Friday, October 05, 2007

The Glory of the Atonement

I recently read The Glory of the Atonement (edited by Hill and James). Here are few scattered thoughts.

The book is split into three basic parts. Part One consists of exegetical work on various passages related to the theme of atonement. I didn’t find this section particularly compelling. It wasn’t that I disagreed with the conclusions, as much as it wasn’t always clear what the conclusions actually were. The bane of contemporary scholarship—the open ended essay with a conclusion so subtle or vague that it fails to assert anything—is present in many (though not all) of the early essays.

Part Two is devoted to a historical treatment of the doctrine. I found this section far more engaging. Stanley P. Rosenberg has an interesting chapter on Augustine, in which he argues that Augustine’s sermons need to be considered alongside his formal treatise. I think this is true, but I wonder if Rosenberg pushes it too far. If one wanted to know precisely what I thought about a given topic, I would rather them read an essay devoted to said topic than attempt to draw inferences from my sermons. In the same vein, if one wants to know what Augustine thought about, oh say, the relationship between grace and freewill, it would seem that his On Grace and Freewill would be a really good place to start. Further, Rosenberg spent more of his chapter arguing that we should analyze Augustine’s preaching, than actually analyzing Augustine’s preaching. But it was a well written chapter.

McCormack has an interesting essay—probably the best in the book—where he draws from Barth’s ontology (or lack thereof) and argues that we need to ground our atonement theology in a non-substantialist paradigm. McCormack argues that substantialist thinking in relation to the incarnation compromises divine immutability and causes us to emphasize either one or the other aspects of Christ’s nature, resulting in Arianism or Nestorianism. As a consequence, susbstantialist thinking tends to result in atonement theories that ascribe the atoning work of Christ to either his human nature or his divine nature, but not both. To alleviate this, McCormack argues, we should view God’s being as “a being-in-act” devoid of any mode or being of existence above and prior to his eternal actions (as substantialist thinking would suggest). The results of McCormack’s essay are intriguing, and I need to give his conclusions some more thought. I’ve built a lot of my soteriological system on Augustinian/Platonic notions of ontology, so I’m a bit slow to jettison substantialist thinking. You need to read the chapter for yourself, as his argument is more involved than I care to type out.

The last section of the book includes two essays that deal with how we should preach the atonement. Overall the book was valuable, but it ended up serving more as an apologetic for penal atonement than as a survey of atonement theories—historical, biblical and contemporary.


Todd said...

its not as weighty as this book seems but i am reading scot mcknight's new book on the atonement and i'm really enjoying it. its called "a community called atonement"


Gerald said...

Yeah, it's on my list. From what I understand, McKnight touches on atonement theories beyond penal substitution.