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Both Priest and Victim

27 May 2016

Peter Forster considers atonement studies

Staatliche kunsthalle, karlsruhe

By his stripes: The Man of Sorrows, attributed to Albrech Dürer, c.1494, provides the cover illustration for Ralph S. Werrell’s study The Blood of Christ in the Theology of William Tyndale (James Clarke & Co. £20; 978-0-227-17487-6), in which the author, an Anglican priest, differentiates Tyndale’s covenant theology from Luther’s theology of the cross and Calvin’s forensic justification

By his stripes: The Man of Sorrows, attributed to Albrech Dürer, c.1494, provides the cover illustration for Ralph S. Werrell’s study The B...

The Crucifixion: Understanding the death of Jesus Christ
Fleming Rutledge
Eerdmans £32.99
Church Times Bookshop £29.70

The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant
Michael J. Gorman
James Clarke & Co. £20

Defending Substitution: An essay on atonement in Paul
Simon Gathercole
Baker Academic £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

FASHIONS come and go in theology. Some years ago, considerable attention was given to the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. In more academic circles, books on Trinitarian theology have subsided somewhat, and in New Testament studies there are fewer publications on St Paul and the Law. An element of peace has descended on a very heated debate.

The focus has now shifted to the theology of the atonement. The three volumes here represent worthy contributions to this new theological vogue.

Why has this renewed interest arisen in the atonement? The classical theology of penal substitution, with its tendency to separate the actions of the Father and the Son, does not easily correlate with classical Trinitarian theology, which has emphasised that the action of the Triune God is always that of the One God. The legal understandings of sacrifice and righteousness likewise are difficult to link into the new understanding of St Paul’s theology.

In wider society, and in the Church, underlying perceptions of the meaning of punishment and the part that it plays in general have undergone substantial changes. Yet Christ’s cross remains central to Christianity, as the film The Passion of the Christ brought out, itself illuminating this new trend.

The most substantial of these books is The Crucifixion, by the veteran US Episcopalian priest Fleming Rutledge. A gifted preacher and spiritual writer, this is her theological magnum opus of 600 pages. Don’t let the length put you off: this is pure gold, reminiscent in style of Ken Leech at his best. The book is at once profound and preachable. A preacher will find material, and illustrations, for many sermons. Any Christian would find it uplifting, and academic theologians will see just how theology can best be put at the service of the wider Church.

Her main dialogue partner is American Christianity, which evades the cross, as it comes packaged “as inspirational uplift — sunlit, backlit, or candlelit”. Not that the cross can ever be interpreted without reference to the resurrection, but this must be as a conjoined paradox rather than as a balance or neat sequence.

If there is a central motif in this restless and multi-faceted book, it is that Jesus Christ represents, and enacts, God’s apocalyptic entry into creation in order to confront and destroy the powers and principalities of evil, supremely in the confrontation that the cross portrays.

Hence the importance of its public dimension. The cross is not just an ugly death, but a very public, ugly death.

In the traditional language of theology this is to give centrality to the Christus Victor model of the atonement, as embraced by the early Fathers of the Church, and reintroduced into the tradition of the Church by Gustaf Aulén’s well-known mid-20th-century book. Given the horrors of the 20th century — when, historians estimate, more people died a violent death than in all the previous centuries of humanity — Rutledge puts the case for the central domain of God’s battle with the demonic forces of evil as being central to the Christian understanding of redemption. It is interesting to find this senior Episcopalian priest pleading that the Church should take evil and the devil more seriously.

This is not to abandon Christ as our substitute, and sacrifice, but to paint such ideas on a broader canvas. The great apocalyptic victory was fought and won through Jesus Christ’s assuming our humanity, representing us, and taking our place. As such, the new Adam renews the first Adam, and all that he represents, and cleanses creation from within, renewing and recreating it, and pronouncing an eternal judgement on sin and evil. Following the early church Fathers, Rutledge refers to this as the “recapitulation” of creation, an act of power and love fully comparable to creation itself.

There is a profound chapter on the descent into hell, which traditional substitutionary theory so often overlooks. Hell represents the ultimate irrationality of evil — outer darkness — and as such can be approached only through dramatic metaphor. A fundamental argument of the book is that the task of theology is to indwell metaphor and mystery, and avoid an easy but misleading preference for concepts and principles.

Michael Gorman is a Protestant biblical scholar, who occupies the prestigious chair named after Raymond Brown. His book has a broad compatibility with Rutledge’s, but approaches the integration of different theories or motifs of atonement through the central affirmation of God’s covenant with his creation, which is renewed in Jesus Christ. The biblical evidence for this is assembled in the patient and systematic way that undergraduates most admire, but which in a sermon often fails to inspire.

The use of the new or renewed covenant as the central model of atonement naturally generates a comprehensive and integrated feel to Gorman’s approach, somewhat along the lines of the model of “recapitulation in Christ” which Rutledge favours. Their chief differences arise from Gorman’s extensive exploration of the new covenant’s being one of peace between peoples, and indeed in wider creation. Presumably, then, if the lion and the lamb will coexist fully in the hereafter, they ought to be enabled and encouraged to start doing so here and now.

It is tempting to suggest that this will be possible only if there is an ample supply of replacement lambs. Perhaps the proposals for what Gorman calls an “anticipative participation” in the new covenant are more readily conceived for human beings, but overall one might question the claim that “this approach to atonement agrees strongly that the Cross is not an act violence.” If nothing else, as Rutledge powerfully argues, it was just that.

This Anabaptist, pacifist reading of the atonement has limitations for the present reviewer, but it is full of perceptive, helpful insights.

Simon Gathercole teaches the New Testament at Cambridge, and has offered a modest but very competent defence of St Paul’s use of the concept of substitution. The strength of the book lies in its clear focus on “substitution”. Its weakness is that it is not clear how Paul’s concept of substitution relates to his use of the concepts of representation and liberation or victory.

Gathercole sees no reason why these different models or metaphors should not be brought together and integrated, but his book attempts more modestly, but very thoroughly, to establish that the concept of substitution is necessarily part of the greater picture that St Paul puts before us. In particular, the whole notion of Christ’s death as substitutionary — in our place, and on behalf of us — is what sets his thought apart from the usual approach to death in the classical world.

There is a danger in the new fashion for books on the atonement that the subject will start to feel over-exposed, but its central importance is not in doubt.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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