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Learn of Christ to bear the Cross

15 January 2016

Peter Forster assesses two considerations of the atonement and theories of it

Atonement Theories: A way through the maze
Ben Pugh
James Clarke & Co. £20


Jesus and the Cross: Necessity, meaning and atonement
Peter Laughlin
James Clarke & Co. £20


HERE are two excellent books on the atonement, which are broadly similar in conclusion, and yet are argued from within contrasting traditions.

Ben Pugh casts a Protestant eye over the varied ways in which the atonement has been understood through Christian history. A series of perceptive summaries produce a mini-encyclopaedia of the atonement, for which students will be particularly grateful, but he skilfully sets out the sometimes surprising ways in which different approaches have interacted.

For example, the emphasis in the patristic age upon Jesus as confronting the powers of evil and being triumphant over them has had a renewed credibility as Enlightenment rationality has given way to postmodernity and a recognition of the persistence of evil.

Interestingly, Pugh relates St Anselm’s classic work more closely to the earlier patristic tradition than to the notions of "penal substitution" which clearly emerged only at the Reformation. He regards "penal" theories as focused too much upon the interaction of God and the sinner, to the neglect of Christ, who somehow unites them. Atonement, for Pugh, is inescapably Christological, and to be forgiven is only an aspect of participation in the new creation that is Jesus Christ.

The suspicion of understandings of the atonement as an impersonal transaction between God and the world is a theme that runs through this book, and its final sections consider the impact of new perceptions of what suffering means for God, as illustrated by the impact of the film The Passion of the Christ.

The Cross is full of mystery and contradiction, and we cannot easily cope with God on a cross, but somehow it proclaims that God has embraced our lives, and dwelt among us. Although he is not quoted here, Pugh’s final conclusion is Bonhoeffer’s: "only a suffering God can help."

Peter Laughlin is a lay Roman Catholic, teaching in Australia. Less historically focused than Pugh, he circles around the question how the death of Jesus can be understood as redemptive, through consideration of two issues.

The first is to address the question how God can endow the cross with redemptive meaning without himself being seen as the author of violence and evil.

Modern critics of Christianity have regarded the Cross as an image of sadism and abuse, and a powerful strand in contemporary theology can recognise only an essentially non-violent God, who is pure love.

Laughlin approaches this through the Thomist tradition, as represented by Bernard Lonergan, and concludes that just as God could freely create the world in the beginning, so he can create redemptive meaning from the event of the Cross. Yet, in seeking to protect God from somehow willing Jesus’s death, Laughlin knows he is in some tension with those NT passages that do say that God’s will is done on the Cross.

This leads him, in the second part of his book, to a creative analysis of how Jesus himself is presented as interpreting his coming death. For Laughlin, Jesus believed that it was only through his sacrificial suffering that God’s victorious judgement on evil could be achieved. In the institution of the holy communion, Jesus set forth his life as a covenantal sacrifice, in which we are invited to participate.

In contrasting ways, both books set out to take history seriously. In Pugh’s case, it is the complex history of different theologies of the atonement. For Laughlin, our doctrinal commitments need to be rooted in the life and death of Jesus as this is presented in the New Testament. They are united in a belief that it is only as we take up our cross and follow the Crucified One that any genuine understanding of the Cross can be achieved.


Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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