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: Saving Calvinism

Saving Calvinism

Saving CalvinismOliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of the breadth of theological resources, including alternate theological positions, within what is often thought to be the narrow bounds of Calvinism.

Oliver Crisp asks us to imagine taking possession of a huge old mansion with many rooms and only exploring a few of those on the ground floor. He thinks that is the situation today for many who tout “the Reformed tradition.” He writes:

“Returning to our example of the old mansion that is only partially occupied. Reformed theology has many rooms that the current generation, the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ of whom Collin Hansen writes, have not explored. Sometimes this means that what goes under the name ‘Reformed theology’ is actually only the downstairs rooms we occupy. There is much more to explore and much more to learn. Some of that task will enrich and enliven us. But sometimes we will be faced with a broadening of our views on matters we thought the Reformed tradition had closed down or narrowed. Often in popular culture today Reformed theology is thought to be a cold, narrow thing. If this volume goes some way toward addressing that misperception by helping its readers to understand how expansive and encompassing Reformed thought actually is, it will have done its job” (p. 17).

In the words of Thomas H. McCall, ““Oliver Crisp wants to save Calvinism—from some of its most impassioned proponents.” Another way of putting it is that Crisp wants to show how Calvinism is far more than TULIP, an acronym that stands for what are often thought to be the defining beliefs of Calvinism–total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Crisp argues that there is so much more to Calvinism, and that even some of these defining beliefs are understood in differing ways among confessional Calvinists.

In Chapter One, he takes on TULIP and shows the broader context of creeds and confessions and doctrine concerning the church, sacraments, and the authority of scripture in an ever-reforming church. Chapter Two explores the doctrine of election and a positive account of this doctrine that comforts rather than arouses dread by exploring the timelessness of God, a supralapsarian view of election, that God ordained the incarnation, and chose us in Christ prior to, rather than after the fall and that the incarnation from creation on was essential in uniting us with God. In Chapter Three, he shows differing positions on free will held by Jonathan Edwards and John Girardeau and addresses the question of how any of these views might be held without making God the author of sin.

Calvinism is often thought to be sharply antithetical to any version of universalism. In Chapter Four, Crisp observes that there were a number of Reformed theologians including William Shedd and Benjamin Warfield who held that the majority of humanity would be saved. This was not a hopeful universalism, but rather an optimistic particularism, rooted in the power of God, his desire that none would perish, and the inclusion of whole classes in the saved of those incapable of belief. Chapter Five turns to the theology of the atonement, classically thought to be the doctrine of penal substitution. He allows that this has been a view held by many, but that other, particularly older writers going back to Anselm held to the idea of satisfaction, that the divine Son who dies satisfies the justice of God, not as punishment in our place but as an act of merit. He also looks at views of penal nonsubstitution and non penal substitution, showing that one single model does not dominate. Finally in Chapter Six, he takes on the issue of the “limited atonement,” setting forth ways in which a hypothetical universal atonement may be possible within Reformed theology.

All this is to demonstrate the breadth, depth, and diversity within the Reformed tradition. I suspect that there will be those who read this account of Crisp’s book who will repudiate that account and insist that Calvinism is “this and only this.” What Crisp has done is not to relativize Calvinism, but to challenge its reduction to “five points” and the concealment of the diversity of ideas that have historically characterized Reformed theology. For those repelled by the perception of Calvinism as narrowly and reductively  uniform, this concisely written text might suggest that one look again or more closely and that there are greater riches in this tradition than often thought. One would also hope this might be true of the “young, restless, and Reformed” crowd, that they will indeed at least explore the other rooms and floors of the great mansion of Reformed thought, discovering there are yet great riches than they imagined.