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*

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