Book Reviews,  Theology/Bible

Review of The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views

James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. 208pp. $20.

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 Aulén’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 one—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.


  • Andrew Walker

    Not to be rude, but I think you unfairly characterized Boyd’s position as it seems you have already read your conclusion into Boyd’s response. I tend to believe that simply reading the name ‘Greg Boyd’ forces the Reformed crowd to uncritically dismiss his work. We might want to reconsider that. I read this book over the summer and came to different conclusions; that being that the Atonement is a rich and beautiful historical event full of eternal and endless meanings.

    Secondly,your review did not seem very objective.It would have been fair to at least recognize that penal substitution does have its problems as presented by Schreiner.Penal substitution is NOT the only ‘biblical’ model as we would like to think. I think we as Christians are doing a large disservice in trying to make atonement theories mutually exclusive at the expense of calling other theories ‘unbiblical’ not withstanding the models presented in this book.

    I believe it is theologically naive to give non-critical support to Schreiner while dismissing the others as simply not biblically competent.

    I am sorry if this sounds rude. It was not my intention. Grace and peace.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    So the Eastern Orthodox Church was in error with regard to the atonement until the Roman Catholic theologian Anselm set the record straight? Forgive me if I’m a little dubious about the accusations of “unorthodoxy” above.

    The evangelical consensus may very well have been out of step with a much larger ancient consensus, in which case it is a service to become more in tune with it. Christus Victor has much to commend it.

    As far as penal substitution, my own hunch is that the doctrine misses an essential component if it sees Jesus primarily as a arbitrary substitute – getting us off because he was perfect, as if any perfect person could get us off by being punished. The picture of a judge sentencing an innocent man to be punished, and a guilty man going free is a picture of injustice not of justice.

    Now, you can still get to penal substitution, but you have to re frame things. Jesus can take our punishment because he is Israel’s rightful king, and Israel is man’s rightful representative. It is much more like a captain saying to his superiors – “the actions of my crew are mine, and mine alone”. This is just punishment, and in this framework it is appropriate for the innocent man to be punished and the guilty to go free.

    But I still think there is a danger in harping too much on “substitution” – as if we do not also have to be conformed to the image of Christ, sharing in the fellowship of his suffering, becoming like him in his death. People have naive theologies of suffering often because they think “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to” – no, absolutely not – he suffered on your behalf, but you are called to take up your cross and follow him, and then to share in his resurrection. He suffered the penalty for sin on behalf of the people of God, and in so doing overcame death itself, so that as you follow him in faith, you also will die and rise again. He is the bridgehead, paving the way before us to salvation, but it is the way of the cross.

  • David

    I wonder sometimes if we complicate the miraculous acts of Christ by trying to explain them. Maybe it is not for us to understand how Christ accomplished His mighty works of grace and atonement, but just to accept that He did. I believe that Christians have, perhaps, fallen into the worldy view that every thing has to be explained to be believed, thereby leaving less need for pure faith.

  • Daniel Davis

    the nature of the atonement does not simply refer to the “how” question but more to the “what does the atonement accomplish” question, right? in which case, the implications of the nature of the atonement are far-reaching.

    just saying Christ has accomplished grace and atonement for us doesn’t mean much unless those terms and implications are “defined” by the Scripture.

    you are right, david, that we perhaps go too far trying to define and concretely understand some things – but i don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. we should always be searching the Scripture for God’s perspective and the truth of things, but in some cases, we just can’t know for sure and should trust God and bear with one another’s varying interpretations.

    that being said, i would put atonement in the category of first importance because of its far-reaching implications for Christ, our sin, and forgiveness.

  • BrianW

    Before reading this book, I hadn’t really come to terms with all of the references to Christ’s death defeating the power of evil. As much as I disagree with Boyd on his view of God, he was clearly the most persuasive of the four authors in trying to show a prevailing/dominant motif. Of course, that isn’t even Green’s position and there’s a part of me that agrees (there is no dominant motif, but a tapestry of images touching on the many different aspects to atonement).

    Honestly, I thought Schreiner did a poor job. He did a fine job in demonstrating that substituion is clearly an important aspect to atonement (no author in the book denied that, I don’t think); he did a poor job at explaining how this was the dominant view and how it integrates the others. Boyd totally called him on that in his response. Too bad the editors didn’t have a final response from the original author.

  • Bryan L

    Denny I think it is appropriate to quote Green’s statement “Old Testament scholars today continue to debate in what sense it is appropriate to attribute anger to God” in its wider context since he seems to be saying and addressing something different than what you attribute to him with that statement.

    Joel Green says,
    “What of the relationship of God’s wrath to the sacrificial cult? Most generally, it is crucial that we not confuse the wrath of Yahweh with the retributive, begrudging and capricious dispositions of the Greek and Roman gods to whom sacrifices were offered in order both to placate the deities and to solicit their favor. In spite of popular views of the “Old Testament God,” divine wrath in the Old Testament is not well-represented by views of this kind. In fact, Old Testament scholars today continue to debate in what sense it is appropriate to attribute anger to God. What is clear is that the God of Israel is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (e.g. Ex 34:6; Num 14:18), and for the Old Testament anger is God’s response to sinful acts, not descriptive of God’s general disposition towards humanity. More pointedly if God’s anger can be understood in numerous passages in the Old Testament in relation to retributive punishment, then it is crucial to recall that the antidote to God’s wrath is not therein developed in sacrificial terms. Although the animal sacrifice may represent the one(s) for whom the sacrifice is offered, we find no exposition of the ritual act as “satisfaction” or “penalty.” John Goldingay observes, “The problem of sin in Leviticus is not that sin involves infidelity or disloyalty which makes God angry but that pollutes, stains, and spoils, and thus makes people repulsive… Sacrifice does not directly relate to anger. This foray into the background of the sacrificial images in the Old Testament presses the question how Jesus’ death, understood as a sacrifice, might be comprehended as resolving the estrangement in divine-human relations”

    BTW I’m not sure how your appeal to the story of Nadab and Abihu shows that that the sacrifices in Leviticus are directly related to God’s anger. Please elaborate or point to other scriptures.

    Sorry this was so long.

    Bryan L

  • Carlito

    Hey Ya’ll

    Mark Driscoll fans anyone? I know his delivery is a bit radical, and some people are offended by his methods of preaching. However, he does a great job delving into this subject in his sermon “Death by Love: Reflections of the Cross” – It’s quite lengthy, but if you have time, I would highly recommend it.

    I think he does a good job illustrating some theological tendencies that prevent a full and biblical understanding of the atonement.

    David – to your point, Driscoll says that many times we’re guilty of theological reductionism whereby we ignore many of the glorious facets of the glorious “jewel” of the Cross by focusing only on certain aspects, instead of embracing and considering all of the grand implications – including ransomed sinners, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, expiation, etc. All of the big, fun words 🙂

    One of the huge things that he touches is on is how we tend to ignore the severity and reality of God’s wrath, when the word “wrath” appears some 600 times in the bible. In fact, Jesus preaches on hell more than any other . I think one of the reasons we have such weak views He also talks about how we view mercy as a personal thing, but we don’t view wrath as a personal thing. Also, he talks about the OT example of Yom Kippur and the sacrificing of the 2 goats as penance for sins (1 goat is slaughtered and 1 is set free). This is an obvious foreshadowing to Christ – the slaughtered goat symbolizing propitiation (wrath satisfied) and the freed goat representing expiation (sins removed).

    P.S. one of my favorite parts of this sermon is where he describes himself as a casual & loose boxer-wearing Calvinist as opposed to some of his “tighty-whitey brief-wearing” Calvinist friends. I laughed out loud when I heard that..

  • David

    Daniel and Carlito,
    Thanks for your comments. Daniel, I agree with your summation — well said. I guess my angle is best described by one of my experiences: I took a summer class once entitled “Soteriology – The Doctrine of Salvation”. At the end of this course, I was so confused that I wasn’t sure if I was saved or not! The professor who taught the class took the beauty and simplicity of salvation – so simple a child can grasp it – and tied it to a necessary understanding of all those theological terms that Carlito mentioned and more.

    It’s sort of like the classic debates between Armenianists and Calvinists – I may not be sure where my beliefs fit into the grand scheme of those terms, but in the end, it doesn’t matter ’cause I know where I stand in relation to God.

    Have a good day, all.

  • Michael Bird

    Excellent review. I saw the book in a shop in Australia and I was gonna buy it but thought I’d wait till I saw a good review first. So thanks.

    One question for you. I’m all for penal substitution and all, I mean, it’s just there (e.g. Rom. 8.3; Gal. 3.13 etc). But I honestly wonder whether we can legitimately say that PS is the central doctrine of the atonement from which all the others flow. The reason I say this is because Luke-Acts takes up 28% of the NT and it does not express PS in the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles to my knowledge and Luke focuses more on Jesus’ resurrection and exalation than his death (it does deny PS either I’d note). What do you think?

  • Denny Burk


    Thanks for commenting and great question. My answer is this. I do not think that we can determine the “central” meaning of the atonement by measuring the proportion of the NT that explicitly teaches it. It’s not a question of quantity. If it were merely a question of quantity then Boyd and the church fathers would be right in identifying the Christus Victor motif as the central meaning of the atonement. But I don’t think that’s the issue–it’s certainly not the issue in Schreiner’s argument. The issue is which atonement theory best incorporates and explains all of what God intended to do in this climactic moment in the history of redemption.


  • Andrew Walker

    “The issue is which atonement theory best incorporates and explains all of what God intended to do in this climactic moment in the history of redemption.”

    With regard to what Denny said, from this vantage point, I don’t see how we can argue that Christus Victor is not only the most quantitative position but also the most satisfying in terms of incorporating the entire biblical witness.

    Denny, nice job in bringing up the differentiation between quantity and quality. That’s a great hermeneutic!

  • Carlito

    This passage is probably referenced somewhere in the book, but I came across this in Hebrews today.. I like it because it succinctly encompasses both the Christus Victor/warfare AND propitiation/PS aspects of the atonement.

    Heb. 3:14-17

    Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

    For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

  • jeremy z


    I appreciate your book review. Although you seemed to just aim right at Body. Body has great articulation and great rhetoric.

    I think if Boyd is endorsing a theory within theology you are already revolting against. If Boyd is arguing for it, you want to argue against it. You even give Boyd’s section two big paragraphs of critique when you only give the other 3 theologians three small paragraphs.

    The idea that Boyd is self-contradicting himself is a bit off. You state in relation to Boyd’s argumentation:
    “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).

    …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!

    These two quotes are not in contradiction. They are in the same complete of thought. Jesus being sacrificed is the same exact thing as Jesus experiencing His Father’s wrath. The commonality is that regardless how Jesus is being presented, either he is experiencing it or being a sacrifice, His Father is still arranging the punishment. How is punished by the Father in our place any different than the Father needed to punish His Son in order to forgive us? These two sentences are directly from your quotes, that are claiming to be contradictory. Seemingly, there is a little difference in language, but Jesus’ Father is still conducting the wrath.

    The bottom line: Critique every author fairly and do not show your bias. Do not throw your bias into the author’s argumentation and, again, do not throw your bias in your review. Come on… have your PHD….you know better than that…………
    Without even looking at your Church and educational background, I can immediately know that you: are extremely conservative, probably went to DTS somewhere down the line, and you were raised southern Baptist.

    You and I both know Boyd’s argumentation was better presented, articulated, and persuading then any of those authors. Lets just give credit, where credit is due.

  • jeremy z

    sorry I just re-read my post and I put body instead of Boyd. Classic………sorry guys and gals……………..I am an idiot. I am just a youth pastor. I guess God must have ordained that.

  • Daniel

    I actually don’t really like the format of the four views books. I don’t think that they really accomplish much.

    It would be better to wrestle with the authors’ thoughts in a place where they have the space to spell things out a little bit more.

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