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In a rare turn of events, I’m reviewing a book I finished reading earlier this morning. Given that it is Holy Week, I decided to read The Nature of The Atonement: Four Views. With all of these spectrum multiview books IVP sent me, I’ll probably make the decision in reading whether to make it a series or not. In this case, I didn’t see the need to do a series. It’s not that this isn’t an important subject, or that the individual essays are not helpful and stimulating. Before really explaining why, let’s dow a quick rundown of the views.
Greg Boyd begins by arguing for the Christus Victor view of the atonement. You can tell in his exposition that it is an integral part of his overall theology, connected as it is to his version of a theodicy (which unfortunately involves open theism). For Boyd, it is hugely significant that Christ came and defeated the evil powers (an idea for which he leans heavily on Walter Wink). This is what incorporates all the pictures and upon which all the other facets of the atonement rise or fall.
This is followed by the penal substitutionary view, argued by Thomas Schreiner, and presented as equally integral. This book was written a few years back when seveal quarters of evangelical theology weren’t really enthusiastic about penal substitionary atonement. This makes Schreiner a bit more defensive than the other views since his position is the one most under fire. Since there is still pushback here and there on a rather important doctrine, Schreiner’s essay is just as timely now as it was then.
When it comes to the third and fourth views, one is concerned with seeing the atonement primarily as offering healing (Bruce Reichenbach). The other is called the “Kaleidosopic view,” and is argued by Joel Green, who also happens to be one of the critics of penal substitution that Schreiner interacts with in his essay. As this view is presented last, I found it a fitting end to the book since Green is attempting to synthesize views. I think he is moving in the right direction, but his synthesis wasn’t all that convincing.
Stepping back to look at the overall structure of the book, what sets it apart from some other multiview books is the level of agreement between contributors. The argument is not whether each picture of the atonement is valid. Rather, the argument is over which picture is primary. Just one the face of it, I think this is hard to argue. Two of the contributors actually don’t even try. Bruce Reichenbach does an excellent job of explaining how the atonement brings healing. But, he doesn’t argue that is the primary way of understanding the atonement, something Schreiner calls him on (149). Likewise, Green’s kaleidoscopic view is essentially saying there isn’t a primary picture. By it’s very nature, the atonement is meant to be multifaceted, something Trevin Wax blogged about just recently.
In this way, though the book is presented as four views on the atonement, it is two essays strongly arguing for primary foundational views of the atonement, one view sketching out a neglected aspect, and one view trying to synthesize. As I was reading, this seemed like a good place for John Frame to jump in and drop a triangle on the playground. In his Systematic Theology, he treats the atonement as a situational aspect of the total picture of salvation (normative is God’s decree, existential is application of redemption). While other triangles get parsed further, the atonement does not. It actually gets surprisingly little treatment. But, had Frame explained it further, here’s how I think he would have done it.
It is certainly helpful that there are three full views articulated here. Within Frame’s triperspectivalism, the real argument is whether to see Christus Victor or penal substitutionary atonement as normative. Keep in mind “normative” here is not the same as “foundational.” Rather, it is which perspective deals a norm that affects the subject at hand. In that light, Christus Victor is actually the normative perspective since it affects the entire cosmos. While I might not want to explain Christus Victor the same as Boyd does, nor capitulate his view of spiritual warfare, it is the cosmic norm that is changed by Christ’s death and resurrection.
Equally important, and not less primary, is penal substitutionary atonement. Since for the believer this changes the situation, it is best thought of as the situational perspective on the atonement. The believer is transferred from being subject to the wrath of God for their personal sins to being united to Christ as a result of an event that took place in human history. In this way, it complements rather than conflicts with the Christus Victor and provides a necessary second perspective on the atonement that highlights another integral aspect.
Lastly, the healing view articulated by Reichenbach is an existential perspective of the atonement since it is the most personal. True, penal substitutionary atonement is personal, but the healing aspect ultimately changes a person from the inside out. Atonement brings shalom both in a real personal sense. While you could perhaps switch this to situational since it renews the situation (and eventually the entire cosmos), it seems the most person focused.
The atonement accomplished by Christ’s person and work is a cosmicly significant event that defeated the powers of sin and death, provided a suitable substitute for the penalty owed by guilty sinners, and brought shalom to the hearts of God’s people. By linking normative, situational, and existential aspects, we can see they are interdependent upon one another. An atonement that only accomplished one aspect wouldn’t be true atonement. Likewise, by accomplishing all equally significant events, it doesn’t seem necessary to argue which is primary. Rather, it makes more sense to glory in the multi-faceted nature of all that Christ has accomplished for us his people.