It is no accident that Intervarsity has chosen to publish a “four views” book on the meaning of Christ’s atonement. The topic is very much in dispute right now, even among those who are associated with the evangelical movement. Not long ago, the consensus among evangelicals consisted more or less of an affirmation of the penal substitutionary view, but this is no longer the case. As evangelicalism has splintered, so has its tacit orthodoxy concerning atonement. Now, we are not surprised to hear certain pastors and theologians castigating the old consensus as an affirmation of “divine child abuse.”
The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views gives us a snapshot of some contemporary perspectives on the atonement of Christ. Paul R. Eddy and James Beilby introduce the volume with a brief essay surveying the various atonement theories that have had some sway in the history of Christianity. Following Gustaf AulÃ©n’s threefold classification (Christus Victor, subjective, and objective) Eddy and Beilby give a brief overview of the historical lay of the land.
In chapter one, Gregory Boyd presents a thoroughgoing case for the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Boyd commends his model not as the only way the Bible speaks of Christ’s atonement, but as the one which best integrates “the ‘rich variety’ of God’s wisdom into a coherent whole” (p. 24). Boyd presents the Christus Victor view as “the truth that through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, God defeated the devil” (p. 24). After noting that this view of the atonement is the one that dominated the first thousand years of the church’s history, he tries to defend this view from scripture.
I think Boyd’s presentation has several flaws. First, he caricatures the penal substitution view as promoting a “legal fiction” that divorces “justification from sanctification” (p. 47), a caricature that won’t hold up to anyone who understands penal substitution in the reformed tradition. Reformed theologians have always insisted that while justification and sanctification must be distinguished as doctrines, they cannot be separated in the Christian life. The one necessarily entails the other. Boyd is simply not being fair with the Reformed tradition on this point. Second, Boyd is unclear and self-contradictory in explaining his view of substitution. On the one hand, Boyd writes that “Jesus indeed died as our substitute, bore our sin and guilt, was sacrificed for our forgiveness, and was punished by the Father in our place” (p. 43). On the other hand, he also says that “the Christus Victor model can potentially affirm Christ’s substitutionary work without embracing some of the more problematic aspects of the penal substitutionary theory . . . that Jesus literally experienced the Father’s wrath or that the Father needed to punish his Son in order to be able to forgive us” (p. 43). These two sentences occur in the same paragraph, and yet they are hopelessly self-contradictory! Third, Boyd links his Christus Victor view to pacifism in a way that cannot be sustained. Even if one accepts the Christus Victor view as the most fundamental meaning of Christ’s work, that acceptance does not necessarily entail “radical, nonviolent, Jesus-like social action” (p. 48).
Thomas Schreiner expounds and defends the penal substitution view of the atonement. He does not defend it as the only biblical atonement metaphor, but argues that “penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the Scriptures are considered as a whole” (p. 67). Schreiner defines penal substitution as follows: “The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested” (p. 67). The rest of Schreiner’s article contains traditional evangelical interpretations of some of the typical texts (e.g., Romans 3:25-26, p. 87ff) as well as defenses of penal substitution against critics who decry it as “cosmic child abuse” (p. 70). In sum, Schreiner’s case is thoroughly biblical and, I think, the most convincing of the four essays.
Bruce R. Reichenbach defends the “Healing View” of the atonement. According to Reichenbach, the healing view is built on the idea that God takes initiative to “restore” his people (p. 118). He writes, “In seeking our well-being, God demands the perfecting or maturing of the beloved. Anything less fails to take into account God’s whole intent to restore us” (pp. 118-19). To some extent, Reichenbach’s defense of the healing view relies upon the way he conceives the problem that needs to be “fixed” as a result of sin. Reichenbach detects a close connection in the Bible “between sin, sickness and well-being” (p. 121). Thus it is no surprise that he believes healing is the fundamental meaning of the atonement.
Reichenbach’s essay fails to convince for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that physical sickness is not the only consequence of sin. That is why he often speaks of healing not merely in the physical sense, but as a metaphor for a variety of spiritual problems. At one point, he uses this metaphor of healing to describe what is an essentially penal substitutionary view of the atonement: “[Christ’s] absorption of both the sin and its punishment is the means to our healing and restoration” (p. 130). Reichenbach simply does not present a case for the healing view as the central theme of the atonement (see Schreiner’s critique, p. 149). He merely points out healing themes, but he does not integrate it in any convincing way with the other themes.
Joel Green defends the “Kaleidoscopic View” of the atonement. His basic contention is that “no one model or metaphor will do when it comes to the task of articulating and proclaiming” the significance of the atonement for today (p. 157). For Green, it is not merely Jesus’ death that atones for sin: “God’s saving act is the incarnation, which encompasses the whole of his life, including his death” (p. 164). It is Jesus’ whole life in God’s service and in opposition to all manner of social, political, and religious agendas that provides atonement. Green contends, therefore, that “Atonement theology . . . cannot be reduced to the relationship of the individual to God, nor to an objective moment in the past when Jesus paid the price for our sins, nor, indeed, to a notion of salvation segregated from holiness of life in the world” (p. 165). The diversity within the scriptures and the diversity within the church’s historical understandings of the atonement requires the Kaleidoscopic view.
At the end of the day, Green’s kaleidoscopic view has room for almost every atonement metaphor save oneâ€”penal substitution. In this way, Green’s essay fails to take into account the scripture’s teaching on the wrath of God that stands over and against sinners apart from Christ. For example, he notes that, “Old Testament scholars today continue to debate in what sense it is appropriate to attribute anger to God” (p. 174). He even agrees with one commentator who says that in Leviticus, the sacrifices do not directly relate to God’s anger (p. 175). It is difficult to see how one can come to such a conclusion given what happens to Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, all because they did not treat God as holy. Green’s handling of the biblical text, therefore, is not very compelling.
This book is pitched at the level of the bible college or the seminary student and is valuable as an introduction to some of the historical theories of the atonement. It does not say everything that needs to be said about the various models because it only presents four views and leaves out some important ones. Proponents of the governmental, moral influence, and moral example theories are not represented in this volume. Thus, I think the book could have included a more representative sampling of views than it does. Perhaps the four views reflect the state of the contemporary debate (which I suggest is highly debatable), but I think that giving no voice to Grotius, Socinus, and Abelard diminishes the value of the work. I would however commend the introductory essay as an excellent overview of atonement theories.