Atonement is an emerging issue, both for the emerging movement and for traditional evangelical Protestantism. I’m working on a book for Abingdon on atonement, and presently sorting out some of the literature. The volume by Charles Hill and Frank James III, The Glory of the Atonement (IVP, 2004), represents a strong-minded strand: the evangelical Reformed view of the atonement. What is that view?
Put most simply and forcefully: penal substitution. The volume is written by a bunch of heavies (Henri Blocher, DA Carson, R Gaffin, T George, BL McCormack, J Ramsey Michaels, JI Packer, Kevin Vanhoozer, Bruce Waltke, et al), and the dominating thread of the volume is the challenge to penal substitution and a robust defense of penal substitution. In short, this view believes the wrath of God (the Father) was poured out on the Son and absorbed by the Son. In this way, the balance of justice is maintained: sin brings judgment (wrath) and the wrath of God must be propitiated. The book’s emphasis is out of balance if one is seeking for anything like a comprehensive theory of atonement in the Bible — for there is more than one (the judicial) story.
The volume is dedicated to Roger Nicole, and the various chapters vary in quality. Some are very serious pieces (Emile Nicole, J. Alan Groves, Charles Hill, Stanley Rosenberg, Gwenfair Walters, Bruce McCormack and Kevin Vanhoozer), while others are more polemical (Gruenler, Carson, Gaffin, and Nicole’s own piece at the end). Gruenler’s piece brings nothing to the table — somehow Gruenler got through the atonement in the Synoptics without even a look at Mark 10:45! Carson’s essay takes on Tom Wright, but one senses throughout his piece that he constantly needed more space than he was given.
My overall comment on the book is simple: it disappoints to see a book called “the glory” of the atonement dwell so narrowly on penal substitution for the glory is diminished when too much of the discussion focuses on the mechanics of atonement (how can God deal mercifully with sinners with his ontological revulsion to sin?).
There are some highlights in this book for me: Bruce McCormack’s essay on how the Trinity has to be brought to bear in any discussion of penal substitution is brilliant. It shows how often the penal substitution theory ends up bi-polarizing God’s persons and attributes, creating ambivalence between Father and Son or between love and holiness/justice. And yet, McCormack finds room in his trinitarian God for a more nuanced understanding of penal substitution. In other words, he finds an ontological basis for penal substitution.
And I think Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay is a splendid tour through postmodernity’s central concerns and how they impact one’s understanding of atonement. He interacts with Jean Luc Marion, Paul Ricoeur, Rene Girard, J Derrida, and John Milbank. Vanhoozer also affirms a penal substitution theory that has been slightly chastened by postmodernity but one that is simultaenously interpersonal and legal. What excites me most about Kevin’s piece is that he is one of the only scholars today (the only one in this volume) to paint a theory of atonement that includes Pentecost. (Most of the essays in the volume restrict the conversation to the legal metaphor.)
Other essays were of course very good to read, but this is enough to give a feel for the volume. I will use it throughout the writing of my own volume.