In this review of the IVP title, ‘The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views’ I shall briefly outline the content of each of the four views of the atonement- Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Healing and Kaleidoscopic- presented in this work, critically evaluate each view and the author’s presentation before offering some personal concluding remarks. It’s a long piece, so get yourself a cup of tea and strap yourself in…
Summary of the Christus Victor View (Greg Boyd)
At the heart of Greg Boyd’s presentation of the Christus Victor view of the atonement is the idea that Christ- in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection- defeated the devil, and he repeatedly emphasises this throughout his essay. Boyd sets his argument for the Christus Victor view against the backdrop of Yahweh’s conflict with unruly and chaotic forces in creation, arguing that a warfare motif is central to understanding not only Christ’s death, but also his whole life and ministry.
Boyd argues that when the New Testament speaks about salvation, it is a cosmic reality before it is an anthropological one, therefore the soteriological significance of Christ’s death for individuals is predicated on the cosmic significance of his victory over Satan and demonic powers. Anthropologically speaking, salvation means deliverance from the grip of the powers and participation in Christ’s victory over them. Our participation in Christ’s victory demonstrates the richness of God’s wisdom as revealed in Christ, and reminds the powers of their defeat at calvary as we live lives of calvary-like love. In Greg Boyd’s view, the Christus Victor model of the atonement is the central piece of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ.
Critique of Boyd’s Argument
I have a lot of sympathy for the Christus Victor model of the atonement, and I generally enjoyed Greg Boyd’s articulation of it, even if I didn’t agree with him on every detail. I appreciated Boyd’s focus on the cosmic outworking of Christ’s accomplishments that sets human salvation in the bigger picture of the reconciliation of all things- a potentially helpful corrective to the contemporary church and the overly-individualistic Christian culture that often seems to go with it. I also found it refreshing and illuminating that he drew on the Old Testament’s picture of Yahweh as a warrior who vanquishes the cosmic foe (even if I did balk at the idea of creation as a ‘cosmic war zone’). I was slightly surprised that Boyd (contra Gustaf Aulén) did not explicitly address the theological question of the incarnation and how it relates to the Christus Victor model, as it seems to be such a significant part of Aulén’s defence of the view. It was helpful that Boyd attempted to tidy up some of the more speculative views surrounding ancient interpretations of Christus Victor, but I found his defence of the idea that God deceived Satan, and that Christ was somehow ‘bait’ for Satan, thoroughly indefensible on the basis that scripture never makes that claim.
And that leads me to address what I perceive as perhaps the weakest part of the Christus Victor model as articulated by Greg Boyd: the Christus Victor model appears to function as a lens through which Boyd not only views the atonement, but also the entire Bible. I am in no doubt that the motif of warfare is a significant part of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, but Greg Boyd assigns centrality to it. He accomplishes this by seemingly cherry-picking verses that fit his model. For example, on p.30 Boyd claims that, ‘According to the New Testament, the central thing Jesus did was “drive out the ruler of this world” (John 12:31).’ Not only does this claim a centrality for the works of Jesus based on just one verse from John’s gospel, it also assumes that the central message of John’s gospel is basically the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Then confusingly, on p.31 we read, ‘The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter, was fulfil Psalms 110:1.’ Again, this not only makes the assumption that the Christus Victor model of the atonement is what Psalm 110:1 is all about, but also that it was the centre of Peter’s (or indeed Luke’s) theology.
In short, there is much to affirm and embrace in Greg Boyd’s treatment of the Christus Victor model of the atonement, and yet there are some significant elements to be critical of, not least those that appear to superimpose a theological model onto the text, claiming a centrality that is not obviously self-evident in the work of the biblical authors themselves.
Summary of the Penal Substitution View (Thomas R. Schreiner)
At the heart of the Penal Substitution model of the atonement is the understanding that God 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 deserve was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. The sinfulness of humanity, the holiness of God and the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice are all key elements in this model, with Schreiner claiming that ‘… penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole’ (p.67).
Schreiner states that penal substitution, although not exhausting all that there is to say about the atonement, is at the heart of the atonement and is the anchor of all other theories of the atonement because it puts God at the centre of the universe. In penal substitution the most important question for humans is, “How can I enjoy a right relationship with God?” Penal substitution answers that question by presenting Christ as the sinless substitute, offering himself willingly to God as an atoning sacrifice, thereby absorbing the wrath of God that humanity’s sin deserves and securing for us instead God’s favour. Schreiner asserts that ‘Human beings need atonement…because they are sinners, because they have failed to measure up to God’s law. God demands perfect obedience, and no one has met the standard’ (p.76).
Critique of Schreiner’s Argument
Thomas Schreiner argues meticulously for the Penal Substitution model of the atonement, carefully unpacking the key themes and staking a claim for the primacy of this view over the others. Schreiner claims that penal substitution provokes the most negative response out of any of the theories of atonement, and that it needs to be defended because of the incredulity with which it is met in scholarly circles.
Schreiner insists that ‘… penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole’ (p.67) and that ‘We must demonstrate from the scriptures themselves that penal substitution is the heart and soul of God’s work in Christ’ (p.72). I greatly appreciate Schreiner’s insistence on the scriptures as the arbiter of whether Penal Substitution holds primacy, but at the same time I must question his presuppositions; what does Schreiner mean when he speaks about scripture as a ‘canonical whole’? Which particular way of reading the scriptures as a canonical whole is he referring to? Is he reading Penal Substitution back into the Old Testament in order to find a canonical reading that fits his pre-existing theological framework? Of course, Schreiner does not offer the answers to these questions, but they seem to be important questions to ask nonetheless, particularly when wide-ranging claims are being made about any one theological system.
I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in regarding Greg Boyd’s treatment of the Christus Victor model, viz. that the Penal Substitution theory can clearly be gleaned from scripture, but to claim primacy for it seems to be going beyond scripture itself. Let me offer a few critical observations to support that claim…
- Penal Substitution is not the central theme in the canonical gospels, in fact it could be argued that it is a marginal theme at best, and even that is debated (cf. Mark 10:45).
- The apostolic preaching recorded in Acts only gives sparse mention of the cross, let alone a fully-blown doctrine of Penal Substitution. This could be viewed as highly unusual if Penal Substitution is at the heart of the New Testament’s witness to Christ and his accomplishments.
- In attempting to defend Penal Substitution scripturally, Schreiner appears to either ignore or flatten out the distinctions made between Jew and Gentile in the New Testament, especially with regard to the law. This is particularly noticeable in, for example, Galatians 3:13 where the ‘us’ must be referring to ethnic Israel, and not to a generic humanity so that Christ’s unique role as Israel’s Messiah is reduced somehow.
- Finally, despite what Schreiner says about the Godward focus of Penal Substitution, it seems to frame the ultimate questions in a way that places humans and their salvation at the centre of the entire bible.
Summary of the Healing View (Bruce R. Reichenbach)
In the healing view of the atonement, the wellbeing that God intends for humans to experience and enjoy is hindered by the human condition that began at the fall. This predicament is manifested in the sickness and sin that work against the vision of human flourishing (encapsulated in the Hebrew word shalom). The atonement functions as healing for us because it restores (or heals) the relationship between humans and God by means of Jesus Christ, the suffering servant, who bears our iniquities and grants forgiveness. Additionally, the punishment we deserve for our sin- a punishment often apportioned by ‘suffering, sickness and calamity’ (p.130)- has also now been absorbed by Jesus Christ in order for us to know and experience the full richness of shalom intended for us by God.
Critique of Reichenbach’s Argument
Bruce Reichenbach’s argument for the primacy of a healing view of the atonement focuses on the human need for healing and places significant weight on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the textual basis for his argument. The editors of the book confess on p.21 that Reichenbach’s argument is ‘not reducible to a merely subjective approach’ (a confession born out by comparing Gustaf Aulén’s articulation of subjective theories of the atonement), but it certainly appears to be the case that Reichenbach’s chief concern is human restoration and flourishing. On one level this is hugely commendable, for the scriptures clearly bear witness to God as a healer in both the Old and New Testaments. On another level, however, I have a number of concerns with Bruce Reichenbach’s approach, some of which are theological, some hermeneutical and others pastoral.
Firstly, from a pastoral perspective, Reichenbach’s approach is confusing- if healing is in the atonement, should we not expect every person who comes to God through Christ to be healed? What happens when somebody is not healed? And if some sicknesses are the result of sin and others are not, how should one discern which is which? From a hermeneutical perspective, Reichenbach’s insistence on the primacy of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the bedrock for understanding the work of Christ appears to studiously ignore the multitudinous quotations and allusions to the rest of Deutero-Isaiah peppered throughout the New Testament in reference to Christ! Reichenbach claims that we are ‘hard-pressed not to see Matthew intentionally referring to the healing dimension of the atonement’ (p.131) in Matthew 8:17. Matthew certainly links Jesus’ actions to Isaiah 53:4, yet can we really assume that Matthew understands Isaiah 53:4 in the exact same way that Bruce Reichenbach does? Is Matthew simply proof-texting, or is there a deeper story that he is telling in making the connection between the healing performed by Jesus and the Suffering Servant? Additionally, Reichenbach apparently fails to see that Peter’s use of Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2:21-25 is not a proof-text to bolster an atonement theory but rather forms the heart of his exhortation to follow Christ’s example, which includes suffering. Finally, from a theological perspective, the eschatological dimension of healing is conspicuous by its absence in Bruce Reichenbach’s presentation. If, as Reichenbach urges us, we should avoid bifurcating Jesus’ life and death in order to see ‘Christ’s atoning work… as part of the entire incarnational event’ (p.131-2) then it follows that we must also understand healing in the light of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ are the guarantee that the whole creation- not just the human part- will be liberated from its bondage to decay.
Bruce Reichenbach did not convince me that the healing model of the atonement deserves to have primacy, and his presentation left me with far more questions than answers. In focussing on the atonement as healing for humans, Reichenbach missed the cosmic perspective of the atonement highlighted by the Christus Victor model and bypassed the holiness of God that is vital to the Penal Substitution model. Reichenbach rightly draws attention to God as a healer and the human need for healing, but in my opinion his argument fails for lack of depth and breadth.
Summary of the Kaleidoscopic View (Joel B. Green)
The kaleidoscopic view of the atonement makes a case for embracing a plethora of ways for understanding the significance of Jesus’ death. Joel B. Green insists that we seek to understand the events of Jesus’ life and death in the context of the first-century Palestinian world within which they took place, and asserts that theological reflection on the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be severed from the socio-religious and socio-political contexts to which they belong. The historical context then, along with an understanding of God’s eternal purpose as revealed in Christ, provide two points of reference between which a wide space opens up for discussing how the Christ event accomplishes salvation.
Green argues that the New Testament’s witness to the Christ event reflects an ongoing concern for unity and diversity in its articulation of the significance of that event. The unity is essentially theological and is reflected, for example, in the assertion that God demonstrated his love by means of something Christ did (cf. Romans 5:8). This unity is then manifested missiologically in the diverse ways in which the significance of God acting in Christ is portrayed by the apostolic testimony (e.g. reconciliation, substitution, illumination, justification), a diversity that reflects the various social contexts into which the kerygma of the Christ event was addressed.
Evaluating Green’s Argument…
I would like to suggest that perhaps the most significant difference in the Kaleidoscopic view- in relation to the other models of the atonement presented in this book- is that the Kaleidoscopic view emerges from a strand of Narrative Theology, while the other models (particularly Christus Victor and Penal Substitution) reflect a commitment to Systematic Theology. Green’s methodology is evidenced in his insistence on understanding the Christ event in the light of the socio-religious and socio-political climate of First Century Palestine (a methodology that is evidently happy to embrace historical-criticism as a tool by which we might gain greater theological clarity). One might say that the proof of the theological pudding is in the eating(!), so what is gained or lost in Green’s Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement?
In terms of losses, it could be argued that the Kaleidoscopic view allows for far too much imprecision in explaining exactly how the atonement functions for the believer. Additionally, by not explicitly aligning with any one classical view of the atonement, the Kaleidoscopic view runs the risk of falling foul of the cult of novelty. What I think is gained from a Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement is a sense of the sheer scale of the gospel, and a remarkable sense of the whole biblical narrative reaching a climax. I think one of the great strengths of Green’s presentation is his observation that God demonstrates his love by means of what Christ does (p.168), an observation that perhaps implicitly suggests a Christology of divine identity. Although Green does not explicitly develop this connection, a Christology of divine identity would certainly influence how one would answer Anselm’s question, ‘Cur Deus Homo?’ and may even help to steer a path through the theological issues that can beset the subjective and objective views of the atonement (e.g. does atonement facilitate a change in God’s demeanour toward humanity or vice-versa?)
In the eyes of this reviewer, whatever one loses in terms of precision is more than made up for by the scope and potential of the Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement as argued for by Joel B. Green. While the three contrasting views in this book do not exactly want to shut down other models of the atonement, their claims to primacy are already foreclosing to some extent on both the scope of the atonement and conversation about the atonement.
I cannot quite shake off the notion that the title of this book is slightly misleading. To my mind, what is presented is not so much four views of the atonement as three classic views of the atonement and a new hermeneutical model for understanding the atonement! I enjoyed reading Boyd’s, Schreiner’s and Reichenbach’s work- I shall come back to Green shortly- and feel as though they have given me a broader understanding of the classic theories of the atonement. However, in terms of a personal response to the three classic theories of atonement espoused in this work, I remain unconvinced that any one of them should have primacy.
Joel B. Green’s Kaleidoscopic approach excited me the most- it developed a narrative-theological framework for understanding the atonement, took historical-critical questions seriously, implied a more robust Christology than the classic theories of atonement, and opened up multiple avenues for applying the gospel in both preaching and pastoring.
I can understand and appreciate how Boyd, Schreiner and Reichenbach arrive at their respective views, I just think that they are all guilty to some extent of reading the biblical text through the lens of their favourite atonement theory. Of course, nobody reads anything from a place of absolute objectivity, and I am under no allusion that my own opinions, let alone those of Joel B. Green, are coloured by cultural and epistemological presuppositions. That being said, a faith seeking understanding must decide upon a reading of the biblical text that adequately and faithfully interprets the central kerygmatic content of that text: the person of Jesus Christ. My personal conviction is that Joel B. Green’s Kaleidoscopic view provides the most satisfying interpretation of the biblical text as it relates to the atonement.