Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts
Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker
InterVarsity Press, 2000.
I was first alerted to the existence of this book, and in fact the whole atonement debate in general, by Mark Dever’s cover-story rebuttal of this book published in Christianity Today last year. Up until the appearance of the article, entitled "Nothing But the Blood," I had little knowledge of issues in atonement theology. I accepted and cherished the penal substitution model that I had been taught, through the influence of evangelicals like J.I. Packer, who in his book Knowing God called penal substitution the “heart of the gospel,” and was only vaguely familiar with competing atonement theories. I skimmed through the article, mostly uninterested, and counted myself on the side of Dever, Packer and the other evangelical theologians who defended penal substitution.
When I began to question penal substitution theory, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross was the first book I turned to; however, I wasn’t able to read through the whole book until just recently. Although I think Green and Baker could have fleshed out some of their ideas and strengthened their arguments in some places, overall they provide a solid introduction to atonement theology and a valuable critique of contemporary atonement metaphors and theories.
While the authors critique the penal substitution model of atonement throughout their book, such a critique is not their ultimate purpose. Rather, it is to explore multiple New Testament, historical and contemporary atonement metaphors, assess their viability, and explore new options for today. In the process they must of course interact with the dominant contemporary evangelical atonement theory.
The book constantly affirms, in the company of theologians like C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright, the immensity of the atonement and the inadequacy of one metaphor or theory to completely explicate it. This is part of Green and Baker’s critique of penal substitution: as long as it claims to interpret the atonement “completely, fully, without remainder” (p.13), it is an inadequate theory on those very grounds. The book takes its title from the authors’ claim that
In the early decades of the Christian movement, the scandal of the cross was far more self-evident than its meaning. ... Additionally...the portrait of Jesus’ execution could not be painted with a single color. Against the horizons of God’s purpose, the Scriptures of Israel, and Jesus’ life and ministry, and in relation to the life worlds of those for whom its significance was being explored, the death of Jesus proved capable of multiple interpretations. (15)
Like the multiple artistic depictions of the cross on the book’s cover, the cross and Christ’s atoning work there have many interpretations and applicable metaphors. It is the job of the responsible Christian to translate the New Testament proclamation of atonement into a contemporary context by asking, “How can I communicate this message in terms that make sense in this world in which I live while at the same calling this world into question?” (210).
The authors spend three chapters at the beginning of the book surveying the New Testament message of atonement, first examining the surprisingly few references in the Gospels, then the works of Paul, then in Luke-Acts, the Johannine literature, and the rest of the NT. In “The Saving Significance of Jesus’ Death in the New Testament,” Green and Baker explore the broad categories of atonement metaphors found in the NT, including ransom/redemption, sacrifice, revelation, and reconciliation (99-108).
One important weakness of Green and Baker’s work is a muddling of the ideas of “metaphor” and “theory.” They give us no way to differentiate in the New Testament an atonement metaphor (or interpretation) from an atonement theory (or description). The authors seem to use the ideas interchangeably; however, there is a distinct difference. If we claim to have any understanding of the “what” of the atonement, even if not the “how,” then the NT must include at least some explicit descriptions of what happened at the cross. Metaphors are no good if we do not have an understanding of what actually occurred—interpretation is impossible if we do not know what we are interpreting! Although there would probably be disagreement on which terms in the NT are interpretive and which are descriptive—penal substitution, on one hand, would see “sacrifice” as a factual description of what occurred at the atonement, while its detractors would see the idea as an interpretation or metaphor—at least some amount of NT teaching must be descriptive. Green and Baker's book does little to help us distinguish one from another.
In chapter five, the authors explore four historical models of the atonement and their major proponents: Christus Victor, or ransom theory, held by Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa; the medieval satisfaction model, formulated by Anselm; the moral influence of Anselm’s contemporary Abelard; and modern penal substitution, in Green and Baker exemplified in the works of Charles Hodge. The authors explore the strengths and weakness of each theory; in the case of Anselm they rise to his defense, claiming that Anselm's idea of satisfaction differs markedly from that of modern theologians (Anselm, according to the authors, was interested in satisfying God's feudal honor, as opposed to his wrath as in contemporary theology).
The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring contemporary alternatives to the penal substitution model. Green and Baker discuss and analyze C. Norman Kraus' shame-based atonement model, developed in the context of a Japanese culture that attaches to sin a stigma of shame rather than a penalty of legal guilt. While Kraus' atonement model is highly subjective (see this post), as a missional, "on the ground" and in-progress framework for proclaiming the gospel in
Overall, the book succeeds as a survey of the effectiveness and appropriateness of different atonement metaphors and models, from the New Testament to today. Although the authors mount several attacks on penal substitution, readers looking for a strong case against evangelicalism's reigning atonement model may want to look elsewhere. Those looking for a definitive descriptive theory as an alternative to penal substitution will likewise be disappointed; Green and Baker's emphasis lies on communicative metaphors rather than descriptive theories. The book's most important aspect is not, as Mark Dever seemed to believe, it's attack on penal substitution, but rather its emphasis on developing a missional understanding of the atonement and interpreting the central event of Christianity to both apply to and critique our contemporary environments. It is an emphasis that proponents of any atonement model can appreciate, and one that we would all do well to explore in our own lives.