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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.
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.
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.