Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts

March 10, 2015 — 1 Comment


Early in his work, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts, Adonis Vidu notes, “While some excellent monographs have been written, few writers have embraced the task of writing a history of atonement theories” (xiii). In what follows, he doesn’t offer an exhaustive history, but does give a superb overview of the flow of thought. Vidu suggests, “the history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law” (xiv). As such, he attempts “to tell the story of atonement thinking by connecting it to the development of law-and-justice theories” (xiv).

He goes on to say, “the uniqueness of this book, then, is that it offers an interdisciplinary reading of the development of atonement theory from the perspective of its engagement with intellectual discourses relating to law and justice” (xv). Ultimately, “all atonement theories want to affirm that God preserves his justice in the process of redemption.” In that unity however, is the diversity of different conceptions of of justice as well as different philosophies of law. Vidu proposes to add some clarity to the current discussion by tracing the development of thought through church history.

In doing this, it becomes apparent that “conflicts over the meaning of the cross are in fact conflicts about the very nature and moral character of God” (xvi). Integral to understanding the character of God is understanding the divine attributes, and in particular the attribute of divine simplicity. Vidu explains:

In short, I will be appealing to the doctrine of divine simplicity and to the extraordinary import it has on the doctrine of the atonement. Thus the constructive dimension of this project consists in pointing out that understanding the “perfections of divine agency,” or divine simplicity, strictly qualifies the way in which we may ascribe actions to God. In relation to my own sympathies for penal substitution, divine simplicity rules out certain caricatures of this doctrine, both friendly and unfriendly (xvi).

In the overview that follows, Vidu divides the history of christian thought into five periods:

  • Patristic (chapter 1)
  • Medieval (chapter 2)
  • Reformation (chapter 3)
  • Modern (chapter 4)
  • Postmodern (chapter 5)

In each chapter/period, Vidu selects key theologians that represent the thought of that period. While some may lament this approach, it makes the whole thing more manageable. Also, within each period, Vidu doesn’t seek to do constructive theology or provide biblical justification for each theory (xvii). Instead, his main focus is how the authors from each period interact with their legal context or prevailing philosophy of law. Because of that, this is much a survey of the thought on atonement as it is a survey of the development of legal philosophy.

Because of that, it is a rather dense read. This is a combination of the topic studied and the length of the chapters. But, as with many things, diligence in wrestling through Vidu’s work is rewarded. In particular, taking the time to work through the survey chapters prepares one best for his constructive conclusion in chapter 6 which focuses specifically on the relationship of divine simplicity and the atonement.

In the final chapter, Vidu notes several conclusions from his study (235-236):

  • Politics and law deeply affected the historical development of the atonement
  • Illuminating this connection leads to better recognizing the relationship between atonement and ethics
  • Systems of justice and political configurations rest on explicitly theological assumptions
  • The history of debate around atonement theory is really a debate about the nature of God

Flowing directly from this last point is the need to discuss in more detail how divine simplicity relates to the atonement. While on the surface it may seem that justice and love are the most pivotal attributes for understanding the atonement (239), understanding the atonement is attempting to understand how God acts, and God acts as a simple agent. Vidu explains:

To put it simply: God is not an agent like any other agent. In other words, God does not “do things” the way you and I do things. He has a unique relation to his actions. His actions spring uniquely from his nature. Finally, his actions have a unity about them not shared with other human actions. Often, however, when atonement theologians have sought to describe and explain the cross, they have made anthropomorphic assumptions about divine agency. The result has been idolatrous in ascribing to God certain qualities of human actors (240).

From here, Vidu goes on to unpack a fairly traditional understanding of divine simplicity and then relate it to our understanding of God’s action in atonement. He defines divine simplicity as in relation to aseity and notes “the doctrine holds that, unlike human beings, divine attributes are not components of his being, but rather God is identical with all of his attributes” (241). Ultimately, “simplicity is an implication of the absolute aseity and sovereignty of God” (246). He then deals reasonably with some detractors to the doctrine before revisioning simplicity with three points (252-254):

  • Simplicity is grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity
  • Simplicity is a second-order doctrine (i.e. a way of holding attributes together)
  • Simplicity does not have to be conceived in terms of pure act

He then begins his closing section by saying, “The thesis of this book is that in general we ascribe responsibility and describe actions in part on the basis of considerations about an agent’s character, his or her assumed intentions and possible reasons, power, and so on” (255). He then notes, “God is does not act in the same way we do. His agency and his actions are unique.” He then draws out some consequences for the doctrine of atonement given the simplicity of God:

  • God never enacts certain traits more than others (257)
  • We are not able to distinguish between parts and components of divine action in the same way as we do for human actions (258)
  • God is not moved from wrath to mercy (262)
  • The crucifixion cannot be separated from and given priority over the resurrection (263)

There is certainly much to wrestle with here. I’m not sure I’ve fully digested and appropriate Vidu’s insights, but the last chapter was certainly worth the price of the book in my view. I found this a hard book to work through in the early chapters but I was fairly captivated in the final chapter. This perhaps because I’m more naturally interested in discussions of divine attributes, particularly the more difficult and philosophical ones. A virtue then of this book is that it takes what may seem to be a merely philosophical discussion (“Is God simple, and what does that mean?”) and show how it relates to the atonement, which is hardly a mere philosophical discussion.

Because of that connection, I’d highly recommend this book for readers interested in the attributes of God and atonement theories. It is heavy slogging in the earlier historical chapters, but it helps provide a context for the constructive conclusions in the final chapter. I’ll be interested to see how this book affects future discussions when it comes to God’s action in Christ in the atonement. I’ll also continue to digest and return to Vidu’s work in my own labors to better grasp the nature of the atonement.

Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural ContextsGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, August 2014. 304 pp. Paperback, $24.99.

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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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