Book Review: Aspects of the Atonement

atonementOkay – I realize this is a post-resurrection discussion of the atonement but I personally think that is a good time to discuss these kinds of things, after the fact (well, in relation to the Christian calendar at least).

My copy of I. Howard Marshall’s Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurection int he reconciling of God and Humanity (Posternoster, 2007) is not a review copy.  I purchased it as part of a birthday amazon gift card last year – so I am not necessarily obligated to review it -but I’d like anyways to put it out there as a pretty good articulation of penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement.  It’s not the typical “God got angry and took it out on his kid” view, and Marshall takes issue with Steve Chalke and his “cosmic child abuse” arguments.

The book itself is based on a series of lectures Marshall gave in different settings over a period from October 2004 to Feburary 2006.  In his preface he writes:

Although the various parts of the book thus arise from different occassions, it seemed to me that there was sufficient unity between them to consitute a coherent set of essays.  Between them they discuss the state of human kind from which deliverance is needed, the way in which the death of Christ functions to bring about deliverance from sin and its consequence, the (often neglected) place of the resurrection of Christ in the saving action, and the resulting offer of reconciliation with God that carries with it the obligation to bring about reconciliation among the different people for whom Christ died (viii).

There are four chapters and they have a progression about them from discussing the penalty of sin (1-24), the substitutionary death of Jesus (34-64), “raised for our justification” (role of resurrection in salvation) (68-96) and finally, the centrality and relevance of reconciliation (98-137).

In the introductory chapter discussing the penalty of sin Marshall raises two key questions, which it sees as the two most important questions for scholars and theologians today and, ones which he will seek to answer: how are we to understand the significance of the work Jesus Christ that is the basis of salvation for sinners? And how are we to explain it in our presentations of the gospel to our contemporaries?   He sets the chapter up identifying himself as an evangelical and why – then working to explain how the doctrine of the work of Christ as the basis of salvation is central to evangelical theology.  Two aspects of the doctrine seek to address the human situation: our situation as sinners in relationship to the God against whom we have sinned and our situation as sinners in relation to the sin that masters us (2-3).

One other key question Marshall wants to address is “in what way is death of Jesus Christ the grounds for our salvation? (4)  One answer to this is the (more or less) traditional understanding of the atonement that is typically labeled the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement.  This theory has come under some criticism in recent years and is fastly being abandoned by many for other views especially after Steve Chalke (who in collaboration with Alan Mann wrote the book, The Lost Message of Jesus) assaulted this view claiming it makes God out to be a “cosmic child abuser” (a gross misunderstanding) but who wants to be connected to such a view as that?    This work has in some fashion contributed to a mass exodus of sorts where quite a number of significant theologians have come to”reject the concept of penal substitution as the principal means, or even a subordinate means, of understanding the significance of the death of Christ” (5).

In contrast, Marshall argues in this set of essays that the doctrine is well founded in Scripture, and that it is defensible against the objection brought against it.  He writes: “I hope it may in such away that, whatever may be the problems with the terminology, all of us may be able to recognize the validity, and indeed, the centrality of what is known by the term “penal-substitution” instead of repudiating the concept” (7).   Marshall is primarily concerned with the biblical and theological foundations that underlie the preaching of the gospel and not with the evangelistic edifice built on these foundations (8).  While not all like using the terms “penal suffering” or “appeasing God” in preaching it still needs to be asked if there is a place for them and what is meant by these terms.  Also, Marhsall argues we cannot evade the problem of how we communicate biblical theology to unbelievers with a different world-view from ours.

Through the chapter Marshall discusses the use of metaphor to explain the atonement and in this recognizes that no one theory of the atonement can bear the whole weight of explaining the significance of the work of Christ on the cross.

Well, it’s a very good book – well worth the read.



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