Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Adam J. Johnson

From my Amazon and goodreads review of Adam Johnson's Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Bloomsbury.

You don't have to be perplexed to benefit from this very good discussion of the atonement.  In a nut shell, Adam Johnson advocates for a comprehensive view of the atonement which focuses on how each of the attributes of the Triune God are displayed and/or satisfied in the atonement. Johnson focuses not only on the traditionally anthropocentric aspects of the atonement (aspects directly affecting humanity's sinful and lost condition) but also draws the reader to look at the creation-wide purposes and effects of Christ's atoning work. He points not only to what God is saving humanity and the whole created realm from but also what he is saving it for, both the negative and positive aspects of God's atoning work in Christ (redeeming/rescuing as well as restoring). Johnson purposefully avoids favouring one theory of the atonement over another, seeing that as a tacit favouring of one (or some) of God's attributes over others, as if certain aspects of who God is could be more important than other aspects of who he is.

Those who view penal substitutionary atonement as the one true understanding of the atonement over against all others will certainly dismay over this work. Those who view penal substitution as the commanding or central theory among many legitimate and biblical but lesser facets of the atoning work of Christ will have good reason to rethink the balance. [For example, Johnson argues that God's wrath is not an essential characteristic of God.  After all, there was a time, pre-creation and pre-sin, when this was not part of God's attributes and, as all things will one day be restored to perfection and peace, that time will come again. Wrath is a reaction of God's holiness to sin, not an actual attribute of God.]  Those who would like the church to abandon all thought of substitutionary atonement (with or without "penal") will also be dissatisfied with Johnson's treatment. He fully recognizes that Scripture speaks of Christ taking the place of sinners - substitution - and suffering the just penalty for sin. However, Johnson (if I recall correctly) prefers to steer clear of language of the Father pouring out his wrath upon or punishing Christ, favouring instead that the Father judged and punished sin in Christ while simultaneously magnifying the obedience and self-giving service of Christ.

Johnson argues ultimately that only a holistic view of the nature, character, purposes and works of God will give us a full view of what God has done in/is doing through the atonement. Toward this end, Johnson sees Christ's atoning work as not merely what he did on the cross, or even in the cross and resurrection, but what he did from incarnation to ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. This work is not that full-orbed view of the atonement that the author advocates for (its less than 200 pages of text). Indeed, such an expansive view of the atonement will continually grow as theologians expand their exploration of the eternal and inexhaustible glories of the person and works of the triune God. However, this work is a call to and a brief pattern of what the ever-expanding theological exploration into the atonement could look like.

I highly recommend this work. I hope to see more studies like this, exercises in theological maximalism, which seek not to prove one view or aspect of theology by arguing against all competitors but rather which examine the many aspects of a given point of theology from the various perspectives afforded when one considers the multifaceted nature, character, purposes and interactions of God with himself, with humanity, and with all creation.

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