Green on the Atonement

I just finished The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, and it finished reasonably well with Joel Green making a pretty good case for his kaleidoscopic view. Central to his thesis is that the atonement cannot be understood by merely one theme, but sees it as a multi-layered, multi-dimensional reality.

 He begins with a presentation of the death of Jesus in its time-cultural-political-religious context. He does this skillfully and makes some keen observations. He then proceeds to argue for the necessity of reading the atonement through a diversified lens. All in all it is well presented with little that would be controversial – except for the language that downplays the penal aspect of the cross. He suggests that rather than view the atonement in penal terms, we should understand it in economic terms.

The idea of penalty in the substitutionary death of Christ seems to be the central issue in the whole atonement discussion. Apart from which view being the most important or fundamental (which looks more and more to me like arguing which is more important, justification, sanctification or glorification?) it seems that the idea of God’s punishing sin on the cross emerges as being the one people are really willing to go to the mat over.

All of the presenters say, “I agree with this and that in this person and that person. I concede that this is a part of the atonement…blah blah blah” but when it comes to the idea of penal substitution, more passion is demonstrated from every quarter.

The responses are rather predictable. It was interesting that both Boyd and Reichenbach said that Green ran the risk of running his plane into Mount Relativism (understanding the atonement in terms of one’s cultural, socio-politico-religious context), but both also observed that he pulled up before impact.

One exceptional statement was made by Schreiner: “Postmodernism has reminded us that we do not have a God’s-eye view of all of reality, but we must avoid the reductive conclusion that the New Testament documents merely represent a human perspective of the human dilemma. We may not understand exhaustively, but we certainly understand truly, for God is able to break through our dullness and reveal himself to us (1 Cor 2:6-16).”

Clearly there is much more to the issue of the atonement than was presented in this book, but it was a pretty good primer on the subject and a good jumping off point for further inquiry. Many footnotes reference other works that will probably end up in my hands before long. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor, Joel Green and Mark Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, and John Stott’s The Cross of Christ will probably top that list.


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