motifs of the crucifixion that, together, help us understand the meaning of the crucifixion and what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. Rutledge prefers the language of motif to the more common language of theory because she believes all of these work together, rather than at odds with each other, to convey the glorious significance of the work of Christ. The motifs are:

  • The Passover and the Exodus
  • The Blood Sacrifice
  • Ransom and Redemption
  • The Great Assize
  • The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor
  • The Descent into Hell
  • The Substitution
  • Recapitulation

She would contend that these show two basic things that happen in the cross:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin.
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.

There are several things about her treatment of these motifs that are quite wonderful. One is that she reintroduces into theological conversation terms we are often averse to speak of: blood, ransom, judgment, hell, and substitution among others. Two is that she helps us see through these terms both the gravity of the human condition and how Christ truly has paid what we could not and triumphed over sin and evil, breaking their power and hold on humanity. These terms tell us essentially that we are worse off than we thought, and that is good news because God has done what we could not. Finally, she retrieves the language of substitution from the disparagement that it has become popular to pile upon it, while acknowledging the problems in some formulations. She beautifully unites the idea of Christ’s substitutionary death for us and Christ’s victory of the power of Sin, Evil, and Death (she capitalizes these terms reflecting the idea of these as powers). Instead of opposing these two ideas, she sees substitution as the basis of the victory of Jesus. I also found her treatment of Christus Victor as far more compelling than Aulen, in her linkage of this idea with the apocalyptic war.

The conclusion of the work returns to the beginning and amplifies these themes with the motifs she has developed. She emphasizes again the uniqueness of Christianity as the account of the Son of God who not only dies to redeem, but does so facing utter contempt and horrible suffering. And she emphasizes that this work makes right what was wrong. What she does in this conclusion is draw out the implications of these ideas. All the distinctions humans make are muted in the face of this work. All of us are in the same predicament, and this work of Christ addresses the wrongs in all of us, banal or horrid, and sets things right. This is not “God loves you just as you are” as we blithely love to say. The gruesomeness of the death of Christ reflected the cost to God necessary to set things to rights in breaking sin’s curse and power, and the horror reflects the power of this act to address the condition of even those who have done the most horrid.

What she is saying is that it is all of grace, all of God. In summary, she writes:

“Forgiveness is not enough. Belief in redemption is not enough. Wishful thinking about the intrinsic goodness of every human being is not enough. Inclusion is not a sufficiently inclusive message, nor does it deliver real justice. There are some things–many things–that must be condemned and set right if we are to proclaim a God of both justice and mercy. Only a Power independent of this world order can overcome the grip of the Enemy of God’s purposes for his creation” (p. 610).

This is what the crucifixion accomplished. Not only are individuals justified (or rectified) through this work, but all the injustices of the world are atoned for, and the process of setting these right has begun. Both the preaching of justification by grace, and the preaching of the restoration of justice find their warrant in the cross and are not at odds.

Rutledge does not come out and say this, but an implication of her “inclusiveness” is the possibility of the ultimate “rectification” even of those who have resisted the proclamation of rectification, as in her treatment of the Jews in Romans 9-11. Elsewhere she speaks of the final annihilation of Satan and those given over to him, but here she speaks of Christ’s death as an outcast as redeeming even those on the outside. She admits (p. 459, note) to struggling with Matthew 25:46 and Jesus’s own statement about eternal punishment. Perhaps this restrains her, as it does me, from asserting a final universal “rectification” of all people, but she comes very close. What is clear is that, for her, this arises from her expansive understanding both of the utter helplessness of all of us to save ourselves, without distinction, and the utter greatness of God to save through the cross of Christ. Perhaps in the end, this is a call to humility, of leaving these matters in God’s hand, and never presuming upon but utterly trusting in the grace of this God.

Without question, this was perhaps the most profound theological work I’ve read in at least the last five years. It made me look again at the uniqueness of Christ and his work on the cross. It made me think deeply not only of why Jesus died, but why he did so in such a horrid way. It made me think, and question, the ways I’ve formulated my understanding of the work of the cross and particularly challenged me to think more about the victory of Christ on the cross over the power of Sin, as well as his atonement for the guilt of sin. This was a marvelous work to read in this season of Lent.

In addition to this review, I’ve written three reflections on portions of this work that may be accessed at:


Review: Delivered From the Elements of the World

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history, because it is the “delivering verdict” of God against human systems to control sinful human flesh, hence an act with socio-political significance for all peoples.

Anselm posed the question, “Cur Deus Homo?” or “why the God Man?” Peter J. Leithart thinks the more significant question that must be asked is, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Leithart’s big question leads to a sweeping exploration of pagan and secular culture, Levitical foundations, and Pauline teaching. This is not a book for the faint of heart or one narrowly focused on atonement theories, but rather one that attempts to explain how our understanding of the atonement makes sense of everything and addresses not only the individual but our social and political structures.

Leithart begins with exploring what he calls the “physics of the old creation.” We are creatures of flesh, originally good but bent in the fall. Every society subsequently creates “elemental” or stoicheic systems (cf. Galatians 4:1-10) recognizing the pollution of human flesh and creating systems of “do not taste, do not touch” rules that lead to striving for purity. Leithart does an imaginative tour by a Jew of various ancient civilizations describing how these work, whether focused around the fear of death, around phallic displays and fertility, or around violence, honor, and vengeance. These resulted in classes, political structures, and injustices.

God chose Israel for something different. Beginning with Abraham, the cutting of circumcision was an anti-flesh campaign that expanded with Torah and served as a teacher or pedagogue of how to approach God. Yet Torah was co-opted in using purity rules to reinforce ideas of racial superiority over Gentiles and divisions between elite and “sinner” Jews. It became yet another stoicheic system.

Leithart understands that it is the full life of Jesus enacting all that Torah intended, the unjust death in the flesh in which judgment is passed upon human flesh in Christ (Leithart here argues for a carefully defined version of penal substitution), and the bodily resurrection of Jesus by the Father in the Spirit, that together constitute atonement and justification. Leithart elaborates justification as God’s “delivering verdict” or “deliverdict” liberating not only from sin and the flesh, but the elemental, stoicheic principles of the world, whether those of other religious systems, Torah, or what Leithart sees as the post-stoicheic systems of secularism which are a kind of relapse from the Christian era’s understanding of a Spirit indwelt life. Those united with Christ by faith enter a new epoch, a new humanity breaking down the sociopolitical divisions of the old order, and live according to a new animating principle.

I’ve offered here only a bare bones summary of a breathtakingly rich argument. I believe he makes several important contributions to our understanding of the work of Christ. One is his discussion of stoicheic elements as a social theory elaborating the ways various societies attempt to deal with the flesh, and the sociopolitical consequences of these systems. While carefully arguing for penal substitution, a doctrine that has fallen out of favor, he contends for a broader understanding of atonement and justification that encompasses the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and centers justification in the objective “delivering verdict” of these events rather than our subjective experience. Along with N.T. Wright, he argues that we are justified by the faith of Jesus, in whom we trust, but he also draws out further what this new status means in terms of a new Spirit-empowered life in the flesh and a new social order contrary to stoicheic systems that has radical implications for Christian mission that crosses social barriers and breaks them down. His analysis of modernity in “Galatian Church, Galatian Age” serves as a rich complement to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Leithart’s book covers familiar territory but forces you out of familiar patterns of thinking. I’m still weighing how well “stoicheic systems” can serve as a kind of “social theory of everything.” I’m challenged by how often we separate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and how Leithart brings these together as a seamless whole. The idea of a “delivering verdict,” that performs what it declares and powerfully transfers us into a Spirit empowered community speaks of the power of the gospel to effect what it promises. This book stays on my shelves, worthy of further reflection and re-reading.

Review: Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, Donald Macleod. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A thoughtful, contemporary restatement of the classical doctrine of the atonement including different contended terms in reference to the atonement including substitution, expiation, propitiation, satisfaction, and victory.

The cross is not only the most significant symbol of Christianity, but this act, and its meaning is central to Christian hope. The cross also raises telling questions, of which the most significant are: Why did Jesus die? Was this truly necessary? What did this accomplish? And, what does this mean for us? When we get beyond the vague sentiments that this “shows us the love of God” (how does the cruel death of a man on a Roman gibbet show love?) or that “he died for us” (why did he choose to die when he could have avoided it? how can one die for us all? why was this death necessary? what about us needed dying for?) we are faced with questions like these whose answers take us into the deep purposes of God and the raw truth about the human condition. Hard questions, and yet at the end, profound good news.

Donald Macleod in this work explores the death of Christ and its significance. The book is in two parts. The first is a meditation upon the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and their theological significance. Of particular value in this section in light of questions raised about the idea of Christ’s death as a substitution for us, which some have alleged to be “divine child abuse” Macleod provides this striking defense:

“…the child-abuse charge ignores the clear New Testament witness to the unique identity of Jesus. Not only was he not a child; he was not a mere human. He was God: the eternal Logos, the divine Son, the Lord before whom every knee will one day bow (Phil. 2:10). This is no helpless victim. This is the Father’s equal. This is one who in the most profound sense is one with God; one in whom God judges himself, one in whom God condemns himself, one in whom God lets himself be abused. The critics cannot be allowed the luxury of a selective use of the New Testament. It is the very same scriptures which portray the cross as an act of God the Father which also portray the sufferer as God the Son, and the resulting doctrine cannot be wrenched from its setting in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The ‘abused child’ is ‘very God of very God’. It is divine blood that is shed at Calvary (Acts 20:28) as God surrenders himself to the worst that man can do and bears the whole cost of saving the world.” (p. 64)

The second part then takes seven words that are used to describe different aspects of Christ’s atoning death: substitution, expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, satisfaction, redemption, and victory. A number of these are often contended against as well, yet he defends these with careful textual study and devotional eloquence. His discussion of the use of hilasterion as the word used for ‘mercy seat’ in the Greek Old Testament is an example, giving us the vivid image of the place where sin is expiated and the judgment of God against sin propitiated. I am hardly new to such discussions, but Macleod’s clear, theologically acute, and devotionally rich writing left me pausing to rejoice again in familiar truths understood with freshness, and in some instances greater depth.

The uses of this book, it seems to me are several. First, it is one to be used devotionally in measured, thoughtful reflection, perhaps reading a section of a chapter at a time. Second, it is a significant book for any who bear witness to the good news of the cross. Any thoughtful person will raise questions similar to those I mentioned at the beginning of this review, and to be able to speak biblically, clearly, and joyfully of the work of Christ is our great responsibility and privilege. Finally, those who raise the question of the cross as divine child abuse, or repudiate the idea of penal substitution need to engage with Macleod’s writing, and not the straw men representations of the doctrine of the atonement often cited in their arguments. I would set this alongside John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (reviewed here) as one of the very best books I’ve read on the cross.