Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts" Book Review

It is hard to believe it has been ten years since the first edition of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New testament and Contemporary Contexts. Now, ten years later, Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green have released the second edition of there highly controversial work.

Of course, the controversy surrounding this book is well known among evangelicals--Baker and Green question the legitimacy of penal substitutionary atonement and argue for an eclectic reading of atonement theology. Authors such as Mark Driscoll have warned that such books are detrimental to the Christian faith and are not helpful. Others, such as Derek Tidball, have stated that it is difficult to imagine an Evangelical Christian denying penal substitutionary atonement. Entire books, such as Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, have been written in defense against Baker and Green's argument.

Which leads us to Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. The basic structure of the book is as follows: after an introduction outlining the problems of atonement theology today, Baker and Green look at the various ways atonement is presented in the Old and New Testament. Afterward they look at the saving significance of Jesus death. From there they assess church history, looking at the various dominant views of atonement and arguing that penal substitution is a relative late-comer on the scene. Finally, the last few chapters place their entire discussion in the practical realm of missions by analyzing atonement theology in Japanese culture, how the Christus Victor model might be appropriated practically and finally, discussing various views of the ongoing significance of Christ's death and how we might communicate that significance today.

Before diving into the problems in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, I will state from the outset that I sympathize with Green and Baker's position. Penal substitution is not an easy topic to explain and even more difficult, at times, to comprehend. It would be much easier to do away with that view entirely. Moreover, I completely agree with the authors that the Bible presents a kaleidoscopic view of the atonement. In other words (and against authors such as Thomas Schreiner), I do not see penal substitutionary atonement as the dominant model of the atonement. In a day and age where theologians attempt to present a unified theme of the Bible, I appreciate the fact that Baker and Green state the obvious--the Bible is unified and yet there is tremendous diversity.

Also, Green and Baker do a tremendous job appropriating atonement theology today. They are writing with true missionary hearts and desire to see God magnified in the atonement. I also agree with them that we must find new and creative ways to discuss the atonement while being faithful to the biblical witness. In other words, I find much to agree with in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross.

But then that pesky issue of penal substitutionary atonement creeps in and I can't help but think, "You missed it, guys." Their exegesis of key verses is not compelling (though not unfounded) and far, far too brief. For instance, their argument that wrath is being worked out presently, according to Romans 1, is absolutely true (p. 80). Also true is the fact that our sin brings about divine consequences right now.

However, the authors extrapolate from this that the atonement is fundamentally about bringing us into right covenant relationship with God and not about God's wrath being satisfied. This seems like a classic "either/or" issue when it should rather be understood as a "both/and."

Further, their repeated insistence that Anselm and later followers were really the main developers of penal substitutionary atonement (although, to be fair, they say Anselm really just had the seeds of the idea in his writings) is a bit annoying. They do not respond to the massive chapter written by Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach discussion the historical precedence for penal substitution dating far, far before Anselm. One might not agree with Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach (as N.T. Wright clearly does not), but a respond is obviously in order (at least a footnote!).

So what then are we to make of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross? While I do not find Green and Baker ultimately persuasive, I did find them charitable and even-handed in their discussion of penal substitution, avoiding too emotionally charged language. Moreover, I found their chapters on how to appropriate atonement theology immensely helpful. In other words, Green and Baker exhibit the sort of Christian humility and charity all authors should strive for. This book is an important book on the atonement and has been demonized by too many. It is incredibly helpful and I believe, if balanced properly, will serve as an excellent resource for many pastors and missionaries. I highly recommend this book.

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy in exchange for a fair review*

"A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah" Book Review

Daniel C. Timmer's book A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah is the 26th volume in the NSBT series by Intervarsity Press. This series seeks to integrate a theme in biblical studies and relate it to the wider field of biblical theology.

So how does Daniel C. Timmer's book hold up to this task?

Unfortunately, not as well as one might hope.

Timmer sets out to explore the themes of mission, salvation and spirituality in the book of Jonah and then relate it to the rest of the Bible. However, the book of Jonah seems simply to exist as a launching pad to get to other books of the Bible more than a sustainable theology within the book of Jonah itself. In other words, the author seems to rush quickly through his exegesis of Jonah so he can get to passages in Isaiah, Acts and others. Frustratingly, the author never seems to relate how Jonah fits into the Bible as a whole.

In other words, A Gracious and Compassionate God feels more like a book on Jonah and then a book on missions and salvation (the theme of spirituality is hardly addressed at all it would seem) rather than a book that unifies those two themes well.

However, I am not sure that Timmer is to fault on this. The idea of starting in the book of Jonah and working out is no easy to task and one, I am not sure, is entirely beneficial. Is it not a bit myopic to attempt to extrapolate an entire theology from a book that is both narrative and only four chapters long?

This is NOT to say that the book is a failure. There are some genuinely good insights (particularly in chapter one) about the nations and missions! The book also acts as a helpful (albeit brief) commentary on Jonah from a conservative standpoint. The book is extremely well documented as well. So for anyone seeking to further their understanding of Jonah and missions, this book is indeed helpful. For someone seeking to see how Jonah relates to the larger themes presented and see a robust theology of missions, salvation and spirituality, look elsewhere.

In conclusion, while the book is good it does not seem to succeed in its larger purpose. It also does not seem to be up to the usual quality that is present in the other titles in the NSBT. That said, I would recommend the book because there are some good things here. I feel, however, it does not accomplish what is usually expected. 

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing me a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

"Counterfeit Gospels" Book Review

Ok, I'll bite.

Despite the increasingly large amount of literature written recently with the title "Gospel" in it Trevin Wax, author of Counterfeit Gospels, has seen fit to write another one. The book is about...and get this...counterfeit gospels compared to the real one.

Because of the prolific amount of literature written about defining what the "true gospel is", I will admit that I was somewhat skeptical and bored with the idea of yet another book written on this topic.

I shouldn't have had any doubts about this book.

It is really fantastic.

Wax argues that the Gospel can be divided into three legs--the story, the announcement and the community. Each leg however can have distortions. Wax's book then divides nicely into three sections with an introductory chapter on the biblical position of the gospel story, the gospel announcement and the gospel community for each section. Also, for each section, Wax provides two chapters analyzing two common distortions for each section. Wax doesn't claim to be exhaustive, just relevant, with his selection of counterfeits and I found myself seeing examples of each distortion in the church today. This made the book very pastorally relevant for myself.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Wax's book is this--there is nothing new here. But really, is there anything new to say about the Gospel? While Wax faithfully applies scripture and the Gospel to today's church, he doesn't compromise on the essentials. He calls distortions of the gospel what they are. He does not throw the baby out with the bath water but finds the good, even in the distortions and explains why they are popular. Yet at the end of day, Wax doesn't move from the truth of the Gospel.

So new? No. Faithful? Yes. Convicting? Definitely.

In an age where it becomes increasingly easy to distort what is true from the pulpit, Wax's call is for preachers to remember what is our anchor. As a result, this book is a must read for pastors and laypeople alike.

So I bit....and I hope you will too.

*Thanks to Moody Publishing for providing me a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*