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The Best Newish Book about The Atonement
Thanks to Baylor University Press for providing me with a complimentary copy of Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration by William Lane Craig. It’s well worth your effort if you are at all interested in the doctrine of the atonement. In my estimation, it is the best book overall on the subject published in recent years.
Craig defends the penal substitution theory of the atonement and more than implies that it is the biblical and orthodox view even if no creed of Christendom ever declared it so. I think he is right even if I do not necessarily agree with every detail of his interpretation of that view. Did God the Father impute our guilt and punishment to Christ on the cross? Or did Christ voluntarily suffer a penalty equivalent to the one we deserve? Craig says yes to the former and no to the latter. I’m not convinced that we can know that much about exactly what happened on the cross between God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ.
What Craig accomplishes here is much needed in today’s confused conversation about the atonement. First, he demonstrates conclusively that the Bible does teach substitutionary atonement, relying on the links made by the New Testament authors (and Jesus) between Jesus and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Second, he demonstrates conclusively that the ancient church fathers—from Irenaeus to Augustine (and he could have gone further) believed in and taught substitutionary atonement. It is simply a myth that they taught the Christus Victor or ransom theories instead. All views of the atonement can be found in the church fathers. But Craig quotes extensively from Origen and Augustine and some fathers in between to support his view of substitutionary atonement. He could have called on Athanasius.
Third, Craig demonstrates conclusively that not only Anselm but also Aquinas believed in and taught a version of substitutionary atonement. He also discusses substitutionary atonement in Luther and Turretin and Hugo Grotius and later orthodox Christian reformers and post-reformation thinkers. I am especially pleased that he clears up the misconception that Grotius taught a doctrine of the atonement that was “merely educative,” subjective, the so-called “Governmental Theory.” He is right that it has been widely misconstrued and that it really was and is substitutionary.
Perhaps most original (in this book) is Craig’s extensive philosophical defense of penal substitution. Almost half the book is devoted to that—clearing up objections to penal substitution. I wish he had done more with the common objection that it amounts to “divine child abuse.” Most of his defenses of penal substitution deal with orthodox Christians’ objections.
This is the book I will recommend to anyone who wants to understand the penal substitution theory of the atonement, also to anyone who objects to it but it’s willing to reconsider his or her objections.
At the end of the book I am still not entirely convinced that Jesus Christ suffered the punishment sinners deserve. Combined with belief in universal atonement that does raise the question of hell. I think there is a way out of that dilemma, but I also think the Governmental Theory, rightly understood, as I have spelled it out here earlier, is preferable to the penal substitution theory.
I have always believed that substitutionary atonement stands at the center of the gospel itself. Yes, the other theories have value and are not to be discarded. They are only problematic when they attempt to replace substitutionary atonement. That Jesus Christ is Savior means, centrally and essentially, that he suffered in our place, voluntarily taking on himself the penalty for sins that we deserve, being “smitten by God” and “wounded for our transgressions.”
Craig makes a very strong case for this—exegetically, historically, and philosophically. Read it if you are interested in the subject. You won’t be wasting your money or your time.