Friday, April 11, 2008

The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, Book Review

The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 208 pages. Softcover, $20.00.

When believers think of Christ’s work on the cross, should their mental backdrop be a battlefield, a courtroom, an operating room, or perhaps all three? James Beilby and Paul Eddy, as editors of The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, investigate this question as they seek to “foster dialogue between four different interpretations of the atonement” (20). These interpretations are the Christus Victor view, the penal substitution view, the healing view, and the kaleidoscopic view, defended by Gregory Boyd, Thomas Schreiner, Bruce Reichenbach, and Joel Green, respectively. Each scholar provides an essay-length defense of their particular view, followed by a brief response by the other three participants. In their responses, each scholar is supposed to acknowledge similarities and demonstrate primary differences between their view and the one under consideration.

Noting the “complexities of the Christian view of the atonement” (9), Beilby and Eddy provide an introductory chapter that adumbrates the layout of the book and outlines the varying possible perspectives. In thinking about the atonement, they give three broad categories: the Christus Victor paradigm, the objective paradigm, and the subjective paradigm. Each of these “paradigms” is directed toward satisfying some individual, either Satan (Christus Victor), God (objective), or man (subjective) (12, 14, 18). They argue that most of the perspectives on the atonement can be grouped under these broad categories. Regarding atonement metaphors, the editors assert that “all of the contributors represented in this book acknowledge that the New Testament provides a plethora of images by which to understand Christ’s work” (21). However, each scholar, excepting Green, “will contend that their particular theory has a justifiable priority over the others” (21).

One strength of this study is its multifaceted scope. The book presents four views side by side and allows the reader quickly to see what the primary differences and similarities are between the various positions. By including defenses of positions by those who hold to these divergent views, this volume adds a valuable dimension to the evangelical discussion on the issue of the atonement. The “panel discussion” format of the book also provides a glimpse into the way these views respond and interact with each other. Though a strength, the scope of the work is nevertheless inevitably limited. All the views of the atonement are not discussed. For example, the moral government theory, the example theory, and variations on the interpretations defended are not addressed. However, the editors do not intend the work to function as a history of interpretations, and they do accomplish their goal of providing an articulation of four views that are currently espoused in evangelical discussion.

Another strength is the way that Beilby and Eddy order the essays. In their introduction, they give a brief overview of the three main categories involved in the atonement debate. The following essays then fall into these categories in sequential order, with Green arguing for the validity of all of them. This structure is helpful in orienting the arguments of the various authors in the range of interpretive options. One drawback of this approach, though, is the nuanced nature of the essays themselves. The contributors do not give an overview of an approach but rather argue for a specific form of that approach. Thus, Boyd argues for the Christus Victor view, but modifies it according to his various theological presuppositions (36-37). Consequently, many proponents of these four views might not wholly agree with the essay representing their position. Related to this, in Reichenbach’s defense of the healing view of the atonement, he does not argue for the supremacy of his approach like the other contributors. In fact, his responses to the other positions share this same deficiency. He insightfully affirms and critiques various aspects of the given position, but does not couple that with a defense or argument for the healing view (54-60, 106-09, 196-201). Therefore, in this work, it is sometimes unclear as to how the ‘subjective’ view of the atonement relates to the other positions.

There is also a tension present within the work regarding the “evangelical view” of the atonement. The book’s back cover labels the contributors as “four evangelical scholars” without reservation, but some statements in the book create a level of interpretive tension. For example, Schreiner strongly argues that penal substitution is “the heart and soul of an evangelical view of the atonement” (67). Though he nuances this statement, the impact of what he says remains. This assertion is the substance of Green’s primary critique of Schreiner’s position. Green denies this statement by saying that “it would be more accurate to claim that the atonement is central to evangelical faith, and that the penal substitutionary model is central to one strand of evangelicalism” (110). Also, some would question Gregory Boyd’s status as an “evangelical” due to his wholesale assimilation and strong advocacy of “open theism.” Indeed, many scholars have concluded that Boyd’s open theism is “beyond the bounds” of evangelical orthodoxy. Some discussion of this apparent tension by the editors would have improved this otherwise clear and helpful resource.

In Southwestern Journal of Theology 51.1 (Fall 2008), 113-15. (pdf)

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